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The M1

Carbine Williams (1952)
In this fondly remembered biopic, James Stewart stars as David Marshall "Marsh" Williams, the creator of the M-1 Carbine automatic rifle that became famous during World War II. After being sent to prison for shooting a federal officer, Williams is given a chance to reform by a kindly warden--setting in motion a series of events that result in his invention.

In 1936, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The woefully misnamed "War to End All Wars" had concluded fewer than 20 years earlier, and its painful memories were still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Isolationist sentiment was prevalent, and there was little enthusiasm for anything military.

It would seem a most unlikely time for the U.S. Army to adopt a state-of-the-art semi-automatic service rifle. Nonetheless, 75 years ago that is exactly what happened with the standardization of the "U.S. Rifle Semiautomatic, Caliber .30, M1." Today, the M1 rifle, often referred to as the "Garand" in deference to its inventor, John C. Garand, is one of the best-known and most iconic military rifles of all time.

Even though the U.S. military had announced a desire to field a semi-automatic service rifle as early as 1900, the technology to develop a satisfactory arm of this type was slow in coming. A great many designs, foreign and domestic, were tested and evaluated during the intervening 30 years, but none were deemed suitable. The M1 rifle did not appear suddenly; it was the culmination of almost 20 years of toil by Garand, Springfield Armory and the U.S. Army Ordnance Dept.

One enduring story regarding firearms is that of David Marshall Williams, a.k.a. "Carbine" Williams, who is widely credited with "inventing" the M1 carbine of World War II fame. According to popular folklore, reinforced by a 1950s Hollywood movie, Williams invented the carbine using scrap metal and crude machinery while serving a stint in a Southern prison in the 1920s.

Like many "urban legends," this one contains at least a grain of truth. Born on Nov. 13, 1900, in Godwin, N.C., David Marshall Williams, known as "Marsh" to his friends and family, dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He worked for a brief period on the family farm but eventually sought a job at a blacksmith shop where he displayed an affinity for metalworking and machinery.

Williams joined the U.S. Navy but was discharged when it was discovered that he misrepresented his age and was actually too young to serve. After leaving the Navy, he spent one semester at Blackstone Military Academy in Virginia before being expelled. Williams returned home to North Carolina where he married and later had one child. Williams was "augmenting his income" by operating an illegal still and turning out moonshine when, in 1921, the bootlegging operation was raided by law enforcement officers and, in the course of the raid, a deputy sheriff, Alfred J. Pate, was shot and killed. David Williams was charged with first-degree murder, but the trial ended in a hung jury.

U.S. Rifle Semiautomatic Caliber .30 M1 was officially standardized by the U.S. Army

A virtually unknown immigrant from Canada, Garand had begun work on a novel design for a light machine gun in 1918. His efforts came to the attention of the American government, and in 1919 Garand was offered a position at Springfield Armory and tasked with developing a semi-automatic service rifle. Garand's initial rifle featured a novel primer-actuated mechanism, but this was eventually found to be unsuitable, so he switched to a more conventional gas-operated design.

Springfield also engaged the services of well-known gun designer John Pedersen to work on a semi-automatic rifle in parallel to the development of Garand's rifle. Pedersen proposed a design that not only differed substantially from Garand's, but he also touted the virtues of a .276 cartridge to replace the standard .30 Springfield (.30-'06 Sprg.). For a while, it appeared all but certain that the Pedersen and the .276 would be the new U.S. service rifle and cartridge combination. For a variety of reasons, however, including large stocks of .30-cal. ammunition still on hand from World War I, the Garand rifle, chambered for the .30-'06 Sprg. round, was recommended for adoption.

On Jan. 9, 1936, the "U.S. Rifle Semiautomatic Caliber .30 M1" was officially standardized by the U.S. Army. The word "Semiautomatic" was soon dropped from the rifle's nomenclature and the official designation became "U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1." As aptly put by Alexander Rose, "For the first time in living memory, the United States was actually ahead of its traditional competitors in rifle development; Britain, France, and Germany all went to war in 1939 with the same rifles they had used in 1914-&The Garand couldn't have come along at a better time."

