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From the History Books Historical Military & Law Enforcement Rifles Semi Auto

M1 Carbine: America’s Unlikely Warrior

by Garry James   |  June 6th, 2013 1
M1-Carbine_001

The M1 Carbine (M1A1 shown) was one of America’s most widely used arms in three major conflicts and a popular lend/lease item to Allied countries.

With the advantage of hindsight, it almost seems there were some guns that were just designed for the later-day firearms enthusiast and collector. It’s like the manufacturers went out of their way to provide enough variations of a particular piece to provide buffs with a fertile field for study, accumulation and fun. The M1 Carbine is such an item. In fact, the collecting, refurbishing, shooting and studying of the many variations of this handy little semi-auto have become so popular, it’s easy to forget that it was one of America’s most popular and widely produced military longarms, serving the country from World War II through Vietnam.

Not counting the M16, more M1 Carbines (and variants) were made than any other American long gun in history. The vast number of these rifles in the hands of the troops for a period of around 50 years pretty well ensured a full range of combat experiences with it.

Depending upon which vet you talk to, this neat little .30-caliber repeater was either the best or the worst arm he ever carried. My own less than martial plinking forays with the M1 Carbine have been nothing less than enjoyable, and it’s right at the top of my list of favorite guns to shoot—but then again, I never had to stake my life on one.

The M1 Carbine was designed by one of the most colorful firearms inventors of the 20th century, David Marshall Williams, who formulated many of his ideas while serving a term in prison for second-degree murder. After he was released, he went to work for Winchester and in collaboration with others came out with the new gun. He has the distinction of being the only gun designer who had a movie made about him, MGM’s biopic Carbine Williams, starring James Stewart. The M1 Carbine didn’t spring full blown from Williams’ workshop. It was the result of intensive experimentation and reworking by him and others.

During the Second World War, the American GI was armed with the best battle rifle of the conflict, the M1 Garand. But as great a piece of hardware as it was, it was not always appropriate for some applications.

Basically, the M1 Carbine was developed in response to a requirement for a light, handy rifle to be carried by clerks, cooks, linemen, machine gunners, mortarmen and the like—soldiers who would not normally be issued a handgun, but for whom the bulkier Garand might be inappropriate. Though initiated in 1938, the request was shelved until 1940 when America’s entry into World War II seemed imminent.

In late 1940, a number of manufacturers were sent specifications and told to work up a light carbine. Winchester produced the cartridge, a .30-caliber straight-case rimless job that pushed its 110-grain bullet out of an 18-inch barrel at some 1,860 fps.

After his release from prison, Williams made something of a name for himself in the firearms field and in 1941 found himself working for Winchester. His diminutive semi-auto, submitted by his parent company, was the arm selected by the government as most appropriate to its needs.

The final product was simple and robust. With a barrel length of just 18 inches, an overall length of three feet and a well-balanced heft of 5½ pounds, it seemed to have the word “handy” invented for it. Although the round didn’t have anything near the power of that of the .30-’06, within reasonable distances it had enough oomph to be a reasonably effective combat round (110-grain FMJ bullet at 1,975 fps with a muzzle energy of 955 ft-lbs and a relative power factor of 16.3). Reports of the load’s puissance seemed to be at least OK during World War II, but some troops during the Korean Conflict complained bitterly that the round just didn’t have enough going for it to punch through the quilted jackets of their Chinese adversaries.

Designated the M1 Carbine, the semi-auto action employed a short-stroke piston, which was forced back about 1/3 inch by gases tapped off from the barrel. The piston then pushed the operating slide to the rear, which in turn operated the rotating bolt to eject empty cases. A coil-type operating-rod spring forced the bolt forward, where it stripped off and chambered a fresh cartridge from the 15-round blued sheet-steel box magazine. The forward motion of the slide also repositioned the gas piston.

Initially, the gun’s rear sight involved a flip-up L-shaped dual peep arrangement graduated to 150 and 300 yards, but in the later stages of the war this was replaced by a more sophisticated sliding ramp style in both milled and stamped versions. The front sight was a fixed blade, protected by a flanking set of ears.

The magazine was released by a button in front of a similar-style safety forward of the triggerguard. It was found that in the heat of battle, soldiers would often hit the mag release instead of the safety, thus accidentally dropping and unloading their weapons. The button safety was later changed to a lever-style to eliminate this embarrassing and potentially lethal problem.

Throughout its lifetime the M1 Carbine was subjected to a number of other major and minor alterations. For instance, initially the walnut M1 Carbine stocks had an I-shaped cut in their butts to hold a special oiler that also served as a sling loop. As a more standard oiler ended up being used instead, the early cut was changed to an oval one by the early part of 1943. As well, originally the forward portion of the stock was not recessed to accommodate movement of the operating rod—only the handguard had this cut. It was decided that to facilitate greater ease of movement for the rod, the stock itself should also be trimmed away, creating “high wood” and “low wood” variations. Originally fitted with a flat-topped bolt, this component was later changed to a fully round configuration.

