From the simple sling which killed Goliath to the knightly longsword which cut swathes through the armies of medieval Europe, every age has had a weapon which characterized the pinnacle of its martial technology. For the last 400 years, that weapon has been the firearm in some form or another. For the pioneers and revolutionaries of 18th century America, the weapon which defined their age was the Brown Bess land pattern infantry musket. The cowboys of the old west broke the silence of the prairies with gunfire from Samuel Colt’s revolver and the iconic repeaters of Benjamin Tyler Henry and Oliver Winchester. Over the last half a century, the military service rifle and those who use it have propped up dictatorships and brought liberty to captives everywhere from the savannas of Rhodesia to the jungles of Indochina.
In the same way the cutting and thrusting arming sword of the crusader was distinct from the slashing scimitar of the Saracen, every national military adopted a weapon best suited their needs. Every weapon had its strengths and weaknesses, but some were more enduring than others, and the legacy of these five weapons endures into the present day:
The M14 was designed by Springfield Armory in 1959 and was used as the standard US service rifle until 1964, during the earliest days of the Vietnam War. It utilized the heavy but powerful 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge and was known for its accuracy at long distances and penetrating power.
The M14 was originally designed to be a jack-of-all-trades weapon. It was supposed to replace every submachine gun, rifle, and squad automatic weapon in the US Army’s inventory. The reality of the matter, however, was that the M14 was too long and unwieldly for close range fighting, and any attempt to use an M14 as a squad automatic weapon led to short bursts of difficult to control, wildly inaccurate fire and many overheated barrels.
Despite its flaws in some roles, the M14 shines as a designated marksman rifle. In its incarnation as the M21 DMR, this rifle saw service in Vietnam, used by US Army snipers like Adelbert Waldron, who, with 109 kills, held the record for most confirmed kills by any American sniper until Chris Kyle broke it in 2011 with 160 kills.
The M21’s effectiveness was due in large part to the addition of a telescopic riflescope – the Bausch and Lomb 10×40 or Leupold Mk4 10x. These high magnification scopes turned this rifle into a weapon capable of surgical accuracy at ranges up to 750 yards. These rifles are so accurate they continue to be used in modern conflicts as the M21 EBR.
Like the Americans, European armies were also trying to develop a one-size-fits-all rifle to replace their World War 2 arsenals of role-specific weapons. The designers at the Belgian Fabrique Nationale factory produced a select-fire weapon that utilized the same 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge as the M14 but had much more controllable recoil. Many models came with plastic furniture, making them slightly lighter than its American counterpart and thus more manageable to carry on long marches. The FAL also featured a variable gas system which allowed it to use a wide variety of ammunition and even grenades, making it an extremely versatile rifle.
Called “the right arm of the free world” due to its ubiquitous use by NATO forces and their allies during the Cold War, the FN FAL once saw action on both sides of the Falklands War. Units of British commandos and Royal Marines were issued the semi-automatic L1A1 (unthinkable for a modern military) while Argentine troops were armed with the select-fire FAL. Despite the obvious firepower advantage of the true FAL, British troops were able to achieve victory after victory thanks to their superior doctrine, tactics and training.
The FAL also saw widespread use in all manner of African conflicts and was famously used by both Rhodesian and South African troops. In the post-colonial world, communism reared its ugly head in sub-Saharan Africa and inter-tribal conflicts as well as occasional coups have flared up on the continent like pimples. While the Soviets and Chinese flooded Africa with AKs, the nations of the free world supplied anti-communist forces with FN FALs.
Heckler & Koch G3
Serving alongside the FAL in Africa was a German rifle chambered in the same 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge. Heckler & Koch’s G3 was designed to be a distinctly West German service rifle, compatible with the same large caliber round used by the rest of its NATO allies.
The G3 was adopted primarily out of necessity. Western Germany was where NATO would hold its ground against the forces of communism in Europe if the Soviets ever wanted to cross the iron curtain and turn the Cold War hot. One of the issues which prompted the G3’s development was the fire superiority and versatility of the Russian AK-47 compared to the M1 Garands that West Germany’s Bundeswehr had at the time. A single East German soldier had more ammunition in one AK magazine than three West Germans with M1s, and the communists had the ability to fire on full auto.
