The Carbine Compromise
September 29, 2014
Editors Note: This article by Jeff Cooper was originally printed in the October 1966 issue of Guns & Ammo.
A carbine's diminutive size and weight may make it handy, but here are a few additional — and surprising — facts you should know.
"A kind of firearm, shorter than the musket, for use by mounted soldiers" is what my dictionary calls a carbine. We don't have many mounted soldiers anymore, but we still have carbines. The question is whether they serve a useful purpose.
First let's dispose of the pronunciation problem. It has nothing to do with the weapon's usefulness, but we ought to use the same terms. "Carbine" rhymes with "bar-wine," not with "far-seen" or "carbon." Only the one sound is recognized, somewhat to the amazement of the multitude.
The essence of the carbine, either military or sporting, is handiness. To design a carbine, you start with a rifle and reduce it both in size and weight. (If you wish, you may start with a pistol and work up, but this, in my opinion, is the wrong approach.)
When a rifle is radically shortened and lightened, it becomes a much handier instrument to carry, swing, and pack. These are advantages, but they create attendant drawbacks. The problem is to balance the pluses against the minuses in such a way that a specific degree of efficiency results.
When you cut down a rifle, the following things happen:
(1) You lose power. A shorter barrel means a shorter duration of push. How serious this is depends upon the type of powder used. A quick-burning propellant can minimize or even eliminate this effect, at the cost of increased recoil, but this calls for special ammunition, which is not always available in calibers intended for use in full-sized rifles — as well as in carbines. If a carbine is designed for a special cartridge, as is sometimes the case, this cartridge is usually of distinctly less than full rifle power, and thus distinctly less efficient. (A curious compromise was adopted by the U.S. Army in the late 19th century, which used the .45-70 "trap door" Springfield in both rifle and carbine versions. G.I. ammunition was made up in two bullet weights — 500 for use in rifles and 405 for use in carbines. Either load could be used in either piece, but the lighter bullet was supposed to kick less, making the carbine feel like the rifle to the shooter. If this ammunition arrangement was reversed, of course, they felt quite different.)
(2) You increase recoil. The same load is going to kick harder as you reduce the weight of the weapon. This is obvious. How much recoil an individual shooter can accept, with no loss in precision, is the issue here. It is a personal matter, but since armies must procure weapons suitable for use by the lowest common denominator, ordnance departments must necessarily be recoil-shy. Hence military carbines are inclined to special cartridges of low power while sporting carbines usually take standard rifle ammunition. This is not (necessarily) because civilians are tougher than soldiers, it's just that they can afford to be non-standard. A man with a powerful frame who shoots a great deal is likely to have a much greater tolerance for both recoil and blast than the average. To such a man, a full-power carbine is no problem.
(3) You tend to lose accuracy. This is a tendency, however, not an absolute. Short-radius iron sights are the rule on carbines, but the reduced precision they afford has nothing to do with the intrinsic accuracy of the weapon. I suspect that superb accuracy could be had from a 16-inch bull barrel properly set up, if anyone wanted to build one. The main factor here is that carbines are just not thought of as precision instruments. Their sights are usually crude, their light weight makes them hard to hold well — on the military models their trigger pulls are atrocious, and their increased bounce (in full-power versions) tends to demoralize an unpracticed or recoil-shy marksman.
Actually, while accuracy is the great god of the rifleman, its single-minded pursuit may occasionally obscure some of the facts of life. The difference between one-minute accuracy and two-minute accuracy is the difference between heaven and hell to the purist, but I sometimes wonder if it matters much in a weapon intended for general use in the field. A one-minute weapon will strike within 1 inch its point of aim at 200 yards, while a two-minute piece will strike within 2. You can't see that increment with anything but a high-power telescope, and you couldn't hold that close if you could see it, from any field position. This is by no means intended to disparage the splendid achievements of both our hobbyists and our commercial manufacturers in their continuing search for the ultimate in precision. We should only bear in mind that even three-minute accuracy may be all a hunter can appreciate, and that four minutes may suffice a minimally trained soldier who is shooting at man-sized targets under conditions of great excitement.
