MODIFICATIONS AND UPGRADES TO AN EARLY M1A CREATE A VERSATILE MODERN SURVIVAL RIFLE.
The M1A is a rifle steeped in American history. As one of the rifles that filled the historical timeline in the U.S. military’s service rifle role between the M1 Garand and M16, the M1A had a limited service life as a widely issued rifle.
Regardless, the rifle remained in use with the military in ceremonies, with designated marksmen and elite forces who had more leverage to decide what they carried. Chambered in 7.62x51mm, the M1A’s intermediate cartridge is designed to be less affected by wind over greater distances than the 5.56 round the military M16 and M4 rifles are chambered in.
With a greater overall length than the M16 rifle (not to mention the M4 Carbine), the M1A has taken “back burner” status to those rifles offering better tight-quarters handling characteristics. Still, with a handful of modifications, the M1A rifle will outshine countless weapon platforms over a wide range of applications. It becomes a bridge between carbine and precision scoped rifle—in other words, a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.
The rifle upgraded for this article is a four-digit, first-year-of-production Springfield Armory M1A. It was assembled with all USGI parts and rebarreled once by the previous (original) owner. I acquired it years ago but was not satisfied with it as is. To create a uniform appearance, it was refinished in “armor black” Cerakote. This finish provides a more protective coating to the rougher parkerizing prone to surface rust.
Aside from these two minor modifications, the rifle used in this article is a standard “rack grade,” off-the-shelf firearm. This configuration of rifle (known as “battle rattle” by some) is not as inherently accurate as higher-grade rifles such as the Supermatch, but the vast majority of users won’t need such accuracy. Remember that in general, the tighter the tolerances, the more likely a firearm is susceptible to malfunction. AK-47 fans know this to be true and often rub it in the faces of those who doubt that firearm’s reliability.
What follows are the modifications and add-ons to make this rifle a true multi-purpose survival rifle.
IMPROVED OPTICS MOUNTING OPTIONS: GDI-OSM
The M1A is found on the firing line in many open-sight competitions across the country. The rifle is known for its excellent stock sights, and it isn’t uncommon for shooters to push the rifle out much farther than the human eye can distinguish if a target is a threat. For this reason, an optic is necessary when considering shooting at more than just paper. Prior to deciding on what optic to use, one must address how that optic will be mounted.
There are a variety of mounting solutions for the M1A rifle. Some are horribly large and unwieldy. Others are difficult to purchase, with long backorders delaying the build process.
GDI sent its GDI-OSM mount to be included in this build. The mount is 17-4ph stainless steel and nitrocarburized, MIL-SPEC, matte-black finish to create a durable coating highly resistant to corrosion. It utilizes multiple points of contact to create a redundant secure foundation for optics. There is an old expression: “One is none, and two is one.” So, this mounting solution features three points of contact. One of the secure attachments isn’t likely to fail, but in the extremely rare case it might, there are two backups to ensure the mount remains rock solid.
The GDI-OSM mount has an MSRP of $485.
VARIABLE POWER OPTICS: TRIJICON ACCUPOINT
While the M1A is an excellent rifle with open sights, it is even better with a variable-power optic. Simply put, lining up open sights requires aligning the eye, rear sight, front sight and target. An optical sight reduces the variables that must be aligned by 25 percent. The M1A has always been a great rifle, and adding a properly fitted optic makes it faster.
Of all the optics on the market, the Trijicon Accupoint 1-6×24 with BAC post was chosen for this rifle setup. This optic, when dialed down to 1x, can be used with both eyes open—much like a reflex sight. When the optic is dialed up to 6x, the user can see the target better and, with good shooting discipline, improve accuracy. The red chevron targeting reticle is easy to spot against most backgrounds, and the sight picture is unobstructed by unnecessary horizontal lines.
The reticle stands out, day and night, due to a combination of tritium gas and a fiber-optic window that can be dialed down or up to the right brightness. Compared to the black outline of iron sights, the red reticle stands out much more prominently. The top of the triangular chevron reticle can be used for pinpoint accuracy at distance; the rest of the chevron can be used at close distances. The user must learn the correct “holdovers” at each distance to really make use of the optic to its full potential.
