The American GI had a great advantage in World War II: He went into the fight carrying the best battle rifle on either side. When the rest of the world’s armies were using bolt actions that had not changed since the First World War, Yanks were fielding a semiautomatic repeater that gave its user superior firepower, rugged reliability and great confidence: the M1 Garand. Gen. George C. Patton called this “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” and he was far from wrong.
The .30-caliber M1 Garand was adopted by the United States in 1936 to replace the 1903 Springfield. It was designed by John Cantius Garand (pronounced, according to his friend Julian Hatcher, “Gerrend”), an eccentric French-Canadian firearms genius who was known to flood the living room of his house in the winter so he could go ice skating. Leaving school at the age of 12, he began his industrial experience working in a textile mill, where he eventually became a machinist.
He moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he was hired by a tool factory. Always interested in guns and shooting, Garand started to lean more in the direction of firearms design, and during World War I he submitted the plans for a light machine gun. Though not adopted, the invention brought him to the attention of the government, and he was given a job as consulting engineer at Springfield Armory.
It was here that he was tasked with coming up with a practical semiautomatic battle rifle. Garand labored for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department for some 15 years before he devised an action that was strong enough to handle the formidable .30-’06 round—a cartridge that develops more than 50,000 psi of chamber pressure.
Though the gun went through several incarnations and had to beat out a few rivals, what finally emerged was a rifle that was deemed rugged enough and reliable enough to deal with the rough treatment it could expect in the hands of a combat infantryman: the M1 Garand.
Today, the M1 Garand system seems almost elementary, but when it first appeared, Garand’s design was considered something of a marvel.
Using a sheetmetal en-bloc clip as part of the feeding system, the M1 Garand functioned as follows: The bolt handle was pulled to the rear, where the action was held open by the follower. A clip of ammo was pressed down into the magazine and the bolt allowed to move forward, where it stripped off and chambered a round. When the trigger was pulled and the round discharged, gases were tapped off through a gas port in the forward bottom part of the bore. These gases forced the operating rod backward, compressing the operating-rod spring and opening the bolt. As the bolt opened, it extracted and ejected the spent cartridge and cocked the hammer. Relaxation of the operating-rod spring now forced the bolt forward, where it stripped off and chambered the next round.
When all eight shots had been expended, the clip was forcibly ejected from the action and the bolt remained open, ready for insertion of the next clip. It is said that Japanese and German soldiers would listen for the telltale ping of the clip being ejected, realizing they had the advantage of a second or two when the Yank would be loading his piece and unable to return fire.
Part of the magic of the M1 Garand resided in its sturdy, responsive rotating bolt—a concept that had been inspired by pre-World War I experiments by the French, Italian and Swiss ordnance bureaus. The system, as devised by Garand, proved to be so effective that it was used again in the selective-fire M14 rifle that officially replaced the M1 Garand in 1957.
If the M1 Garand was reasonably well maintained, it worked almost flawlessly in the adverse conditions of both the European and Pacific theaters and later in the equally challenging cold climate of the Korean War. You could shoot an M1 Garand in inclement weather, and it was easy to clean and strip if it got muddy or dirty.
The M1 Garand was not only functional, it was deadly accurate—so accurate it was easily adapted to the sniper role in a couple of different configurations: the M1C, which came out during World War II, and the M1D, which, while adopted in September 1944, was not used until after the war. Early on, the M1 Garand proved to be a favorite with match shooters. Starting in the early 1950s, special National Match models were made up for military target shooters by Springfield Armory. Depending upon when they were made, these guns will have such niceties as glass-bedded stocks and specially fitted National Match parts, often marled with the initials “NM.”
All in all, some 6 million M1 Garands were turned out between 1936 and 1957 by Springfield Armory, Winchester, Rock Island Arsenal, International Harvester and Harrington & Richardson. If you buy a World War II collector-grade M1 Garand, it is wise to check if all parts match. It is acceptable, however, for a Korean War rework to have mismatched parts. Those guns produced by Springfield will have major components stamped “SA.” International Harvester rifles use the initials “IHC” (though barrels can be marked “LMR”). Winchester M1s are marked “WRA,” and H&R Garands have an “HRA” coding.
As well, internal components will have different manufacturing codes, and stock markings can provide the enthusiast with a dizzying variety of mysterious runes to sort out. To help in these areas I highly recommend “The M1 Garand 1936–1947,” by Joe Poyer and Craig Reisch, North Cape Publications Inc. (800-745-9714, northcapepubs.com) and “M1 Garand Serial Numbers and Data Sheets” and “The M1 Garand: Owner’s Guide,” both by Scott A. Duff.
Even though they were officially replaced by the M14, Garands continued to be issued to National Guard units well into the Cold War era and were popular lend/lease items to many friendly European, South American, Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. Unfortunately, during the Clinton administration many fine M1s in U.S. armories were officially destroyed, making those that still exist even more precious. Fortunately, Garands are still available from the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) for reasonable prices. For details on how to make one your very own, contact the CMP.
The M1 safety is a sturdy, pierced piece of sheet steel located at the front of the triggerguard. Pushed to the rear, the gun is on Safe. When the lever is flicked forward by the back of the trigger finger, the gun is ready to fire.
For a battle rifle, the rifle’s rear sight setup is pretty sophisticated, with a double-knurled-knob arrangement that corrects the peep for elevation and windage. Sights went through various configurations and markings, the most noticeable difference being on the windage knob. Early models had flush nut attachments, later ones locking bars and post-war models no locking bar. The front sight was a sturdy blade, flanked by a pair of stout bolsters.
The buttplate has a compartment for oil, grease and pull-through containers and one of a couple types of combination tools secreted behind the metal buttplate. It is accessible via a hinged, spring-latched, fingernail-busting trapdoor (early guns did not have this feature).
Of course, like any self-respecting military rifle, the M1 was set up to be fitted with a bayonet. While the gun could accommodate the standard U.S. Model 1905 blade, in fact more up-to-date versions of the blade were offered, beginning with a Model 1905 Type 2 that had similar dimensions to the original (16-inch blade) but was Parkerized and sported ribbed plastic grips rather than walnut panels. These first appeared in late 1941. There were also wartime variants of the 1905 Type 2 with shortened and shorter 10-inch blades and finally the M5/M5A1, which came out after World War II.
While not exactly a lightweight (9 1/2 pounds unloaded), the Garand does balance extremely well, and using either the old-style Model 1907 leather sling or the later web strap, it can be carried for extended periods with relative comfort. It shoulders nicely, and recoil, even with standard 150-grain M2 ball, is not prohibitive. My wife, who is slightly over five feet, two inches tall, shot my National Match Garand for the better part of an afternoon with no complaints whatsoever. In fact, it was her favorite rifle out of a selection that included the much lighter M1 Carbine and SKS semiautos.
Today, original M1 Garands are very popular with collectors and shooters, with some of the rarer, early variations and sniper rifles realizing prices into the thousands of dollars. A healthy industry has grown up around the M1, offering such things as accurizing jobs, refurbishing, caliber conversions and aftermarket accessories.
If you are a World War II buff, collector, reenactor, firearms historian or just someone who wants to take a fine rifle out for a day’s shooting, the M1 Garand certainly fits the bill. It’s one heck of a rifle and one that can afford the firearms enthusiast lots of enjoyment on many different levels.