With the official adoption of the M1 rifle, the Ordnance Dept. made plans for mass production. The sheer magnitude of the engineering work involved, however, along with the acquisition of the machinery required to manufacture a modern firearm, made for a truly daunting task for Springfield, which had not tooled up to produce a new rifle since 1903. Severe budgetary cuts had resulted in the termination or retirement of many experienced workmen, and much of the production equipment on hand was antiquated. The precarious fiscal conditions in the late 1930s made the task of securing necessary funds very difficult.

Even after the Garand's adoption, some within Springfield harbored doubts as to whether efficient mass production of the rifle was even possible. This was addressed by Edward C. Ezell in "The Great Rifle Controversy:" "[T]he belief of the industrial personnel at the Armory [was] that the M1 rifle could not be successfully mass-produced. They argued that the breech mechanism was too complicated to be fabricated in large quantities. Had the U.S. Army listened to these Cassandras, the M1 rifle would never have been manufactured. The opinion of the production people at the Armory did not prevail because John Garand knew his rifle could be mass-produced. That had been one of the basic elements of his design exercise. To prove his point he created and fabricated much of the special tooling required to manufacture the M1. Using that production tooling, the Springfield Armory and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company successfully produced more than four million M1s during World War II."

Colonel James L. Hatcher also made reference to these production critics in a 1939 lecture he presented to students at the Army Industrial College: "Some poorly informed critics of the M1 rifle have pointed out several components as being impossible or very difficult to make. It may be of interest to you to note that the operations on these parts were tooled by Mr. Garand himself, and to the confusion of the critics, in each instance these are the operations being produced at the highest rate and with the least difficulty."

The first machine-made production M1s were delivered in September 1937 at the initial rate of 10 rifles per day. By March 1, 1938, the daily rate had increased to 20; by July 1939 the rate had gone up to 80; and by Sept. 1, 1939, it was 100 per day. On Jan. 22, 1940, the daily rate of production had reached 200. While these would have been considered ridiculously low just a few years later, at the time they were deemed sufficient to result in arming the small U.S. armed forces with M1 rifles in a reasonable time period. As more M1s became available, a few were shipped to various Army installations for familiarization and limited field use in the Fiscal Year ending June 30, 1937.

Unforeseen production difficulties and the uncertain availability of continued funding resulted in the supply being far short of initial estimates. An interesting exchange of letters between the Cavalry Board and the Ordnance Dept. in early 1937 provides some insight into the military's plans for production and issuance of the M1. The first letter was from Cavalry Maj. Charles Houghton to Lt. Col. Sidney P. Spalding at the Ordnance Dept.: "First, how many rifles, caliber .30, 1903 and 1917, have we in war reserve and in the hands of troops? Second, what is the present and prospective rate of manufacture of the new M1 semi-automatic rifle? The reason for these two questions is that it appears that some officers here at the Cavalry School are basing their plans and ideas on the probability that a M1 semi-automatic rifle will be in the hands of all Regular Army and National Guard troops within a relatively short time, and that there will be a sufficient war reserve to equip reserve units."

Colonel Spalding's reply cited the following estimates and pointedly mentioned the production and funding problems being experienced by Springfield Armory: "The total stock of Caliber .30 Rifles, M1903 is 901,548. Of these 506,514 are in the hands of troops. The total stock of Caliber .30 Rifles, M1917, is 2,174,893 of which only a very small number are in the hands of troops. "The status of production of the Caliber .30 M1 Rifle (heretofore known as the U.S. Rifle, Semiautomatic, Caliber .30, M1) is as follows: It is estimated that 1,500 rifles will be completed by July 1st. During the fiscal year 1938 it is expected that 6,960 rifles will be manufactured. Of the first 3,370 to be manufactured the Cavalry School is supposed to receive sixty and the First Cavalry Division of Fort Bliss sixty. No funds for the manufacture of this rifle are carried in the estimates of fiscal year 1938. The guns manufactured during that fiscal year are to come from hold-over money. We are now struggling with the usual difficulties at Springfield Armory and definite facts are not available as to production possibilities or actual costs. It is difficult to forecast how many rifles will be provided for in future budgets. The gun is yet to have a real test in the hands of troops in large quantity, and until such a test has been made it seems to me we should at least have alternate plans based on material actually on hand."

