Did You Know the M14 Did This?

By Tom Laemlein
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Did You Know the M14 Did This?

May 24th, 2022

6 minute read

Long after its career as the U.S. Army’s primary battle rifle ended, the M14 rifle continues to serve America, even on the high seas. On board U.S. Navy vessels operating around the world, the M14 has performed several essential functions, not the least of these is “line-throwing”. Now, 50 years later, the M14 is still shooting at sea, although rarely in anger.

M14 firing a line to a US Navy ship
The M14 is used by the U.S. Navy to “throw” a line between ships during underway replenishment. Image: NARA

UNREP

In the U.S. Navy, underway replenishment (UNREP) is the primary way of transferring fuel, supplies, parts and even personnel from one ship to another while both are underway. The Navy perfected the practice during World War II, allowing entire battle groups to remain at sea for extended periods of time. UNREP is one of those unique capabilities that builds a war-winning strategic advantage.

M14 launching a phone and distance line from the USS Abraham Lincoln
A sailor uses the M14 to launch a phone and distance line from the USS Abraham Lincoln in March 2006. Image: NARA

To get the process started, the ships maneuver into position, matching course and speed, side-by-side. That sounds easy enough at first, until the reality of the undulating ocean waves sinks in. Mother Nature is often downright uncooperative. Once the ships are aligned, the M14 comes into play, and the Line Gunner is on deck.

The Mk 87 Mod 1 Line Throwing Kit

For line-throwing operations, a standard M14 rifle is equipped with the Mk 87 Line Throwing Kit. The Mk 87 is similar to earlier grenade launching cup-style dischargers. The short cylindrical steel tube is approximately 8.5″ long and 2.75″ in diameter (1″ at the connecting end). The Mk 87 slides over the M14’s flash suppressor and is fastened to the rifle by a latch and a wire loop over the bayonet lug. A safety retaining pin fits through the latch and locks the Mk 87 to the M14.

Sailors use an M14 to to fire a shot line
This photo captures the M14 shot line muzzle blast. The assistant stands by, ready to “pinch” the line. Image: NARA

The reusable hard rubber projectile is fitted with a stainless-steel disk in the base, which absorbs the propellant gases and the wadding of the M64 (7.62mm) rifle grenade cartridge. The loop line connects the shot line to the projectile.

The nylon shot line comes in spools that are nearly 550 feet long with a tensile strength of 125 lbs. The line is wound around a wooden spindle in a way to prevent fouling when the projectile is fired. The line is orange colored and water-proofed to be buoyant for at least 24 hours.

Throwing the Line

I talked with a few U.S. Navy men, all gunners, past and present, about this unique form of shooting and their use of the M14 rifle. As with many things in life at sea, there is little preparation for it, and much credit is due to the ingenuity of our military, and the spirit of American marksmanship on land, air, or sea.

Replenishment line being sent to USS Blue Ridge
On board the USS Blue Ridge, sailors prepare to receive the refueling probe during a replenishment at sea. Image: NARA

Aboard the USS Yellowstone: “In the North Atlantic in the winter, the winds are often quite high. Throwing a line from one ship to another while underway is all but impossible. That is where the line gunner comes in. I was assigned this duty because I was the new kid on the block, and none of the others wanted to be topside during an UNREP in the North Atlantic during the winter. My training was basically “Here’s the gun, here’s the line and bolo, here’s the attachment, and here are the blanks. Any questions?” I do recall my Master Chief was there the first time I shot. He told me to aim high and forward as the wind passing between the two ships would cause the bolo to drift aft. The higher the wind, the higher the drift. I got the first shot over on my first try. I don’t know if my first shot was pure luck, or if I was a natural. Handling more than 100 UNREPs, I think I only missed three or four times.”

Sailors prepare an M14 line thrower in 1983
Sailors prepare to throw a line from the USS Kitty Hawk to a fleet oiler in 1983. Image: NARA

Aboard the USS Curtis Wilbur: “The training is nothing special; mostly on the job. We have to be qualified to shoot the M14 as well as a line gunner, which really just comes with the experience of doing it a couple of times under instruction. The important things to remember are its best to elevate the gun at about a 45-degree angle and offset in the direction to adjust for the wind. The angle is the most important part — shoot too low and the projectile will fall short and into the water; shoot too high and the line can get tangled in the refueling lines. The gunner’s assistant is important too, as they “pinch” the line spool when the projectile lands on deck. If they pinch too soon the line will fall short; if they pinch too late and the projectile can sail over the ship or bounce off the deck into the water.”

Sailor on the USS Freedom fires shot line to replenishment oiler USNS Guada
A sailor aboard the USS Freedom fires shot line to the replenishment oiler USNS Guada. Image: NARA

Aboard the USS John F. Kennedy: “Replenishment at sea was always done underway with a supply vessel at a slow, steady speed. To get the supplies from one ship to the other, lines were run across. Before that begins, a line is shot from the receiving ship to the supply ship using an M14, special blank cartridges and a device mounted to the muzzle. The device resembled a soda can and had a spool of line attached to it attached to a hard rubber projectile that was placed in the ‘can’.

Gunner’s Mate Seaman Jesse Savage fires a shot line from the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez
Gunner’s Mate Seaman Jesse Savage fires a shot line from the guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). Image: U.S. Navy

“To shoot the line over, there was really no aiming that I remember. The rubber projectile was heavy enough that a sort of lobbing was used. Knowing the angle to lob the projectile was a guess at best, and the secret was angle versus timing. Usually there were several Gunner’s Mates shooting lines over at one time; seemingly half did not reach the intended location because of variables like wind and the heaving of the ships. On one occasion, I witnessed a projectile hit a Chief in the upper torso or head area and take him down. The entire ship secured from UNREP until the emergency was resolved. The Chief’s condition was so bad that he was transported in a litter across from ship to ship. The Gunner’s Mate who fired the line was extremely distraught, I remember.”

An M14 equipped with a MK87 line throwing kit aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln during November 2004
U.S. Navy Torpedoman’s Mate John N. Hansen (second from right) on the USS Lincoln is instructed by his Chief Petty Officer to shoot the Mark 87. Image: U.S. Navy

Aboard the USS Iwo Jima: “The shooters were all Gunners Mates, Weaponeers, and our training was strictly on-the-job. Over time, you got the feel for it. While wearing a Mae West you really could not bring the M14 to your shoulder, so I fired it on my arm from just below my bicep or sometimes from my hip. Part of the group waiting on the receiving end presented red paddles, (about twice the size of ping-pong paddles), as the target while the rest of their team waited to grab the projectile and secure the line.”

US Navy line-throwing team preparing to fire with M14
Torpedoman’s Mate Michael Walden holds the shot line as Gunner’s Mate Phillip Bullard loads an M14 rifle with a Mark 87 line throwing adapter onboard the USS Harry S. Truman. Image: U.S. Navy

Soldiering On, In the Navy

When the M14 was adopted, the Navy was using a special single-shot (break-action) rifle for line-throwing, chambered in .45-70. In 1958, few would have imagined that the then-new M14 would disappear from the hands of America’s ground troops by 1970, and yet still be in service with the U.S. Navy half a century later.

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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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