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Computers, ICBMs, and M14s

The direct successor to the M1 Garand rifle was the M14. Major manufacturers included Springfield Armory, Winchester, and Harrington & Richardson; all three were, at that time, well-known and respected arms makers. However, production by Springfield Armory was slated to be phased out by September 1963, so a replacement third company was necessary.

M14 rifle made by TRW (Smithsonian Institution)

Government arms contracts mean big money for companies that are fortunate enough to land them. As such, competition to fill the soon-to-be-vacant spot in the M14 arms industry was stiff. In fact, a total of 42 major firms competed for the one vacancy in 1961.


In the end, the company that won the contract was one that had absolutely zero previous riflemaking experience, and yet they managed to meet their required deliveries ahead of schedule.


The company was Thompson Ramo Wooldridge (TRW), made up of the financial backer - Thompson - and the engineers, Ramo and Wooldridge, and the contract was for 100,000 rifles and some new tooling; the price tag was $8,554,070. Adjusting for inflation, the contract would be worth a little more than $75 million today.

Wooldridge and Ramo were on the cover of TIME in 1955

How was it, then, that a company with no arms experience beat out more than forty other firms? To hear it from Mr. Pace, one of their vice presidents, their experience making jet engines in the post-World War II years meant that they were actually a natural choice: “This has been very precise and high-quality work, and at the same time high-production work,” he said.


Almost a decade before TRW started making rifles, they had been tasked with leading the development of the country’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM. Around the same time, TRW also began work in the relatively new field of computers. By the time they began thinking about rifle manufacturing, the company was involved in the automotive, electro-mechanical, electronics, and space technology industries.

Stages of M14 receiver production by TRW (American Rifleman)

Pace continued: “Production is placed on [a] competitive contract with the most capable producers, a type of contracting with which we were quite familiar. At first, we were quite reserved as to whether it [the M14] was suitable to us. As it turned out, it was an extremely good thing for our background.”


In short, Thompson Ramo Wooldridge was already involved with cutting edge, highly technical work for the government, and believed that expanding this skillset into the arms industry was a relatively easy thing to do. They were absolutely right.


In a facility in Cleveland, Ohio, TRW set to work making M14s in their newly-formed Ordnance Works, which fell under the jurisdiction of their Electro-Mechanical Group within - of all things - their Jet Division!

Footburn 144" chain broach adapted for M14 receiver production (American Rifleman)

Components of the M14 were made utilizing some of the same machines that TRW had used for making jet engines. For example, a chain broaching machine was used to help form multiple aspects of the rifle’s receiver, such as cutting the magazine slot. Because they were able to retrofit some of their existing machinery, TRW was able to make the rifles faster and cheaper than if they had had to completely retool.


TRW’s first completed M14 rifle was tested in August 1962 and their first block delivery happened in October 1962. This was one month ahead of schedule and earned the company a monetary bonus.

Test range at TRW facility in Ohio (American Rifleman)

They aimed to have production completely up to speed by summer 1963, with a goal of producing 24,000 rifles each month.


All told, TRW produced 319,691 M14 rifles. This comprised all 100,000 guns on their initial contract and an additional 219,691 rifles on another order in 1962 for $17,465,000. Today that would be $150.2 million.

TRW'S VP Stanley Pace inspects an M14 (American Rifleman)

When production finally ceased on the M14, a total of 1,380,933 rifles had been made by Springfield Armory, Winchester, Harrington & Richardson, and Thompson Ramo Wooldridge.


The M14 holds the record for the shortest-lived, officially-adopted rifle in the US military. Death was already knocking at its door when American Rifleman magazine wrote a story about TRW in February 1963. A sidebar at the end of the article was titled “What’s Next, and When?” In it, they note that the “U.S. Air Force desires the AR-15 for its use as a replacement” and that “a number have been under test in Vietnam.”


It wouldn’t be long before the AR-15 was adopted as the M16 and the M14 would be phased out entirely.

M14 receiver with TRW's triangle logo (Smithsonian Institution)

In the end, TRW produced 23.1% of all M14s made for the US military. If you ask me, that’s pretty impressive for a company that knew nothing about rifle production when it bid on the contract.


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