The M14 National Match
How This Classic Rifle Was Built
Written by David M. Fortier
Friday, 25 June 2010
A classic blend of steel, wood and old-school technology, the M14 National Match is both highly accurate and extremely reliable. (Photo: David M. Fortier)I'm sure most readers are quite familiar with the standard M14 battle rifle, but many might not be aware of the development of the National Match version. And while the M14 National Match may not be state-of-the-art for Service Rifle competition anymore, it's still a wonderful rifle.
It's interesting to note work on this model began in 1959 at the now-closed US military Springfield Armory facility. A Lieutenant Colonel by the name of Joseph Smith was actually the man who got the ball rolling. LTC Smith was at the time the director of the Civilian Marksmanship Program. In July 1960, the Springfield Armory engineering-division chief ordered 200 M14 rifles be removed from production and rebuilt into the first match rifles. One hundred were built in 1961 and the other 100 the following year.
As to be expected, the US Army Marksmanship Training Unit also played a key role in this model's development. The end result of this project was a highly tuned version of the M14 well suited for use in competition.
What exactly went into building an M14 National Match? Good question.
To learn how these rifles were actually put together meant stepping into the world of ornery old-school NCOs, black coffee and voodoo.
Luckily I knew just the man - Gus Norcross. Back in the day, Norcross wore Army green and built both M14 National Match and M21 sniper rifles. He was a common face at Camp Perry in the 1990s, where he worked the gun truck for the National Guard All Guard Team. More than just an armorer, Norcross was also a talented marksman. He proved this one year at the Wilson matches when he set a national record.
Regarding M14 National Match rifles, he's also probably the last person to win a state High Power Championship with this model. He did so at the Maine State Championship in 2003 using an M14 National Match rifle he built.
Now, Gus is still very much a crusty old NCO from mid-coast Maine. But if you bring treats for his dogs, ask him about "wooden rifles" and grab a comfy chair in his shop, you can learn quite a bit. I asked him how a US Army M14 National Match rifle was actually built, and here's what he shared while slurping on a black coffee.
Norcross: The original NM rifle used a standard-weight walnut stock. These worked okay but weren't as rigid as a thick, heavy stock. By the 1980s we were using heavy stocks available through the military-supply system. The Marines used McMillan stocks on their best team guns. The rifle action was glass-bedded into the stock using steel-impregnated epoxy known as Bisonite. I still use it on wood stocks.
The M14 National Match's action was glass-beaded into the walnut stock, like with this commercial M1A NM. Therefore, one should only remove the action from the stock if absolutely necessary. (Photo: David M. Fortier)Standard-weight M14 stocks had a steel liner in them that strengthened them in the receiver area for launching rifle grenades. The liner was thinned by filing and grinding on NM rifles to provide more bedding surface. The objective of bedding was to tighten the action in the stock so it wouldn't slide around and to support the barreled action at a slight upward angle so the front band would pull upward on the stock ferrule, dampening barrel vibration. This stock tension was critical to accuracy. The stock ferrule was ground out to provide plenty of clearance for the gas cylinder. No part of the barrel touched the stock except the front band.
Norcross: The bottom edges of the handguard were trimmed so they didn't touch the stock. The front tab was glued into the front band so the handguard couldn't shift on the barrel during firing.
Norcross: Generally, a standard receiver was used by all except maybe the national-level teams. At the top tier, the receivers had lugs welded to them to provide extra recoil surface - sometimes rear lugs and sometimes front and rear lugs. Welding lugs to a heat-treated receiver requires advanced welding techniques. Do not do this at home.
I never saw lug guns at NGMTU, but that doesn't mean they didn't use them. The Marines were known to use them.
By providing increased recoil surface, the bedding lasted longer. On actual military M14 receivers the selector switch was welded, preventing full auto-fire. These receivers were marked with an "NM" after the "U.S. Rifle M14" marking on the receiver heel.
Norcross: The trigger was honed to slightly over 4.5 pounds pull. Any lighter and the rifle could double.
Norcross: The military bought barrels in standard, medium and heavy weights at various times from multiple contractors. Some of these were pretty good. All weren't chrome-lined.
When we used military barrels they were selected for uniformity of the bore with an air gauge. The goal was no more than .0001" variation in bore size from the throat to the muzzle. If there was a taper, the muzzle had to be the tight end. NGMTU turned their own barrels from Douglas air-gauged blanks. Gene Barnett did the machine work right there at the shop on a lathe when the operation was based in Nashville. He was an NCO in the Guard at the time.
