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The M1 Garand: A Short History

PING! THE M1 GARAND MIGHT BE THE MOST RECOGNIZABLE FIREARM IN AMERICAN HISTORY

If you ask a dozen gun aficionados, “What is the quintessential American rifle?” you’ll likely get a number of answers, but amongst these will inevitably be the Long Rifle, the Sharps, the Henry, the 1903 Springfield (even though it’s a shameless 98 Mauser copy), or maybe even the M16/M4. 

And one other candidate will definitely make an appearance, the M1 Rifle or “Garand.” 

The quest for an effective and reliable semi-automatic service rifle began during World War I. 

Defensive firepower in the form of the belt-fed machine gun, more commonly than not one derivative or another of the great American inventor Hiram Maxim, proved decisive. This increased demand for lightweight infantry firepower, not only for defensive purposes but offensive purposes as well, as mobility was gradually restored to the battlefield. 

By war’s end, the Browning Automatic Rifle, the Chauchaut, the MG08/15, and the MP18 contributed to possible solutions. In addition, the Germans used a limited number of Mexican-designed and made Mondragon semi-automatic rifles, and the French produced the RSC M1917. 

RSC M1917

Other potential American contributions, such as the Pedersen conversion for the 03 Springfield and the Thompson SMG, didn’t make it to the battlefield in time. However, none of these solutions was adequate for one reason or another when it came to outfitting the individual solider, and the quest for a general issue semi-automatic rifle continued in the interwar period.

In the United States, Canadian-born engineer John C. Garand was hard at work designing a standard-issue semi-automatic rifle for the United States. 

Garand faced multiple challenges before the M1 was finalized. While some of these issues were engineering-related and mechanical in nature, others were bureaucratic. For instance, the Ordnance Department was curiously enamored with the idea of utilizing the en-bloc clip. 

The M1’s appearance is distinctive.
The M1’s appearance is distinctive.

While this became one of the trademarks of the M1, Garand created detachable magazine designs alongside the en-bloc versions. 

In addition, the M1 was designed to operate with a more modern .276-caliber cartridge that was flatter shooting and generally more accurate over unknown distances. In addition, the softer recoil allowed faster recovery for improved time-on-target. 

However, since the United States had over a billion rounds of .30-06 ball ammunition in storage, and virtually every rifle and machine gun in United States inventory was chambered for it, the M1 was chambered to accommodate the round. 

The M1 began to find its way to troops in 1937 following initial production. These very early rifles used a gas trap that was rapidly replaced with the more conventional gas port arrangement seen on this rifle, as well as the vast majority of the millions of M1s produced through the 1940s and ’50s.

The gas-trap rifles ran into the low 50,000 serial number range, but many in the latter part of this range were manufactured with the gas port. So-called “gas trap” Garands are exceedingly rare in the collectible world, and when they do appear, they typically sell huge amounts.

Gas Trap M1 Garand sold through Rock Island Auction Company in 2019 for $19,550
Gas Trap M1 Garand sold through Rock Island Auction Company in 2021 for $19,550

It took some time following Pearl Harbor for production to catch up with demand. During WWII, Winchester was drafted to produce M1s alongside Springfield to help close the gap. Following WWII, International Harvester and Harrington & Richardson produced M1s in response to the Korean conflict and renewed demand. 

While the Winchesters were known to be more problematic than the Springfields (probably an enormous shock to the pre-64 cult), due to improvements in machining and production, the H&R and IHC rifles are generally better-quality rifles than any of the WWII production guns. 

Fortunately, the H&R rifles are also generally easier to find in nicer, original condition. This, however, does little good for the WWII purist, and a “correct” WWII production M1 is the ultimate goal for many collectors.

The trigger guard mounted safety was perhaps the M1’s most user-friendly features.
The trigger guard mounted safety was perhaps the M1’s most user-friendly features.

There’s a certain mystique and mythology surrounding the M1. It was the first successful standard-issue semi-automatic infantry rifle. 

And it was the rifle that Patton supposedly deemed “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” (Springfield appreciated this and gave the renowned arms collector Patton serial number 1,000,000.) It surely was an effective rifle, but it had issues.

The M1 wasn’t particularly fond of wet or cold weather, and the combination of both frequently produced malfunctions. Like many weapons of its era, it required regular maintenance. 

