Long guns: the History of AMERICAN military rifles

The U.S. Army Sgt. Andrew Barnett armed with the M14 enhanced battle rifle outside an Afghan border police observation point in kunar province in Afghanistan (U. S. Army photo by Sgt. Jon Heinrich)

The U.S. Army is upgraded M4A1 combat rifle is just the latest development in a category of weapons that American soldiers have done, because the country’s first days.

Long Gun Beginning

Even before there was actually a “United States”, there was what can perhaps be considered the first real “American gun.” Known as the Pennsylvania rifle, the Kentucky rifle or the long rifle, it was designed for hunting, and was characterized by an unusually long barrel, a unique development that was uncommon in European rifles of the era.

Military history consultant, and former United States Marine Corps Captain Dale Dye told that, in the flintlock era, the long weapon is the first to be grooves in the barrel. “These grooves, or threaded, together with the more barrel, the rifles are much more accurate than the British Brown Bess musket,” he said.


The long gun was ever produced in large enough numbers to really make a difference during the American Revolution, but the use by sharpshooters – such as the members of Morgan’s Riflemen in 1777 Battle of Saratoga established the reputation of the American sharpshooter.

The first really big leap forward in long rifle design, came up with the Caliber .54, Model 1841 Rifle, that was the first to use a percussion ignition system. The Model 1841 is also known as the Mississippi Rifle, due to the use by a Mississippi rifle regiment during the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848. The regiment was commanded by the future Confederate States President Jefferson Davis.

Davis, who served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, also authorized the production of the .58 Caliber Musket, or a Springfield Model 1861, the first rifled weapon produced for general issue by the US Army. The Springfield Model 1861 was going to be the most widely used U. S Army weapon during the civil war.


The rest of the 19th century saw other innovations in rifle design, including the Springfield Model 1873 “Trapdoor”, a single-shot weapon that was not without problems, and later the Model 1896 Krag-Jorgensen, a reliable, but underwhelming bolt action rifle.

Truly American Rifles of the 20th Century

The real change came with the Springfield Model 1903 – an American take on a European classic.

“The Springfield was formed to the (German-made) Mauser action,” said Dye. “It is not a shallow magazine, but it is accurate to 800 meters and can be equipped with a scope and used as a sniper version.”


The Springfield M1903 was the standard infantry rifle for all branches of the military during the first world War, and was widely used during the early phases of the second world War. It was replaced by one of the best weapons of the 20th century, the M1 Garand, named after its inventor, John Garand.

“This was the first successful semi-automatic used by the military,” said Dye “It is extremely robust, extremely accurate.”

The M1 Garand, which celebrates its 80th anniversary next year, was a significant improvement over the bolt action rifles of the day, which required that the weapon is manually stretched between each picture.


“This really was a’ game changer ‘ as it was semi-automatic and held eight rounds,” R. Lee Ermey, better known as the “Gunny”, a former United States Marine Corps staff sergeant and host of the Outdoor Channel, “Gunny Time”, told “It could be argued that it helped win the second world War.”

After the war, the military planners sought a one-size-fits-all rifle, and the result was the M14, which was actually developed for the replacement of four different weapon systems that are included in the M1 rifle, the M1 Carbine, the M3 “Grease Gun” submachine gun, and the M1918 Browning Automatic Bar (BAR). The converted M1 had its fans, including the marine Corps, which is still issued one to each platoon in the Vietnam War.

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The evolution of the standard infantry rifle is seen in this display at the Arizona Military Museum in Phoenix. From top to bottom: the M1 Garand, the M14 and the M16 – a presentation of 30 years of weapons development. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

“The M14 could his own against the bad guy gun, the AK-47,” added Ermey. “The problem is that it went with a smaller round than the M1, you will lose some of the punch.”


The M14 uses the 7.62x51mm NATO round or .308 caliber, which was too strong for use in a fully automatic mode as a replacement for a submachine gun, but too light to serve as a replacement for the BAR. In the end, but the problem was not so much the gun, but rather of the situation.

“It was a little too late for the changing tactics of the conflict,” said Dye. “The select fire is not as good as planned. It was too heavy a cartridge for close-quarter combat, and it was for a heavy weapon. While you are willing to trade weight for firepower, the rifle was not ideal for the situation in Vietnam.”

The irony is that the weapon that replaced the M14, was not ideal at first. The M16 had a rough baptism of fire, largely due to the fact that it is wrongly advertised as self cleaning and issued without cleaning kits.


“It was a turbulent introductory period,” said Dye. “The problem for the M16 is that it was introduced during the fight was, and this was not possible for the introductory small weapons really need. As a result, the cost lives, and that is what you do not want to do.”

The other problem with the M16 is the fact that the military planners switched the ammo more pollution, and this resulted in a jam. The gun, however, was refined with the M16A1 version.

“The Americans do not have a good track record of backing up,” said Dye “With the M16, this meant an improvement of it and it turned out to be a reliable weapon.”


As the battlefield changed, the military adapted, and with the introduction of the M4 Carbine, a shorter and lighter variant of the M16A2. This has been replaced by the M16 in most U.S. Army and Marine Corps combat units as the primary infantry weapon of today.

“Reducing the burden is the constant search and the result is the stripped-down M16,” said Dye. The involvement of the tactics that said we do not need the long-range weapon for the battle.”

The other refinement of the M4 is the modular construction, which allows it to be fitted with numerous accessories, including bipods, laser pointers, telescopic sights, and even grenade launchers. However, even in the M4A1 version of the military may not have found the final gun for the next battlefield. While the M4A1 can be more lethal at short distance, there is still a need for taking targets at a distance.

“The next challenge is going to be that long-range rifle,” said Dye. “This is not about the armament of everyone, or even create a sniper rifle, but there is a need for long-range shooting and that is going to be the challenge to find the next great long-distance weapon for the U.S. Army.”

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