The Trijicon Accupoint lists for an MSRP of $1,399.
REPLACEMENT STOCK: MCMILLAN
M1A rifles have been sold with both wooden and plastic stocks. Wooden stocks are favored by traditionalists but are impractical in extreme weather. Plastic stocks flex way too much and are questionable in terms of durability and maintaining accuracy. For a modern survival rifle, there was only one option for me without giving the rifle too much of a tactical look on a collapsing chassis or with too many Picatinny rails. That choice was McMillan.
McMillan Stocks are the legendary base from which many custom rifles have been made. They are the choice of armed professionals and serious competition shooters worldwide.
The McMillan rifle stock sent for this custom rifle build came in Desert Transition Camo with a thick rubber recoil pad that replaces the metal butt plate. The whole stock is significantly sturdier than the OEM version, and there is absolutely no flex when torque is applied to it.
While it was designed as a “drop-in” stock, some fitting by my gunsmiths at JoJo’s Gun-works was necessary. (Slight variations in the receivers might make minor milling necessary for anyone looking to duplicate this process.) Once fitted, this rifle stock held together firmly and gave the rifle a completely different feel. A bit heavier than the plastic stock, the McMillan stock also featured a fuller pistol grip and forearm.
The McMillan Stock that was provided could be easily modified even more for use with an accurized precision M1A such as the Military Designated Marksman Rifle. But because the M1A rifle is meant to be the “bridge” between a carbine and a scoped bolt gun, no further modifications were necessary. If I eventually want to take the accuracy up a notch, it’s good to know I have that option to use the replacement McMillan stock, which has an MSRP of $548.
Just as the well-rounded fighter trains his stand-up game, along with grappling and weapons, the avid marksman must prepare himself for firing in unconventional positions. And because Murphy’s Law dictates to “expect the unexpected,” shooting from a standing position on the strong side probably won’t be the case.
Here are some other positions to drill with and develop proficiency:
Stacked Feet: While this looks unconventional, it provides for pretty decent support and surprising accuracy. The long forearm of the M1A is placed on top of the shooter’s stacked feet. Don’t place the barrel on the feet, because it will affect the harmonics and accuracy.
Other Strong Side: Remember: You don’t have a weak side. In Sayoc Kali, we train our strong side and our other strong side. We don’t have a weak side. Neither should you. Depending on the obstacles in front of you, you might need to transition to your other strong side. Use your whole body to control the firearm.
Hasty Kneel (One Knee): Dropping to a knee with the bottom foot flexed or positioned flat, place the outside of your support arm on the inside of your thigh. Don’t place your boney elbow on top of your knee. The muscle-on-muscle contact is more supportive and stable.
Relaxed Kneel (Two Knees): Dropping to both knees helps the shooter use his body as a turret. It does take more time to transition to standing, and it isn’t as stable as having a single knee for rifle support.
Seated: Second to prone, this is the most stable shooting position in the field. The shooter places his elbows on the inside of his thighs for the same reason as the hasty kneel. Multiple points of contact prevent the rifle from moving excessively.
Prone: Flat on the belly with feet flat, the rifle supported by a bipod or on a pack, and elbows acting as a tripod, this is the most stable shooting position. It takes time to get into position, and mobility is severely limited.
Keep in mind that there is always a trade-off with all of these positions.
BRADLEY ADJUSTABLE CHEEK REST
In the past, mounting optics on an M1A meant placing it over the receiver in a way that brass would freely eject. This came at a trade-off: In exchange for reliability, the height-over-bore of the optic increased. To compensate for this, the shooter would either have to hold his head in a manner without a consistent cheek weld, or he would have to fashion a cheek piece out of foam and duct tape.
For this updated rifle build, I wanted a more professional solution that didn’t look like a last-minute, jury-rigged rest. Enter the Bradley Cheek Rest.
Made of Kydex and with hook-and-loop attachment/adjustment straps and various height settings adjustable with Chicago screws, the Bradley Cheek Rest is the solution to incorrect cheek weld you’ve been waiting for.
