Exploring the humble beginnings of the M1 rifle

By SAM MOORE

With this month being the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, it might be an appropriate time to look at the U.S. infantry weapon that played a significant role in winning that war, the US rifle, caliber-.30, M1, sometimes called the Garand, but most often referred to by the G.I.s who carried it (including me) as simply the M1.

General George S. Patton wrote in 1945 that “In my opinion, the M1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

John Garand was born in 1888 in St. Remy, Quebec, not far north of the New York border, but the family moved to Connecticut 10 years later.

At age 11 the boy dropped out of school and went to work as a sweeper in a textile factory, but he was smart and mechanically inclined and did a lot of watching and learning from the plant machinists.

He became a machinist and went to work for Rhode Island tool makers, Brown and Sharpe. He also became interested in guns and began to design and make rifles in his spare time.

Hobby

During World War I, Garand worked on developing a semi-automatic rifle for the U.S. Army, but the war ended before it was ready. As a result of these efforts Garand was hired by the Springfield Armory, in Massachusetts, then the primary supplier of U.S. military small arms.

Here in 1926, Garand, who had meanwhile become a U.S. citizen, perfected a semi-automatic, gas-operated, 30-06 caliber rifle. In Garand’s rifle a small part of the gas created by the explosion of the powder which propelled the bullet from the barrel and to its target was diverted through a little hole near the end of the barrel. This gas drove a piston to the rear that in turn pulled back the bolt, removing the just-fired cartridge case from the chamber and ejecting it from the breech.

A new cartridge from an 8-round clip beneath the breech was forced upward by a follower spring, and the force of the gas now being spent, another strong spring slammed the bolt forward seating the new round in the breech ready to be fired.

As long as a cartridge remained in the clip, a round could be fired every time the trigger was pulled. As the eighth cartridge was fired, both the empty clip and the casing were ejected and a fresh clip could be quickly inserted.

The Garand rifle was designated in 1933 as the U.S. Army’s official rifle and in 1940 the Marine Corps adopted it as well. The M1 rifle gave the American infantry a significant leg up over foreign adversaries, armed as they all were with bolt action rifles.

Inconvenient

With a bolt action the shooter had to manually unlock and pull the bolt to the rear, extracting and ejecting the empty cartridge casing, then push it forward chambering a new round between each shot.

In 1940 the U.S. Marine Corps tested the old standby, the bolt-action M1903 Springfield, which had been the official rifle during World War I and after, and the M1, finding that at 200 yards the M1903 averaged 14.25 shots with 13.81 hits per minute, while the M1 Garand did 22.31 shots and 22.06 hits per minute.

By 1940 only about one million M1 rifles had been produced and many U.S. units entered the war still equipped with the M1903 Springfield. Production was soon accelerated with Winchester joining Springfield in making the M1. By war’s end more than four million M1 Garand rifles were in the hands of U.S. and Allied forces.

Increased production

After the war production slowed and when the Korean conflict began in 1950, more M1s were needed. The Springfield Armory couldn’t keep up with demand and were joined by Harrington & Richardson Arms Company of Worcester, Massachusetts.

Also involved was one of the largest farm equipment manufacturing companies of the day: International Harvester. Of course during time of war farm machinery builders had always produced war materials of all kinds, especially during World War II when both IH and Deere were probably handicapped in post-war farm machinery competition due to their heavy wartime commitment to making machines of war.

The Korean War contracts with IH were, however, probably the only time a non-firearm manufacturer built military small arms. International Harvester had bought a former airplane factory in Evansville, Ind., in 1945 and began to build milk coolers, refrigerators and freezers there.

Help needed

The Evansville Works was chosen to make the M1 rifle, but no one there had any experience building small arms. This meant a lot of help from Springfield was imported and a lot of production difficulties were encountered. Barrels and wooden stocks from outside sources were used, but most other parts were made in house.

IH delivered the first M1 rifles in late 1952 and the last in early 1956, with a total production of more than 337,000 weapons. The M1 was officially replaced by the M14 rifle in 1957 but the venerable M1 soldiered on.

During my time in the active Army Reserve up until 1968, the M1 was still used by reserve and National Guard units. It was also carried by many foreign militaries and may still be, although inexpensive automatic weapons like the AK47 have probably made semi-automatic firearms obsolete.

M1 rifle prices are all over the map; from a beat up one for $500 to a couple of thousand for a weapon in good condition, and an IH collector would probably pay even more for a nice example stamped “International Harvester” just above the serial number, on the rear of the receiver.

The M1 rifle weighed 9 or 10 pounds and while that doesn’t sound like much, it could get pretty heavy on a long march. I remember a jokester in my unit once holding out his rifle and saying “It ain’t heavy, father, its m’ brother!”

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

10 Comments

  1. Samuel W. Helm says:

    I am not sure if I am misunderstanding you, or if there is a typo in your story. You said that the IH Korean War contracts were probably the only time a non-firearms manufacturer produced military small arms. What about Singer, the Inland Division of General Motors, and United Postal Meter? I realize the M-1 Carbine isn’t much of a military small arm, but six million of them were produced.

  2. John Cockayne says:

    If I recall correctly that old 1911 A1 pistol in my safe was made by Union Switch & Signal. I never thought of Union Switch & Signal as a firearms manfacturer.

  3. Anthony Adinolfi says:

    Hay, don’t forget the Rock-Ola juke box company. They made a very sought after M-1 Carbine.

  4. Chris Webber says:

    With all due respect to Mr. Moore, a little fact checking could save a lot of grief. As the others have stated, a whole bunch of companies that did not previously make small arms were building M1 Carbines, M1903A3 rifles and M1911 pistols during WWII, well before IHC manufactured Garands.

    Further, in his description of the development of the M1 Garand, he appears to be unaware that the original operating system was the gas trap rather than the port in the barrel. Additionally, the rifle and clip were designed for the .276 Pedersen cartridge with the clip holding 10 rounds. The Army changed their minds to 30-06 as WWII approached, due to the large amounts of ammo already stockpiled.

    • Sam moore says:

      Evening, Chris.

      Thanks for your comments on my Farm and Dairy column about the M1 rifle.

      Apparently I didn’t check enough sources on the different dates the M1 was adopted by the Army and Marine Corps, and I never thought about who made the ’03, the carbine or the M1911 Colt.

      I was aware of John Pederson and his .276 caliber cartridge and the fact that General MacArthur ruled for the .30, however there’s only room for so much information in a 1000-word article and it didn’t seem relevant to my story.

      Actually, I doubt if either Sgt. McCoy or Corporal Bradshaw, who introduced me to the M1 at Fort Knox in 1953, had heard of the .276 cartridge.

      I had no idea so many World War II small arms enthusiasts read the Farm and Dairy, but I do welcome all comments and corrections.

      Thanks again.

      Sam Moore

  5. Jeff O. says:

    I’d like to thank Sam Moore for writing about the M1 Garand rifle. I collect M1 Garands and am a member of the Garand Collectors of America. Sam might have done a better service to his readers if he would have contacted the GCA to verify the accuracy of references in his article. The Marines adopted the M1 rifle on March 5, 1941 nine months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Mr. Moore mistakenly reports the year as 1940, 1940 was the year the government enlisted the help of Winchester Arms Corp to build additional M1 rifles because the U.S. Springfield Armory did not have the manufacturing capacity to meet demand. The M1 was officially adopted by the U.S. military in 1936.

  6. Sam moore says:

    Well, at least I know the military weapons enthusiasts read this stuff.

    My apologies to anyone I offended, and many thanks to those who took the time and trouble to make corrections.

    Sam Moore

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