Michael Taylor on The Development of the M1 Garand and its Implications

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.

Via Wikipedia, the M1 Garand.

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.

Via Wikipedia, a M1903 Springfield. Note the bolt action.

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.

Via the Springfield Armory (as part of the National Park Service), John Garand with an M1 Rifle.

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

GIs from the 30th Infantry Division engage the enemy with M1 rifles through a hedgerow near Mortain, France, August 1944.

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.

Via Wikipedia, the StG 44, generally considered the first assault rifle.

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

Via Wikipedia, the M14 Rifle, essentially an updated M1 Garand with a 20 round magazine and modified gas system, chambering the 7.62 NATO.

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.  

Via Wikipedia, a Mini-14, essentially the assault rifle version with a modified Garand design, mostly used by police forces and prison guards in the late 20th century.

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.

  1. TM 9-1005-222-12.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Editor’s Note: BAR goes BARRRRRRRRRRR.
  7. MP is short for maschinenpistole, literally a “machine pistol,” the German term for a submachine gun.
  8. 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.
  9. Short for Automat Kalashnikova “Kalashnikov’s automatic,” after its designer, Mikhail Kalashnikov.
  10. The M14 remains in limited US service today as a rifle for special operators and designated marksmen.
  11. 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.
  12. 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).
  13. 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).

107 thoughts on “Michael Taylor on The Development of the M1 Garand and its Implications

  1. “the only semi-automatic rifle (…) to be the standard issue infantry rifle of any army”

    Bit of an offtopic to the very intersting article, but one would believe that over 3 milion Russian infantrymen armed with AWS, SWD (Diegtiariow’s, not post-war Dragunow’s sniper rifle) and SWT semiautomatics, plus their German counterparts on the receiving end would have strong opinions about that statement 🙂

    1. The SVT-40 was issued, and in considerable numbers, but it wasn’t the *standard* issue infantry rifle of the Red Army. IIRC the eve-of-Barbarossa TO&E said a third of the infantry was supposed to have SVTs, but in practice the numbers were lower, sometimes considerably so. And that got worse,* not better, as the war continued.

      *Well, “worse” from the perspective of the SVT. Probably better from the perspective of the infantryman, since the change was mostly in favor of submachinegun production, and that put a lot more useful firepower in the infantryman’s hands. Sure, all-semiauto is a nice goal, but given the choice I’d rather go into a fight with a mix of bolt-action rifles and subguns than all Garands or SVTs. (As, indeed, we see the all-semiauto American military figure out once they got into the fight: subguns were in high demand, and I think a lot of the popularity of the M1 Carbine was also down to the same sort of close-range firepower: it was more controllable and the big detachable magazines made it handier as well.)

      1. “Sure, all-semiauto is a nice goal, but given the choice I’d rather go into a fight with a mix of bolt-action rifles and subguns than all Garands or SVTs”
        But… that is precisely what russian doctrine aimed for at the time – not “all uniformed equimpent”, but a roughly 50/50 mix of bolt action/semiauto rifles and submachineguns.

        Thus it’s also impossible to claim the large number of SWT and SWD issued wasn’t “a standard” for RKKA.

    2. The SVT-40 was issued, and in considerable numbers (though I think your estimate is extremely generous: most sources seem to put total production closer to 1.5 million than 3, and the other rifles were produced in much smaller numbers than that) but it was never the *standard* issue rifle of the Red Army. At its peak, rather less than a third of the infantry had SVTs.

      1. That’s rather the inability of soviets – SVT-38 and SVT-40 were very much intended as standard armament of infantryman, and with over a million produced, basically the only checkmark missed for “standard” label is “issued to everyone and their dog”.

        And just saying that no-one but americans had mass-produced semi-auto’s in WW2 allows for inaccurate conclusions later on as to why soviets had AK in 40’s and americans only caught up in 60’s with M4 (“Unlucky coincidence and stupid government officials, I swear!”).

        How I’d go about it? Well, americans had their interwar design competitions with prevailing opinions favoring full-power round, and then they built up a lot of M1’s, so quite understandably there was little appetite for new rifles.
        Soviets gunsmiths, from Fyodorov and onwards, throughout interbellum concluded that new intermediate cartridge was needed, even if the state couldn’t manage (pay for) such a transition at the time, hence AVS-36/38 and SVT-38/40.
        Then you have mid-WW2 and post-WW2 developments, where RKKA needed better weapons urgently after winning WW2 with stopgaps like PPSh, and there not being large amounts of SVTs since they ended up too expensive to fight a war with.
        Thus soviets adopt first SKS as standard infantry firearm, and AK after – so for soviet infantry firearm development its a transition from full-power bolt-action to full-power semi-auto rifle to intermediate cartridge semi-auto carbine to assault rifle at least in concepts and wants of army brass.

        The article misses all that, and thus it’s “americans made a mistake in the 30’s”, where at closest it should be “americans made a mistake in the 50’s with M14”.

    3. There was also SKS, invented just two years before AK-47, but still the standard-issue semi-automatic carbine of the RKKA for a few years.

  2. In the 1920s, the Army experimented with the Remington Model 8 semi-automatic rifle in .30 Remington. An even earlier chance blown!

    1. Pretty much. It refers to the relevant manual. In this case I think “TM” means “Training Manual”, Full Title: “TM 9-1005-222-12 Operator and Organizational Maintenance Manual Rifle, Caliber .30: M 1, M 1 C (Sniper’s) and M 1 D (Sniper’s)m for a combat problem.”

      Internet Archive has it here:


      (Caveat: I’m not a firearms expert, so there is undoubtedly some detail wrong with the above.)

      1. If I might be a bit pedantic here, TM stands for Technical Manual. US Army publications traditionally have been broken down into Technical Manuals (TM’s on care and feeding of equipment), Field Manuals (FM’s on operational issues), and to a lesser extent Training Circulars (TC’s).

      1. If I can be a bit pedantic here, TM is Technical Manual. The traditional breakdown for US Army publications has been FM (Field Manuals for operational issues), TM (Technical Manuals for care and feeding of equipment), and (somewhat less common), Training Circulars.

  3. As a general aside, I dislike the term assault rifle for its emotional manipulation by using the word assault. By that definition all guns are assault guns, as they all assault their target.

    A battle rifle is at least a functional description to differentiate it from a hunting rifle, but that said given how many M1 were sold to the civilian market as hunting rifles, it too lacks functional clarity.

