December 2003

Magnificent M21s: We Find Fulton Armory’s Peerless Is Peerless

We gave both Springfield’s M21 Tactical and Armscorp’s M21 Buy ratings, but we preferred the slick Fulton package overall.

Ray Ordorica shoots the Fulton Peerless in daylight with the night-vision scope attached.

The fine M14 lives, and is undoubtedly in action somewhere in the world as this is written. Some admirers of the M14 feel no mil-type rifle in any caliber has ever surpassed the .308 M14, but no matter what its many fans may claim, there’s an even more ardent group that states there’s a better rifle than the M14, namely the M21. As you may know, the M21 is the designation (from about 1972) that was eventually given to the M14 National Match (NM) rifle. The “official” M21 rifle was thus a fully accurized M14 with the addition of a 3-9X Leatherwood-modified Redfield or similar scope in a thumb-screw-attached side mount. In the 1980s the truck-strong Brookfield mount became available, and it is still considered to be the best scope mount for M14 rifles. It is all-steel, all the way up. Brookfield Precision Tool developed that mount for its XM25 rifle, which was the accurized M14 bedded into a McMillan stock, a configuration that is the forerunner of one of our rifles tested below, by Fulton Armory.

Accurized M14s designated as M21s are being produced today by Springfield Armory in Illinois, Armscorp in Baltimore, and by Fulton Armory, in Savage, Maryland. (There are undoubtedly other firms making them, and we’ll look at them when we get a chance.) We obtained one of each, put them through our wringer, and present the results here.

Fulton Armory Peerless NM M14 Rifle, $2,500

To the basic rifle price ($2,500) must be added the prices for the gorgeous McMillan M3A stock ($600), the ARMS steel scope mount ($150), extended rail ($100), bipod ($70), swivel package ($100), and a leather sling ($50). There was also a Krieger barrel ($200). The total package, less scope but with mount and rings, came to $3,770. With the Leupold scope, the tag would be about $4,620 as tested. We got our prices out of the maker’s catalog and may have missed a few things, so it’s best to contact Fulton for an exact quote on your needs. We had the loan of some scopes with state-of-art add-ons set up specifically for the M14 that bear close scrutiny.

Serious potential users of this rifle need to know of the existence of these amazing systems. These included the Leupold 3.5-10X Long Range Tactical Mil-Dot scope (about $850) with Night Quest PVS-14 Third Generation NV (night vision) WeaponSight, $3,400, and laser IR (infra-red) source for seeing things at least 500 yards away in zero-light conditions. Fulton can probably supply all the night-vision equipment you might need, as well as every imaginable part and accessory for the M14 rifle, for the Garand, M1 Carbine, AR-15, and for several other rifles. Please note that some products are available only to law-enforcement or military personnel.

Fulton’s Peerless rifle was easily the most impressive-looking of this test trio. When we pulled it out of its box, we were struck by its purposeful beauty. Everything about the rifle was flat black except for the exposed Krieger stainless barrel, which was in the white, with a decent but not glaring polish. The McMillan M3A stock felt just great. Its pistol grip was acutely angled to give near-perfect trigger control. The forend and pistol-grip areas were roughened to act like checkering. The ambidextrous, adjustable cheek piece gave soft comfort to the face. The length of pull was adjustable by means of inserts, and the butt was backed by a rubber pad that gripped the clothing to keep the rifle in place. Even the sling swivels were to some extent ambidextrous. There were very useful QD sling-attach points on the left side of the stock, and also two more standard-type swivels beneath the stock. Lefties would be completely at home with this setup. Although the rifle had a national-match front sight and what appeared to be a standard rear aperture, the scope mount interfered with them and we didn’t try them. The rifle also had a modified mil-spec muzzle brake without bayonet lug.

The rifle was built with some GI parts, and came with NM gas cylinder and spring guide, polished gas piston, recoil buffer, match-trigger mods, and a delightful book, The M14 Owner’s Guide, by Duff and Miller. This hand-build rifle included a 30-day money-back guarantee if the customer does not like anything — anything at all — about the rifle, and a lifetime warranty on manufacturing defects. With its Krieger barrel, the rifle was guaranteed to shoot under 1 MOA. Fulton used its new rear-lugged match receiver for this rifle, the receiver now being made specifically for Fulton Armory to owner Clint McKee’s exact specifications. Fulton also has a new standard M14 receiver for all its normal M14 configurations. The rear lug was secured to the stock by a bolt passing upward through the stock just above the trigger group.

