The gun industry is one where people have a good memory. If a gun works well and gets good reviews, that sentiment will stick with people for decades.
Rifles are not in short supply. The calibers, brands, and styles are diverse – there are plenty of choices for winning combinations out there. But some have gained more acclaim, and seen more custom variants, than others.
We have seen plenty of popular semi-automatic sniper rifles coming and going. But one of the most popular mainstays that has survived the test of time (which is tough in the gun industry) is the M21.
More specifically known as the M21 Sniper Weapon System (SWS), this semi-auto sniper rifle has become one of the most popular sniper rifles available worldwide.
Used in the US, Vietnam, China, and many other countries, the M21 SWS is a combination of classic design and historic evolutions in the gun industry.
Let’s take a closer look at the M21 and some of its most popular versions today – which is the best? Which is the most valuable? And which provides the best results where it counts, when you need to hit a target with no room for error?
Origins of the M21: How Did This Gun Evolve?
Every gun has an origin story. Classics rarely result from a weapon manufacturer simply putting parts together. In many cases, a great gun that passes the test of time is usually an evolution from a series of other successful models.
Before we can decide what the best M21 rifle is, we need to understand how this style of rifle came into existence. Let’s flash back several decades – back when the M1 Garand was the standard rifle used in many military battles.
It proved to be somewhat reliable – but in combat, somewhat just doesn’t cut it. The next step was to produce something faster and less prone to problems. This led to the M14. It was chambered in 7.62mm rounds, and could use a 20-round magazine. That made it more reliable and more viable as a long-term combat arm.
The M14 had one critical flaw – it has a select fire feature that offered a full-auto mode. Given the gun’s dimensions and weight distributions, firing it in this mode made it nearly impossible to control. Soldiers and commanders needed a more reliable weapon – and the next step was the M21.
With numerous other rifle configurations filling the timeline in between, the result was ultimately the XM21 sniper rifle, officially dubbed the M21 rifle and debuted in 1975. It was a historic development for the firearms industry, and created a lot of buzz for the gun community.
Let’s take a look at the standard M21’s specs. Then we can compare them to the standard qualities sought in sniper rifles – which will tell us the best M21 for the money.
Specs of the Standard M21 Rifle: What Does it Offer?
The M21 rifle, also known as the XM21, is chambered for .308 Win rounds, or 7.62x51mm NATO. This is a common ammo type, making the weapon a convenient option directly from the beginning.
Think about how a 9mm pistol or 12-gauge shotgun is automatically a popular pick for its category simply because of the ammo type it is chambered for. Popular ammo types are easy to find, and thus cheaper, making the M21 a more cost-efficient option than certain other sniper rifles.
Given how popular the rifle is, it has many different barrel options – some of which are custom made for the task at hand. The weapon normally has a barrel length of 22-inches, allowing for improved balance and greater accuracy.
The versatile selection as far as the barrels go is good for those who like variety. They’ll also have a little bit of choice when it comes to the magazine size. Users can choose between a 5-round and 20-round detachable magazine. This makes the rifle a great choice for casual outings at the shooting range or high-intensity combat situations.
The 4.5-pound two-stage military trigger is designed for smooth action without throwing the balance of the weapon off. If a trigger requires too much force to pull, it can leave the user feeling disoriented after the shot and cause them to lose their target.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it creates problems for those who want to fire off several shots consecutively without losing their target.
As for shooting support, there’s a wood stock with glass impregnation. Combined with a reinforced finish, this makes the weapon very durable for outdoor shooting. Neither kick back or the elements will be able to slow seasoned shooters down when they have this weapon in hand.
At just over 44-inches and 11-pounds, this rifle is easy to carry around and maneuver – while not the smallest sniper rifle you’ll find, it is far from the biggest.
What is the Best M21 on the Market?
We could go on for hours and even days about all the M21 variants out there. From guns with modified barrel sizes and improved cartridge mechanisms to variants with different types of finishes, there are plenty of options if you want an M21.
Let’s examine a rifle that has been changed with a simple modification, but benefited heavily from that simple change. The Springfield M1A sniper rifle is very close to the M21 in design. Some would say it is even designed to duplicate it – or to come so close it would be hard to tell the difference.
But in this case, this is a difference you’d be looking for – and one you wouldn’t want to miss out on. The adjustable stock and balanced trigger guard makes for a more complete weapon, providing additional shooting comfort and stability.
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There’s also the M21-reissue, made specifically for military use. This one includes a new scope mount and sight, and has been used in various military conflicts.
As we can see, there are a few different variants. Which one is the best? This answer could be considered subjective. While some would say more accessories and more features translates to a better weapon, there is still preference to consider.
For some people, a simple, stripped-down standard M21 is king. For others, the improved stock doesn’t hurt the weapon’s appeal but instead adds to its functionality. And for those who want every inch of range and every possible round they can have, the military variant could be considered the top option.
Many people can enjoy the M21 – but is this the right weapon for someone who has never handled a sniper rifle, but wants to start?
Is the M21 a Good Rifle for First-Time Shooters?
Let’s say you’ve never shot a gun. Or maybe you’ve shot so scarcely you don’t have a lot of familiarity with weapons. Yet you’d like to get a rifle, and you’ve heard great things about the M21. Your question would be simple – is the M21 the right option for a beginner, or novice shooter?
One of the main perks of this rifle is its balanced design. As mentioned, its status as an evolution over some favorites from previous generations constitute solid improvements throughout the years. Better handling, more comfort during shooting, and a greater degree of accuracy for hitting your target.
You can certainly find cheaper rifles – especially if you don’t mind a downgrade in quality. Just because a rifle isn’t an M21 doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying out. But you could likely find a more reliable weapon by going with the proven options.
The M21 is also relatively simple in its design. While the variants with tons of accessories can look more like an engineering project than a weapon, the base model is easy to learn – even if you’re a novice. You may be able to clean and service this weapon even if you’re new, and you could have a much easier time than if you had a more complex weapon.
Other popular rifles, like the 10-.22 for example, are great choices for beginners as well. You have some options, and that gives you more models to compare before making your purchase.
The Future of the M21 SWS: Where Will it Lead?
If the M21 was the evolution of other firearms, which themselves were evolutions of even older models, are there chances the trend could continue?
The M21 is still a solid rifle. But could it pave the way for a new gun model, that makes it go the way of its predecessors? There would have to be some massive improvements to make the M21 completely obsolete, but it is possible the rifle may eventually lose favor to new and improved models.
The good things about this rifle will likely still carry over. We may see variants come out with larger magazines, even better weight distribution, and newer sights. It shows how fast the gun industry evolves, and how things can change quickly.
The M21 is a great gun. Whether you go with classic, improved, or tactical variants, you can’t really go wrong with this model.