Not only was the future of the M1 rifle dependent on continued funding, its success in the hands of troops when issued in meaningful numbers would be evaluated to make sure it performed up to expectations. A January 1938 memo from the chief of ordnance to Springfield Armory's commanding officer commented on the initial positive reports on the Garand starting to come in from the field, along with a challenge to increase the manufacturing rate: "[I]t is most gratifying to note that the semi-automatic rifle is now in production. Reports being received from the using troops to whom the production rifles have been issued are most enthusiastic as to its performance-&The demand from troops to be equipped with this important weapon is very urgent and every effort should be made to fill current orders promptly. Manufacturing methods should be restudied so as to get increased production and to cut costs in every way possible."

Despite the "most enthusiastic" reception of the rifle by the troops, a number of problems surfaced as its use increased. One was the so-called "Seventh Round Stoppage." It was eventually discovered that this vexing condition was caused by a small portion of the inside of the receiver being inadvertently sheared during production. A slight recalibration of the tooling eliminated the problem. It was also discovered that the M1 rifle's action could "freeze" when exposed to excessive amounts of water, such as a driving rain. It was determined that a graphite-based grease applied to the camming areas would help alleviate the problem.

The most significant shortcoming of the original M1 rifle proved to be the design of the gas system. The original mechanism trapped some of the gas in an open space between the muzzle and a cap over the muzzle, forcing it back through a cylinder to operate the action. These early M1s have unofficially been dubbed "gas trap" rifles in recognition of its gas system. As these rifles entered service, several deficiencies of the original gas system became apparent, including a propensity for the gas cylinder to become loose, difficulty in cleaning and insufficient strength for attachment of a bayonet. To address the issue, John Garand and the Springfield Armory Engineering Dept. designed a new gas system. First tested in early 1939, it featured a gas port drilled into the barrel to channel the escaping gas that impinged on the operating rod's piston to force it backward to operate the action. The revised design required a 24-inch barrel as compared to the original (gas trap) M1 rifle's 22-inch barrel. Springfield Armory began production of these new "gas port" rifles in June 1940. With this change, the basic mechanism of the M1 rifle remained unchanged for the next 16 years.

Another challenge to the M1 rifle was the development of a competing semi-automatic rifle in the late 1930s by Melvin M. Johnson, Jr., a Boston attorney with an interest in, and talent for, firearm design. Johnson was a fervent detractor of the Garand and, unsurprisingly, felt his recoil-operated rifle was far superior. After several preliminary tests, the Ordnance Dept. turned its nose up and its thumbs down at the Johnson rifle and remained firmly committed to the Garand. Not easily dissuaded, Johnson, literally, made a "federal case" out of the situation by persuading friendly U.S. congressmen and senators that the nation was making a huge mistake by adopting a rifle as badly flawed as the M1. This resulted in several high-profile and well-publicized House and Senate hearings in 1940 that, ultimately, resulted in the M1 remaining the standardized U.S. service rifle.

Despite the doubts, criticisms and invectives hurled at the M1 rifle from circa 1938 to 1940, the Garand's subsequent success on battlefields around the globe in World War II and Korea silenced the critics and made many of them look foolish. The trials and tribulations experienced with the early Garand rifles are often unknown or overlooked today. Indeed, some may be surprised that such a famed and venerated rifle was not universally welcomed with open arms when it first came on the scene in 1936.

Rather than risk a second trial, Williams chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 to 30 years at the Caledonia State Prison Farm in Halifax County, N.C. While serving his sentence, Williams spent hours sketching diagrams for various firearm mechanisms.

