Rifles of the Veterans
Today on Veterans Day, we bring you a sampling of the rifles carried by the soldiers who have made the country what it is today.
Although the soldiers of General Washington's Continental Army were most often armed with either captured British Brown Bess or Charleville Model 1763 and 1766 muskets were imported from France during the American Revolution, the Pennsylvania longrifle appeared in every battle of the war. German immigrant gunsmiths introduced these flintlock firearms to the colonies.
Often over 10-pounds in weight with barrels that could be up to four-feet long, these custom hunting guns were some of the first to use spiral grooves in the bore known as rifling to stabilize the ball. This gave these guns an effective range of over 200-yards while the military muskets were lucky to hit a man-sized target on purpose at 75.
The most widely used US rifle of the 19th Century was the Model 1861 Springfield. An improvement over the Model 1816 and 1842 muskets, it was placed into production at the beginning of the Civil War. This percussion locked .58-caliber weighed in at 9-pounds It could fire a .58 Minie ball bullet at up to three rounds per minute with reasonable accuracy to 400 yards. With its percussion caps, reliable accuracy, ability to hold a triangular socket bayonet, and nearly full-length stock, it was almost soldier proof. The bluejackets of the Union Army from Manassas to Appomattox Courthouse carried more than a million of these guns. They also saw service in the Indians Wars and continued to be used as a training rifle into the 1890s.
Officially, the Model 1873 rifle, this Springfield-made gun was the first standard-issue breech-loading rifle adopted by the United States Army. All the of the rifles listed above were Muzzleloading 'front-stuffers' that had limited range, accuracy, and most importantly, rate of fire.
What the 'trapdoor' brought to the table was the ability to load a self-contained 45 caliber, 405-grain bullet atop a case filled with 70-grains of black powder through its flip-open action. This single shot rifle could be fired up to 15-rounds per minute while its powerful cartridge was capable of hits out to 500 yards easy. These rifles were carried by the US Army throughout the Indian Wars and were still issued to state militia forces and military academies up to World War 1.
Although the military flirted with the Danish/Norwegian designed Krag-Jorgensen rifle in the 1890s, by World War 1 they had adopted the turn-bolt Springfield M1903 rifle. Based on the German Mauser action, this 30.06 caliber rifle was among the most accurate ever used by the United States military. Its 24-inch barrel and 44-inch overall length gave the rifle an 8.5-pound weight.
Loaded via stripper clips through its receiver, the '03 had an internal 5-shot magazine. Well over 1.3-million of these guns were manufactured through 1945 and served on the front lines in both World Wars as both infantry and specialized sniper variants. They were still used through the 1990s by the Army's Ceremonial Rifle program to equip veterans honor guards.
Adopted in 1937 to replace the bolt-action Springfield '03, the M1 of Mr. John Garand's design was the first semi-automatic battle rifle issued as a standard infantry rifle-- anywhere. The same size as the bolt-action rifle it replaced, its 8-shot enbloc clip and semi-automatic action allowed it to fire up to 50-rounds per minute. This gun, the first gun that could be considered a 'battle-rifle', was called by no less a gun-guy as General George S. Patton "the greatest implement of battle ever devised."
Over 6-million of this air-cooled, gas-piston operated, clip-fed, semi-automatic rifles were produced through the 1950s, making it the standard US infantry rifle of World War 2 and Korea. These guns continued to be issued to National Guard units as late as the 1970s and are still often seen in ceremonial use across the military and with veterans groups.
In the 1950s, the US adopted the 7.62x51mm NATO round to replace the .30-06 Springfield cartridge that it had carried for a half century. This required a new rifle to fire it. Instead of rechambering the M1 to fire 7.62, the Army designed a completely new gun. Dubbed the M14, it was select-fire, capable of firing either semi or full auto from a 20-round detachable box magazine at up to 600-rounds per minute. The thing is, when fired on full-auto it was almost uncontrollable. This led to a smaller caliber rifle that generated less recoil known as the M16, but we will get to that in a minute.
The M14, officially replaced in the 1960s, was brought out of retirement after September 11th as a Designated Marksman Rifle for the Army and Marines. As such, this vintage Elvis-era rifle has proved itself one of the best long-range battle rifles in modern combat.
Eugene Stoner's Colt AR-15, adopted by the US Air Force for its security police in the 1962 was soon brought to Vietnam where the Army took a keen interest in it. Type classified as the M16, this 7-pound rifle (unloaded) extensively used plastic furniture to replace the more traditional wood stocks carried on every other US rifle before it. With its 20-inch barrel and 39-inch overall length, it was more compact to allow it to be carried by soldiers jumping out of armored personnel carriers and helicopters. Capable of full-auto fire with a flick of its selector switch, it could fire 5.56mm rounds out at up to 900-round per minute.
From top to bottom: M16A1, M16A2, M4A1, M16A4
Over the past fifty years, this basic rifle has been improved as the M16A1/A2/A4 and now finally as the M4 carbine. In each of these improvements, slight changes have been made but at its core, the gun is still Stoner's original idea. Although they look vastly different, you can take a Vietnam War veteran and toss him a new M4A1 while giving an Afghan war veteran of today an old M16 and odds are they could figure them out in thirty seconds or less.
Ultimately, from the Lexington Town Green to Afghanistan, the soldier's best friend is always their rifle.