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Ex Historiam – M1 Garand: “The Greatest Battle Implement Ever Devised”

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In the annals of military history many weapons of war have been called revolutionary. Many of those were true game changers on the battlefield. These include, among others the crossbow, cannons, the tank and of course the airplane. However, for the infantryman one particular weapon stands out: the M1 Garand.

Explains gun historian and author Bruce Canfield,

“General George Patton called the M1 rifle, ‘the greatest battle implement ever devised. While that may be a bit of hyperbole, it's not far off the mark.”

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Hyperbole aside, the M1 was arguably one of the differentiators that gave the U.S. GI an advantage on the WWI battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Some 5.5 million M1 Garands were manufactured, and the semi-automatic rifle offered a faster rate of fire over the bolt action rifles – and a larger caliber cartridge than the submachine guns being utilized at the time.

“Eisenhower also praised the M1, and he was right when he said it was the weapon that won the war. There were a lot of things about the M1 that just gave the soldier carrying it a tremendous advantage.” Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Ret), military history consultant and president of Warriors Inc.

Origin of the M1

After experiencing the horrors of the static trench warfare of the First World War, U.S. military planners saw a need for a rifle that reliably offered greater firepower over the bolt action rifles of the era. While this lead to the development of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and even the Thompson submachine gun, it was clear that there also needed to be a replacement to the standard infantry rifle.

Since the final decades of the 19th century most infantry soldiers carried a bolt action rifle, typically with a five round internal magazine – while there were various rifles that had as few as three rounds, and in the case of the British Lee Enfield as many 10 rounds (with a removable magazine), ammunition capacity and rate of fire was very limited by later standards. It was during the WWI that American arms designers first began considering a number of stopgap measures.

One of the more unique of those attempts was John Douglas Pedersen's aptly named Pedersen Device, an attachment for the M1903 Springfield Rifle that allowed it to fire .30 caliber pistol cartridges in a semi-automatic mode. This device converted the bolt action rifle into a semi-automatic by adding a top loading stick magazine. It wasn't exactly practical, and the war ended before these were sent to Europe, so it remains unclear whether these devices would have been able to withstand filthy trench conditions (or if the smaller caliber would have been effective).

As an aside, readers might be interested to know that while some 65,000 devices and 1.6 million magazines were produced, fewer than 100 Pedersen devices survive today. The Army ordered the surplus stocks to be destroyed!

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A rare surviving example of the Pedersen Device and ammunition in the collection of the Rock Island Arsenal (Photo: Peter Suciu)

While the Pedersen Device had no any impact on World War I, it did inspire the military to consider the need for a semi-automatic rifle. Numerous designers lent their talent to the development of such a weapon. These included Pedersen, who developed a rifle known as the T1E3, and General John T. Thompson, who developed the Thompson submachine gun (as well as the lesser known Thompson Autorifle). Each of these semi-automatic rifles was unique in that they featured a delayed blowback operation. One of the main flaws with the Autorifle's design was that it required lubricated ammunition, which is far from practical in battlefield conditions.

One other competitor to the M1 Garand was the M1941 Johnson Rifle, designed by Melvin Johnson. Unlike the designs by Pedersen and Thompson, the Johnson Rifle was used during the war. Some 70,000 were produced – making it a rare and desirable rifle for WWII small arms collectors. This design utilized energy from recoil along with a rotating bolt. It was a revolutionary design and in testing it was noted that it had less recoil than the M1, as well as a greater magazine capacity. In the end however the Garand design won out, which was no small task.

Notes Canfield,

“It was developed in the 1920s and 1930s when funding for military weapons was at a very low ebb. It is nothing short of amazing that the Army was able to keep the weapon in development given the financial constraints of the era.”

Garand's M1

John C. Garand – known also as Jean Cantius Garand due to his French-Canadian birth – started a career in toolmaking, while his interest in firearms can be traced back to working at a shooting gallery after school. The love of guns coupled with machinist skills set Garand on the path to become a successful gun designer.

From 1917-1953 Garand worked for the Springfield Armory, where he developed a basic but effective gas-actuated self-loading infantry rifle. This early effort was actually a slow going process compared to other designs. While other gun designers such as John Moses Browning created numerous firearms, in the case of Garand he can really only be credited with one notable design – the M1.

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John Garand, left, points out features of the M1 Rifle to senior Army officials: Major General Charles M. Wesson, center, Brigadier General Gilbert H. Stewart, right (Office of War Information Photo, Public Domain, 1943)

It took nearly 15 years to perfect the weapon, but as they say, you can't rush success. All things considered the weapon arrived at just the right time. Production cost during World War II for the M1 Garand was about $85 for each rifle – not bad considering that today a nice example can fetch closer to $1,000.

The rifle's operating system was similar to the Johnson design, featuring a gas-operating, rotating bolt. It could fire 40-50 rounds a minute, which was a considerable step up from most bolt action rifles of the era. It featured a rear adjustable aperture sight and front wing protected post. The rifle was designed to fire the .30-06 Springfield cartridge, which gave the U.S. military an advantage in that the same cartridge was utilized with the M1903 Springfield bolt action rifle, the BAR and the .30 caliber Browning Machine Gun.

The impact of its semi-automatic fire capability was quickly felt on the battlefield.

“The M1 is significant as gave the United States military the only semiautomatic general issue rifle in WWII. Every other nation, Axis and Allies, used the bolt-action as their standard service rifle which put them on the same footing as the troops of the First World War. The M1 gave the American soldiers and Marines a valuable ‘edge' on battlefields across the globe.” Canfield

The weapon did give that edge and it was something the other nations noticed. Interestingly, there was little else like it during World War II. The Soviets experimented with a semi-automatic – the Tokarev SVT-38, and the updated SVT-40 – but by the end of the war had actually gone back to the bolt action Moien Nagant instead. The Germans took notice and developed the Gewehr 43 (G43 or Gew 43) – however, for reasons questioned to this day, that rifle rifle was based on the short-stroke piston gas system of the SVT-40. One argument could be that the Germans only began to encounter the M1 in 1943 in North Africa and Italy, and that by that time there was no serious time to copy the M1. Historians and scholars will likely never completely agree.