    The operational difference is whether the gun is reloaded by pulling the bolt or has a mechanism that does this for the operator. This further sub-divides into semi-automatic (single shot for each trigger pull), or fully automatic (bullets fired as long as the trigger is pulled back).

    Then the main difference between a fully automatic rifle and machine gun is the ability to sustain fire, which is a combination of choice that start with how the bullets are fed into the chamber to maintain sustained fire like open, and other options like firing from and open or closed bolt, and or interchangeable barrels etc. (its all about trade-offs).

    1. Assault rifles are called such because they are handy in (military) assault, being good at suppression and cover fire. There’s no emotional manipulation here, just polysemy.

      1. Though given that “assault rifle,” “assault weapon,” and “assault gun” mean three different things, I’m inclined to agree that a name change might help clarity. But I suspect that ship has sailed and we’re stuck with the current nomenclature.

        1. The term “assault weapon” was invented in the 1990s to confuse people and help push more gun control measures in the US.

          It is A Bit different from things that have definite and defining features, as assault rifles and assault guns do.

      2. I believe “assault-rifle” is a (“piecewise”) translation of Sturm-gewehr. The “assault” is unambiguously in the military sense.

        However, given that the terms “machine gun” existed since ~1900 and “machine pistol” (“submachine gun” in English) since WW1 at the latest, and furthermore that (admittedly post-WW2) most non-English languages very descriptively termed this new class of weapon “machine carbine”, the WW2 German choice to name their new weapon “Sturmgewehr” strikes me as deliberately poetic/theatrical. Notice that translating it as “attack gun” would be about as accurate as “assault rifle”. No, don’t just defend, go on the offensive, this weapon is for advancing.

        (Incidentally, the shortage of terms for new classes of firearms continues. For instance, personal defence weapon is an awful description even if the primary use case is the same sort of troop that in WW1 carried the M1 Carbine. Less teleology in nomenclature, please.)

        1. There is no poetic license in the term Sturmgewehr; it stems from the German army’s preponderance to designate, equip and train dedicated “assault units” specifically for offensive operations. These units generally received more heavy equipment and were also often more mobile than their “regular” fellow infantry units. It is these units that would receive the small smattering of assault rifles the German war industry managed to produce until the end of the war in Europe.

          1. I think you are confusing WW1 with WW2. The “Sturmgruppe” assault units were a WW1 development, not WW2. And it isn’t true AFAIK that the MP43/StG44 went predominantly to special “assault units”. They went, first of all, to the Waffen-SS, as MP43s; they were only renamed “Sturmgewehr” after many had already been issued. (Almost half a million were produced before the end of the war; something more than a smattering!)

            And the name, in this context, is not a coincidence. Pretty much every SS rank included the word “Sturm” – Sturmbannfuhrer, Hauptsturmfuhrer, etc. Even “Sturmarzt” – “assault doctor”. It seems likely that the renaming was indeed a bit of ‘poetic licence’ or ’emotional manipulation’ to link the new rifle with the German supposedly-elite troops.

          2. I would have replied to ajay below but the site won’t let me nest that deep – I think Sturm as a German technical military term is older even than WW1. Already back in the days of Landsknechts, there are sources that describe the armies as composed of Landwehr, Landsturm, Auszug among other terms.

        2. I’d say that it’s extremely common to call a firearm such as an M1903 Springfield or M1 Garand as a rifle, and the Gewhr 98 is the direct peer of the M1903, so translating Sturmgewehr as Assault Rifle is entirely in accordance with standard English to me.

        3. Just because terminology isn’t complicated enough otherwise, the Swiss army since 1945 went through two generations of rifles both named Sturmgewehr, the Stgw 57 (also known as SIG 510 for export) and the Stgw 90 (SIG 550).

          But the former is a battle rifle taking 7.5mm GP11 ammo, and the latter is an assult rifle if you go by ammo sizes, taking 5.56mm.

    2. As a lawyer by trade, bullets don’t actually assault people, they batter them. Assault is an apprehension of imminent harm, while a battery is the physical contact. Hence Assault and Battery charges. I ended up being pedantic and I apologize but the Assault term is used incorrectly so often and is a pet peeve of mine. It’s like saying literally all the time…

      1. Sounds to me that the soldier’s trade and the lawyers trade simply have different uses for the word ‘assault’

        much as I enjoy from the economists trade hectoring people on what is or isn’t a ‘public good’

      2. They do both! Suppression is actually what makes offensive movement possible, so the fact that assault rifles enable assaults (in the military sense) is entirely because of their use for assaults (in the legal sense: making defending troops keep their heads down because of incoming fire which is not actually meant to kill or injure.)

      3. Battery has its own use in the military, being a group of artillery pieces.
        It might be confusing to refer to a carried weapon by that term.

      4. That’s the meaning in legal jargon, it has different meanings in different contexts.
        While legal jargon is special in that technically, everyone has to deal with it, you still can’t insist that just because it has that meaning in your jargon, that’s the only correct meaning.

        While I’m also annoyed when what was originally a technical term gets misused in a vaguely related manner by the general public, in this case, various specific meanings have existed for a long time, and I have no idea whether the military or legal term might be older. They probably both derive from the general popular word, whatever it’s meaning was at the time.

    3. As noted above, the first such weapon would seem to have been the StG44 an abbreviation of Sturmgewehr 44. This would seem to mean something like “Storm gun 44”.

      But the Germans liked to talk about storming things when an english-speaking army would have said it was assaulting them. Hence “Sturmartillerie” instead of “Assault gun”, “Sturmtruppen” instead of “Assault troops” and so on.

      So a literal translation of “Sturmgeweh” might have been “Assault gun”, but that was already used to translate “Sturmartillerie”, logically leading to the obvious, and in any case more precise, translation of “Assault rifle”.

      If history had gone a little differently and the British had developed the first such weapon, I suppose they would have called it a “machine carbine”, because was what they called submachine guns at the time. Then you could have complained that the liberals had used a scary word like “machine carbine”, sounding very like “machine gun”, to unfairly demonise a weapon that had just been used to gun down a room full of American schoolchildren.

      I think you should consider the possibility that the useage case of the weapon class, rather than its name, is what scares people.

      Weapons are tools, and every tool has its designed-for task, and the task of assault rifles is to kill people. They don’t really have any other use. There is no other useful target set.

