This week, Michael Taylor, Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany, returns to offer an interesting argument about the longterm impact of the M1 Garand, the US army’s extremely successful World War II and Korean era battle rifle, introduced in 1936. A fantastically successful design, Taylor argues here that it cast a baleful shadow over a generation of subsequent US rifle development.
And with that, over to Michael…
How the United States developed the best battle rifle of World War II, and missed having an assault rifle by a generation
The M1 Garand is correctly considered the best battle rifle of World War II. It was the only semi-automatic rifle––meaning that it fired each time the operator pulled the trigger––to be the standard issue infantry rifle of any army during the war. Other forces were equipped with bolt-action rifles––the British Lee Enfield, Soviet Mosin Nagat, Japanese Type 99, German K98, etc.–––that required the operator to manually pull back a bolt to eject the clip, and then push it forward again to insert a fresh cartridge into the chamber. The most obvious advantage was an increased rate of fire: a semiautomatic rifleman with an M1 had an official aimed rate of fire of 24 shots per minute.1 Compare this to the 15 aimed shots that British soldiers were expected to pop off with a bolt-action Lee Enfield in a “mad minute” drill. And the Lee Enfield was one of the fastest bolt-action rifles ever produced! In a pinch, a GI could blast out a clip in a few seconds, approximating a burst from an automatic weapon.2 Furthermore, with semi-automatic fire, the shooter could stay focused on his target, whereas working the bolt generally forced the shooter off target, requiring time to reacquire a proper sight picture.
Lt. General George Patton famously called the M1 Garand “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” a quote often repeated reverently in the context of World War II nostalgia. The US Government after the war gave away millions of M1 Garands, making it a popular civilian rifle for hunting and competitive shooting.
But nostalgia aside, it is also possible to view, from the high perch of hindsight, the M1 Garand as a missed opportunity. The most advanced battle rifle of World War II ultimately looked back too much to the past rather than pointing the way to the future. During its development, senior military officials applied the perceived lessons of the Spanish American War to a rifle designed to solve the problems of the Great War. This intervention prevented the M1 Garand from becoming something closer to a modern assault rifle, with an intermediate power cartridge and higher magazine capacity. The army was in no hurry to ditch the rifle that had won World War II, meaning that the United States did not field its first true assault rifle until two decades after the concept had been invented by the Germans in 1943 and soon successfully adapted by the Soviets in 1947. The first American assault rifle, the M16, would not debut until 1965.
First a necessary caveat: rifles were not the decisive weapon in World War II. For the most part the small arms deployed by the United States had been designed to fight World War I: the Browning Automatic Rifle (1918), the M 1919 Browning Medium Machine Gun (as the date implies, first fielded in 1919) and the M2 Browning heavy machine gun, designed in 1918 and so good it is still used over a century later. In contrast, German machine guns were somewhat more recent in design: the MG 34 (as the name implies, first fielded 1934) and the MG 42. During the war, the Germans invented the first true assault rifle, the StG 44.
The secret sauce of the US Army by 1944-45 had little to do with firearms at all: it was a combination of ready mobility through motorization combined with deadly artillery and close air support, enabled by an unmatched communication system that allowed forward observers to direct and adjust fires to lethal effect. The American way of war was rooted in fleets of trucks and jeeps, networks of radios and heaps of shells. Having a nice semi-automatic rifle was ancillary to a conflict like World War II. But the M1 Garand is a useful window into the vagaries of military procurement and technological innovation, which require developers to at once predict the operational environment of the future and analyze the lessons of the past.
Throughout the 1920s, officers at the Infantry School in Fort Benning experimented with new tactics that they hoped would again allow for mobile infantry combat and avoid the trench stalemate of World War I. The basic solution was some form of “fire and maneuver,” in which one section of a unit (say a squad or platoon) would lay down a sufficient base of small arms fire to suppress the enemy so as to facilitate the other section’s advance. By alternating suppression and assault the element might leapfrog its way forward, even against entrenched enemy machine guns.
For such a tactic to work, infantry platoons needed a lot of firepower. Some might come from light machine guns, like the Browning Automatic Rifle, which was issued to individual infantry squads. But it was generally realized that individual infantrymen needed to be capable of a far higher rate of fire than could be provided by the standard issue rifle, the bolt-action M1903 Springfield, fed from a five round magazine. To this end, the US government set about developing a semi-automatic rifle.