With the bipod and big (beneath the forend) barrel, this was a heavy rifle. Without scope, it weighed 14.2 pounds. The static balance was right at the front of the receiver. Even with the night-vision scope, 3.5-10X Leupold, and infra-red laser mounted, the rifle’s fine balance belied its rather great weight of 17.2 pounds, and we felt like we could do good work with it offhand, as long as our arms held out. The trigger pull was two-stage, taking just over three pounds for the first stage, and breaking absolutely cleanly at 4.9 pounds with great consistency, something we rarely see on test rifles.

We found we could not shoot the rifle with the night-vision device attached in bright daylight (with the scope cover closed), but could do so on heavily overcast days. However, everything was rendered in green, not the best setup for day-to-day use. Removing the NV scope required about a second, flipping open the clamp device and pocketing the tiny (though costly) Night Quest PVS-14 scope.

The scope mount was the Swan ARMS M21/M14 setup, which, if not as stout as the Brookfield, seemed to be at least in the same ballpark for strength. It was made of steel, and had a support screw that bore against the front action ring, similar to the Brookfield setup. The mount bolted to the receiver, again like the Brookfield. The bolt required a 3/8-inch wrench, not just a screwdriver. Atop this mount was an extended rail, the aluminum Swan “Sleeve,” which ran halfway up the forend cover. It gave instant mounting options to a vast variety of M14/M21 accessories. It also extended the mounting stance of the Leupold scope, which attached via ARMS QD clamps and steel rings. This scope setup was versatile, strong, adaptable for quick changes, and effective for this particular rifle. The scope setup would be ideal on any sniper rifle, we felt, but on the M14 platform it seemed to make a whole lot of sense. The downside is that the complete rifle and all the NV scope stuff would have a price tag close to ten grand. We do not think this scope setup, with laser IR and night vision, would be useful to most hunters, unless they were after specific dangerous predators and had to hunt them at night. Law enforcement and military personnel would be well served, however.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

We fired the rifles (all three) with two types of match ammunition by Federal and Winchester, and included a 150-grain Barnes X-Bullet load by PMC Eldorado. The Fulton Peerless shot about as predicted. It was a 1 MOA rifle with Federal Gold Medal Match ammunition, and not far off with the other two types. Our best group was 0.5 inch with PMC Eldorado, though that averaged 1.2 inch for all shots. Worst average groups were with Winchester Supreme Competition, at 1.5 inch on average. We noted a distinct improvement in grouping ability the more we fired this brand-new rifle, so expect things would get better as everything settles in. The rifle was crisp in its action, and smoothed up to be even slicker after a few shots.

The thumbscrew that supported the rising cheek piece was reluctant to stay tight unless we really snugged it, something to be aware of. Another thing we noted about all three rifles was that the mag wells were very tight on the mag sides. The mags didn’t go in nearly as easily as they do on one of our shooters’ personal M14, which doesn’t have a match stock. It would seem all three makers don’t want the magazine to shake as the bullet leaves. There was a feel in firing the Fulton Peerless that the other rifles didn’t have, which we find difficult to put into words. It may have come from the sound of the bolt closing in its locking recesses, or the buffer, or the way the parts all worked in precise unison, or the composition or makeup of the stock itself. But we liked the feel of this rifle immensely. It looked great, was comfortable, was clearly set up by shooters for shooters, and did everything we expected of it.

Springfield Armory M21 Tactical Rifle, $2,975

The price above does not include a scope. Our test rifle was equipped with Springfield’s own 4-14X56-mm Japanese-made scope labeled as “3rd Generation Government Model,” with green-illuminated reticle and 30 mm tube ($869). The scope had an interesting reticle that included tiny hold-over dots for long-range shooting with match ammunition, and a built-in and unobtrusive bubble level at the very bottom of the sight picture. The scope hood would add to the cost, as would the mounts and rings ($139). The attached Harris bipod was listed at $72. That comes to a total of about $4,075 as tested. Note that if you add $600 for a McMillan stock as fitted to the Fulton, the two rifles cost about exactly the same.