      1. “Gewehr” specifically means “rifle”. “Assault gun” would be “Sturmgeschütz”, which is an armored tank-like vehicle affectionately known as the StuG, which was the vehicle employed by the assault artillery (“Sturmartillerie”). Oddly, “Sturmtruppen” actually did end up getting translated as “stormtroopers” despite the otherwise consistent “Sturm” to “assault” translation in the realm of military jargon.

        I’ve always been fond of German military jargon, and apparently many English speakers are too because they seem adopt so much of it in almost direct translation.

        1. TBH, my German goes little further than knowing how to use Google Translate. I was just trying to make the point that “assault rifle” is as good a translation as you could reasonably hope for.

          I imagine the fondness for German military terms is not unconnected with the Wehrmachts many English-speaking fans.

        2. That’s the main modern usage, but the word itself, unlike the english ‘rifle’ in no way refers to rifling, or even to a firearm. As I’m dutch, and my german is not that great, I’m going to refer to the (very similar) dutch terms instead, but “geweer” is the generic prefix “ge-“, which frequently means “something that is used to”, and the ancient verb “weren”, which means to defend or deny. Meaning “geweer” is basically just “a thing used to defend yourself with”, in other words, a weapon, usually literally, but not always.
          Other forms are “afweer”, with the prefix “af-” (meaning off-), basically just means “fending off” (“luchtafweer” being “air defense”), of which the german form actually named their military intelligence office: the Abwehr.
          With the generic prefix “ver-“, “verweer” becomes a defending argument, possibly in regular discussion, but also specifically a legal defense.

          So, “rifle” is the main current usage for “geweer” in dutch, but still not the only one. Phrases like “in het geweer stellen/komen”, meaning “to use/join in the defense of” are still used in non-violent contexts.

          Now, dutch and german are not the same, but given the similarities already observed, I wouldn’t be surprised if it extended further.

          1. In German, “sich wehren” is one translation of “to defend oneself” or “to strike back”. Therefore, you get a large number of compound nouns, a German speciality, both military and civilian, e.g. fire brigade – Feuerwehr, militia – Bürgerwehr, defense tower (in castles) – Wehrturm, dam / weir – Wehr (as a protection aganinst floods), Reichswehr (more known for wars of aggression) and Bundeswehr (German military nowadays).

    4. My reading of the OP that “assault rifles” are meant to be used at relatively short range (assault) and “battle rifles” are higher-powered and meant for more static, longer-range engagements. I could be totally off here–I hope someone corrects me if I am.

      1. A Battle Rifle is a recent term for the (mostly) WW2 to “cold war era” semi-auto or select-fire rifles that used full power cartridges (like the M1 Garand, M14, FN FAL). It’s used mainly to differentiate the category from the Assault Rifles, which are select-fire rifles that use intermediate cartridges (like the AK, StG44, M16).

        “Assault Weapon” is a US legal term that refers to firearms that have too large a number of ‘scary’ features, or are listed by name. These were then restricted in “Assault Weapon Bans”. The definitions were written by people who do not appear to have much of an understanding of firearms, and have questionable efficacy at their stated purpose. The name is easily conflated with Assault Rifles though, which makes it easy to score political points.

        1. I’ve seen “battle rifle” used in books as far back as the 1970s, so I’m not sure how recent it is. It definitely does, though, act as a sort of retroactive term used to distinguish automatic rifles firing full power cartridges from automatic rifles firing intermediate cartridges, because “automatic non-assault rifle” is just too big of a mouthful.

          As to the US legal term for “assault weapon,” some of the features that get thrown into those lists are indeed ‘scary’ rather than dangerous, but others are objectively very dangerous indeed.

          Few if any weapons get labeled as “assault weapons” in the US without being, at least, a semi-automatic shoulder weapon with a large magazine, or possibly a fully automatic machine pistol. Either of those combinations is quite dangerous in its own right, regardless of any alarms raised about relatively obscure things like bump stocks or just plain cosmetic features like polymer stocks.

          1. The issue wasn’t that the “assault weapons” weren’t dangerous, the issue was mainly that, with the possible exception of magazines (which you could get around by buying pre-ban ones), there were equally dangerous weapons that didn’t qualify.
            So while it certainly forbid the sale of some (new production) dangerous weapons, it left equally dangerous completely untouched.

            So my complaint is that it’s ineffective at its stated purpose. Machine guns were already heavily restricted and illegal to sell new production of. If you want to ban semi-auto shoulder rifles, sure, but this is the kind of half-measure that doesn’t actually do much besides showing people that you banned something that sounds suspiciously similar to “assault rifle”.

          2. The categorization for “Assault Weapon” depends on the exact law you’re looking at, but generally amounts to: semi-automatic, detachable magazine should weapon plus any scary feature (such as bayonet lug), or pistol that has a scary feature (such as weighing too much, or not having the magazine inside the grip).

            Full auto guns are not assault weapons, by definition, because they are machine guns, by definition.

        2. ““Assault Weapon” is a US legal term that refers to firearms that have too large a number of ‘scary’ features, or are listed by name. These were then restricted in “Assault Weapon Bans”. The definitions were written by people who do not appear to have much of an understanding of firearms, and have questionable efficacy at their stated purpose. The name is easily conflated with Assault Rifles though, which makes it easy to score political points.”

          It wasn’t so much a way to ‘score political points’ as an attempt by law writers to try and attempt to differentiate military style weapons designed for killing people from weapons that make more sense as hunting rifles.

          The goal was to ban rifles designed to kill humans while not touching weapons designed to kill deer. Which necesitates creating legal definitions. They could have just as easily defined them as ‘weapons inspired by and designed for war and killing people.’

    5. The term “battle rifle” does not distinguish those rifles from hunting rifles, it distinguishes them from assault rifles. You’ve missed the key point of assault rifles which is the intermediate round: the smaller, lighter round gives less kickback (allowing for more accurate aim) and lets you carry significantly more ammunition. (The downside is less range.)

      And, though we don’t have good similar terms for this difference in civilian semi-automatic rifles, these differences apply as well, which is why most people will strongly discourage you from using an AR-15-style rifle for hunting deer, but it makes an excellent weapon for shooting up a school.

  4. The Canadian Forces reserve was still using FNs chambered 7.62 NATO when I joined them circa 1980. Goddamn things weighed a ton, and the weight distribution wasn’t easy to handle either. You could probably have bludgeoned someone to death with the breech block.

    1. Didn’t the M14 have issues due to the powder getting swapped out for powder that caused a lot of fouling that made it necessary to constantly clean the barrels or am I getting that mixed up with something else?

