The demand for a DM (designated marksman) at the small-unit level capable of supplying rapid, accurate fire at enemy targets is being heard from all branches of the military. The U.S. Army considered a program to embed one sharpshooter in every squad to counter the insurgent’s tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan. This shooter became known as an SDM (squad designated marksman).
Any soldier who serves in the SDM slot is first a rifleman and secondly a designated marksman. The SDM isn’t a sniper and isn’t asked to engage targets with extreme precision at extreme ranges. The role of the SDM is to support the squad with well-aimed shots at ranges that might extend beyond 200 meters. Unlike snipers who take up strategic, static positions, SDMs are fluid and change their locations with the movement of their respective squad.
Return of the Springfield
The sudden need to equip marksman with accurized rifles called for a USAMU (U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit) AR/M16-style rifle chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO that permits logistical concerns to remain consistent with the remainder of the unit. Logistics became a problem anyways and cries for a heavier caliber rifle began to resonate through the ranks.
The recent need to adapt the battle rifle for a new role caused the U.S. Army to reconsider the role of the M14/M21 for the War on Terror. Still maintained in armories throughout the country, the adapted M14 had been officially re-designated the M21 in 1975. This conversion proved to be an easier and less expensive move for the U.S. Army.
The 10th Special Forces Group armorers reworked the M21 just before Operation Desert Storm and named their version the M25. Even though there were obvious improvements, the M25 designation today is synonymous with the M21 among those who don’t understand the differences. These armorers took an M14 equipped with an NM (National Match) barrel and fitted a gas piston for optimal performance. They replaced the stock with a McMillan M1A fiberglass stock, developed a scope mount and added a Bausch & Lomb 10x40mm fixed-power scope or a Leupold Mark 4. This new scope mount also permits the use of an AN/PVS-4 night vision sight.
The M21 and M25 provide the SDM with on-command direct fire support for his squad, a fire team or his platoon. They support their leaders by providing cover when machine guns displace, with counter-sniper fire in urban areas, and help in overtaking valuable real estate. The DM role has been used in Iraq in conjunction with convoy security for its ability to reduce the potential for collateral damage.
The versatility of the M21/M25 has been seen with the development of night vision devices and sound suppression technology. Infrared targeting lasers like the AN/PEQ-2 and PAQ-4C make the DM’s job more like ’round-the-clock shift work. Now that suppressors for the M14-series of rifles are available, the night-vision capabilities coupled with sound suppression makes the soldier’s ability to own the night even more secure.
The Enhanced Battle Rifle
The M21/M25 is currently used by many units throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. Much action for these rifles is seen by the U.S. Army National Guard units who were handed down these rifles when the U.S. Army replaced the M21 with the M24 bolt-action among units on active duty. Since the War on Terror began, private industries have been working feverishly to develop options for military procurement, particularly in the area of extending the life of existing weapon systems.
To prepare troops designated as the SDM, Crane Division of the NSWC (Naval Surface Warfare Center) teamed up with Sage International to create an M14/M1A package that is labeled the EBR (Enhanced Battle Rifle). Utilizing the M14 barrel, receiver and trigger groups, the EBR chassis stock adds a retractable stock, a cheek piece that’s adjustable for height, and a floated Picatinny quad-rail fore end made of high-strength aluminum. The operating rod block is replaced and must be press fitted, improving barrel harmonics and thereby increasing accuracy potential. The EBR also adds a pistol grip for additional control and ergonomic sling points.
The EBR was initially tested by the “Armed Forces Journal” and was well received. The EBR is “an excellent platform,” noted one AFJ evaluator. “It seemed to reduce recoil and made mounting of various mission-required accessories much easier… It’s a low-cost, effective platform that turns existing surplus M14s into modern battle rifles.”
They Want It Anyway
The U.S. Army maintains a list of criteria that small-arms designers contend with. One of these requirements in this case was to keep the weight below 11 pounds. The available rifles that fire the 5.56 NATO cartridge require less weight in construction, than do those rifles that fire the 7.62 NATO cartridge. In comparison, an M16 weighs nearly 7 pounds and an additional pound for every 30 rounds of 5.56 NATO that the soldier carries. The basic M14 on the other hand, weighs nearly 10 pounds with an additional 1.8 pounds for every 20 rounds of 7.62 NATO.
A soldier’s wisdom varies from one to another but many don’t care about the weight numbers in regards to the tool that might save their life. Before boarding the plane that will take them to the desert, soldiers walk across a scale, and often weigh in with as much as 300 pounds of gear strapped to their backs and in their bags. The confidence in the effective range and terminal ballistics brings the argument back to the M14. The development of a 16-inch-barreled M1A by Springfield Armory in combination with the aluminum chassis makes the EBR a viable option for government consideration.
The EBR feels a little heavy at the fore end. However, this characteristic helps the SDM rifle stand against one of its criticisms, that it is uncontrollable when firing on full-auto. The additional weight and the fact that the stock is in line and parallel with the barrel, helps reduce muzzle climb.
The EBR chassis comes with a Picatinny rail that replaces the stripper-clip guide. This permits a mounting point for high-powered scopes that can extend the effective range of the M21/M25. Unique to the EBR is an extended rail just forward of the receiver. For the followers of the Jeff Cooper doctrine on scout rifles, red dot optics work well in making this rifle an effective CQB (close quarter battle) scout rifle. Regardless of scope height, proper cheek weld can be easily ensured by adjusting the EBR stock’s height.
Not Just a Stopgap
As the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines continue to develop a semi-auto designated marksman rifle, many within the tactical community feel that the resurrection of the M14 is just a stopgap. Accolades from troops using the M21/M25 and moves made by the U.S. Navy suggest otherwise. In 2004, the U.S. Navy developed a contract to upgrade nearly 3,000 of their M14s with the Sage EBR chassis.
What will remain in any case is the SDM. The smallest infantry unit includes a team leader, two riflemen and a gunner. One of these riflemen will be expected to fill the role of the designated marksman, using optics to distinguish combatants from non-combatant and minimizing collateral risk with precision rifle fire in urban areas. The book on small unit tactics has evolved to defeat a new kind of enemy, just as has Springfield Armory’s M14.