The charge was taken up by John C. Garand, a Canadian-born, self taught firearms designer who worked for the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts. Garand’s solution to make the rifle self-loading was to insert a piston beneath the barrel. When the gunpowder exploded in the cartridge, the gas produced in the explosion propelled the bullet out the barrel. But some gas was bled off into a cylinder below the barrel (which gives the M1 its peculiar appearance of seeming to have two barrels); the pressure of the gas in the cylinder drove a piston.3 This piston attached to an operating rod which pushed the bolt of the rifle back, ejecting a the spent bullet casing, and allowing a spring in the in the internal magazine to insert another bullet into the chamber before a separate spring pushed the operating rod forward and closed the bolt for the next shot, all in a fraction of a second.
Garand had initially worked on a rifle chambering the standard .30-06 cartridge used by the M1903 Springfield rifle (the .30 indicates that the bullet had a diameter of .30 inches, while the 06 indicates that the cartridge had been adopted in 1906; the round is often pronounced “thirty-ought-six.” But when a rival designer named John Pedersen, also affiliated with Springfield Armory, developed a semi-automatic design that chambered a lighter .276 (7mm) round, Garand retooled his project for the lighter round as well, producing a prototype known as the T3, with subsequent refinements labeled the T3E1 and T3E2. The smaller round meant that the internal magazine of the T3E1/2 could accept clips of 10 bullets, doubling the magazine capacity of the M1903 Springfield.
Army officials were very interested in the new round, but wanted proof that a lighter bullet would be sufficiently lethal in combat. A series of grisly ballistic tests were therefore ordered, pitting the .276 round against the traditional .30-06. In 1928, anesthetized pigs were shot through with both rounds. To the surprise and consternation of traditionalists, the .276 did far more damage in the so-called “Pig Board.” This is not paradoxical: the lighter round was more likely to “tumble,” precisely because it was lighter and so more likely to have its trajectory disrupted by bone and tissue; the tumble meant that more of the kinetic energy was expended inside the target, causing far more damage. The .30-06, meanwhile, as a more powerful round, was more likely to punch clean through, retaining its kinetic energy to keep moving forward after passing through the target. Eventually, tests of this sort would be used to sell the army on the lethality of the 5.56mm round used by the M16/M4, which has an even greater tumble, and causes even more grievous injuries. Out of concern that the fat bodies of pigs did not accurately replicate the human teenagers that the new round was designed to kill, a new test was inflicted upon goats, seen as more appropriately lean and therefore better analogs. The result was the same in favor of the .276 (a lighter .256 performed even better). With two rounds of tests vindicating the .276, the Army demanded that its new rifle chamber the .30-06. The final decision was made by Douglas MacArthur himself.
The .30-06 round itself had been the product of a painful lesson learned during the Spanish American War. Here, American troops, armed with Krag M1892 rifles, had found themselves badly out-ranged by Spanish troops armed with Mausers; the famous charge up San Juan Hill occurred after US troops had advanced for some distance under a hail of unanswered rifle fire. Given the importance of sharp shooting to the American military mythos, getting handily outranged and outshot by Spanish forces was a painful embarrassment. The first order of business had been to adopt the Mauser design: the M1903 Springfield was essentially a modified Mauser, as the US government had licensed a number of Mauser’s patents. By upgrading the M1903 to take the heavy .30-06 round, the Army ensured that soldiers could engage targets over a kilometer away. Beyond the deeply ingrained “lessons learned” from the Spanish American War, the mythos of the deadly American sharpshooter was strongly entrenched. Even as disruptors at Benning developed new infantry tactics that stressed volume of fire over accuracy, the phantoms of buck skinned frontiersmen sniping at British redcoats from a thousand paces still occupied the headspace of military leaders; they wanted a rifle with long distance accuracy. The sights on the M1 Garand adjust out to 1200 yards.