      1. That was the early M-16. After a lot of back and forth, the major problem was found with the ammunition, not the rifle itself.

      2. That was the M16. After a lot of back and forth, the problem was identified more as the ammunition than the rifle itself. Essentially, the early production of the ammo produced too much fouling.

        1. The early ammo was good when there where small numbers of M16’s being tested.
          But when the army all switched the ammo quality went off a cliff , it was not only dirty but over charged the guns where more violet in action tearing cases and the automatic fire rates nearly doubled.

          Add in the lack of training on cleaning an the lack of kits and issues pile up.

  5. The author says that the infantry weapon was not relevant to the US victory in WW2 – yet tries to postulate some alternate history where his obvious favorite light caliber assault rifle does make a difference.
    This seems odd since artillery, air support and communications have been the primary focus of modern peer combat ever since WW2 – including today given what is going on in Ukraine.
    Even beyond this obvious favoritism toward small caliber, the author leaves out a number of very important facts not supportive of his thesis.
    MacArthur made his caliber decision in 1932. This is before the Mustached One came into power in Germany (into office starting 1934) and long before any inkling of WW2 could possibly be had.
    It is therefore completely deceptive to use the mass military industrial production of WW2 (i.e. US entering WW2 in 1941) to criticize a decision from nearly a decade before.
    Another major oversight is the interesting lack of commentary after Vietnam. The increasing use of body armor means that larger caliber bullets are increasingly necessary to inflict serious wounds. The Vietnam experience of fighting Vietcong equipped with AK47s is therefore not any more relevant to peer combat than fighting insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan.
    So while overall, an interesting and useful writeup – it is one which could have done without the nearly egregious editorializing in favor of small caliber assault rifles.

    1. “Another major oversight is the interesting lack of commentary after Vietnam. The increasing use of body armor means that larger caliber bullets are increasingly necessary to inflict serious wounds.”

      Not an expert, but I’m not sure this is true. I looked up body armour standards, and it doesn’t seem to be the case that there’s a lot of body armour out there which will withstand a NATO 5.56mm round (from an M-16 or similar) but will be defeated by a NATO 7.62mm battle rifle round. The European PM7 and US SAPI and ISAPI standards means that the armour will survive three rounds at 10m range from either.

      I notice that there aren’t any armies out there which have gone from a smaller to a larger round since 1975, to my knowledge, and a lot which have gone the other way – from 7.62 short to 5.45, for example.

      1. I’m not an expert by any means, but I think there’s going to be a few things in play.

        First, smaller bullets are, well, smaller. This means that you can carry more and fit more into a clip. Maybe not a huge issue for an individual infantryman, but when you multiply that by 300,000 rounds per kill it can have a significant affect on logistics. I imagine that the amount of powder in each round matters here, too–if your shipping container can only carry, say, 100,000 lbs, a lighter bullet allows for more powder and thus fire the bullet faster. F=ma; as m decreases, you can increase a to get the same F.

        Second, are we comparing apples to apples here? To call these al “bullets” implies that they are all one thing, but there are significant differences. A steel-jacketed lead bullet is going to behave differently from a hardened steel bullet. Steel is harder, but lighter. So it’s worth asking what the bullets are made of.

        I’ve also heard that there was a problem with bullets going through people, and thus not causing much damage. Sure, some bullets create massive exit wounds, but not all do (again, this is affected by chemical composition and construction). If the bullet has a clean exit wound it’s not going to cause as much damage as a bullet that goes in and stays in. I’ve seen that while hunting–a solid round could go through a squirrel and the stupid thing would keep running, whereas a hollow point would kill the thing. I’ve heard that there was an issue with this in the military, and they went to different rounds to avoid this, but can’t confirm this (and I’ve probably got the FBI worked up enough searching for some of this stuff as it is).

        Cynically, I also wonder if there’s a desire to wound rather than kill the enemy. If you kill a guy the enemy can burry them and move on. If you wound a guy they’ve got to spend resources transporting them, fixing them, and keeping them healthy after they leave (in any reasonable country with a VA or equivalent). Plus seeing your son with his arm blown off has a different impact from learning that your son was killed in action. This means that wounding someone would divert more resources to medical care and away from combat capability, and would more effectively sap home-front will to fight.

        1. Another consideration I’ve heard is range: while we don’t need kilometer-range battle rifles, the 5.56mm round used by the M-16 was adequate in jungle warfare in Vietnam but considered lacking in Afghanistan when longer lines of sight and engagement were frequent.

      2. Sweden is now moving from 5.56 (AK5/FN FNC) to a mix of 5.56 and 7.62 depending on class of troop. The argument is mainly body armor.

        1. Interesting. The British army has brought in a lot of 7.62mm recently – the L119 Sharpshooter rifle at section level, and retaining the GPMG while ditching the LMG – but that’s been justified by a need for effective suppression at range, not by the need to defeat body armour. Do you have a link on the Swedish decision?

    2. My understanding is that the US Artillery spent the 1920s and 30s surveying highly accurate maps of Western Europe to shoot from, so it’s not like the Army wasn’t thinking about waging a Big War

      1. Although that only shows the artillery were thinking of a big war, in the theatre which was notoriously the most dominated by artillery. The infantry might have been thinking of something else.

    3. One correction: the problem with the 5,56mm is not body armor penetration, but range and stopping power. The army had problem killing talibans when shooting over 200-300m distance, the 5,56mm ammos shot by M4s were loosing too much power, and that’s what prompted the request for a new rifle/cartridge. Now, with most of riflemen having an magnified optic on their rifle, you need to give them an ammo that can use those optics.

    4. >The author says that the infantry weapon
      was not relevant to the US victory in WW2 –
      yet tries to postulate some alternate history
      where his obvious favorite light caliber assault
      rifle does make a difference.

      The change of rifles might very well make a difference in specific infantry firefights and other infantry operations, and thus make a profound difference to individuals, even if it does not alter the outcome of the war.

      Suppose Joe the GI was, hypothetically, wounded or killed in action during a firefight. He fired his eighth round and the clip ran out. Suppose that if he’d had a ninth and tenth bullet before reloading, he would have somehow escaped harm. Now to be sure, the Garand being a .276 caliber weapon instead of a .30 caliber weapon wouldn’t change the course of history, but it sure could have changed the course of history for him

      MacArthur made his caliber decision in 1932.
      This is before the Mustached One came into
      power in Germany (into office starting 1934)
      and long before any inkling of WW2 could
      possibly be had.