As he gained the confidence of the prison superintendent, H.T. Peoples, Williams was given access to the prison workshop where he spent his spare time repairing and maintaining the equipment and working on some of his firearm ideas. Friends and relatives began a campaign to have the governor commute his sentence. These efforts proved to be successful as Williams was granted parole in 1929 and totally released from prison in 1931.

He returned home and continued refining his ideas. Two of the more significant inventions hatched by Williams while in prison were the "floating chamber" and the short-stroke gas piston. The floating chamber (sometimes called a "moveable chamber") device permitted a .22 LR cartridge to generate sufficient force to cycle a large caliber semi-automatic or full-automatic mechanism.

A few years later, Williams felt that his plans were developed sufficiently for presentation to the War Department. Ordnance officials were impressed with Williams' floating chamber design as it enabled arms ranging from the .45 automatic pistol to heavy machine guns to fire .22-cal. rimfire ammunition for training purposes.

Not long after his final departure from Winchester, Hollywood became aware of the Horatio Alger-like tale of the former convict who, while still incarcerated, invented (as the story goes) one of the most popular and prolific arms of the recently concluded World War. In 1952, the movie "Carbine Williams," starring the legendary actor Jimmy Stewart, was released to generally favorable reviews. This obviously resulted in a great deal of publicity for Williams, and afterward he would routinely sign black-and-white glossy prints of himself with the moniker "Carbine Williams."

Williams did a bit of consultant work for some firearm manufacturing firms for a period of time before retiring and spending the rest of his days in North Carolina. David Marshall Williams passed away on Jan. 8, 1975 at the age 74.

The design that was to become the MI carbine was very much a product of the entire Winchester organization. The short-stroke gas piston designed by David M. Williams was an integral part of the little rifle, but any claim that he "invented" the M1 carbine is without merit.

This is not to denigrate Williams' abilities in any way, as he was clearly a man with an unquestioned innate talent for firearm design. His inspiring life story of going from a convict to a noted arms designer in a few years is truly an American success story. It must also be remembered that there are "two sides to every story" regarding Williams' stormy association with the Winchester organization. The chief executive of Winchester considered Williams to be a talented and gifted arms designer but felt he was a major distraction to the smooth operation of Winchester in general, and the M1 carbine development program in particular.

Williams, on the other hand, apparently felt that he was not given the deference and recognition he was due and believed that the company was trying to steal his ideas without credit or just compensation. Perhaps, there was a bit of truth in both positions, Williams was undoubtedly a gifted individual who overcame a great deal of adversity. While he clearly didn't "invent" the M1 carbine, his place in firearm history should not be slighted or forgotten. He was a most unusual and, in some ways, remarkable man.

The M1 Carbine was made in larger numbers in a shorter time frame than any other U.S. military arm. But the little gun's career didn't end with Germany and Japan's surrender, as most were rebuilt and made ready for service again in Korea, Vietnam and around the world.

The gun that holds the distinction of being manufactured in greater numbers than any other United States' military small arm of World War II is the ubiquitous .30-cal. M1 carbine. The carbine had been developed just prior to America's entry into World War II as a replacement for the handgun in the hands of officers and other military personnel whose duties often precluded a standard service rifle as their primary armament.

While it never succeeded in its envisioned role as a replacement for the M1911A1 .45 ACP pistol, the carbine soon became something of a "niche" arm. It possessed several desirable attributes, including light weight (just over 51bs.), great handling characteristics and generous magazine capacity. Soon after its adoption and initial issue to the troops, one early U.S. Army Ordnance Department report revealed that: "Army Ordnance officers state that the carbine is one of the most popular weapons they have ever issued to the service."

Demand for the carbine was far greater than originally anticipated and, eventually, production contracts were awarded to 10 firms for its manufacture. Interestingly, only one prime contractor (Winchester Repeating Arms Co.) had manufactured firearms prior to World War II.

The firms selected for carbine production were an eclectic mix, and their pre-war products ranged from jukeboxes, to postal meters to office machines. The prime contractors used a wide array of subcontractors to supply most of the parts. This permitted production rates that would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier. The various contractors turned out the staggering total of 6,221,220 carbines from mid-1941 to mid-1945.

