M1A or AR-10A2? The former was steeped in the past and the latter was a step into the future and both see wide-spread use to this day.
Reading about American military rifle development in the 1950s is fascinating. One cannot help but feel that the US Army's ordnance officers were stuck in time. As so often happened with military thinkers, Americans were planning for the wars just fought--World War II and the Korean War.
Over a decade previously the Germans had pioneered select-fire infantry rifles with their famous "Sturmgewehr" (aka MP43, MP44 and Stg44). Realizing infantry combat mostly occurred at ranges less than 400 meters; German ordnance officers decided a full-size cartridge like their 7.92x57mm was a waste of strategic materials. So they came up with the 7.92x33mm. Instead of a 198-grain bullet traveling in excess of 2,500 fps, they settled on a 125-grain one at about 2,300 fps.
The Soviet Union's ordnance officers quickly saw the benefits of Germany's enlightenment and followed suit with the AK-47 and its 7.62x39mm, which is perhaps today's most used military rifle and cartridge worldwide.
But in the 1950s, American ordnance officers were still focused on full-power cartridges. In the early years of that decade, they had developed what became known as the 7.62mm NATO round. What they had actually done was compact the famed .30-06's ballistics into a smaller package made possible by advances in propellants. Winchester introduced its .308 Winchester in 1952 as a civilian version.
After controversial testing against Belgium's Fabrique Nationale's (FN) FAL, the government-owned Springfield Armory M14 was picked to replace the M1 Garand as the new American infantry rifle. In truth, the M14 was only a remodeling of the Garand by giving it a 20-round detachable box magazine, flash suppressor, and manufacturing its frame so that all could be given select-fire capability. In the book The Gun, author C.J. Chivers wrote that it seemed as if 1950s American ordnance officers were more concerned with developing a better rifle for target competition than for combat infantrymen.
Deliveries of M14s to US Army bases didn't begin until about 1958, and by that time some private companies had begun to think outside the military's box. We all know the story of how ArmaLite's developed into the M16 and began replacing the M14 by about 1965.
However, I personally didn't know that ArmaLite's first efforts at military rifle making centered on the 7.62mm NATO round in a model named AR-10. GUNS Magazine even reported on the company's efforts as early as the March 1957 issue. Editor Jeff John e-mailed me an article titled "Is This The New GI Rifle?" by Eugene Jaderquist. Reading it was humorous and revealing. Humorous in that George Sullivan, boss at ArmaLite, envisioned American soldiers running into combat spraying bullets from AR-10s, belt fed from dual 250-round packs carried on their backs. Actually, in the just-ended Korean Conflict Chi-Com, soldiers did just that with their PPsh41 submachine guns, but they were carrying a supply of tiny 7.62x25mm pistol cartridges and were feeding, them from 71-round drum magazines.
Author Jaderquist also wrote that because of the AR-10's straight stock design it could be fired full-auto accurately despite its 6-3/4-pound weight. That's silly. I have an original German MP44. It weighs 11 pounds, fires a much milder cartridge than 7.62mm NATO and is still very difficult to shoot with precision in full-auto mode.
Editor Jeff John also e-mailed me a copy of another early GUNS Magazine article by Herbert J. Erfruth, titled "Shooting The New Army Rifle." It was undated but had to be from the late '50s. Much of its theme was the benefit of the MI4 being capable of full-auto fire. Again, I think that's silly, having personally fired a full-auto M14 and seeing its bullets climb mightily after the first shot.
Anyway, all of this was preparation for the purposes of this article. That was to shoot two 7.62mm NATO/.308 Winchester semi-auto rifles side by side. I was already very familiar with one: Springfield Armory's MIA, having owned a couple and done extensive shooting with several more. The other one JJ asked me to give a try was new to me--I didn't even know it existed. That was the AR-10 as made by the ArmaLite Company of Geneseo, Ill., incidentally the same town where Springfield Armory is based. (Specific version was AR-10A2.)
Bells & Whistles
Springfield's M1A is a close duplicate of the M14, meaning the same size and weight. Its stock is walnut with a synthetic handguard. Its hinged buttplate is steel and, as with all other metal work, was given a Parkerized finish. Barrel length is 22" with a flash suppressor attached, and weight is 9.3 pounds. Overall length is 44.33". Its rear sight is a fine peep-type, also found on M1 Garands. It is click adjustable for both windage and elevation. Front sight is a post protected on each side by curved wings. Also identical to Garands is the safety in the front of triggerguard; pushed into the triggerguard and it's on safe, pushed out and the rifle is ready to fire. That also has to be one of the best safeties ever put on a combat rifle. The primary difference between this M1A and the US M14 is the new rifle's receiver has no machining for full-auto conversion. That's why we civilians can buy M1As while M14s can only be owned with proper ATF registration.
Conversely, this AR-10 is not the same as the one written up over 50 years ago--although both are admittedly the brainchildren of Eugene Stoner. That one had its charging lever on top, inside of the carrying handle. It also used an aluminum shroud over its barrel, with the barrel itself being a steel liner. This newer AR-10A2, in my opinion, is one that grew to maturity. Where the original weighed 6-3/4 pounds, this one hits 9.8 pounds. Its barrel is 20" long, with the flash suppressor giving an overall length of 41". If it differs at all from standard ARs in regards to mode of function, I can't tell. Like all ARs, it uses synthetic materials for stock and forearm, and aluminum in the receiver. However, the barrel is all steel as are all internal parts subjected to stress.
