April 13, 2021
In a world of bolt-action Kar 98ks, Carcanos, and Arisakas, the GI’s semi-automatic M1 “Garand” rifle was a game-changer on the battlefield. Its higher rate of fire, higher magazine capacity and fast reloading combined with its accuracy and reliability effectively provided over-match to the enemy’s bolt-action rifles. These features endeared it to the soldiers who carried it into harm’s way. GI’s loved it, the enemy respected it and today firearm collectors seek them out.
As M1 rifles remain hugely popular with both collectors and shooters, I decided to take a closer look at this historically significant design. I wanted to delve into both what made the Garand a great fighting rifle, yet also examine some of its weak-points. Hopefully, this will be useful to those interested in learning a bit more about this classic old warhorse.
The rifle was designed by John (Jean) Cantius Garand (Jan 1, 1888 – Feb 16, 1974) who was born in St. Remi, Quebec, Canada. He worked on small arms designs during World War I, went to work for the US government arsenal Springfield Armory in November 1919, and became a US citizen in 1920. Garand worked as an engineer at Springfield Armory tasked with developing a self-loading rifle for the US Army. His life between the two world wars was devoted to designing, and then further refining what became the “Semiautomatic, Caliber .30, M1 Rifle”. It was patented in 1932, adopted in 1936 and placed into mass production in 1940.
The result of his work was a robust semi-automatic rifle which features a long-stroke gas piston, dual-lug rotating bolt, internal eight-round magazine, fully adjustable rear aperture sight, protected front sight and a wood stock. Chambered in .30-’06 Government, it has a 24-inch barrel, overall length of 43.5 inches and weighs in at 9.5 pounds. It accepts a bayonet and grenade launcher, has bottom mounted sling swivels and a trap in the butt for a cleaning kit. While a bit beefier in the hands compared to the M1903 Springfield rifle it replaced, the M1 feels and handles like a traditional combat rifle of the time.
So, WHAT made the M1 Garand a great rifle? What set it apart from all the other fighting rifles available in 1940 and fielded during World War II? Why did GIs like and respect this design to such a high degree? Rather than simply share my research, experience and opinion, I decided to pose this question to colleagues and share their answers as well. I hope you find this interesting.
It is never one feature which makes a rifle great, but rather a combination of both features and timing. In the case of the M1 rifle, it was the right rifle at the right time. Now obviously being a semi-automatic design in a world awash with bolt-guns gave it an advantage. Everyone I spoke with mentioned this, although James Tarr was the most vocal. He was a bit animated as he stated, "Being a ‘semi-auto’ general issue arm is as important as every other reason combined. Everything else is comparatively irrelevant, at least when compared to the other rifles used by our enemies. The M1 Garand replaced a bolt-action at a time when no one else but the Soviet Union with their SVT-38/40 was fielding semi-autos, and the SVT-40 ultimately failed.”
Michelle Hamilton added, “I think one of the great features of the M1 Garand is the fact that it is a gas-operated, semi-auto, giving a distinct advantage over the Kar 98k and Arisakas. Being gas-operated, it has a relatively smooth recoil impulse, as opposed to the M1903. Overall, the Garand is a solid, stable, robust and accurate platform.” A key element to the M1 Garand’s success isn’t just the fact that it was a semi-automatic rifle, but rather that it actually worked when the chips were down. Many semi-automatic designs had come before it, such as the French 8mm RSC M1917 fielded during World War I. They all invariably fell short in the mud, dirt and abuse experienced in the field. The M1 Garand on the other hand earned a reputation for both reliability and robustness. While not perfect, the M1 rifle was considered very reliable at the time. After-action reports are vocal on this. Most importantly, it earned the trust of those who carried it into combat.
Moving on from the obvious, let’s take a look at some of the other important features which sets the M1 rifle apart from the crowd. Going in no particular order, let’s start with the sights. Firearms News Gunsmithing Editor, Gus Norcross, is an old NGMTU armorer who has rebuilt many a Garand and shot the National Match model in competition. He commented, “Best sights ever issued on a combat rifle.” Patrick Sweeney agreed and added, “It had far better sights than any other rifle until the British Lee Enfield No. 4, encouraging actual aiming.”
The rear sight on the M1 rifle is quite different than the typical tangent used on most other models of the time. A fully adjustable design, it has a turret for elevation adjustments (100 to 1,200 yards) and another for windage corrections (1 MOA), similar to a modern optic. The aperture diameter is sufficiently large for fast combat shooting and the whole unit is housed on the top of the receiver. The front sight is a protected blade adjustable for windage. Soldiers were trained to use the width of the front sight for rudimentary range estimation. Regarding the sights, Hamilton added, “The Garand has easy to use sights and a great sight radius.” The M1 rifle’s long sight radius is indeed an advantage, especially in the days before optical sights were mounted on combat rifles. The front blade width, rear aperture size combined with the sight radius all aided the rifleman with scoring rapid hits on the battlefield, even at longer distances.
