At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have a beautiful large-caliber sporting rifle. This rifle was made circa 1800 and used to bring down North America’s largest game. “Henry Perkins Hartland VT” is inscribed into the gun. Though it’s not a military-grade gun, it has been in our collection since 1932.
[FEATURE ARTICLE] The Legendary M1 Garand Rifle: “Best Battle Implement Ever Devised”
The M1 Garand rifle is perhaps the weapon most closely identified with the U.S. infantryman in World War II. General George S. Patton once called it “the best battle implement ever devised.” The 30.06 caliber Garand, weighing in at almost 10 pounds, with its hefty American walnut stock and 8-round clip, is still successful competitively in high-powered, military-format matches, and is a favorite of collectors around the world. Following years of development and experimentation at the Springfield Armory by the famed designer John Garand, the first production model of the M1 Garand cleared on July 21, 1937.
Garand had begun work on a semi-automatic replacement for the 1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle on his arrival at Springfield in 1919. As early as 1901, the Army had expressed an interest in a semiautomatic weapon. The now rare Pedersen device would have converted the M1903 Mark 1 Springfield to this purpose, had World War I dragged on. Once the war was over, though, the Army proceeded full speed into development of a completely new weapon, spearheaded by John Garand.
Before production was finally ended, some 5.4 million M1s were built by the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts and Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, Connecticut. Post WWII, Harrington & Richardson and International Harvester Company made them up to and through the Korean War. The M1 saw action on all fronts in World War II and in Korea and remained in use until succeeded by the M14 (another Garand design) in 1957.
The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection includes examples of both the Springfield and Winchester versions of the rifle, which contain only small, very subtle differences. We have a full array of accessories including examples of the famed eight-round “en bloc” clip, which makes a unique “ping” sound when ejected, bayonets and a rifle-launched grenade. They are on display in the museum’s World Wars display room.
“This project is particularly exciting,” said Varnum Memorial Armory Vice President and Museum Curator Patrick Donovan, “because we will be able to bring together representative examples of nearly every type of weapon used by both Allied and enemy forces in both wars.”
The evolution of the M1 was a lengthy one. Garand’s first design, the M1922, was ready for testing as soon as 1924. It offered the desired 30.06 caliber but utilized a primer-operated breech. This proved unsatisfactory and Garand came up with a gas-operated model, building on a second design, the M1924. This version was in .276 caliber, and the Army initially selected the smaller caliber over the 30.06. However, Garand went back to the drawing board and improved the heavier caliber, which met with the approval of then Army Chief of Staff Douglas McArthur.
The M1 was almost, but not quite, ready. It took several more years of refinements before production was authorized just in time to begin the vital American arms buildup to World War II. The Army was well aware of arms development by the French, German, British and Japanese. All of those forces were also developing new, lighter and fully automatic weaponry. But the rifle would remain the mainstay of the infantryman, so considerable attention was paid to its enhancement.
One demand of the Army was the use of an “en bloc” clip system. Ordinance officials preferred a fixed, non-protruding magazine, rather than a detachable one that could be lost or fouled with debris. Garand’s clip was easily loaded into the fixed magazine.
The rifle employs a gas-operated action that uses expanding gases from a fired cartridge to chamber the next round. The gases act on a piston that pushes the operating rod that in turn, engages a rotating bolt and moves the next round into place.
At first, the rifle used a “gas trap” system, one that had been tried and discarded by other nations. Garand returned to the “gas port” described above, and it proved to be the most effective. Today, gas trap models are very hard to find. All told, the gas port is an efficient system that enables a full eight-round clip to be quickly expended. Then the clip is ejected and the bolt is locked open to receive the next clip. It is also possible to reload before a clip is fully expended and to load single cartridges into a partially loaded clip. The M1 proved itself in every operating environment throughout the war. And its heavy stock could be relied upon as a final weapon in hand-to-hand combat.
When the rifle was first introduced, users experienced erratic performance, and the rifle’s cost ($90-$102 in the 1930s) was almost three times the cost of the M1903 and 1903A1 Springfield bolt-action rifles. But Garand was doggedly persistent and solved every problem that evolved. For example, the rifle’s rear sight, which tended to loosen under heavy fire conditions, was improved and strengthened in 1942. Many a GI during the war blessed Garand’s dedication, and veterans still sing the rifle’s praises. Once production was authorized (and final problems solved), the Springfield Armory and Winchester steadily increased production (with Springfield soon turning out 600 weapons daily in their improved assembly lines). Winchester, however, did not keep pace, and their output lagged. While only Springfield and Winchester made complete weapons, many other manufacturers were turning out machined parts and replacement barrels.
By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army was being fully equipped with M1s. The Marines continued to rely on the 1903 Springfield until mid-way through the war. In the field, the semi-automatic M1 proved superior to the German infantryman’s bolt-action Karabiner 98k and competitive with the Japanese Arisaka infantry rifle (examples of both are on display at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum). The Japanese had captured a number of M1s early in the war and saw the benefit in a box-type magazine that could be placed at the bottom of the receiver and replace the self-ejecting clip. That also eliminated the loud “ping” that could reveal the shooter’s position to the enemy. There was also another benefit to the box magazine. It did away with the famous “M1 thumb,” a sometimes serious injury caused when the fully sprung bolt smashed back on the operator’s thumb under many pounds of pressure as the follower was depressed to close the rifle. The trick to eliminate that action is to hold the action back (and keep the thumb out of the way).
After the World War II, M1s remained in active service until 1957 with a final changeover to M14 and quickly to the M16 by 1965. U.S. Army Reserve units continued to use the M1, and foreign nations were equipped with the rifles after World War II. The last M1s were produced by Beretta in the 1970s. The Italian arms maker had begun by rebuilding M1 rifles shortly after the end of WWII, along with the Belgian F.N. company.
The Korean War required additional manufacturing, first at the Springfield Armory and later at Harrington and Richardson. Finally, the tractor and truck maker International Harvester Company was brought into the mix. In 1951, the Army Ordinance Department contracted for 100,000 M1s with International Harvester. It was an odd choice. Although IHC had built vehicles for the military during WWII, they had no experience in firearms. One reason they were chosen was location: the Springfield Armory and Winchester were located 60 miles apart on the east coast. International Harvester’s plant was in Middle America at Evansville, Indiana. In the atomic era of the early 1950s, the threat of a nuclear attack made putting arms makers as far from harm’s way as possible was good sense. Also, during the war, the Army had used sub-contractors to support the output of Springfield and Winchester, so the idea wasn’t too far fetched.
International Harvester also had the support of Milwaukee’s Line Material Company in the manufacture of barrels for the IHC rifles (Line had already gained experience building replacement barrels and turned out a quality product). Further, the Springfield Armory dispatched John Garand himself to Indiana to help International Harvester to set up its assembly line. IHC had a number of problems with the receiver mechanisms they made. Although they were never completely solved, receivers built for them by the Springfield Armory helped. Harrington and Richardson also supported IHC with receivers. In the end, the company managed to turn out more than 330,000 M1s before production ceased in 1956 when the IHC’s parent company sold the plant to the Whirlpool Corporation. Many IHC rifles wound up overseas and so are not common on the civilian market today. All in all, the company probably wishes they had stuck with making tractors. But because of the unusual nature of the company’s involvement and that of other companies that supported them, an IHC M1 is a very attractive collectible and is an interesting, although sometimes confusing, part of John Garand’s legendary creation.