Its charging handle is at the rear of the receiver where the shooter's firing hand's first two fingers can grasp it. Pulling it back with a magazine inserted cocks the hammer and releasing it lets the bolt fly home, chambering a round. That's opposed to the M1A's manner of function, wherein after a loaded magazine is inserted, pulling the oprod handle retracts the bolt and releasing it allows it to strip off a cartridge into the chamber. Also, as with other semiauto ARs, the AR-10A2's safety is a 2-position lever on the left side of the receiver, above the triggerguard. Pointed up, the rifle is ready to fire; pointed forward, it's on safe.
In his 1957 article, Eugene Jaderquist points out by having such a straight-stock design, the AR-10 had to have its sights positioned high above the bore-line. This newer AR-10A2 does too, and those sights are similarly the same on ARs that come with carrying handles. (That's as opposed to those with rails.) Rear sight adjusts for windage and elevation, but the front sight is additionally adjustable for elevation. The idea is to get the rifle dead-on at a predetermined distance by raising or lowering the front post. Then, in use at extended range when elevation correction is needed, the rear sight can be used to compensate.
Before shooting either rifle, their trigger pulls were checked. Both were right in the 5-pound range--give a pound or 2--and both were also 2-stage, military-type triggers. When shooting started, I was embarrassed to find most of my stash of 7.62mm NATO/.308 Winchester factory loads had been shot up on previous projects. All I had in stock were Winchester Ammunitions's 147-grain FMJ and Black Hills Ammunition's match load with 155-grain Hornady A-Max bullets.
"Never fear," thought I, "I'll take up the slack with handloads." That plan didn't work out quite precisely as I assumed. I do own and shoot several semi-auto and full-auto military weapons of full-rifle caliber. All have generous military-size chambers, so no small-base resizing dies have been necessary for handloading. Evidently, these two military-looking albeit civilian-market intended semi-autos have tighter chambers. That means functioning with my .308 Winchester handloads was spotty.
With the AR-10A2, if I could get the first handload chambered properly, the rest of the magazine would function normally. I assume that was because the bolt was slamming them in harder than I could when just releasing the bolt manually. The M1A often would not fully chamber a handloaded round when the bolt was released by hand or when it shut in normal firing. Neither of these rifles are fun ones from which to get a stuck case out of the chamber! I had to take them out of my shooting house, rest the rifles' butts on the ground, point the muzzle in some direction besides my head, and then tap the op-rod/ charging handle with a piece of wood to free the cases.
I'm not relating this as an indictment of either rifle, but to point out to potential buyers who might want to handload for them that consideration should be given to a small-base sizing die as well.
Now, with that said, hear this. Both of the above mentioned factory loads functioned perfectly--revery last shot, for about 100 rounds in each rifle. Their sights adjusted perfectly, so I was able to zero each one. The best groups ran around 3" at 100 yards, and the Black Hills match load a bit bigger on the average with the Winchester FMJ load. Both loads gave about 2,750 to 2,780 fps from the M1A, and about 25 fps less (again on the average) with the AR-10.
My only complaint about either rifle is they couldn't be easily scoped. My eyes are begging for retirement, so shooting would likely have been more precise with scopes. As it was after paper target shooting, I then moved over to my steel PT-Torso plates and had no trouble hitting them out to 300 yards. Still, if I were to buy one of these rifles, it would be one ready to accept a scope right out of the box.
Here's the bottom line--my bottom line, that is. If you prefer wood and steel then the M1A is great. However, I have to say dismounting it for cleaning is a chore. It seems as though someone fond of jigsaw puzzles designed it. If black rifles don't bother you then the AR-10A2 is great. It is a joy in respect to cleaning; simply tap out the pin and the rifle is hinged so that bolt comes right out--no big deal.
Consider this: I'm just a gun'riter. I shoot rifles for a while, have fun with them and then most often send them back to their manufacturers. However, while working with these two rifles, a young friend, whom I've known since his birth, stopped by. He served as a sniper for the US Marine Corps in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then returned twice working for private contractors. In other words, this is one seriously rifle-experienced fellow. His comment was, "I'd like to buy both."
SPECIFICATIONS BOX SPRINGFIELD ARMORY M1A (STANDARD MODEL)
MANUFACTURER: SPRINGFIELD ARMORY
420 WEST MAIN
GENESEO, IL 61254
TYPE: Semi-auto, BARREL LENGTH: 22", RIFLING TWIST RATE: 1:11", WEIGHT: 9.3 pounds, CALIBER: 7.62mm NATO/.308 Winchester, OVERALL LENGTH: 44.33", STOCK: Walnut/synthetic handguard, MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 10- or 20-round detachable magazines, PRICE: $1,739
SPECIFICATIONS BOX ARMALITE AR-10A2
MANUFACTURER: ARMALITE, INC.
P.O. BOX 299
TYPE: Semi-auto, BARREL LENGTH: 20", RIFLING TWIST RATE: 1:11.25", WEIGHT: 9.8 pounds, OVERALL LENGTH: 41", STOCK: synthetic, MAGAZINE CAPACITY: 5- to 25-round detachable magazines, PRICE: $1,561