Another advantage it had over contemporary bolt-action rifles was magazine capacity. On this Sweeney commented, “It held more ammo than contemporaries, except for the British Lee Enfield series. Plus, it reloaded as fast, or faster, than the others.” Sweeney’s father carried an M1 rifle for much of his time fighting across Western Europe during World War II, and Pat was brought up with a healthy respect for its capabilities. The M1 holds eight rounds in its internal box magazine, while the Kar 98k and Arisaka only hold five and the Carcano six. Having more rounds in the rifle was a useful advantage, which aided the survivability of the soldier on the battlefield.
The rifle was loaded using a Mannlicher-style en bloc clip holding eight rounds. The use of a Mannlicher style clip rather than a Mauser pattern, as used with the M1903 Springfield, was an interesting departure from the norm. The clip held two columns of four cartridges, which reduced its height. It was symmetrical and could be inserted without worrying which side was up. The clip was loaded into the top of the action, and unlike on traditional Mannlicher designs, it was automatically ejected out of the top when the last round was fired.
The use of a spring-steel Mannlicher en bloc clip provided a few advantages. Chiefly, the rifle is very fast to reload. You simply shove the entire clip into the action, and if the bolt doesn’t automatically run forward, give the bolt handle a nudge. There is no stripping of rounds into the magazine and discarding the clip or removing an empty detachable box magazine before inserting a fresh one. While magazine capacity was limited, reloads are fast and a well-trained US infantry squad could put out a lot of hate with their M1s. A trained infantryman could be expected to fire 40+ aimed shots in one minute at a 300-yard target.
The M1 rifle was also a comfortable rifle with well-laid-out controls. Tarr commented, “I will say that from an ergonomic standpoint the M1 Garand seems to be superior compared to most of the other rifles at the time. Even though all of them pointed rather well, the M1 Garand seems to be a step above. Even if you weren't using the sights, but rather just pointing it at the dude coming at you, it works very well.” The safety is easy to manipulate, the bolt handle easy to reach and sights simple to adjust. The bottom mounted sling swivels allowed both comfortable carry and facilitated using the sling as a shooting aid.
The .30-’06 (Caliber .30 M1906) pattern cartridge the M1 rifle fired proved very effective during both World Wars. In its 150-grain M2 ball loading it provided very good terminal performance, good penetration of intermediate barriers, and a flat trajectory inside 400 yards where the majority of shots were taken. It was sufficiently accurate to hit a man-sized target out to the limits an infantryman could realistically be expected to hit at, about 500 yards. Firearms News Editor-In-Chief Vince DeNiro commented, “Its ability to make effective hits at long range was a definite plus, and my father spoke about this based on his service in the Korean War.” When loaded with Armor Piercing M2 ammunition the M1 rifle could penetrate lightly armored vehicles and more effectively penetrate protective barriers to get to the enemy.
Another good point DeNiro brought up was the M1 rifles ability to launch rifle grenades. To enhance the capabilities of the rifleman the M7 grenade launcher could be fitted to the M1. This attached easily and allowed 22mm rifle grenades to be launched both in the direct and indirect fire mode using a special blank cartridge. This allowed a rifleman to engage a target far beyond the distance of a hand thrown grenade. Maximum range was approximately 220 yards and fragmentation (M17), anti-tank (M9), and smoke grenades (M22) were issued. The M9 rifle grenade gave the individual rifleman the ability to take on lightly armored vehicles, such as German armored cars and half-tracks. In July 1945, an improved M7A1 launcher was adopted. This facilitated semi-automatic function with the launcher installed.
The last point I’ll cover is the heft of the M1 rifle and its effectiveness in bayonet fighting and close-quarters combat. Leroy Thompson commented on this, “I remembered a conversation with one of my uncles who served in the Pacific in WWII. He liked the fact that the M1 had the reach to use the bayonet and heft to butt-stroke.” Over the decades I’ve heard many veterans comment on this. Even if empty, the M1 rifle could still be a very effective weapon. You had reach, balance and weight for bayonet fighting, and a well-placed butt-stroke could drop an opponent. I remember my step-father, a World War II vet, talk about seeing a German soldier dropped by an energetic and well-executed butt-stroke. Overall, the M1 Garand rifle inspired confidence down to the primordial level as to its utility as a weapon.
Now, all this being said the M1 Garand was a great, but not perfect, rifle for its time. Design-wise it is very much a child of the 1920s and 1930s. Due to this it is a difficult rifle to manufacture on the scale required to be a general issue service rifle. It is more expensive to manufacture than a conventional bolt-action rifle, consists of more parts and requires more machining/assembly operations. I doubt any other country but the US had the capability to produce the M1 rifle on the scale required during World War II. Certainly, the British, French, Germans, Japanese, and Italians lacked the manufacturing capacity. I seriously doubt the Soviets could have either. Reading records of its production shows there were hold-ups due to lack of parts, machinery or workers. Winchester in particular had problems meeting the government quotas.