So we see that in reducing a rifle down to proper size for use "by mounted soldiers," we must reduce its efficiency somewhat, but this reduction may or may not be serious. Whether it is or not depends upon the use to which the weapon is put. Carbines of all sorts are generally scorned by riflemen, but they have killed a lot of game. I think it is not a matter of the carbine, but one of which carbine, for examples vary from the useless to the superb.
In preparing this article I chose to examine a random selection of reduced rifles, varying in purpose, design date, and cost, but sharing three things in common: light weight, short barrels, and iron sights (all could be scoped, of course, but while a scoped carbine has a certain charm, increasing its bulk may defeat its purpose).
The weapons picked were:
(1) The M-94 Winchester .30-30.
(2) The 6.5mm Mannlicher-Schoenauer.
(3) The US. Carbine, .30, M-1.
(4) The Ruger .44.
(5) The Colt AR-15 (M-16).
(6) The Remington M600, .308.
As you see, these items are very different. They are all, however, carbines, by definition.
The Winchester is, of course, an American classic. Union soldiers were introduced to the lever action repeater toward the end of the Civil War, and since more Americans knew more about the fine points of fighting at that time than any other people, the immediate American love affair with the lever gun is significant. It worked. Europeans eyed it askance, and ordnance boards voiced grave doubts, but it worked. When Winchester married it to a practical, bottle-necked, smokeless-powder cartridge of medium power in 1894 it was an instant and deserved success.
Today the carbine version, with its 20-inch round barrel, is still popular. It's certainly not in the class with a .28-caliber Magnum in hair-splitting accuracy, range, trajectory, or killing power, but it will kill any deer any time at 100 yards if you can hold it, it is no trouble to pack or carry, it has a nice trigger, it doesn't kick enough to mention, and it's very easy and safe to use. It is no weapon for a really keen rifle enthusiast, but a whole lot of riflemen take to the field each year who can't shoot their $400 combos any better than this humble little piece will shoot. Considering it's 72 years old come Michelmas, and has a modest price — it's quite a product.
The one I checked out weighed 6 pounds 11 ounces. It was 38 inches long and had a capacity of six plus one. It takes a variety of loads, but the one chronographed started a 170-grain blunt bullet at an average of just under 2200 fps from its 20-inch barrel. It averaged slightly over 3 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards with its coarse, open sights.
The Mannlicher 6.5 Carbine is the European classic to match the American Winchester. It is about the same vintage — a few years earlier — and takes a cartridge which, if slightly less powerful than the .30-30, is better suited to taking heavy animals. Its 160-grain, .25 caliber bullet starts at about 2100 fps from the short barrel (some old catalogs say this barrel is 18 1/2 inches long but the test gun measured 20 inches including the chamber). The bullet is long for its weight, however, and its original design was round-nosed and heavy jacketed, which gave it great penetration with no tendency to dive.
The classic "Mannlicher" of song and story is this little carbine with its full-length stock, rotary magazine, folding-leaf open sight, butter-knife bolt, and double set trigger. It was enormously popular back in the days when men rarely explored the wild places unless they were at least partially qualified to do so.
The test example was surprising in that it was the biggest of the carbines tested; 41 inches in length and weighing 7 pounds 4 ounces unloaded. Its "unset" trigger action was fine, though odd to the modern touch because of its slack. The set action was nice, though not as light as one might expect.
In the third example we encounter an entirely different sort of weapon, built for a completely different purpose. The .30 U.S. Carbine was an attempt to replace the pistol for military personnel who could not pack a rifle and who couldn't hit with a pistol. I think it must be conceded that this was a mistake. The piece was admittedly much handier than the M-1 Rifle — until you actually got into a fight.
I remember the first one I saw. It was carried by an infantry major who was something of a gun bug. He had fitted his, at considerable trouble, with a Weaver scope. We were going in on the Attu operation and he had high hopes for his little popper. I met him later at Adak and asked where his carbine was. "In the drink," he said. "We got into a fire fight up at the edge of cloud cover, and those Nips were getting to us out at a pretty good range. That carbine turned out to be about as useful as a BB gun."
