Did the M14 Fail the BAR?

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns #History
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Did the M14 Fail the BAR?

March 6th, 2020

6 minute read

Most people get the BAR wrong. While the Browning Automatic Rifle is one of the most celebrated American military firearms in the history of U.S. Ordnance, it remains one of the most misunderstood weapons of all time.

The Browning Automatic Rifle was conceived, designed and built as a full-sized .30 caliber automatic rifle. Image: National Archives

The key to John Browning’s genius design is in its name. It was, is, and always will be an “automatic rifle.” Shortly after the Allied victory in World War I, new trends in infantry weapon designs led many in the U.S. Military to try to alter or replace the BAR. None of these alterations were successful, though. No bipod, carrying handle or flash hider could change this fact, and ultimately the BAR was phased out of service during the 1960s with nothing developed to replace it.

This BAR gunner demonstrates the idea of “walking fire” using a metal cup (that the BAR stock fit into) on his hip to stabilize the gun. Image: National Archives

The initial BAR, the M1918, is truly a man’s gun. It is nearly four feet long and weighs sixteen lbs. Later versions added several accessories (the aforementioned bipod, carrying handle and flash hider), and the weight jumped up to 20 lbs.

In the interwar period, the BAR was force-fit into the “light machine gun” role and had many extra parts added. Image: National Archives

The size and weight can be intimidating for some shooters, but once you shoulder a BAR and fire it on full auto, you quickly understand that it is almost perfectly balanced, and its normal weight absorbs much of the recoil of its .30-06 ammunition.

As World War II progressed, many BAR gunners discarded the weighty accessories. Image: National Archives

A New Direction

During the 1920s, the concept of the “light machine gun” became popular. Many military planners around the world began to gravitate to the notion of a “squad automatic” to provide a base of fire for infantry sections (all equipped with bolt-action rifles).

The BAR was a very capable weapon on the battlefield. Image: National Archives

These early light machine gun concepts would manifest themselves as the French FM 24/29, the Czech ZB vz. 26, the Italian Breda Model 30, the Soviet DP-28 and the German MG-13. Some of these guns had quick-change barrels, others did not. All of them used a magazine of some type. The second generation of these light machine guns saw the arrival of the first general-purpose machine guns (GPMG), the German MG34 and the British Bren.

After World War II, U.S. forces rediscovered that the BAR was a tremendous automatic rifle and a poor light machine gun. Image: National Archives

In the United States the water-cooled Browning M1917 served as the heavy machine gun. The air-cooled Browning M1919 generally defied pigeon-hole descriptions and was used for a wide range of applications. The BAR continued to serve as the base of squad firepower, albeit cluttered up with a bipod and carrying handle in a faux LMG guise.

The BAR slowly became minimized in U.S. service, but it did not disappear. Many were provided to South Vietnamese forces. Image: USMC Historical Division

Within its original role as an automatic rifle, the lack of a quick-change barrel and the limitations of a 20-round magazine were minor problems. Force-fit into a nebulous role as a “LMG”, the BAR was found wanting. American troops have always been noted for their ingenuity, and so they quickly adopted a “if-it-isn’t-broken-then-don’t-try-to-fix-it” approach. As World War II emerged and progressed, the BAR was gradually returned to its original state (at least in the field), with bipods, carry handles and even flash hiders discarded to save weight.

The size of the BAR did not fit well with the small stature of allied Vietnamese troops. Image: Author’s collection

By the time the Korean War began in 1950, many of the hard-learned lessons about how to best use the BAR had been forgotten or ignored. Most of the BARs issued to troops bound for Korea were fitted with the same add-ons that had been taken off and thrown away in the previous conflict. By the end of the Korean War, most BAR gunners had again stripped down their weapons to their original configuration. The BAR performed best in its birthday suit.

The M14E2 was designed to take over the “squad automatic” role. Designated M14A1 during 1966, it weighed in at 14.5 pounds.

A BAR, Lite

Much like the concept of the “light machine gun” was all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s, the notion of the “squad automatic” really took hold in the 1950s and 1960s. Almost every significant rifle developed at that time had a squad automatic variant: the Belgian FN, the German G3, the Soviet AK-47, Italian BM59 and the U.S. M14 are all examples of firearms that were modified and tweaked as part of this development.

As the M14 rifle was planned to replace the M1 Garand and the M1/M2 Carbine, so too was it planned to replace the BAR. In theory, the single rifle platform was an effective solution, particularly from a logistics perspective.

Magazine capacity, sustained fire capability, and controllability during full-auto firing were often cited as complaints about the M14E2.

To create a squad automatic using the M14 rifle, the United States Infantry Board (USAIB) developed the M14E2, which featured an in-line stock with a pistol grip and more prominent butt, a plastic upper fore-end, an adjustable bipod, and a clamped-on muzzle stabilizer. A folding metal foregrip was fitted to help the gunner control the weapon during full-auto fire, and the stock was given a sturdy rubber recoil pad.

A rare view of an M14E2 (also called M14A1) in service with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam during 1966. Image: National Archives

The Infantry Board determined that the E2 configuration was able to meet the accuracy requirement of a squad automatic weapon, placing 80% of hits in a 40-inch circle at a range of 200 meters.

Some numbers of the M14E2 (also known as the M14 USAIB) were issued beginning in 1963. Adjustments were made to better secure the muzzle stabilizer, the M2 bipod, and to strengthen the foregrip and the stock itself. All in, it weighed 14.5 pounds.

Apparently some of the M14E2s were passed to the allied Vietnamese. This example is seen with ARVN Rangers during the Tet Offensive. Image: National Archives

The Wrong Answer?

During 1966 it was formally adopted and designated as the U.S. Rifle M14A1 7.62mm. By that time, the standard M14 rifle had been out of production for nearly four years. Despite this, more than 8,300 M14 rifles were converted to the M14A1 standard. Of those, only a few hundred are known to have been sent to Vietnam. Correspondingly, few photos of the M14A1 in combat exist.

The BAR, shown here in Korea, proved itself many times over in combat. Image: NARA

Apparently, the rifle worked well enough as a squad automatic, but issues with controllability on full-auto, overheating and sustained fire continued to dog the specific rifle, and the squad automatic concept in general. As such, the M14A1 quickly faded away. It seemed that the M14 would not step into the now empty role formerly filled by the famous BAR.

But it was likely an unfair attempt to make the M14 into this in the first place. A truly fine rifle that performed well in its intended role, the M14 was simply too svelte to truly be a squad automatic. And those characteristics are what make the Springfield Armory M1A, the civilian-legal sibling of the M14, such an appealing option for U.S. civilian consumers.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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