The scope was mounted to a thick aluminum plate that attached to the action via two thumbscrews and also attached to the clip-loading slot, similar to the ARMS mount on the Fulton, and to the Brookfield. The 30 mm rings were also aluminum. The scope was fitted with a forward hood and hinged Butler Creek covers fore and aft. The rear cover opened by pressing a button. The rifle also had NM-type iron sights front and back.

This was a serious-looking rifle, though not as dramatic as the Fulton, mostly because of the Springfield’s pleasant-looking wood stock of plain but straight-grained walnut. The stock had a decent non-glare finish. It was fitted with an adjustable cheekpiece that could be raised by inserting an Allen wrench into the right side of the stock. We raised it, didn’t like the way it flopped around from side to side, and bolted it back down. We noted that while lefties could use it, this stock would not be as pleasant for them as the McMillan, especially if the articulated portion were raised. There was no provision for altering the length of the stock, which had a pull of 13.6 inches. The butt had a trestle-style rubber butt pad with white-line insert. The forend cover was brown. The rifle had a Harris bipod attached, and a single sling swivel beneath the butt, with no place to attach a sling at the front. We noted that the Harris bipods came loose from both rifles to which they were attached, during the course of our testing. The small screw that secures it needs to be firmly tightened to prevent this.

The Springfield’s action was glass-bedded to the stock, as were the other two rifles. The Springfield stock was not as comfortable as the McMillan on the Fulton, nor was the Armscorp rifle’s stock as comfortable. Both the Springfield and Armscorp stocks mimicked the military version, but were fatter everywhere and had no provisions for increased traction in the grasping areas.

The Springfield M21 Tactical had a rear lug, but the stock was not secured to it with a screw, as were the other two rifles. Though the overall performance was more than adequate, we wondered if accuracy would improve with the addition of that screw. Per the company website, the M21 Tactical had a Douglas Premium barrel with 1:10 inch twist, with optional Hart or Krieger barrels available on special order. The two-stage trigger broke at about 4.9 pounds. Springfield has made enough M1As that it really knows how to put together a decent rifle, which this one surely was, so when the rifle performed perfectly with no malfunctions we were not at all surprised. We did expect a bit more accuracy than we got, which was best with Federal’s excellent Gold Medal Match ammunition. Average three-shot groups were 1.2" at 100 yards. Again we used the bipod and a rear shot-filled leather bag for all test shooting.

Armscorp M21, $3,595

The first glimpse we got of this rifle was somewhat less than thrilling. The stock was a fat, heavy, synthetic affair that was painted in desert camo. The butt plate was standard mil-spec. The rifle was not set up for scope mounting. The metal was Parkerized except for the barrel, which had a thin wash of blue over a somewhat underpolished barrel that showed turning marks. The flash hider had a bayonet lug, if that matters to anyone. Though the action had the requisite rear lug, and was bolted to the stock there, the clip-loading slot was still installed in front of the rear iron sight. It would have to be removed before a serious scope mount could be installed, because most of those utilize the remaining dovetail slot in the receiver for support.

There were fine NM iron sights, and though we could have evaluated the rifle with those, we chose to install an S&K mount with 2-8x Burris Signature scope, borrowing the setup from another rifle on hand. This setup is not as strong as the Brookfield, nor the Swan, nor the Springfield, but it can be sturdy enough for test shooting, and has given sub-MOA groups on its parent M14 rifle. It attaches with a single screw and picks up the slot in the side of the action. The screw seemed to be tight in its slot, but we thought we had it tightened securely. The stock had no provisions for a higher view through the scope, but that wasn’t much of a problem. The mil-spec scope-height solution for the stock used to be a strap-on pad for cheek support, but it’s easy enough to do without that.

The rifle came with a 20-round pre-ban magazine, and the first thing we noticed is that those are a lot easier to load a few rounds into than any of the 10-round mags we tried. The forend was black to match the rest of the metal, a nice touch, we thought. The Parkerizing was well done on well-prepared metal, and was uniform everywhere. The stock had mil-spec sling swivels. In short, this was a nicely camo-painted, heavy rifle that didn’t appear to be in the true M21 class because of the lack of adjustable stock and — more important — no scope mounts. Workmanship appeared to be very good throughout, with the possible exception of the rough finish on the barrel exterior. Some of us liked that treatment. Trigger pull was close to 6.0 pounds, and it varied significantly with slight differences in pull direction from side to side.