Heckler & Koch modified the Spanish CETME rifle, which itself was designed by a team of German engineers who had previously worked on the StG-45, a late-war Nazi rifle (not to be confused with the StG-44). After making some minor modifications to the CETME rifle such as rechambering it from the proprietary 7.92x40mm CETME round to the 7.62x51mm NATO, the G3 was born.
The G3’s most important feature is its roller-delayed blowback action, which allows its barrel to be free floated. A free floated barrel improves a weapon’s accuracy, and the most accurate G3s were redesignated as G3SG1s, dedicated marksman rifles with an effective range of just over 700 yards.
Although it was accurate, the G3 suffered from poor ergonomics. Due to its roller-delayed blowback system, its charging handle was located near the front of the weapon, and the act of charging the weapon requires some force from the user. The weapon was also heavy, weighing 10lbs unloaded despite having light synthetic furniture. The trigger pull itself weighed almost as much as the rifle, and its long barrel did not make it a good weapon for sustained automatic fire.
Ultimately, Germany replaced the G3 with the G36 in the 90s, and while DMR versions of the G3 retain their role in many police departments and militaries throughout the world today, it has been superseded as a service rifle by the likes of rifles like the AK-47 and M16 and their variants. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few nations in the world which still fields the G3 as its army’s standard service rifle.
The infamous AK-47 is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic rifles of all time. Its praises have been sung by everyone from the Red Army to Snoop Dogg, and the rifle itself has seen continuous combat service since its official adoption into the Red Army in 1949.
The AK-47’s ability to stand the test of time is thanks largely to its simplicity and caveman-like ruggedness and combat effectiveness. Thanks to its cheap, relatively simple construction and few moving parts, there are less opportunities for malfunctions and. Its loose tolerances also mean that the rifle is very unlikely to jam unless it has been thoroughly abused.
The very construction that gave the AK its legendary reliability also gave it poor accuracy, which, for the Soviet designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, was perfectly acceptable since Red Army rifle doctrine emphasized volume of fire over accuracy. Soviet military leaders later realized the shortcomings of this doctrine in the 1970s and sought out a new, more accurate rifle with a smaller caliber to replace the powerful but inaccurate 7.62x39mm.
Modern Russian troops use the AK-74, a rifle similar in appearance to the AK-47 but chambered in 5.45x39mm. Despite the end of its service life in the Russian armed forces, the AK continues to be used by a large number of militaries in the developing world.
If the AK-47 and its variants hold the title of the most popular weapons platform in the world, then the M16 and its variants like the civilian AR-15 are the most popular rifles in America. However, it must be said that the AR-15 is in no way the same type of weapon as the M16. The semi-automatic .223 rifle has more in common with the Ruger Mini-14 than it does with its military ancestor.
The original M16 was designed by Eugene Stoner, an engineer from the ArmaLite weapons manufacturing company. Derived from the earlier AR-10, the M16 kept its light weight and ergonomic design but ditched its heavy 7.62x51mm NATO round in favor of the smaller, lighter 5.56x45mm.
This change in ammo type might have looked like a minor detail on paper but enabled soldiers equipped with M16s to carry much more ammo than their predecessors equipped with the heavy, cumbersome M14s and their 20-round magazines.
Unfortunately for the M16, the very early models used against the Viet Cong were prone to overheating and jamming, earning derision from the men and a tarnished reputation. This was partly due to the Army’s failure to issue cleaning kits to troops when the first batches of M16s were shipped out and partly due to salespeople who spread the erroneous belief that the M16 was a “self-cleaning rifle.” This false advertising stemmed from the fact that the weapon’s gas tube was self-cleaning, and since sales personnel are not engineers, they misinterpreted this fact and made the bold claim that the M16 was the world’s first self-cleaning rifle.
The M16 is accurate but nowhere near “the perfect rifle.” In recent years, it has fallen out of the military’s favor and replaced with the lighter, more compact M4, but even that is soon to be replaced by an unnamed future weapon that may finally be the end-all-be-all of American small arms science for at least the next few decades or so.