A Brief History
On August 7, 1942, US Marines landed on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands chain, initiating the first US ground offensive of World War II (a subject we previously covered in our article “First U.S. Offensive of World War II Begins on Guadalcanal”). When those Marines hit the beach, they were equipped with the M1903 Springfield rifle, a classic bolt action rifle that first saw action during World War I. When the US Army soldiers later landed on the island to reinforce the Marines, the soldiers were equipped with the newer M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, first adopted by the US military in 1936, but still in short supply early in World War II. Marines were highly envious of the firepower the new rifles provided the soldiers, while some US Army soldiers that had been trained on and used to the bolt action ’03 Springfield were more than willing to trade their fancy new semi-automatic rifle for the more familiar rifle used by Marines. Despite superior officers’ orders not to swap weapons, some soldiers and Marines swapped rifles anyway, a graphic illustration of the difference of opinion about US battle rifles.
When the Americans fought for independence from Britain during the American Revolutionary War, the smoothbore flintlock musket was the long arm of choice. Quicker to load and less prone to fouling than a rifled long gun, smoothbore muskets were the standard military arm throughout the world. Specialty troops (sharpshooters) did use rifled firearms, but in much smaller numbers.
By the time of the US Civil War, rifled muskets (still muzzle loaders) ignited by a percussion cap had replaced the smoothbore flintlock weapons. The Springfield Model 1861, a muzzle loading rifled bore percussion rifle was the main weapon of the Union Army, while the South (Confederate States Army) largely used the British Model 1853 Enfield, also a muzzle loading, rifled bore percussion rifle. Both of these weapons were obsolete by the end of the Civil War in 1865, superseded by breech loading fixed ammunition (metal case) rifles. The revised Model 1861, the Model 1863, was the last muzzle loading rifle adopted by the US military.
Enter the era of metallic cartridges and the Model 1873 “Trapdoor” Springfield, a modified version of the Model 1861/1863 given a breech “trapdoor” to load a .45-70 rimfire metallic cartridge made of copper. Copper was quickly found to be unsuitable as a material for ammunition cases and was replaced by centerfire brass ammunition. A single shot rifle, the 1873 was relatively accurate and powerful, but much slower to fire than the repeating rifles already in civilian hands at the time. The US 7th Cavalry commanded by George A. Custer found out about the limitations of a single shot rifle in combat against superior numbers of the enemy, especially an enemy that had a considerable number of repeating rifles!
After a 19 year reign as America’s military rifle, the Trapdoor Springfield was replaced by our first bolt action repeating rifle, the Springfield Model 1892, our first small caliber (.30 caliber) rifle based on the Krag-Jorgensen design from Norway. While a smooth and reliable rifle, the cartridge was underpowered compared to the Mauser rifles and Lee-Enfield rifles of the time, and reloading was considerably slower than the stripper clip fed Mauser system. Americans found out the hard way that the Mauser was superior during the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Krag, as the rifle is often referred to as, only lasted until 1903 when an American clone of the 1898 Mauser, the Springfield Model 1903 became the standard issue US rifle. The 1903 was improved by a change in .30 caliber ammunition in 1906, a cartridge usually referred to as 30-’06. The M1903 is not only the favorite of many American veterans, but often considered perhaps the best bolt action rifle ever to equip a military.
Now the US had a rifle as good as any in the world, powerful, accurate, smooth and reliable. Just in time for World War I, but not available in sufficient numbers to equip all American service men. Enter the M1917 Enfield, another bolt action rifle in the same caliber as the M1903, a British design adapted for American use. Both rifles served Americans quite well during World War I.
The M1903 had a fairly long run as the main battle rifle of the US military, from 1903 until 1936, though production continued all the way until 1949 as a secondary standard US rifle. Over 3 million M1903’s were built and the rifle has its supporters as our greatest battle rifle ever. During World War II the superior accuracy of the M1903 was taken advantage of as the rifle of choice for US snipers.
The US became the first country to adopt a semi-automatic rifle as their main military long arm in 1936 when the M-1 Garand was certified for use, though the rifles were not issued until 1938. Early problems with the gas system resulted in a somewhat less than enthusiastic reception among soldiers, though modifications of the rifle resulted in more reliable performance. Most soldiers and Marines were quite glad to have the increased firepower offered by the M-1’s 8 round en-bloc clip fed ammunition system and semi-automatic fire. General George Patton was compelled to call the M-1 Garand “the greatest battle implement ever devised” Almost 5.5 million Garands were built from 1936 to 1957, and served as our main battle rifle through the Korean War until the M-14 was adopted in 1957. By the end of World War II (1945), the future of battle rifles was already apparent by the German limited production of the StG 44, the first “assault rifle,” a rifle that could fire an intermediate (not quite as powerful as a standard rifle cartridge) rifle caliber cartridge in either full or semi-automatic mode. The Soviet invention of the AK-47, while not as accurate or as powerful as the M-1 Garand, had the advantage of full automatic mode, putting US soldiers at a tremendous disadvantage.