But MacArthur’s reasoning seems to have been primarily motivated by administrative and logistical concerns, as he cited the generic difficulties of fielding a lighter round. Some of these challenges may have been related to production and distribution of a sufficient stockpile of new caliber ammunition. There may have also been a concern with the new round complicating the logistics of line companies. The army also used .30-06 for the BAR and Browning medium machine gun, and having all of these shoot the same round in theory simplified the supply of line companies, and allowed for cross-leveling between weapons systems. Similar concerns have the US Army maintaining a policy of only having 5.56mm weapons at the squad level (thus the M4 and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon both shoot 5.56, and the SAW can shoot from M4 magazines).4 Still, MacArthur’s concerns seem unfounded in hindsight. The United States was about to produce billions of bullets during World War II. American troops were about to be so lavishly supplied that distributing two types of bullets would have been readily feasible given the soon to be proven quality of American logistics.5
With MacArthur’s edict, Garand retooled his rifle back to the .30-06 caliber, and his design was finally accepted in 1936. But the larger and more powerful round required a design change: the internal magazine now took clips of eight bullets instead of ten. Two rounds may not sound like much, but every bullet can be precious in a firefight, and this represented a 20% reduction in magazine capacity. Spread over a company sized element, the reduced clip capacity represented over two-thousand fewer rounds that a company commander could expect to fire and maneuver with. Indeed, the M1’s volume of fire proved generally insufficient to suppress the enemy on its own during the war, evidenced by the habit of equipping rifle squads with two Browning Automatic Rifles, instead of one. Marine divisions by the end of the war often deployed three BARs per squad.6
Would the M1 have performed better had it been a .276 with 10 round magazine? This is obviously a counterfactual: the M1 was appreciated for its accuracy and reliability, and the heavy round contributed to both, as the excess powder charge provided ample energy to pump back the operating rod even if the rifle was gunked up with sand or mud. It was, however, also an evolutionary dead-end in terms of the trajectory of 20th century small arms. Most infantry firefights in World War II took place at relatively close range, usually well within 300 meters. There was thus little use in training soldiers to shoot at 1000 meter targets, as soldiers generally could hardly see that far under combat conditions. The war also reinforced the importance of suppressive fire (already well appreciated by the interwar Benning tacticians), especially in low visibility conditions like smoke-filled cities or the thick foliage of Pacific jungles. The use of “marching fire,” a tactic encouraged by General Patton, saw GIs firing rounds from the hip or armpit every few steps as they advanced towards enemy positions; for such a tactic accuracy was limited but rate of fire and ammunition supply mattered a great deal.
A selective fire rifle (capable of both semi and fully automatic fire by toggling a switch) that fires intermediate-powered rounds is what today is referred to as an assault rifle, now universally the standard issue infantry weapon. The first assault rifle is generally considered the Sturmgewehr 44, developed by Germany, although bureaucratic infighting and Hitler’s sporadic personal micromanagement meant that it was initially classified as a submachine gun, the MP 43.7 The rifle, however, fired an intermediate round substantially more powerful and accurate than the pistol bullets fired by a submachine gun. After the design proved itself on the Eastern front it was renamed the StG 44; “Sturm” here means a military “assault” rather than a meteorological event, thus the name literally translates to “Assault Rifle of ‘44.”
The fact that Germany invented the assault rifle reinforces the caveat that small arms were not the decisive aspect of the war. Despite the StG 44, Germany lost the war handily, the sort of thing that you might expect to happen when a megalomaniac tries to conquer the world with an army that still relies on horse-drawn artillery.8 But, when American infantrymen engaged in firefights with their German counterparts, they often found themselves outgunned. The individual GI with an M1 Garand could handily outshoot a German soldier with a bolt-action K98 Mauser. But the Germans, owing to experience on the eastern front, issued their soldiers with a greater weapons density of machine guns, submachine guns and the new “Assault Rifle,” which generally made the typical German infantry platoon or company capable of a higher rate of fire compared to its American counterpart. The American solution was to rely on the killing power of their vastly superior artillery.
But the M1 had been sufficient to win the war, and therefore the US was in no hurry to replace it after 1945. But satisfaction was an impediment to innovation. By the late 1940s the Soviet Union, which had issued its infantry the clunky Mosin Nagat during the war, approved an automatic rifle in 1947 that was perfected and widely fielded in the early 1950s: the AK 47, which chambered an intermediate power round (7.62mm x 39mm), held a 20 (later 30) round detachable magazine and was capable of both semi-automatic and fully automatic fire.9 In 1947, the US still fielded the M1 Garand, and would do so for another decade.