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The M1 in the collection of the Rock Island Arsenal with a BAR and Browning Machine Gun (Photo: Peter Suciu)

This isn't to say that the M1 was an instant favorite with the GIs.

Says Dye,

“Those who trained with the M1903 Springfield had some concerns, but after it was used in combat all those fears went away very quickly. The M1 could carry more ammo and it was easier to feed. It did need more maintenance than the M1903, and yes it had more working parts but if you took care of the gun it took care of you.”

If anything, the M1 might have been too much of a success. While the German and Soviet designers developed assault rifles – notably the StG44 and AK-47 respectively – the American military relied on the M1 throughout the 1950s, perhaps too long, and its influence can be clearly seen in later replacements.

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The top receiver of the M1 – a notable difference from most bolt action rifles of the era (Photo: Peter Suciu)

“Its replacement, the M14, was essentially a ‘product improved' M1. The M1 came along at just the right time to make a significant contribution to the American war effort.” Canfield

It should be noted that unlike many other gun designers Mr. Garand didn't receive royalties as all rights to the design were transferred to the U.S. in 1936. While a bill was introduced by Congress to award him $100,000 in appreciation, it actually did not pass! Garand did however remain in a consulting role at Springfield Armory until 1953.

One other interesting fact is that while the name is often pronounced as “Ga-rand” by collectors, his family suggested it is actually pronounced as rhyming with “errand.”

The En Bloc Clip – Facts and Myths

One of the unique features of the M1 was its “en bloc” clip, which held eight rounds. This allowed for quick reloading of the rifle, where the clip was inserted with a push by the thumb. One major downside is that if done incorrectly the bolt could slam on the operator's thumb – resulting in the all-too-common M1 thumb.

“Folks learned from that very quickly. They'd learn tricks to reloading.” Dye.

One other issue with the en bloc was that the magazine couldn't be “topped off” with extra bullets added. Instead the manual of arms for the M1 called for the rifle to be fired until empty.

Dye explains.

“It wasn't hard to empty those rounds. There was also a clip release so you could shove in a new clip. It was no different from a magazine that you had to remove it and then load with a full one. The big advantage of the M1's en bloc was that the reloading was so quick compared to most bolt action rifles.”

A misconception of the M1 is that the empty en bloc made a “ping” noise when it was ejected from the rifle. This is something that can be heard in movies such as Saving Private Ryan and HBO's Band of Brothers, as well as several video games. The reality, however, is that very few GIs likely heard any such noise.

Dye jokes about it.

“I've been working on WWII movies and I've had sound men say, ‘we couldn't hear the ping.' That's because there is a firefight going on. The ping is pure foolishness, but the sound guys like it. Talk to any WWII vets and they never heard it. It is a cool sound to put in a game.”

The M1 in Popular Culture

The M1 rifle has been seen in countless movies, TV shows and video games. Its first recorded use in a movie was in the 1943 film Gung Ho!, but interestingly only made its video game debut in 1998 in the real-time tactical action game Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. The guns's entry into true popular culture came a year later when it was a primary weapon in the first person shooter Medal of Honor.

The PC version, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, was the first game where the M1 couldn't be reloaded until its clip was emptied. As in Saving Private Ryan the ubiquitous “ping” is heard throughout in the Medal of Honor series.

The M1 and CMP

After the Korean War the M1, which had remained in use by the military, was largely taken out of service and replaced with the M14 and later M16. Fortunately the M1 has been sought after by collectors ever since.

In 1996 the United States Congress chartered the Corporation for the Promotion of Rifle Practice and Firearms Safety to instruct citizens in marksmanship and to promote safe use of firearms. This group took over the Civilian Marksmanship Program, which from 1903 to 1996 was sponsored by the Office of the Director of Civilian Marksmanship.

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The receiver of the M1 (Photo: Peter Suciu)

This group has offered M1 rifles for sale over the years, but caches have started to dry up. Efforts to re-import M1s from overseas have largely been unsuccessful. In 2009 there were efforts by the South Korean government to export some 87,000 M1s but these were blocked by the U.S. State Department over concerns these could be used for criminal activity.

There is another largely untold part of this story – that being that South Korea didn't own those particular M1s. In fact, Orest Michaels, CEO of CMP explained that the South Koreans have over the decades tried to export rifles that were technically “loaned” to their military. Were the South Koreans to give the rifles back there would have been no problem, but issues arose when they expected to sell the guns to American gun dealers.

The same is true of M1s that were given as aid to Turkey, Greece, Taiwan and other U.S. allies. That issue may now be moot too, because in August 2013 the Obama administration banned future private importation of all U.S. made weapons. Though caches of M1s remain around the world, the U.S. government seems at least for now uninterested in seeing these firearms returned.

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Today the M1 is still used by some of America's allies – it is used by the honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Greece (Photo: Peter Suciu)

For collectors however plenty remain in America, though now they have to accept the higher prices for a gun whose contribution to freedom is certainly priceless!

Ex Historiam – M1 Garand (Specs)

Type: Battle Rifle
Caliber: .30-06 Springfield
Weight: 9.5 pounds
Length: 43.5-inches
Barrel Length: 24-inches
Muzzle Velocity: 2,800 ft/s
Capacity: 8-round “en bloc” clip
Fire Modes: Semi-Auto

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