M1 Carbine production began in September 1941 with very few changes to Williams’ original design. Though the first guns were made at Winchester, Pearl Harbor caused manufacture to be stepped up. Contracts and sub-contracts were let out to a number of other makers, including such unlikely non-firearms companies as Rock-Ola (jukeboxes), U.S. Postal Meter, Quality Hardware, the Inland Division of General Motors, Underwood (business machines), Standard Products (automobile parts), International Business Machines, Irwin-Pedersen Arms Co. (furniture) and Saginaw Steering Gear Division of General Motors. By the end of the war, more than 6 million M1 Carbines had been churned out to satisfy an enthusiastic demand by American and Allied forces in various theaters of operation.

Initially, M1 Carbines were not equipped with bayonets, but by April 1944 it was decided the gun should have the ability to be fitted with a blade, and a variant of the leather-gripped, 6¾-inch-bladed M3 Fighting Knife was adopted for this purpose. Though production on guns with modified front band bayonet mounts didn’t really begin until September 1944, some did make it into the hands of the troops prior to war’s end. These variations, however, saw widespread use in Korea and Vietnam. Well over 2 million M4s (as the new bayonet was called) were produced by several makers before contracts were terminated in August 1945. Despite good intentions, really the bayonet and gun were so short that it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting stuck with one—except by accident.

Probably the most distinctive M1 Carbine variant (and one that is quite sought-after by collectors nowadays) was the M1A1. This was basically a rework of the standard carbine for airborne use. Everything was pretty much the same as the regular piece, with the exception of the replacement of the full-length stock with one incorporating a folding wire butt and rear-mounted pistol grip. This made the gun much more compact and easier to manage when jumping out of a C47. All M1A1s were made by Inland.

As well, an M2 full-auto version was developed in late 1944. The gun looked pretty muck like the normal M1, with the exception of a selector switch. Rate of fire was around 750 rounds per minute. A special 30-round magazine was designed for use with the M2. In the early ’50s an M3 version saw limited use. This was basically nothing more than an M2 fitted with an infrared-scope setup.

Accessories for the M1 Carbine abound, and these, too, provide a fertile field for the collector. Such things as grenade launchers, magazine and jump pouches, bayonets, oilers, slings, belt scabbards and flash suppressors are eagerly sought after.

Over the years, the M1 Carbine was a popular lend/lease item to our allies, so it is not unusual to see specimens with some pretty exotic markings. Condition on some of these imports can be pretty iffy, so there are firms that offer replacement parts and even complete rebuilds to original specs.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery (and profitability), over the years the M1 Carbine has been copied by a number of commercial makers, including Universal Firearms Corporation, Howa (in Japan) and Plainfield Machine Co. Currently, very nice replicas are being offered by the Auto-Ordnance division of Kahr Arms.

I have several M1 Carbines in my own collection, and while they are of collector grade, I have no problem taking them out for shooting sessions. They’re a hell of a lot of fun and can be quite good arms to initiate new shooters, being handy, easy to manage and light in the recoil department.

M1-Carbine_002

The standard M1 Carbine went through a constant evolution throughout its production life. Early models (top) had high wood stocks, flip sights and no bayonet lugs. Transition pieces still maintained some early characteristics, but included such things as ramp-style rear sights and low wood stocks (center). Late M1 Carbines had bayonet lugs, round bolts, ramps-style sights and other updates (bottom).

Garry James

About Garry James

Garry was born in Los Angeles, CA, in 1944. At age 11 he was given a Civil War vintage Remington revolver, and this began his passion for firearms. After graduating from college with a degree in journalism, he joined the U.S. Army, eventually becoming an Ordnance ammunition officer. After discharge, he joined the staff of "Guns & Ammo" magazine in 1971, where he eventually served as Editor for several years. As well as acting as Arms & Armour Expert for the auction firm of Sotheby Parke Bernet, Garry has been a technical advisor for films and television, including the popular series, “Story of the Gun,” "Tales of the Gun"(for which he was series advisor,) "Mail Call," ”Unsolved History,” “Lock n’ Load,” “American Rifleman Television,” and “Top Shot.” Garry is currently Senior Editor at “Guns & Ammo,” and a contributor to “Guns & Ammo Television” and other Intermedia Outdoors TV productions. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on the history and the technology of firearms, and has a first-hand knowledge of everything from medieval hand-cannons to the most modern full-autos.

  • m444ss

    Hindsight being 20/20, I just wish they had chambered it for the .357 Mag.

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