Of course the .30 caliber U.S. Carbine was not intended for that sort of use, but it was little better up close. I met a man on Saipan who lost most of his right hand playing quarterstaff against a sword-swinging Japanese officer whom he had hit solidly in the solar plexus with one round. He only had that one round because on the first models the magazine release was easily confused with the safety, and he had dropped the magazine out when he pushed the wrong button.
The .30 U.S. is the smallest of the carbines inspected, at 36 inches overall and 5 pounds 6 ounces unloaded. It also has the best issue sights, unfortunately countered by the worst trigger. It does not kick, so our untrained draftee need not fear it. It is a case of going so far in the direction of handiness and ease that the original purpose of the weapon is destroyed. About the best thing you can say about the U.S. Carbine, Caliber .30, M1, is that it's better than nothing.
The Ruger .44 caliber carbine looks and feels a great deal like the .30 U.S., but it's a somewhat more sophisticated weapon. Since it takes the pistol cartridge, I'm not sure what it will do that a .44 Magnum revolver won't — other than qualify as a deer rifle in states that won't let you hunt with a pistol.
Its trigger is somewhat better than that of the .30 U.S., but its sights are worse. They may be replaced, of course, with something better. It is a bit bigger — 37 inches and 6 pounds 1 ounce — and it also kicks harder, about like a .30-30 carbine.
The Ruger is handicapped by a tubular magazine that is particularly hard to load — an operation calling for three hands. The advantages, if any, of its semiautomatic action would seem lessened by the necessity of calling for king's-X after each five shots.
The need for a carbine is not met by a small rifle firing a pistol cartridge, even a very powerful pistol cartridge. It seems to me that if you are going to a two-hand weapon you ought to get two-hand ballistics along with it.
The celebrated AR15 was the most "far out" of the carbines considered. Neither Colt nor the Army is willing to call it a carbine; but, at 39 inches and 6 pounds 14 ounces, it falls right in with the other examples.
As everyone knows, the .223 military cartridge was conceived as a means of obtaining something for nothing, in this case killing power without recoil. (Remember those gun-shy little soldiers of ours.) Momentum of both rifle and cartridge ought to be the same (if we can believe Mr. Newton) and momentum is mass x velocity. If only a certain amount of recoil momentum is deemed endurable, we can use it to produce very high velocity by radically reducing projectile mass. Hence, a 55-grain bullet at a personally chronographed 3310 fps. This, as anyone who has used a .222 Remington Magnum knows, is a stinger. At short range its man-stopping properties, even with a hard, solid, spitzer bullet are impressive. At any great distance — after its velocity has dropped off — it naturally becomes just another .22. The Pentagon feels that our people can't hit anything at those ranges anyway, so who cares? And, of course, it doesn't kick.
To a conservative rifleman it seems odd to use what is essentially a varmint cartridge in a four-minute-plus combination, but the AR15 will stay on a man at 200 yards and it will strike a mean blow at that range. We clanged one little pill clear through 3/16 inch of cold rolled steel at 240 yards, right alongside a .308 military. That was all the .223 had left (the bullet was laying loose on the ground), but it's still a pretty good jolt.
As with the .30 U.S. Carbine, the sights on the AR15 are good and the trigger is terrible. I don't see any sporting potential for this piece, but I may be overlooking something. If one disregards its astronomical price ($200 by the time you've bought a couple of extra magazines) it seems a very nice arm for second-line combat or defensive use.
Personally, this ease-of-use angle makes me a little uneasy. The British, heavily outnumbered in the Hundred-Years-War, won by means of a weapon that, far from being easy to use, was impossible for their enemies to use against them. The deadly, rapid-fire, armor-piercing longbow had to be learned from infancy. The French, Spanish and Scots could not order up drafts of longbowmen where none existed.
Today, outnumbered as we are in a struggle that may well take another hundred years, I don't like to see us counting on weapons which are easy to use. These weapons are easy for the enemy to use, too — and there are more of them. Wouldn't it be comforting if our people were equipped with weapons of such violent power that only the biggest, toughest, best-trained troops in the world could use them?