Furthermore, when it came time to replace the M1, path dependency reigned supreme. The US did not try to develop an assault rifle like the AK 47. Rather it simply tried to combine the M1 Garand and the BAR. The result was the M14, which was essentially a modified M1, but fed from a 20 round detachable magazine and capable of both semi-automatic and fully automatic fire (like the BAR), now chambered for the NATO 7.62 x 51mm round (i.e. .30 caliber, with similar ballistics to the .30-06). The M14 was an improvement over the M1, but it was still a Battle Rifle, firing a heavy round accurate to over 1000 meters.10
When the M14 was officially fielded in 1957, US advisors in Vietnam were encountering North Vietnamese troops armed with Chinese-made AK 47s. The deficiency of the M14 was soon apparent: the rifle’s heavy bullet made it uncontrollable when set to automatic fire, so much so that most selector switches were permanently welded to “semi.” The heavy round was largely irrelevant in jungle combat where firefights generally took place at close range. Unhappiness with the M14 caused the US to hastily field the M16 in 1965, a true assault rifle chambering an intermediate 5.56mm round. The chaotic fielding of the M16 at the start of the US escalation led to serious teething issues, with numerous complaints about jamming in combat, although these were mostly fixed within the first year. More seriously, much of the fighting was done by South Vietnamese troops, often armed with surplus M1 Garands or M14s. These were severely outgunned by NVA/VC troops and their AK 47s, one reason (among many) that South Vietnamese units struggled on their own and constantly required the assistance of US forces, no matter how badly the United States wanted to extract itself from the quagmire.
One can imagine a counterfactual history: the US army adopts Pedersen’s .276 round, and John Garand’s T3E2 becomes the M1 Rifle. It would not be a great step to then modify this rifle with a magazine and selective fire capacity, more controllable thanks to the lighter round. Indeed, we know that this assault rifle might have looked like, as eventually a “Mini 14” was developed in the 1970s by Ruger, taking the Garand/M14 design and chambering the 5.56mm. The Mini 14 was sold on the civilian market, and was widely used as a police carbine into the 1990s.
In this counterfactual, the US developed an Mini-14 type assault rifle at the same time as the Soviets adopted the AK47, and was able to not only equip its own forces, but also its Cold War auxiliaries. Even if the very different M16 design was still adopted in the mid-sixties (the M16/M4 is generally considered superior to the Mini-14), there would have been less need to push the untested design out to frontline units, so that the M16’s teething tragedies in 1965/66 would have been avoided. At the same time, it is unclear that anything big would have changed in this counterfactual world. The US still would have won World War II handily, and almost surely would have still lost Vietnam.
The US, in hindsight, made a modest mistake in the 1930s that impacted the trajectory of its infantry rifles for the next generation. But despite being a generation late developing the assault rifle, the United States out-innovated the Soviet Union in almost every other aspect of military and domestic technology, to the point that I am writing this in the United States of America and the Soviet Union no longer exists. This essay has teased out some of the vagaries and contingencies that come with the development of military technology, and the path dependencies that can result from historical choices, even around successful designs. The United States fielded the best battle rifle of World War II, and in the process missed developing an assault rifle by a generation.
Editor’s Note: Michael has also added a couple of interesting addendums to this essay, which I will share here.
Addendum 1: A second missed opportunity.
During World War II, the US also developed the M111 Carbine, a short, light semi-automatic rifle issued to officers and non-combat personnel as a self-defense weapon. The rifle had an intermediate .30-30 round, accurate to around 300 meters, and a 15 round detachable magazine. If you think that this sounds like a proto-assault rifle––you’re right! And indeed, some soldiers appreciated its lightness (5 lbs), agility and brisk rate of fire. The M1 Carbine was supposedly Audie Murphy’s weapon of choice. But the cartridge on the M1 carbine was on the weak-side, and the round had a tendency to drop past 200 meters. This was because the carbine had been deliberately developed as a weapon for support troops––who otherwise might have only been armed with a pistol–– and so the underpowered, “sporting” round was not seen as a liability.12 A slightly more powerful round for the M1 carbine might have allowed the US to stumble upon an assault rifle through a second path. In many ways, the US fell into a Goldilocks paradox with its semi-automatic small arms: the cartridge for the M1 Garand was too heavy but the cartridge for the M1 Carbine was too light.
