In truth, even Springfield was not sure if the public would go for it and, if it did, for how long. But the company, then based in Texas, had acquired a large stock of military surplus M14 parts (from canceled government orders and guns returned from foreign militaries) and by making its own mil-spec or better receivers, it figured it could turn a fast buck. That was more than 25 years ago.
In 1962, the government’s Springfield Armory—the U.S. arsenal in Massachusetts that is linked by name only to the current Illinois-based company—was instructed to create some modified M14-based rifles for competition use. The guns were to have a number of modifications which basically worked toward the same end: The new rifles would have no full-automatic fire selector nor any means for accommodating one. Where practical, semi-auto M1 parts were installed to replace selective fire components. (See “The First M1As,” American Rifleman, August, 1990). Despite complying with BATF guidelines for a rifle readily suitable for sale to civilians, the gun ran afoul of DCM’s Maj. Gen. Nelson M. Lynde. Gen. Lynde felt the new rifles were not DCM-compliant as they could not be converted back to military issue configuration in the event of a national emergency.
However, in 1974 the then-newly formed Springfield Armory (now Springfield, Inc.) resurrected the design and petitioned for its approval for competition use. This time DCM relented with the stipulation that the company maintain the outward appearance of the M14 (except for the selector switch). Springfield Armory agreed. It dubbed the rifle the M1A and apprehensively brought it to market.
The Civilian Perspective
A closer examination of the situation revealed a product not nearly so lacking in appeal as a casual observer might have thought. The military had been trying to find a rifle that was all things to all people. The M14 wasn’t it; no gun is. It was considered too big and bulky for jungle combat and was practically impossible to control in full-auto mode. Well, American civilians weren’t engaging in jungle combat. For plinking or match shooting in the temperate plains and rolling hills of North America, the .308 Win.-cal. M1A proved just fine, thank you. And control during automatic fire wasn’t an issue for civilians since the M1A isn’t a selective-fire gun. So much for the “problems.”
It wasn’t just that the M14’s flaws weren’t of consequence to civilian shooters purchasing the M1A; the gun offered numerous virtues as well. It was a direct descendant of the M1 Garand. Some people will say to a young man, “If you’re half the man your father was … ,” meaning that you’re OK because your father was OK. Nowhere in firearms was that attitude better made manifest than in the public response to the M1A. Older shooters were often former soldiers who fondly remembered their legendary M1 Garands. Many younger shooters were the sons of those soldiers and had grown up hearing the reverence with which their fathers spoke of the big, semi-automatic battle rifle. When an opportunity presented itself to obtain one of the new “updated” Garand-type semi-automatics, such shooters couldn’t resist.
Still other shooting enthusiasts from the military had firsthand experience with the M14, having served when it was the issue arm. It may not have done everything the military brass had wanted it to, but many soldiers had liked the way it handled basic rifleman’s duties, and the gun was all right by them. It was an established performer, accurate and reliable. It was also quick to load, simple to operate and had excellent range. And—no small thing—it was chambered in the beloved .30 caliber—America’s caliber.
At the same time, it must be remembered, the service rifle then in use, the M16A1, had developed a bad reputation as unreliable, inaccurate at long range and underpowered. To many shooters, despite its short span as the standard military rifle, the M14/M1A was a known, proven quantity while the M16A1 was proving a mistake.
With input from armorers for the Army and Marine Marksmanship units, a series of tuning procedures and mechanical features quickly developed for the M14/M1A. Springfield Armory, ever sensitive to the desires of its customers, incorporated the procedures and features into the production of a line of premium M1As designed specifically for service rifle matches. However, at the same time, it was careful not to alter the outward appearance of the gun and thereby kept it DCM-compliant.
In 1974, the company introduced the National Match M1A rifle. This rifle is built to do one thing—win service rifle matches. It comes equipped with a high-grade National Match walnut stock; 22" stainless steel, air-gauged, National Match, medium weight barrel with a 1:11" right-hand twist; National Match trigger group with 4 1⁄2-lb. two-stage trigger; National Match blade front sight; match-grade hooded aperture rear sight with one-half m.o.a. windage and elevation adjustments, a National Match gas cylinder, National Match recoil spring guide and a glass-bedded action.
The National Match was without peer among factory production DCM-legal .30-cal. service rifles—until the company unveiled the Super Match in 1975. Added to the already impressive National Match features were a choice of an oversized walnut, black or Marine camo McMillan fiberglass stock; 22" Douglas Premium, stainless steel, air-gauged, custom heavy match barrel with a 1:10" twist; and—since 1993—a rear-lugged receiver.
However, with the introduction of heavier .223 Rem.-cal. bullets for AR-15-style rifles in recent years, the M1A has lost its dominance in highpower matches. The heavier bullets—some weighing as much as 80 grs. and so long that cartridges have to be loaded singly into the gun—keep AR-15-style guns competitive with the M1A at the 600-yd. stage of highpower competition. Such was not always the case with earlier, lighter .223 bullets.
Despite AR-15-type/.223 Rem. advances, the M1A continues to thrive. It’s not finicky about ammunition, is available with wood furniture, hits hard, is rock solid and just looks the way some people believe a rifle should.
No, Springfield and the M1A are not done. With the development of its match rifles, the company found itself with a commercial version of a military rifle with all of the finest military rifle attributes—ruggedness, reliability, simplicity, power, magazine capacity—but this one was now also a long-range tackdriver. Mount a scope on a such a gun and you have a tactical or police marksman’s rifle. So, in 1985, that’s just what Springfield did.