The military purchased barrels in standard, medium and heavy weights at various times from multiple contractors. Springfield's M1A NM seen here sports a medium-weight match barrel. (Photo: David M. Fortier)The Guard used 1-10 twist barrels and the Marines used 1-12. We were taught that twist wasn't important out to 600 yards. Not sure what brand of barrel blanks the Marines used (USMC used Barnett-turned Douglas, Hart, Obermeyer, Kreiger and a few Schneiders.-Fortier)
All the Douglas barrels we used in the '80s were heavy-profile throated for M852 match ammo. After the barrel was fitted and headspaced, the operating rod guide was installed. These were a press fit on the barrel so they didn't move around, which was important for accuracy.
Norcross: Standard flash suppressors were reamed out with a modified #7 taper pin reamer. I've heard various reasons for this. An account I read of early Army accuracy testing of M14s stated that accuracy was improved. Some people say the larger hole prevents misalignment of the flash suppressor. Some say that the larger bore prevents droplets of water from hanging in the bullet path when shooting in the rain. In any case, they were reamed. The splines on the barrel where the flash-suppressor mounts were peened to tighten the fit.
Norcross: The gas system on a standard rifle consists of the gas cylinder, front band and spindle valve - all separate parts. On NM rifles, this group of parts was "unitized" into one piece. If it isn't unitized, the front band may move around during recoil, causing varying amounts of barrel tension on the stock ferrule. Not good for accuracy.
In the Guard, the gas cylinder, front band and spindle valve were assembled into a special fixture to hold them in alignment and holes were drilled and tapped for screws. The spindle valve and sometimes the front band must first be annealed in a heat-treat oven so they're soft enough to drill. The screws are glued and staked so they parts will never come loose. The Marines TIG welded the front band to the gas cylinder.
An important process was unitizing the gas system. While the US Army screwed them together (left), the USMC welded theirs (right). (Photo: David M. Fortier)If either method is done correctly you can't see any modification when the rifle's assembled. Some commercial versions exhibit a bead of weld on the outside of the assembly. Looks like crap. Krieger does it that way. Springfield, Inc. does it the Marine way and theirs look pretty decent. I don't weld so I still do it with screws.
The gas piston was modified with a small groove cut length-wise to bleed off pressure. Some of the current commercial Sadlak pistons are cut like this.
Norcross: NM front sight blades were narrower (.062") than the standard blade. The rear sight base and windage knob were threaded twice as fine as the G.I. parts to yield 1/2 MOA increments. The rear aperture was hooded and supplied in either .052 or .0595 sizes. The aperture was slightly offset in the hood so it could be turned 180 degrees to give .5 MOA elevation corrections.
Norcross: The completed M-14NM rifles built by NGMTU armorers at the facility outside Nashville, Tenn. were test-fired in a 200-yard tunnel built under the nearby military airfield. Testing in a tunnel removed wind and weather conditions as a variable.
The rifles were fired with M852 match ammo from a machine rest at a blank sheet of paper down range. An average of several 10-round groups determined the suitability of the rifle for match use. Rifles that failed the machine rest went back to the shop for adjustment.
Today's M1A National Match
The result of all this hard work was a rifle that resembled the combat-issue rifle, but shot substantially better. Regarding accuracy, groups were not only tighter but also much more consistent. The improved sights also made hitting at distance, especially in wind, easier. If you did your part it would score well at 600 yards and beyond.
The lessons learned in competition benefited the combat soldier as well. The M14 National Match served as the foundation for the M21 sniper rifle. In reality, the M21 was little more than an M14 National Match with an ART/ART II scope added. This combination would prove highly effective in Vietnam.
As an example, the top-scoring US sniper of Vietnam, US Army Sergeant Adelbert Waldron, scored 109 kills with an XM21. More recently, Sergeant First Class Dillard Johnson (Ret.) scored 122 kills with an M21 in Iraq.
The flash suppressor was reamed to National Match specifications with a narrower National Match front sight fitted. (Photo: David M. Fortier)While the M14 National Match is a thing of the past, a call to Springfield Armory will bring you one of its M1A National Matches. This is a good-looking piece fitted with a 22" medium-weight premium air-gauged National Match barrel. This features six-groove rifling and a right-hand 1-11 inch twist. Other upgrades include a National Match operating rod guide, National Match sights and a National Match gas cylinder.
The trigger mechanism is set up within National Match regulations to provide a two-stage pull of between 4.5-5 pounds. Plus, the flash suppressor's reamed to National Match specifications.
To enhance accuracy, the barreled action is glass bedded into a walnut stock.
The end result is 44.3 inches long, weighs 9.8 pounds empty, has a parkerized finish and is ready for competition or the field.
While today considered old technology, the M1A National Match is still a wonderful piece.
07-04-2010, 01:47 AM
Interesting article, thanks for posting. I will add that the Vermont State Championship was won with an M1A in 2008.
07-04-2010, 06:38 AM
Those are two guys I miss shooting with; Fortier and Norcross. Fortier moved to Kansas or something and Gus became a hermit.
I think Gus Norcross was the last person to earn Leg points with the Garand (at least here in Maine