Although this is drilled into most soldiers, lapses that might be considered trivial with other weapons could cause problems. And the M1 didn’t operate well in muddy environments. 

The urban legend of the “ping” sound from spent clips ejecting getting GIs killed by wary enemy soldiers is unadulterated garbage. In firefights where nobody was wearing ear protection and the volume of fire increasingly tremendous as the war wore on, the pings were perhaps on occasion audible if one was close, but not a “bullet magnet” for enemy fire. 

The M1 was fed a remarkably diverse diet including armor piercing, tracer, blank, ball, and armor-piercing incendiary.

Compared to other semi-automatic rifles produced during WWII, the Garand’s performance and utility varies. The SVT 40 was softer shooting and about as fast to reload — although spare magazines could be carried — but the arrangement was somewhat awkward. 

The G41 was temperamental and more subject to fouling malfunctions. Objectively, the G43 was a better rifle and more versatile as it came from the factory. Those who have legitimate experience with multiple 1943- and 1944-produced G43s can attest to their accuracy, ergonomics, and reliability. 

The M1 has a much broader service history than typically imagined. Many friendly countries used the rifle until well after WWII, and indeed many are still found in arsenals that the CMP still turns up on a regular basis. 

Some National Guard units issued them up until at least the early 1970s. The M1 was the service rifle for service rifle matches until the ascendancy of the M14/M1A and eventually the M16/AR-15. There are now M1-only matches and vintage two-gun matches for those so inclined. 

The M1 obviously passed some of its genes along to the M14.
The M1 obviously passed some of its genes along to the M14.

The price range for M1s is broad. Many of us remember buying M1 rack-grade rifles from CMP for $199 or less and surplus .30-06 ball for $0.10 or less per round. Those days are long gone. The least expensive CMP rifle will now run at least $700. 

The average recently observed price for an M1 at a show is $1,200 plus, but there are bargains to be found. An “all correct” WWII Springfield or Winchester will generally start north of $3,000. The sniper variants, the M1C and M1D, are normally found close to or north of $4,000 when original and complete. 

A word to the wise: If you want to get into collecting, buy the books before the rifle. The available research on the M1 is extensive, and knowledge is power. 

If you want a shooter, be sure to examine the bore and throat erosion (you can get inexpensive gauges) and look for wear and pitting below the wood-line where problems typically start. It’s also a good idea to proactively replace the recoil/operating rod spring if you want to shoot your M1. 

M1 GARAND SPECS:

  • Overall length: 43.5 inches
  • Barrel Length: 24 inches
  • Weight: 9.5 pounds
  • Caliber: 7.62×63 (30-06)
  • Effective Range: 550 yards
  • Rate of Fire: Up to 48 rpm, 16-24 rpm reasonable 

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One response to “The M1 Garand: A Short History”

  1. Chuck says:

    I carried one for four years active duty and occasionally for four years active reserve with the U.S. Marine Corps in the 50s and early 60.. How I love the M-1. As a fighting weapon it really had no equal. Out of ammo, it was a sturdy platform for the 11 inch bayonet a no-nonsense weapon in its own right. We used them most frequently to break locks on wall lockers when the key was lost and to open cans of frozen C-rations when the p-38 couldn’t. No ammo, no bayonet? As a melee weapon, again the M-1 rose to the occasion. If you haven’t been butt-stroked in the chest with an M-1 by a disgruntled DI, you just haven’t experienced how good a melee weapon the M-1 is. The metal butt plate, while it sucked for taking up recoil was a smashingly good addition to the butt stock of the M-1 for butt stroking someone for whom one held a hate.

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  • I carried one for four years active duty and occasionally for four years active reserve with the U.S. Marine Corps in the 50s and early 60.. How I love the M-1. As a fighting weapon it really had no equal. Out of ammo, it was a sturdy platform for the 11 inch bayonet a no-nonsense weapon in its own right. We used them most frequently to break locks on wall lockers when the key was lost and to open cans of frozen C-rations when the p-38 couldn't. No ammo, no bayonet? As a melee weapon, again the M-1 rose to the occasion. If you haven't been butt-stroked in the chest with an M-1 by a disgruntled DI, you just haven't experienced how good a melee weapon the M-1 is. The metal butt plate, while it sucked for taking up recoil was a smashingly good addition to the butt stock of the M-1 for butt stroking someone for whom one held a hate.

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