The last century of American military rifles has been a whirlwind of innovation meant to meet an ever-changing battlefield and game-changing technological advances in both ammunition and firearms tech.
From two world wars and the Cold War to current conflicts, only a relatively small number of firearms have actually earned the position as the U.S. military’s standard-issue rifle. These firearms have helped conquer hostile beaches, fought in jungles and deserts, and earned a place as legendary firearms in American military history.
Trusty M1903 Springfield
The classic M1903 bolt-action rifle conjures up images of American “Doughboys” boarding troop transports headed for Europe during World War I. With its then-modernized Mauser-style action, the 1903 became one of longest-serving – if not the longest – American military rifle. It replaced the side-loading .30-40 Krag-Jørgensen and brought the more powerful .30-06 hosting a spitzer bullet.
By the time the U.S. entered World War I, there was a shortage of M1903 Springfields. With too few 1903s to actually fill the hands of millions of American service members, more M1917 Enfield rifles actually saw service with the U.S. military during the war. Both rifles gained a fine reputation on the battlefield. However, after the war, the U.S. maintained the 1903 as its standard rifle, and it continued on in service well after the arrival of our next gun. But even with the advent of the semi-auto M1 Garand, more than three million 1903s rolled off assembly lines during WWII until 1945.
While the gun enjoyed a 42-year production run, it continued to serve well beyond that. Model 1903s continued to prove themselves in sniper variants, and it’s not uncommon to still see them among color guard details even now, more than a century after they first graced the hands of American warfighters.
Using the same .30-06 round as its predecessor, the eight-round, semi-auto M1 Garand gained legendary status as a potent battle rifle in nearly every harsh environment imaginable during World War II and Korea. Beyond its reliability in Pacific jungles, sandy beaches, and frozen passes, the M1 also provided exceptional accuracy for a service rifle, with an eight-shot en-bloc clip to back it up for a rapid rate of fire.
After World War II, the writing was on the wall for bolt-action battle rifles in the U.S. military, though they would continue in service for decades. So, in 1924, 24 semi-auto rifles designed by Canadian-American John Garand entered military testing. After much further tweaking and testing, the M1 Garand eventually gained adoption as the U.S. military’s new standard rifle in 1936, just in time for the first sparks of war in Europe to signal its future importance.
By the end of World War II, more than five million M1s rolled out of American factories to support the U.S. war effort. They quickly made their mark, quite literally, proving to provide both fantastic accuracy and game-changing semi-auto firepower. With glowing comments from the likes of Gen. George Patton, who called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” it’s no wonder the M1 gained popular notoriety as America’s first standard-issue semi-auto battle rifle.
The M1 served in that capacity until 1958, when it was replaced by our next firearm. However, it continued to see service both in the hands of U.S. allies and as a go-to ceremonial rifle even to this day.
The U.S. military actually began looking for a replacement for the much-liked M1 Garand as early as 1945, recognizing even then that the modern battlefield was demanding ever increasing firepower and speed. Amongst many changes, including a full-auto capability, the M14 – and it’s now-popular M1A civilian counterpart – offered a 20-round removable box magazine, trumping the M1’s internally-housed eight-round en-bloc clips.
Still, it took well over a decade for the M14 to reach service members. In a testament to the often politically slow and frustrating U.S. procurement system, the first updated M14s were not delivered to the troops in any significant quantities until around 1959. By that time, the general adoption of the 7.62x51mm within the NATO alliance also ended the long-lived .30-06 chambering as an option.
The M14 had a relatively short life as a standard-issue rifle, only serving in that role from 1959 to 1964, but it gained a loyal following in that time that persists even today. One aspect of that popularity was the fact that, until recently, it also represented the last U.S. general-issue battle rifle chambered for a non-intermediate cartridge. Credit could also likely go to its roots in the beloved M1 platform.
Regardless, the M14 was there for U.S. service members at the beginning of the Vietnam War, and indeed served with many of them in varying capacities throughout the war. Today, it is still within the U.S. military’s inventory, and it has been leaned on for everything from ship security, sniper roles, and ceremonial duties well after it was replaced by the M16.
There has been much debate about the early performance of the M16 platform as it debuted during the Vietnam War, but spanning seven decades of service, this rifle has gained a respected reputation. That reputation has carried over into success among the incredibly popular civilian modern-sporting AR-15 platforms that have become known as “America’s Rifle.”
In a drastic shift, the M16 rolled onto the scene with an intermediate 5.56 NATO chambering in a lightweight semi-auto and full-auto design that sported modern weight-saving materials. Originally hosting 20-round magazines, subsequently updated to a standard 30-round magazine, the M16 and its many variants has been the go-to for American service members from the Vietnam War until today, though that may finally change.
Originally designed by Eugene Stoner around the standardized 7.62x51 NATO cartridge as the AR-10 – the M14 was selected instead – it was eventually adopted as a 5.56-caliber platform for increased controllability in a chambering that also allowed soldiers to carry more of the smaller ammunition.
The M16 entered standard service in 1964, with the subsequent M16A1, M16A2, small numbers of the M16A3, M16A4, and the carbine-length M4 rolling out to troops over the decades. Aside from the light overall weight, the platform was honed for modularity over the years to host everything from optics, lasers, and lights to the ever-handy M203 40mm grenade launcher.
The long reign of Eugene Stoner’s design is finally now nearing an end, sort of. There’s no real expectation that the M4 and other M16 models will simply vanish in the next few years, but there is a new kid on the block boasting some next-generation tech. Sig Sauer won the contract to replace the Army’s aging M4 platform earlier this year, a move that represents one of the biggest shifts in American military small arms in nearly seven decades.
Sig’s new XM5 – MCX Spear – is set to become the next standardized American service rifle, with the understanding that the M4 will remain in widespread use for years to come. While it can’t quite be called a “legend” just yet, the XM5 has already made history. In a years-long quest for a next-generation rifle, the Army finally settled on Sig’s design, which includes a major shift in ammunition away from the 5.56 NATO cartridge.
Yes, it seems once again the U.S. military is shifting the sands to a larger caliber shared between machine gunners and riflemen alike. Taking in many of the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with future wars in mind, Sig's new 6.8mm hybrid ammunition is designed to decrease overall weight while increasing distance performance and penetration. Along with the XM5, the round will also power the Army’s new Sig-designed XM250 Automatic Rifle.
While not quite a shift back to the classic battle rifle chamberings found in guns like the M14, the XM5 almost seems like a blend between old and new. It embraces the capacity, weight, and firepower that inspired the adoption of the M16 while also returning to a shared cartridge with a bit – actually a lot – more oomph. On top of that, both platforms are offering some high-tech optics, suppressors, and other extras out the gate, which is a first for a first generation of a standard-issue U.S. military rifle.