      It is not deceptive to observe what US war industry was capable of and how it impacts strategic calculations. First, it is always necessary for strategists to consider what assets their nation does and does not have when thinking about procurement decisions. A nation that knows it has lots of coal but little oil might cling to coal-fired equipment over oil, for example. Among the US’s known probable advantages in any conflict were “very large industrial base” and “very far from probable retaliation,” both of which chain into the ability to predict a future industrial advantage.

      Second, the US already had the example of the World War One military mobilization. It could reasonably have been inferred that in the case of a major global war, the US military would have vast supplies of rifle ammunition, probably uninterrupted from a homeland secure on the far side of an ocean from any serious enemy threat. After all, that’s exactly what happened last time.

      Of course, if MacArthur was thinking more of the kind of “small war” fought relatively swiftly and on a lesser scale by US interventions in Latin America, or something like that, he might be seeing things differently. The point remains that MacArthur’s rifle caliber decision was, essentially, a case of re-fighting the Spanish-American War, as opposed even to refighting World War One, which would have made a lot more sense and been more excusable.

      1. And as an addendum to this, what someone else says farther down is true. Given Congress’ frequent reluctance to fund military programs, even basic and important ones, and the very poorly funded condition of the US Army of the 1930s, he may have been under other pressures to choose to keep a standard rifle caliber.

    5. “The author says that the infantry weapon was not relevant to the US victory in WW2 – yet tries to postulate some alternate history where his obvious favorite light caliber assault rifle does make a difference.”

      He pretty explicitly says the opposite:
      “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.”

      1. Sorry folks, there was no US victory in WW2. There was a victory in WW2 of Allied powers, of which the US was an (assuredly important) component part……

    6. MacArthur made his caliber decision in 1932. This is before the Mustached One came into power in Germany (into office starting 1934) and long before any inkling of WW2 could possibly be had.
      It is therefore completely deceptive to use the mass military industrial production of WW2 (i.e. US entering WW2 in 1941) to criticize a decision from nearly a decade before.

      It’s not at all deceptive to ask “What type of infantry weapon is most appropriate for use in Bellevue Wood or the Somme?”
      That’s literally the most available piece of data they had, and while you could get more information from studying things from conflicts since then, they weren’t on the same scale at all. But you had a huge, widely studied, widely understood example of what conflict was going to be like unless things changed, and you also know how you were planning to change it. Both of which pointed towards lighter cartridges and higher volumes of fire.
      Also the Great War was absolutely a mass military industrial production and known so at the time.

  6. > 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.

    Two fewer rounds in the clip; assume a company of 100 men; that sounds like 200 rounds, not 2,000 rounds.

      1. Well, he didn’t mention that assumption; but I think he did mention that reloading while under fire was not popular with the men, who preferred to discard a partly-used clip. I took it that he was referring to the practice of walking forward while firing, likely from the hip; I imagine it’s hard to change clips while walking forward towards an enemy that is shooting at you, so I supposed he was referring to what the commander’s troops had in their guns as they started their advance.

        1. I have never understood that tactic. Moving forward at a walking pace firing at enemies in cover is just a good way to get killed. The only chance the walkers have is if you vastly outnumber the enemy, so they can’t kill all of you with aimed fire before you end up next to them.

          Thinking more about it, I can guess that it was developed by people whose experience was of smoothbore (so inaccurate), low rate of fire firearms, and it assumes that is what the enemy is equipped with, while your troops have this fancy new piece that can be fired on the move.

          I suppose the tactic might work under those circumstances. However, the greater accuracy of your pieces means that keeping the range is still better for you.

          But I suppose that doesn’t “take ground” (at least not until the enemy is all dead, at which point you just walk forward, but that’s not very brave and doesn’t require much of the officer in charge).

          1. They’re attributing the use to Patton (1941-45), at which point rifles were standard for almost a hundred years (~1850) and ~6 European wars. So, its not a matter of pre-deployment obsolesence, or old officers (unless one is an undead lich…) from previous wars.

            Bolt-actions were in for ~40 years and, at the very least, The Great War.

            I think people have an overinflated understanding of combat (especially mass battle) accuracy from a mix of movies, games, and/or range firing. Additionally “hanging back until you win the sharpshooting contest” isn’t really a functional military plan; you lose the most men (and spend the most possible time) that way, and are begging an artillery troop somewhere to find the time to target you.¹ And the guns are a lot more effective, efficient, and quick to blow away infantry than small arms dueling.

            ¹Or more reinforcements to arrive, or everyone to start digging trenches… The war doesn’t pause when your personal battle starts.

          2. If your infantry can put out enough gunfire that the enemy infantry are afraid to stick their heads out of whatever hole they’re hiding in, then just walking right up to them (or more precisely, walking up to throwing range and then obliterating them with grenades) becomes somewhat more practical.

            People don’t stick their heads out of a foxhole while under inaccurate long range fire in real life nearly as often as they do in a video game, because in a video game you can respawn if you happen to roll snake eyes and one of those suppressing fire bullets blows your head off. In real life, you can’t.

            I’m not saying the tactic works personally, mind you, but it isn’t about being brave or ignorant of modern weaponry. It’s about putting so much lead in the air that the enemy infantry cannot even choose to participate in a firefight against you. There’s a reason that we see this tactic disappear immediately before World War One (when machine guns and bolt-action rifles make it total suicide) and reappear a bit later with modern machine guns and other automatic weapons.

          3. “Walking fire” was invented in WWI as a means of advancing against trench lines bristling with machine guns.

            The goal is to screen your advance with lots and lots of bullets, because people show a pronounced distaste for putting their bodies in places where bullets are flying. Your walking fire might not hit anybody, but it is very likely to keep people hiding in cover, or restricting them to hastily aimed snapshots instead of taking the time to aim.

            NOBODY under heavy suppressive fire is going to be putting out a lot of aimed fire. That’s just asking for one of those badly-aimed bullets to decide it has your name on it.

          4. They found that “leapfrogging”: one stationary squad provides more accurate suppressive fire while another quickly advances, was more effective than walking fire, but the idea itself wasn’t terrible. You need to bring your fire support with you, or you’re not going to advance very far.

            This meant what they really needed was proper light machine guns, rather than automatic rifles. There is some overlap there though, so naturally the US kept the BAR around until the fifties.

