Mystery Bullpups & the M14

By Tom Laemlein
Posted in #Guns
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Mystery Bullpups & the M14

January 7th, 2020

6 minute read

The path to reach the classic M14 rifle design is filled with technological twists and turns. Along the way, a number of advanced firearms concepts would influence U.S. Ordnance in their decision. Some of these arms are well known. Others, like the unique “Model 45A”, are less so.

The Model 45A used a BAR magazine and featured a “bullpup” design. Image: U.S. National Archives

Of all the thousands of images I have found over years of research into U.S. small arms, I’ve never seen a firearm the likes of the “Model 45A.” Conceived and assembled by an unknown American design team in Manila in the Philippines during the last days of World War II, the Model 45A was not an officially sanctioned design. Its name is official sounding, but yet it is nothing more than a nickname applied in the field. Despite all of this, there are several photos of the rifle, taken by official photographers, and they provide us with a fascinating look into a highly advanced rifle concept circa 1945. 

The 45A had some radically advanced design features. Image: U.S. National Archives

First Sighting

The photos of the Model 45A were taken by U.S. Army Signal Corps photographers, in and around shattered Manila during September 1945. The official captions on the photos were cryptic and described the firearm as a “field expedient” or “experimental” .30 caliber light machine gun. No names were provided for the sergeants used as models or any of the officers or men shown in the Ordnance Technical Office in Manila.

The Model 45A at the U.S. Army Ordnance Technical Office in Manila in October 1945. Image: U.S. National Archives

I checked with the former director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum along with several other American military museum directors, and none had ever seen the Model 45A, nor had they heard of it, or even seen the photos of it. As far as is known, the Model 45A was a design conceived in the field that never made it back to the United States.

The Model 45A on display among the ruins of Manila in late 1945. Image: U.S. National Archives

How did the official Signal Corps photographers get involved? Since the war was recently over, the photographers were probably looking for something interesting to cover. Clearly, the ruins of Manila made a perfect backdrop. Ultimately though, the Model 45A was not an officially sanctioned design, and the U.S. Military takes a dim view of its troops developing their own weapons (whose designs could then be commercially viable) on “company time.”

Was It Real?

The Model 45A is a very modern-looking “bullpup” design, featuring a particularly long barrel. A Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) magazine extends from the base of the receiver. Ostensibly, it was chambered for .30-06 ammunition. There is a modern-looking pistol grip and the overall appearance is particularly futuristic. Most comments from firearms experts suggest that the Model 45A is simply a mock-up, and not a live gun. The receiver cover appears rather crude, and there doesn’t appear to be any bolt or bolt carrier.

Side view of the Model 45A showing the integrated carry handle and scope mount, pistol grip, and combination muzzle brake and grenade launcher. Image: U.S. National Archives

Even if the Model 45A couldn’t fire, it shows many forward-thinking features: the integral carry handle (comparable to a contemporary Steyr-AUG design) indicates a built-in telescopic sight. There is a small flash hider. Consideration was also given to launch grenades (with it showing an M9A1 anti-tank rifle grenade affixed to the end of the barrel). There is no bipod or front grip shown, and this would lead one to believe that the Model 45A was intended to be an automatic rifle as opposed to a light machine gun.

The futuristic 45A is an intriguing and mysterious U.S, small arm design. Image: U.S. National Archives

As is the case with many historical photos of rare firearms, these images raise more questions than they answer. It would be interesting to know who designed the Model 45A, why did they do it, and what other small arms designs influenced the concept. This one-off was not part of any Ordnance Department design competition, but it heralds several ideas that would compete very soon.

The T31 Light Rifle

Interestingly, another design (at least superficially similar to the obscure Model 45A), is John Garand’s contribution to the post-World War II “light rifle program,” the T31.

John Garand’s bullpup: The T-31 rifle (mockup) at Springfield Armory during 1949. Image: Springfield Armory NHS

The light rifle program began during late 1945 with the goal to develop a new rifle that used the T65 cartridge — the early basis for the 7.62x51mm “NATO” cartridge. Garand’s T31 used a bullpup configuration, with a 20-round magazine and selective-fire capability (with a projected 600 rpm cyclic rate). The magazine would be the only part of the T31 to move forward as it became the magazine used in the T44 rifle, and ultimately the M14.

Did the Axis have an influence? The WWII-era German paratroopers’ rifle, the “Fallschirmjägergewehr 42” (FG42), was highly regarded by US Ordnance. U.S. National Archives

The T31 harkened back to John Garand’s initial M1 rifle design as it used a complex gas trap system — as the barrel was fully surrounded by a sealed cylinder (that also served as a handguard). It was hoped that with the redirection of the T31’s muzzle blast, it would dampen the firing report and reduce recoil.

The T31 trigger group and pistol grip. Image: Springfield Armory NHS

Cooling the handguard and dealing with significant carbon build-up were two of the significant problems experienced with the T31 prototypes. Garand was rumored to have been working on a second generation T31 design (with a more conventional gas system) at the time he retired in 1953. Like the Model 45A, the T31 disappeared into the obscurity of the forgotten firearms designs, but set the stage for the development of the far more successful M14.

The Result

The M14 would go on to become the U.S. Military rifle to replace the revered M1 Garand rifle, combining the general design of that rifle with the new 7.62x51mm round and a detachable magazine. To give American firearms enthusiasts the chance to acquire their own piece of American firearms history, Springfield Armory in Geneseo, Illinois manufactures a civilian-legal, semi-automatic version of that rifle in its M1A.

The Springfield Armory M1A is a semi-automatic, civilian-legal rendition of the original M14 rifle.

The rifle is offered in numerous variants ranging from precision versions to CQB-style short variants. However, the “standard issue” model with a walnut stock truly captures the essence of the original M14 rifle. It’s a great rifle for competitive shooting or simply admiring, if you’re a “walnut and steel” kind of shooter. And it represents the culmination of decades of firearms design and refinement.

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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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