The choice I reserve for last is a truly astonishing little gun — the Remington 600 in caliber .308. I sincerely believe that this weapon is one of the rare breakthroughs in modern sporting arms. I have never been a believer in abbreviated rifles but this one has really got me wondering.
The 600 is far and away the most deadly of all the weapons considered, yet it is both smaller and lighter than any of them — except for the foolish .30 U.S. Carbine. It has solid two-minute accuracy (tested with iron sights), a gorgeous trigger pull, and from its 19-inch barrel it puts out exactly the ballistics of the old original .30-'06 load (150 flat-based spitzer at 2700 fps) that Roosevelt and White used in Africa. Its stock is neatly designed to reduce apparent recoil, you can feed it economically with G.I. ammunition, and — wonder of wonders — it sells for just 100 inflated dollars.
The trigger in this little gem is the clincher. How they can get a factory trigger like this in an economy gun when they often can't in a luxury piece is one of the mysteries of the machine age. At a crisp 3 1/2 pounds — no take-up, no backlash — it is as flinch-proof as a trigger can be. It's curious that our military arsenals don't give this matter any thought when most marksmen agree that trigger action is the single most important component of the hitting equation.
It is freely admitted that the 600 is not a replacement for the elegant, gilt-edge, hand-crafted reachers so dear to the pride-of-ownership set (though a lot of them don't have triggers to match it). No one claims that it is. It is a utility gun — a "knockabout" as the British put it — and as such I haven't seen its equal.
It has drawbacks, of course. It's sights are a scandal and it kicks.
The factory sights seem to have been inspired by a trap-shooter acting as a double agent for Winchester. There's a full-length plastic rib with a great dorsal fin of a front sight surmounted by a gold ball somewhat smaller than a grapefruit. A foot or so back is a coarse, open notch arrangement adjustable by means of an Allen wrench, with large lateral wings ideally suited for being scraped off on a rock. This combination might be well suited for shooting fish in a barrel, but the gun is useful for more things than that.
The first thing that occurs is to get rid of that rear sight and fit a proper receiver aperture. The front sight is too high. A 200-yard zero leaves the cross-bar almost a quarter of an inch above the receiver looking fully as fragile as the original open sight. Of course, the front sight may be sawed off. Since it simply bolts on to the rib, a replacement 3/16-inch lower, with a square white or gold head of reasonable size, is a needed accessory.
A fine scope combination — the Leupold M8-2X and the Buehler code-6 mount — is available for the 600 adding exactly $50 to the price. This glass rides well forward with the ocular lens ahead of the loading port, making for great speed of pick-up as well as ease of handling. In general, scoping a carbine may seem unsound — if you want to get fancy you need a rifle — but the 600 is good enough to serve as a primary rather than a secondary weapon. Possibly its case is an exception.
The 600 does kick, at least in .308 — not dreadfully, but noticeably. You can't fire a full-sized battle cartridge in a gun weighing 3 ounces less than 6 pounds without noticing it. Whether you notice it enough to damage your marksmanship depends on you. The very straight stock, 13 3/4-inch pull, and forward rake of the comb all help to ease the blow, but can't eliminate it. I estimate that a 6-pound .308 kicks about like an 8-pound. 300 Magnum. This bothers some people, but not everybody. It does pretty much limit the M600 to experienced shooters. In spite of its dainty appearance, it probably won't suit most ladies.
I am now a fan of the Remington Shorty — after years of scorn for "little guns." I am tickled by a gun you can almost stick in your belt, but will also kill an elk, moose, or lion with one shot. And you can feed it from military stores. I was concerned about power loss in the short barrel. I visited the chronograph and found that the .308 cartridge is apparently loaded with a quick powder suitable for short barrels. The 150-grain military ammunition showed just a hair under 2700 fps while the Western 200-grain Silvertips logged 2400 fps. This is "Early .30-'06" and that's saying a good deal.
The carbine, then, is a very broad category. The term covers both useful and pointless firearms. The 44-pound baggage allowance now in force with airlines calls for careful weight-shaving on the part of the traveler. If a carbine will do almost as well as a rifle (and the best ones will) it will find its place in the air age. Suggested re-definition: "a type of shoulder firearm, smaller than the rifle for use by airborne sportsmen."