With the Bradley Cheek Rest, I was able to take a natural and relaxed position behind the rifle and have a clear sight picture. With any scoped rifle, the user should be able to close their eyes, place their cheek on the stock and not have to adjust their position when they finally look down the optic. This was repeatable with the Bradley Cheek Rest. Because the rest is made from Kydex, it won’t absorb moisture like older leather cheek rests or become gummy like duct tape jobs. The Bradley Adjustable Cheek Rest comes with an MSRP of $112.98.
AMMO FOR CRITTERS, LARGE AND SMALL
The .308 round is available in many bullet weights and types. Lightweight, 110-grain, high-speed rounds make this rifle an excellent choice for the varminter, and heavier, 180-grain bullets will work exceptionally well for large game found on the North American continent. The 165-grain .308 round potency on two-legged critters is well established in military and law enforcement communities.
Other bullet weights are available, and each rifle will react differently to the various loads put through it. It’s important to group any potential load and analyze what offers the best performance. Some magazines can be loaded for lighter rounds and some for heavier rounds. These can be swapped out quickly if the situation dictates it.
The M1A was designed with a 20-round box magazine, but five- and 10-round magazines have been developed since then. These magazines make it legal to hunt with this rifle. Of course, the rifle will fire single shot if rounds are loaded individually, but the benefit of this rifle is quick follow-up shots.
For home defense, 20 rounds of .308 are tough to beat. Around the cabin, away from home and on the road, the range and power of this caliber make it an all-around excellent choice for those who can only carry one gun.
FEDERAL FUSION MSR AMMO
Federal MSR (Modern Sporting Rifle) ammunition was developed by Federal Ammunition for use in semiautomatic firearms with short barrels. With a 150-grain Fusion Soft Point boat-tail projectile, the round has an average velocity of 2,770 fps—thanks to a specially designed low-flash propellant meant for short barrels. The brass casing is made by Federal and is hardened for primer retention.
This projectile was absolutely devastating during a 2016 pig hunt in Florida. The Fusion Soft Point round retains weight and drops game with excellent energy transfer. The exit wound on one 90-pound pig was golf-ball sized, with crushed bone and torn-up tissue through and through. During testing of the updated M1A, these rounds were slow fired for minute-of-angle accuracy and rapid fired to test reliability. There were absolutely no issues encountered.
These rounds are called “Fusion Modern Sporting Rifle.” However, given their performance out of the rifle in this review, they are appropriate for the “modern survival rifle,” too. They live up to their tough, accurate and lethal labeling.
FUSION MODERN SPORTING RIFLE AMMUNITION
Part #: 308MSR1
MSRP: $25.99/20-round box
Once assembled, this updated M1A rifle was difficult to walk away from. At first, I experienced failure-to-eject issues, but after swapping out an ejector spring, the rifle ran flawlessly. From South African “battle-pack” ammo to match grade, the rifle fed everything without issue.
The rifle pointed great from “low-ready” to the “up” position, and the combination of the Bradley Cheek Rest and Accupoint made it get on target quickly. The added weight of the rifle helped absorb the recoil for fast follow-up shots.
The rifle was extremely reliable from all shooting positions, easy to hold on target and easy to transition from target to target. I worked the rifle at various close ranges in hasty shooting positions and found it to have exceptional accuracy. Off-hand headshots on silhouettes were easy out to 25 yards; and kneeling and seated 50-yard-plus head shots were not difficult either. For many shooters, this rifle setup will be more accurate than they are.
The only issue I can foresee for shooters who are more accustomed to AR-style mag wells is the need to “rock” the M1A magazine into the well to seat it. After plenty of good reps at the range, this muscle memory is quickly built in. For hunters who will load one magazine, this is likely not a concern. However, for those who might trust their safety to this rifle, I’d recommend planning on a good amount of training. (It’s only your life, right?)
The updated M1A featured in this article suffers from an identity crisis. It doesn’t know if it wants to be a quick-handling carbine or a precision benchrest rifle. While it won’t fit either role perfectly, it fits right in between and does each role very well.
For the average shooter who will never learn to swing an M4 like a tier-1 operator or a bolt gun like a sniper, with practice, this rifle will have more than enough capability ready to be unlocked. When you can’t carry more than one gun, carry the one gun that can do the work of more than just one.
A build like this has purpose, and so can yours. Plan it, build it … and train like hell with it.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.