          5. Yes, leapfrogging would work better in pretty much all circumstances.
            I see the “walking fire” tactic as a relic of the attitude that the men were cowardly scum, who if you didn’t put them all in a line to keep an eye on them would all immediately run away. Keeping half of them back to support the other half wouldn’t work because the support half wouldn’t shoot and the moving squad wouldn’t move forward.
            Especially it had to be at walking pace, so the lines could be kept neat.

          6. That’s nonsense. Nobody thought the troops in WWI (where the technique of walking fire originated) were “cowardly scum”, and “fire and maneuver” tactics were TRIED during that war. It didn’t work out so well because bolt-action rifles didn’t put out enough suppressive fire to counter the fact that only half your guys were shooting, and the trenches did such a good job of screening the occupants that the “maneuver” squad was often under fire that the “fire” group couldn’t touch.

            Walking fire was introduced because everyone was desperate to find something that would help break the stalemate. It was kept up (to the point that the BAR was held back in 1918 so that mass deployment in the planned 1919 offensives would catch the Germans unprepared) because it was one of the few things that actually worked.

          7. They are also assuming that they are not facing e.g. machine guns in pillboxes, which can and do fire back.
            I suspect walking fire was attempted as a desperation tactic – “We must do something to advance, this is something…”

          8. Yeah, but a lot of the time, the infantry aren’t advancing against pillboxes (or, more generally, against heavy hard cover so durable and with vision slits so narrow that a gunner inside it can feel effectively immune to small arms fire that would suppress the same gunner if all he had for protection was sandbags or a trench).

            At the same time, pillboxes present large fixed targets, which the enemy effectively must man to avoid wasting the resources invested in building them. Targets that are potentially observable from a long way off for heavy weapons, tanks, and artillery to crack them.

            No one tactic is a solution to all forms of enemy defense.

      2. Yes. From a source that I tried to link but found that has been removed:
        The standard load for an US rifleman was:
        – one clip in the rifle;
        – ten clips in the cartridge belt;
        – a general-purpose bag, usually carrying ammunition for a BAR (10 magazines holding 20 rounds each);
        – if my notes are correct, less-standard “bandoliers” holding roughly six clips were fairly common accessories;
        – 1-2 hand grenades (as distinct from rifle grenades, which the designated rifle-grenadiers carried in the bag in lieu of BAR mags).

        However, in a sense these numbers are beside the point. The fundamental limitation is the weight that the soldiers are able/willing to carry. Keep the cartridge the same but change the size of the clips, and the soldiers end up with roughly the same number of rounds to shoot, just grouped differently. Use a lighter cartridge, and the soldiers will carry a larger number of them. And in any case, the carrying devices are minor items; the cartridge belt was designed for the clip (e.g. the BAR gunners and their assistants had a different belt, with the pockets sized to carry BAR magazines), while bandoliers were occasionally improvised (i.e. sewn from cloth on the base).

  7. The other early-M16-issue IIRC was that the troops were advised that it was less-cleaning-intensive than the M14/M1 series…which, if you’ve ever used one, was nuts; the smaller bore and tighter tolerance of the machining meant that the M16 was touchy about cleanliness.

    The GI urban legend is that the earliest issue came without a cleaning kit. I find that hard to believe…but that’s the story every trainee used to hear

      1. To a certain kind of mind, it’s vitally important to be able to blame any kind of defeat on one’s own side showing “weakness” and being “weak.” Even if this means outright lying.

        And Vietnam was perhaps the defining military defeat of modern times in US cultural experience. It’s certainly the one that looms largest in the mind of certain American political factions.

        As such, there is a huge demand for narratives that justify claiming that the US lost because of aesthetically “weak” decisions like “rifles made by Mattel” or “listening to antiwar protestors rather than shooting them.” And not because, well, the whole war was a stupid move and that kind of foreign military adventure is just a good way to get a lot of good boys killed for now reason.

    1. Figuring from the dates, there would be very few now in the army who would have seen the issue. So I think it’s a case of “telephone” here.

    2. To make matters even worse, the “less-cleaning-intensive” myth was based on the assumption that the rifles would be issued ammunition with a certain powder blend… which was changed at the last minute to a different powder blend that produced more fouling, but the cleaning recommendations were not changed and cleaning kits were not issued until much later.

      It’s a testament to the M16’s design that it survived this kind of incompetence indistinguishable from malice.

  8. Nit: The M-1 carbine fired its own unique cartridge, unsurprisingly the “.30 Carbine”. The .30-30 was a different, larger and more powerful cartridge used almost exclusively in lever-action hunting rifles. That round would have been a decent intermediate-power military cartridge, except that its rimmed case worked very well in lever-action rifles but poorly in most automatic or semiautomatic weapons.

  9. This is a topic on which I have a great deal of personal experience. My Dad owns at least one of every single rifle mentioned here, and I’ve had a chance to shoot them all.

    The M1 Garand is a beautiful weapon, but very obviously dated. And the note on Garand Thumb is right on target. I’ve done that before. I much prefer to shoot the M-14. That is a sweet rifle, and the action absorbs a lot of the recoil when you fire.

    In fact, I much prefer to shoot the M-14 to Dad’s AR-15. (The AR is the predecessor to the M-16, and very popular in civillian use.) I like the heavier round, which is much more stable when you shoot for distance. But then, I’m a target shooter and not a combat shooter. I can see the advantages of the lighter round in logistics and carrying capacity. (Since our gracious host posted up a clip from Band of Brothers, I’ll reference another one: “Anyone got any ammo! Come on, give me some ammo.” En route to the Bulge.) No infantryman anywhere ever thinks he’s carrying enough ammo, and that lighter round means you get more rounds per pound.

    The advantages of the M-1 Carbine are quite apparent when you shoot it. It’s reliable as heck and accurate over short distances. It’s light and easy to stay on target after you shoot. It’s perfect for any poor support trooper who is carrying a bunch of other equipment. (Forward observers, ho!)

    I will note a one discrepancy: The M1 Carbine does not shoot .30-30 ammunition, which is a caliber that is very similar to .30-06 or 7.62×51. It shoots “.30 caliber carbine” ammunition. The author’s technical description of the cartridge is quite correct: It’s basically an oversized pistol ammunition with a bit more powder behind it.

  10. While it’s not a pointless bit of pedantry I subscribe to; in this case the use of “clip” is precisely correct; the M1 Garand does not use “magazines.”

    (The M1 Carbine does use external box magazines, however. The difference is that “clips load magazines”. If you’re a pedant)

    1. Is the usage of “clip” below correct? Didn’t look right me, but I’m not really qualified to say.

      “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.”

