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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”