Before World War II, the Rock-Ola Mfg. Corp. in Chicago was best known for its jukeboxes. After America entered the war, Rock-Ola became part of the "Arsenal of Democracy," making U.S. Ml carbines. Accounting for less than 4 percent of the total.

The Rock-Ola Scale Co. was founded in 1927 by David C. Rockola. As the years passed, the small Chicago firm grew and began producing other products. In 1932 the name was changed to Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corp. Mr. Rockola indicated that he added the hyphen as people were prone to mispronounce the name.

By the 1930s, Rock-Ola was manufacturing a wide array of products including scales, parking meters, pinball machines and furniture. However, in the eyes of the public, the firm became most closely associated with coin-operated jukeboxes. Large numbers of Rock-Ola jukeboxes were in use from the mid-1930s into the 1950s and well beyond.

When the United States entered World War II, vast amounts of war materiel were needed and virtually all manufacturing entities were contacted regarding potential military production contracts. Rock-Ola was no exception, and the company was approached in very early 1942 regarding the possibility of becoming involved in the M1 carbine production program.

Initially, Rock-Ola was going to produce only carbine barrels, but the U.S. Army Ordnance Department requested that the company manufacture complete carbines. After receiving the necessary drawings and other production information, the Rock-Ola Company stated that it could manufacture them at a maximum per-unit price of $58.

To this end, a contract was granted on March 21, 1942, to Rock-Ola for 100,000 M1 carbines. The company also received contracts to supply barrels to other prime contractors, mainly its Chicago neighbor Quality Hardware Machine Corp.

As was the case with most of the other prime contractors, Rock-Ola experienced a great deal of difficulty obtaining the production tooling and qualified machinists necessary for firearm manufacture. In order to boost production and cut costs,

Rock-Ola, like the other prime contractors, utilized a large network of subcontractors to produce many of the parts required. Since the company was well versed in fabricating wooden cabinets for its jukeboxes and other products, Rock-Ola made its own carbine stocks and handguards. The company also manufactured stocks and handguards for other carbine prime contractors, again primarily Quality Hardware.

Despite many problems, delays and setbacks, Rock-Ola was eventually able to get into production. The firm's initial batch of barrels was finished in December 1942, and the first completed carbines were delivered in February 1943. Even before the company delivered its first carbine, it was awarded supplemental contracts for an additional 152,746 carbines with a daily production goal of 1,500.

While the carbine was never intended to replace the standard service rifle, many combat soldiers chose it over the M1 Garand because of the carbine's light weight and greater magazine capacity. Once in combat, however, some soldiers' perception of the carbine changed when it was discovered that it lacked range, power and accuracy as compared to the Garand. Nevertheless, large numbers of carbines were used in front-line service in all theaters of the war.

Despite its shortcomings, the carbine proved to be popular, and by the end of the war the carbine was firmly entrenched as an important part of Uncle Sam's small-arms arsenal. Given the huge number of carbines produced, there were a sufficient number of the guns in inventory to supply any projected post-war demand, so no "G.I." carbines were manufactured after 1945.

With the outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula in 1950, the carbine was soon called back into service, and large numbers of them rebuilt after World War II were used in the conflict. Many, but by no means all, of these carbines were of the selective-fire variety, and both M1 and M2 (original or converted) carbines saw widespread use from the time of the Korean War well into the Vietnam War era. Many carbines were also supplied to our South Korean allies.

Carbines were in the hands of many American military "advisors" during the initial stages of the Vietnam War, and they were widely used by the South Vietnamese, who appreciated their small size, light weight and lack of heavy recoil. Carbines saw widespread use around the globe well into the 1980s (and beyond), especially in Central and South America.

Despite sometimes being thought of as exclusively a World War II arm, the carbine's post-war tenure was actually much longer than many people may realize. The Ordnance Department's refurbishment of the carbine, which included the addition of improved components, resulted in giving the design a "new lease on life" and extended its service with the U.S. military decades beyond what was originally envisioned.

Bruce Canfield. The First Garands. American Rifleman. September 2011.

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