      1. No. That should read “pull back the bolt to eject the clipexpended cartridge, and then …”

        It happens that all of those rifles use “stripper clips,” which hold a certain number of cartridges in-line to make loading them into the rifle’s integral magazine easier. They’re pushed/pulled “through” the body of the rifle, leaving the cartridges behind in the magazine.

        The M1 Garand uses an “en-bloc clip,” where the loaded clip is pushed into the integral magazine, then when the magazine is empty, the clip is ejected, and a new clip inserted.
        (Why this is a clip and not a magazine is complex)

  11. 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

    Yes, getting two different types of bullets to the soldiers when there isn’t fighting going on would have been a relatively trivial exercise for the American logistics system; however, when there is a fight going on, you’ve been using some types of weapons more than others, and you need to cross-load, that logistics system isn’t going to be very helpful if the weapons you’re running out of ammunition for fire a different bullet than the ones you do have ammunition for and you only have ten minutes before the enemy comes at you again.

    1. American squads did, in the event, make it through the war firing three different cartridges without particularly notable ammunition shortages: .30-06 (BAR/Garand), .30 Carbine, and .45ACP (Thompson and M3 submachineguns). To posit that they could probably have done the same with two is reasonable enough (.276 would likely have made the development of a lighter round for the M1 Carbine unnecessary, and might well have been used in the submachinegun role as well.)

      To my mind, the issue is not really “could the American logistical system have done it?” With hindsight, the answer there is very obviously “yes, several times over.” The real question is “could MacArthur, in 1932, have guessed that?” The American army, in 1932, was just tiny: like six guys and twelve mules. Given MacArthur’s tight budget and the huge stockpile of .30-06 he already had, I can see his point. (“Mom, I want rifle cartridge.” “We have rifle cartridge at home, son.”)

      1. In fairness, this makes a good point, though that still involves some bad strategic decision-making. In this case, the bad decision gets punted back to Congress, which had an intense aversion to investing in the military during peacetime for pretty much all of American history prior to 1945, apart from a handful of war scares. This has had various unfortunate consequences.

  12. Not bad, but two errors, both wrt cartridges.
    1) The M-1 Carbine fired its own cartridge, .30 Carbine, which was in effect a slightly necked-down .32 Winchester and was really a glorified pistol cartridge (110 gr 1,990 ft/s 967 ft⋅lbf). It was not “intermediate-powered” at all; it was quite low-powered, to the point that in Korea, Chinese soldiers’ heavy winter coats would stop it. The .30-30 (.30 WCF) is definitely a full-powered rifle cartridge, which is only “intermediate” compared to something like .30-06; it was American hunters’ favorite deer cartridge for roughly a century.

    2) .276 Pedersen was definitely a full-powered cartridge (125 gr 2,740 ft/s 2,058 ft⋅lbf), and would have been just as unsatisfactory in a full-auto rifle as 7.62 NATO. The fact that the bullet was slightly smaller is irrelevant; what matters is the size of the propellant charge behind it and the amount of muzzle energy it generates. (Full-circle irony; .276 Pedersen is ballistically very similar to the 7mm Mauser US troops encountered in Cuba)

    1. .30 Carbine is a fairly potent round, and there isn’t a winter coat on the planet that will stop it. It is less powerful than a modern intermediate cartridge, but on the very hot side by the standards of pistol cartridges.

      Those stories of GI’s being unable to penetrate Chinese winter coats? That’s nonsense. The Chinese weren’t going down because the GIs weren’t hitting the target due to the sudden shift from “pursuing a shattered North Korean army” to “facing an assault by hundreds of thousands of fresh Chinese soldiers”.

      1. For relative power, the .30 Carbine cartridge is about 3 times more powerful than a 9x19mm cartridge out of a pistol, or 2 times more powerful than 9x19mm out of a rifle. There are some crazy pistols that fire .30 Carbine, but they’re fairly rare.

  13. Another part of it was that small arms, already down on the bottom of the lethality scale since WWI, were considered even less relevant in a nuclear WWIII, hence the lack of interest.

  14. Just a general note on a few comments here.

    Ammunition loads: Yes there is and was a standard ammo load. However, and you can see this in pictures of infantry in combat, they almost always carried way more then the standard load, and if possible would have more ammo readily avaliable.

    Cartridge Sizes: Up until very recently standard infantry cartridges/bullets have been going down in size. In the US we went from .45 to .30 to .223/5.56mm. However the US just adopted a new infantry rifle that shoots a larger 6.8mm cartridge than the 5.56 used in the M-16/M-4 family. The reasoning is that they want to be able to better penitrate body armor, even at the cost of a significantly heavier cartridge and rifle.

    This has been extremely controversial in certain circles as modern infantry are already weighed down with body armor, night vision, batteries, and other items that were not a consideration during the development of the M-1 and M-14. The rifle itself is also extremely expensive compared to the M-16/M-4.

    Modern AR-15/M-16 Reliability: Keep it wet with lube and the gun will go for a very long time without cleaning. There are available reports of guns going to 20k to 30k rounds with no issues.

    Military Ammunition Types: To keep it simple I’ll just mention that the use of hollow point, or “dumb dumb” bullets as they were called early, is generally a violation of the Geneva Convention. This is one reason the 5.56 caliber was adopted as at high velocities a standard FMJ bullet would tend to tumble upon impact with a human body. However it must be said that the early reports from Veitnam of the round blowing off body parts were exaggerated.

    1. Extremely pedantic correction: “dum dum.” It’s named after the arsenal where it was invented, in Dum Dum near Kolkata.

    2. “To keep it simple I’ll just mention that the use of hollow point, or “dumb dumb” bullets as they were called early, is generally a violation of the Geneva Convention.”

      I only mentioned them as an example of how significantly a change in the nature of the bullet (meaning the part that actually hits the target) can impact the effects of the bullet on the target. People are tossing around ammo sizes as a shorthand for changes in ammo type. While that’s probably fair–I’m certainly no expert and have not been in the military–there’s sufficient reason to believe that it’s not (a 12 gauge can fire a slug, buck shot, rock salt, and bird shot, for another example) that I figured it was worth asking.

      In other words: I was explaining my reasoning for asking the question and believing it to be significant, not suggesting that such rounds are used in combat.