Enter the first US assault rifle, the M-14. A design taken from that of the M-1 Garand, but adapted to fire a shorter, but nearly as powerful cartridge (the 7.62mm X 51mm NATO round) and utilizing the rapid reloading capability of a 20 round removeable magazine, the M-14 had a wooden stock and more or less looked like what battle rifles looked like at the time. Of course, some historians still consider the M-14 a “battle rifle” instead of an “assault rifle,” because the 7.62 NATO ammunition can be considered “full power” instead of “intermediate.” Alas, the M-14 had a short run as our main battle rifle, being replaced by the M-16 family of rifles in 1967, a run of only 10 years (or 8 years since the large scale production did not start until 1959), the shortest run of any US standard issued rifle. In spite of its uncontrollability when fired in full automatic mode, the M-14 has many supporters, and the weapons were continued to be used in smaller quantities up to the present time, when its larger caliber cartridge has proven more effective at longer ranges than the smaller caliber (5.56mm) M-16 ammo.
The smaller and lighter weight M-16 was adopted as the standard US military rifle in 1967, with its futuristic looking plastic stock and lightweight ammunition, firing a 55 grain bullet compared to the 147 to 178 grain bullet employed by the M-14. Initial problems with fouling and reliability relegated those early M-16’s to the garbage pile by Americans fighting in Vietnam, though the US quickly resolved (most of) the issues and the M-16A1 became a reliable and deadly weapon. Still the main US military rifle after over 50 years of service, the M-16 family of weapons (many different improvements and models over the years) has had the longest run of any US standard military rifle. Unfortunately, in an effort to improve long range accuracy and barrier penetration, the ammunition has been modified to include a longer and heavier bullet stabilized by an increase in rifling twist, which has somewhat diminished the lethal effect on human flesh. (Everything in life is a trade-off of some kind!) Obviously, with the unprecedented long run at the top of the US military, the M-16 family of rifles has numerous supporters as our greatest rifle. The possible adoption of totally different ammunition (among them, 6.8mm SPC caliber) has been proposed and rejected a few times. The M-16 family of assault rifles is often compared to the AK-47 family of assault rifles, with glaring differences of opinion about which is the superior design.
So, which of these standard issue US military rifles is the “GOAT?” (Greatest of All Time) To avoid coming across as non-committal, this author is in favor of the M-16A1 model. Lighter than the other rifles, capable of adequate long range (500 yards) accuracy without an optical sight system and capable of accurate automatic fire, the M-16A1 proved reliable and comforting when this author served in the US Marine Corps. (The M-16A2 is not chosen because it is heavier and fires a slower, more stable round that causes less wounding in human targets. The M-4 version of the M-16 with its short barrel and gas system is prone to overheating when fired in large quantities, and offers reduced projectile velocity which translates to reduced lethality.) The M1903 and M-1 Garand just do not have the firepower available to a full automatic weapon, and the M-14 is likewise heavier than the M-16 and less effective when used on full automatic mode.
There, now you have MY opinion, what about YOURS?
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe is the greatest US military rifle of all time? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Canfeld, Bruce. An Illustrated Guide to the ’03 Springfield Service Rifle. Andrew Mowbray Inc., 2005.
Carson, William. M-16 versus AK-74: History and Confrontation: Unique modern and old world war technology. Amazon Digital, 2018.
NRA. The M1 Rifle: History, Shooting and Accurizing the First Gas Operated US Service Rifle: 3rd Ed. NRA Publications, 1994.
Tilstra, Russell. The Battle Rifle: Development and Use Since World War II. McFarland Publishing, 2014.
Thompson, Leroy. The M14 Battle Rifle. Osprey Publishing, 2014.
The featured image in this article, U.S. National Archives photo 80-CF-112-5-3 from First Offensive: The Marine Campaign For Guadalcanal. Marines in World War II Commemorative Series of U.S. First Division Marines storming ashore across Guadalcanal’s beaches on D-Day, 7 August 1942, from the attack transport USS Barnett (AP-11) and the attack cargo ship USS Fomalhaut (AK-22). The invaders were surprised at the lack of enemy opposition, is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the United States Marine Corps. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.