Addendum 2: Loading, Ejection and Discontents
The internal magazine of the M1 Garand was charged by inserting an en-bloc clip. This was a significant improvement over the way bolt action rifles were loaded, by using disposable stipper clips, which can stick, especially in the muck and panic of combat. The en-bloc clip pops in nicely, although with several minor drawbacks. The first is that pushing down on the clip risked having the bolt, which was automatically released by the process, smash forward onto the careless operator’s thumb, giving rise to the term “M1 thumb” to describe the condition of a digit bruised in the process. Secondly, the en-bloc clip ejected with the last bullet, making a distinctive *ping.* The drawbacks of the ping are often overstated. World War II battlefields were so cacophonous that most Axis troops probably never heard an M1 ping over the din. Indeed, modern soldiers in urban combat are trained to yell loudly to their squadmates when they need to reload so that their buddies can cover them in the process. But GIs obviously disliked a rifle that audibly announced when it was out of ammo. Perhaps more seriously, it was very hard to top off a partially spent clip of an M1. It can be done, but requires two hands to hold the bolt and insert the rounds, and is far easier to do on a range than in a foxhole. As a result, GIs tended to either eject and replace a partially spent clip, or if they neglected to do so, carry on with fewer than eight rounds in their rifle.13 A detachable magazine would have been far preferable. Curiously, early prototypes developed by John Garand featured a detachable magazine (his T1919), but the US Army was vehemently opposed to this feature. During the early 20th century there was general hesitation to trust soldiers with detachable magazines for fear they would lose them (the theoretically detachable magazine on the British Lee Enfield was initially chained to the rifle!). As a result, John Garand abandoned the magazine for an en-bloc clip relatively early in his design process. This in hindsight was a mistake: already by the end of the World War II there were experimental prototypes adding a detachable magazine onto the M1 design, including the T20, designed by John Garand himself.
- TM 9-1005-222-12.
- Thus George Wilson, a platoon leader and later company commander in the Fourth Infantry Division, describing a platoon scout stumbling upon the enemy: “The second scout emptied the eight round clip in his M-1 so fast it seemed like a machine gun….the rest of us moved very cautiously and found three dead enemy soldiers in the road.” (G. Wilson. If You Survive. Ivy, 1987).
- John Garand’s initial design, and early production M1s, had a gas trap inserted over the muzzle to catch the gas after the bullet had exited; when this proved prone to fouling, a design modification drilled a small hole in the barrel just before the muzzle to allow the gas to bleed into the cylinder, most M1 Garands had this “gas port” system.
- In 2023, US Army infantry will begin transition to the M7 carbine and M250 Squad Automatic weapon, which will both use a 6.8mm bullet, out of concerns that the 5.56 NATO is insufficient to penetrate body armor.
- Editor’s Note: I agree with Michael here in principle: US logistics could have managed this. But I would also note that part of the reason American logistics were so good is that they applied MacArthur’s reasoning to everything, reusing vehicle chassis, limiting the number of different ammunition calibers and demanding interchangeable parts across the whole range of military equipment. Take one of those decisions away and the whole still function. Take all of them away and one ends up with the mess that was German production and logistics.
- Editor’s Note: BAR goes BARRRRRRRRRRR.
- MP is short for maschinenpistole, literally a “machine pistol,” the German term for a submachine gun.
- Editor’s Note: “Look at you! You have horses! What were you thinking!?” But seriously, the Wehrmacht was a lot less motorized and mechanized than popular culture often imagines. The Germans invaded Russia with more horses than trucks.
- Short for Automat Kalashnikova “Kalashnikov’s automatic,” after its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov.
- The M14 remains in limited US service today as a rifle for special operators and designated marksmen.
- In the 1930s, a decision was made to scrap designations based on the year of adoption (i.e. M1903 Springfield) and number military equipment by iteration of type. So the M1 rifle was the first battle rifle adopted in the new schema, and the M1 carbine was the first carbine rifle adopted, and so on.
- Thus Paul Fussell, a platoon leader in the 103rd Infantry Division: “It was handy and cute, resembling, one authority has observed, ‘a sporting arm’ more than a military rifle. But before the war had run its course, many officers found themselves abandoning it in favor of the more heavyweight M-1 rifle. It was less chic but its bullet could penetrate many more feet of wood at once, and many more enemy bodies.” (Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. Oxford, 1989, pp. 8).
- George Wilson, as a fresh second lieutenant, forgot to reload his M1 when he was down to three bullets, and suddenly found himself confronted by a German soldier, emptying the entire clip into him. While he regretted this rookie mistake, he expressed relief that his burst of three bullets had only wounded the German, who was then captured, while a full eight round burst would have surely killed the boy. (If You Survive, Ivy 1987).