Our first tests with Federal Gold Medal Match indicated horrible accuracy. The first group measured 4.8 inches. We checked the scope for tightness and fired another group that was over 2 inches. The rifle had a very positive feel to all the controls and felt tight and comfortable with each shot, the result of the rather great weight of the rifle with our scope attached, which was about 14 pounds. (The unscoped rifle weighed 12.5 pounds.)

We switched to Winchester’s Supreme Match ammo and fired a 0.4-inch group, and thought we had found the solution. Then things went to hell. Groups opened to 2 inches and worse. The PMC fodder was useless, with shots spread as far as 4 inches. Something was wrong. We removed the scope and installed it onto our own rifle and fired a five-shot group that measured less than an inch. Still suspecting the Armscorp, we tried the big rifle with its iron sights and the worst-tested ammo, PMC’s 150-grain X-Bullet load. Three shots went into 0.8 inch, with two touching. More shooting revealed the Armscorp M21 to be one tack-drivin’ SOB. We reinstalled the scope and checked it, and found the too-tight screw hole in the action had given us a false reading. The scope had seemed tight, but had just enough looseness to feel snug, yet move around enough to give bad results.

The rifle functioned perfectly. Its action was very smooth, and it fed flawlessly. We liked the feel of the simplified rifle with its iron sights, and welcomed the lack of extras hung onto it. However, it seemed to call for a scope and we wonder why it didn’t have one. Short of competition use, in which this rifle would shine, we could not understand a setup like this without some sort of very serious scope.

Gun Tests Recommends
Fulton Armory Peerless NM M14 Rifle, $2,500. Our Pick. There were no problems at all with the Fulton Peerless. It fed and ejected perfectly with all ammo, and the trigger pull was a delight. We had more fun with this setup than we had testing some semi-auto machine guns, and felt that this rifle with all its night-vision accessories was about as eye-catching as the water-cooled Browning we tried a few months back. Without the fancy NV equipment, the basic Fulton Peerless was as fine a performer as we’ve seen in M14-type rifles. The trigger pull was simply outstanding. The rifle gave better accuracy than most sporting rifles, which is uncommon for a semiautomatic rifle.

Based on its fine performance, warranty and obvious great care taken in its manufacture, we feel the Fulton Peerless is clearly one of the best values we’ve seen, and would place it at the very top of the selection of M14-type rifles out there. If you don’t need a McMillan stock or a 1-MOA Krieger barrel, or even any extra accurizing, Fulton Armory can build you a rifle that will satisfy your specific needs, and we feel you’ll be more than happy with it. However, if you want everything top-notch, whether for match competition or for making extremely important one-shot “groups,” the Fulton setup we tested here is the one we’d pick. We’d get the Peerless with McMillan stock and Krieger barrel for a total of about $3,300 without scope, and call that setup about as good as it gets.

Springfield Armory M21 Tactical Rifle, $2,975. Buy It. Our only complaint about the Springfield was that the stock felt bulbous. We thought it had way too much wood, and though we realize some competitors like all that extra wood, our feeling was that once a shooter has handled a genuine mil-spec M14 stock, which is decidedly slimmer, he will prefer it—or the McMillan setup as on the Fulton—over these fatter stocks. We had no problems with the fine Springfield. We just didn’t like it as much as the Fulton Armory Peerless.

Armscorp M21, $3,595. Buy It. We thought this rifle, a fine one as it turned out, was misnamed. We should be able to mount a scope securely on any rifle designated as an M21, because that designation officially included a scope in a very strong mount. This rifle, we thought, would be more accurately designated as an M14 National Match, which designation commonly did not include a scope. We noticed some bad glare from the light-colored, painted stock in strong side light, which made it nearly impossible to give proper attention to the sight picture. That needed attention, we thought, but was a minor glitch in the setup. The trigger was not as good as either of the other two rifles, and varied in its pull strength as we measured it. Yet it worked well enough from the bench. We didn’t care for the fat stock, but concede that others love these things. But the rifle felt tight and strong, and given its outstanding performance with its iron sights, we’d love to see what it would do with a scope. We suspect the maker will give the buyer whatever he wants, and someone obviously wanted this setup. On a rifle of this accuracy potential and already great weight, we’d put on a best-quality mil-dot or other suitable scope, and of course law enforcement and military uses would mandate one. Granted this basic setup cost more for what you get than the other two, we could not seriously fault the rifle.