  15. This is a good and interesting history but there are a few notes I have.

    It’s not strictly fair to refer to the Garand as a “dead end”, either doctrinally or technically speaking. On a doctrinal level, even modern assault rifles are very rarely used for full automatic fire. Many M16 and M4 models were designed to fire a three round burst at most, with doctrine focused on semiautomatic fire. And with the supposed upcoming adoption of the SIG XM7, the Army has even come full circle back to a full power rifle cartridge. (While the need to penetrate body armor is one rationale for a return to a full power cartridge, another concern was the much longer ranges of firefights in Afghanistan.) On a technical level, Mikhail Kalashnikov basically copied the Garand’s long stroke gas piston system and turned it upside down to create the AK’s operating system.

    The tumbling effect of 5.56 is probably somewhat overstated in terms of combat effectiveness. A larger, faster round is still going to be more combat effective. The more sensible reasons for adopting 5.56 are that it is good enough, allows troops to carry a greater number of rounds at the same weight, and (perhaps least importantly) is more controllable in full automatic fire. To a lesser degree this was also true of the 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge used by the M14 compared to the .30-06.

    The end note on the M1 carbine is interesting, but it leaves out the punchline. The M1 carbine was semi-automatic only, but at the end of the war, the US also introduced the M2 carbine, which was a select fire version of the M1 carbine. In other words, the United States actually had an “assault rifle” by the end of the war already, over a year before the AK-47! So what happened? It turned out that intermediate cartridges—at least in the form of the relatively underpowered .30 carbine—were not the game changer one might think. However, by the time 5.56 was adopted, it was apparently such an improvement over the competing 7.62x39mm cartridge used by the AK that it was immediately copied by the Soviet 5.45mm and the Chinese 5.8mm.

    (Fun fact: the M2 carbine would be followed by the M3, which was the same carbine again except with an early night vision optic. That was it for carbines until the M4.)

    Just as the Garand leapfrogged the bolt action infantry rifles of its time, the AR platform leapfrogged the battle and assault rifles of its era, particularly with its use of modern lightweight materials such as aluminum and polymer over the traditional steel and wood still used by the AK. The AR-10 was originally developed around the same time as the M-14 and unsuccessfully competed with it in trials; when the US military requested a new service rifle in the lighter 5.56 cartridge, the AR-10 was adapted into the AR-15 and the rest is history. Maybe the US military was too conservative in sticking with the Garand-derived M14, or maybe the AR-10 was not quite ready at that point in time. However, since the M16 was ultimately adopted in the 1960’s, not only has no alternative to the AR platform yet managed to fully replace it, many countries are still, to this day, switching to AR platforms and AR-derived designs like the HK416. The Garand was an innovative design that was, within a decade of its adoption in 1936, surpassed by other weapons. The AR was an innovative design that, since its adoption in the 1960’s, remains at the leading edge and has come to replace many of its erstwhile rivals. I think that’s valuable context for the difficulties of the M14 era.

    And even the XM7 is heavily influenced by the AR, though I remain skeptical it will ultimately be adopted. The Army has, for various reasons, tried to replace the AR over and over again for decades, with the XM8 about twenty years ago getting almost as close to final adoption as the XM7 has gotten. The body armor rationale depends on the assumption that any near-peer rival will supply their troops with functional body armor, but China doesn’t seem to be doing this, and it turns out Russia isn’t either. If they do end up adopting the XM7, it would mean that the ultimate replacement for the AR will end up being the most AR-like replacement ever seriously considered.

    1. The most frustrating thing about .30 Carbine is that it is almost exactly as powerful as 5.45×39 Russian. The muzzle energy of an M1 Carbine is 1311J, an AK-74 is 1328.

      If they’d had a brainwave and adopted “.22 Carbine” instead…

  16. Nathaniel F writes in The Firearms Blog (the website’s editorial section is typical of a US gun enthusiast site, but his research doesn’t opine on politics) that the common conception that .276 Pedersen would have supplanted the 5.56mm cartridge is mistaken. Even without MacArthur’s intervention, the Army was already reevaluating the .276 cartridge and called for a more powerful powder load. The end result would have brought the ballistics of the .276 cartridge to parity with the .30-06, and the M1 would have wound up with the same capacity after the physical adjustments necessary to accommodate the hotter cartridge. Instead, he argues that if the .276 was adopted, the 7.62x51mm program would not have taken place, since the uprated .276 was a rough match to the 7.62 NATO cartridge.

    There just wasn’t near enough appetite in the Army outside some minor dissidents for a less powerful rifle round, and MacArthur’s letter wasn’t a singular wrong turn that put US rifle development on the path it took. Consensus at the time thought range would be a crucial factor in infantry firefights and were not willing to compromise on that front.

    Essay in question:

  17. 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

    Indeed, faced with suicide charges by Japanese soldiers attempting to overrun American positions, even the standard M1919 Browning Machine gun was felt to be inadequate. In consequence, an improvised weapon known as the Stinger (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M2_Stinger) was developed. This was based on the aircraft version of the M1919, the AN/M2 aircraft machine gun, which had twice the rate of fire of the standard version. Salvaged from damaged aircraft, these were retrofitted with stocks and sights to function as ground weapons and are often considered to be the Allied answer to the German MG-42, “Hitler’s Buzzsaw”.

  18. Taylor writes “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. ”

    For some more detail on those “teething issues”, see Stewart Brand’s digression on assault rifles at Books in Progress (in connection with his forthcoming book ‘The Maintenance Race’:

    Here’s a quote:
    In the jungles of Vietnam, the M16 had a definitively fatal flaw: it was fatal to its users. The gun routinely jammed in the midst of a firefight, leaving the rifleman defenseless. One Marine reported: “We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifle. Practically every one of our dead was found with his M16 torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”

    Very interesting read.

    1. The legend (mix of myth and history) of the dead Joe with his jammed M16 beside him. BLUF: to the extent there was an issue, it’s long since been rectified, and is no more relevant to current-day infantry small arms than black powder fouling or corrosive primer compounds are.

      I read the whole thing and am entirely unimpressed by the article, entirely or in parts. He has an axe to grind, and quotes people with axes to grind. And buried in the article is the unexamined fact that the AR-15-pattern rifle is far and away the most popular firearm in the US. A country which is awash with choices in the firearms market, where most firearms owners do basically no PMCS, and it had to overcome “the legend of jamomatic” to do that. And yet, the civilian market has overwhelmingly decided that the AR-15-pattern rifle is “the best choice available.”

      I’m not going to claim that there were no “teething issues” with the weapon, its initial deployment, or user training. And the fallout from those has led to a different problem with US Military small-arms maintenance; in which cleanliness is before godliness per the armorers.

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