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Border Ruffian: Springfield M1A Review

by Richard Venola   |  April 18th, 2011 4

Several years back, Guns & Ammo Television decided there was too much whispering in tree stands and that the show needed an act to liven up things. Voila, the torture team — me and Payton Miller. Springfield Armory was the first company to volunteer guns for creative destruction.

The subject rifle arrived at my favorite gun store, On Target Enterprise, in Kingman, Arizona. Owner Pierre asked, “What’s going to happen to this one?”

“We’re going to chain it to the back of my jeep and drag it down a dirt road,” I answered cheerfully. Other customers shook their heads sadly, knowing that a brand-new (and very nice) rifle was coming to grief.

Sure enough, Payton and I found ourselves at the old Petersen Ranch, watching in the rear-view mirror as the M1A bounced and skidded through ruts and over cattle guards for a half mile or more.

Despite severe cosmetic damage, it still cycled. The rear sight ear had been sheared off, the stock was in bad shape, but dagnabit, it was still functional.

Recalibration and Cosmetics
Shortly after, ATK introduced the .338 Federal, formerly a wildcat. It’s just a .308 Winchester necked out for elk/nilgai/moose-size bullets. I called Springfield Armory and said, “You know you can’t sell that rifle, and it would cost more to fix it than to make a new one. How about I rebuild it in this new .338 Federal and we put it into the magazine?”

Federal offered to buy a cut rifle barrel from Danny Pedersen’s Classic Barrel Works (928/772-4060). The rifle and barrel were sent to Springfield Armory’s custom shop (800/617-6751), where a chattering reamer ruined the blank. Oops. Danny cut another 1:10 tube, and work progressed. The custom shop grafted on a replacement sight ear, but only as a base for a McClelland-style rail. This is the ne plus ultra for M1A scope bases, which firmly supports a 1913 rail both fore and aft. It does this with a ring around the barrel immediately in front of the receiver, and the rear mount replaces the sight assembly entirely.

I got the rifle back and mounted a Trijicon 3-9×40 Accupoint on the rail, immediately discovering that it was a tad tall. As the stock was torn up pretty badly, I took it to master rifle builder Ray Riganian, who shuddered and said, “I don’t want any part of this.”

Ray is a perfectionist and doesn’t like the idea of goofy projects that he can’t render into art. He did offer some advice: “It’s a synthetic stock, and if you’re going to have it dipped, you can just build it up with automotive fiberglass.”
“What would you recommend for a recoil pad?”

“Brownells has Terminators.”

I thought for moment. “I’ll make you a deal, Ray. If you’ll attach the pad, I’ll let you borrow my Hawkeye borescope.” He caved in and reluctantly agreed to attach a six-inch chunk of Tapco 1913 rail under the fore-end. When I returned to pick it up, Ray had, typically, performed major cosmetic surgery on the entire stock. When I mailed it to Tarjac, it was satin smooth.

This was in 2006, and Mossy Oak had just introduced its now-popular Brush pattern. Tarjac did a spectacular job dipping, a technique I still think is more voodoo than industrial science. Then Nikon introduced the superb Coyote Special 4.5-14×40 in Brush, and I swapped out the Accupoint. This was simply a matter of eye-candy. The .338 Federal’s utility on big game runs out at about 300 yards and renders anything over 9X moot.

I picked up a pint of Duracoat in Coyote Brown and begged fellow gun club member Bill Kimack to let me use his car shop’s sandblaster. Then I cleaned everything with acetone to get rid of any fugitive oil or grease. Another club member who owns a sign shop shot the metal parts. He tested the left-over Duracoat in his shop and reported that it was the most durable paint he had ever worked with. Walker Custom does this full-time (312/685-1627).

Here’s where it got ugly. Even though I’d given it the cool-sounding name of Border Ruffian, my masterpiece wouldn’t run. I pulled it apart and found that the bolt was striking the Accra-Glass where I had filled in around the trigger assembly. I seized my Dremel tool and hogged out the filler. It still wouldn’t run.

The Fight for Function
I showed the rifle to veteran gunwriter Layne Simpson and said I thought it would work well on nilgai. “That’s an appropriate use for a semiauto, as I’ve never seen a nilgai stay down with only a single shot.”

But unfortunately, a rifle has to run to classify as a semiautomatic. Fellow gunwriter and former gunsmith Patrick Sweeney volunteered to try to solve the mystery. He discovered that enough of the blasting sand had found its way into the gas tappet assembly to gum up the works. Upon cleaning this out, he was able to get it up and running.

I brought the completed rifle to G&A’s old L.A. office. Lee Hoots, then-editor of Petersen’s Hunting, walked in, picked the rifle off my desk and said, “Put it on the cover.” But cooler heads prevailed. Our wily publisher, Chris Agnes, explained the reality: “Richard, how can we do a cover story on a rifle that isn’t being offered? You’re going to disappoint readers who see a great-looking gun, buy the magazine and then find out they can’t buy what you’ve shown them.” Sadly, I knew he was offering sage counsel.

To make a long story a bit shorter, the project kept getting rolled back. Finally, late last year I found myself back in Kingman, Arizona, as a full-time writer. Staff photographer Mike Anschuetz had taken some cool shots of the rifle, and Payton asked me to finish the story—five years after starting the project. New neighbor Ted Hartman invited me to borrow his Pro-Chrony. But when I moved from Illinois, I’d pulled all the bolts out of my collection, and the Springfield’s original bolt was nowhere to be found. After hours of careful searching and some strong language, I gave up, called Springfield and groveled to the ever-helpful Deb Williams. Then I shipped the rifle to the company, and the übertechs in the custom shop had it back to me with a newly headspaced bolt in a few days.

During chronographing, the rifle started acting up again, and I found still more of that damned sand in the action. After yet another vigilant cleaning, I hauled it out to the Mohave Sportsman’s Club range, and the rifle ran without difficulty.

I was having problems with vertical stringing. One really odd group was only three-quarters of an inch wide, but three inches up and down. It turned out that the chin rail was grabbing the webbing on my Gorilla Bag with varying degrees of purchase at each shot. To rest the rifle farther forward, I had to remove the magazine, but I got a happy group with 180-grain AccuBonds.

This story has been in the works for half a decade now, but it remains valid. The .338 Federal is steadily growing in popularity, and all of the products used are still being offered. I’ve asked the folks at Springfield several times if they’ll offer M1As in .338 Federal. “We’re at capacity with our .308s, so offering other calibers would slow us down. Maybe sometime in the future.”

The author chronographs the Border Ruffian in the desert outside Kingman, Arizona.

  • mike

    You should have added a flash suppressor , at least for looks.

  • cueball961

    Where can that scope mount and rail be purchased?

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