One valid criticism of the M1 Garand rifle DeNiro brought up is its weight. When DeNiro owned one in his younger years (back in the late 1980s), he was an avid weight lifter with a 54-inch chest, 31-inch waist, and 20-inch biceps. At 6’ 3”, DeNiro dwarfs the average World War II US infantryman who stood just 5’ 8” and weighed 144 pounds, yet he still felt the rifle was heavy back then. Yes, as previously mentioned the rifle’s weight was an advantage when using it as a club in a fight to the death. However, its weight was a universal complaint by the soldiers who had to carry it for miles. Stuff a cleaning kit into the butt, add a sling, load it with eight-rounds, and snap on a bayonet and it was over 10.5 pounds. A soldier carrying a heavier rifle will fatigue faster which decreases his survivability on the battlefield. A lighter rifle also is quicker to the shoulder, faster to start swinging and quicker to stop. The overall length and weight would later become an issue when the US began supplying military aid to South Vietnam and other countries where the rifle’s size and weight were ill-suited for the indigenous people.
While the en bloc clips worked well, they did create an issue. Sweeney mentioned remarking, “It wasn't possible to "top off" a partial load. You had to ditch the remaining rounds to get eight more.” He went on to say, “Without en bloc clips, it was a single-shot, and a clumsy one at that.” The use of a clip to feed the rifle also limited its capacity even though the M1 had a three-round advantage over its opponents - more is always better. The eight-round clip would disappear in the post-war M14 and BM59 in favor of a 20-round detachable box magazine.
Sweeney also mentioned maintenance, “Keeping the gas system clean and not-corroded was more work for the end-user.” This is true; maintaining an M1 in the field took longer and was more labor intensive than with the previous M1903 rifle. It has more parts than the Springfield, and is gas operated, which meant more to scrub. His comments ring true considering the issue ammunition featured corrosive primers. Rifles, especially in the South Pacific, needed to be maintained to prevent rust and corrosion due to not only the corrosive primers but also the harsh environmental conditions.
An issue with the rear sight design was also revealed in service. The flush nut on early rifles could loosen and fall off when adjustments were made. So, the pinion and nut were redesigned in November 1942. In the tropics, heavy rainfall could cause the M1’s breech mechanism to “freeze”. Rather than a redesign of the rifle, a small plastic container of a commercial water-repellant lubricant called Lubriplate – 130A was adopted in the summer of 1943 and issued. There was a problem with the gas cylinder rotating on the barrel enough to affect accuracy which also was addressed. As the war progressed informal reports were received about the rear sight “walking-up” during a string of fire, adding elevation. Colonel James L. Hatcher designed a new rear sight elevation pinion knob assembly which was adopted in October 1944. However, it is not believed any of these new improved T105E1 rear sights were issued on standard M1 rifles during World War II. I’ll also mention that in winter conditions it is easy to plug the rear sight’s aperture with snow. The rear sight could also freeze in extreme cold, and I’ve read reports of this occurring during the Korean War.
Then there is the cartridge the M1 fired, the venerable .30-’06. The 150-grain .30 M1906 load performed well in rifles during World War I. However, it came up a bit short for indirect fire use in machine guns compared to the 8mm Lebel used in the M1914 Hotchkiss American machine gun units were initially issued. This led to the post-war development and adoption of the 173-grain FMJ-BT M1 ball load. The M1 ball load didn’t last long though (1925-1937), and was replaced by the 150-grain M2 ball in 1937, which was similar to the original M1906 load. By World War II, mortars had taken over for machine guns in the indirect fire role. So, the loss of range wasn’t an issue, especially in rifles.
What was an issue though was the 63mm length of the cartridge. Compared to its peers the .30-’06 is a fairly long cartridge. Actually, it is excessively long for military use. The long cartridge case required more material to manufacture and dictated a longer receiver, this also required more material to manufacture and led to a heavier rifle. Basically, a shorter cartridge would require less material to produce, take up less room in storage or being shipped, would weigh less and be less expensive to manufacture. This would all lead to the post-war development and adoption of the significantly shorter 7.62x51mm NATO.
All this said, the M1 Garand rifle played a very important role during World War II and the years that followed. It remained in service for a surprisingly long time with US forces, even after the adoption of the 7.62mm M14. It also saw wide-spread use, and combat, with many other countries which received military aid from the US. Eventually though, like all old warhorses, time passed the M1 Garand by as a service rifle. When it was finally put out to pasture it went with a war record few other rifles will ever match.
Very well-respected by the men who carried it into harm’s way, the M1 Garand rifle remains very popular with both shooters and collectors. M1 Garand Matches are held around the country and the Civilian Marksmanship Program (TheCMP.org) is still selling government surplus M1s. Collectors love this model for its variations and history. Recreational shooters love the rifle’s feel, accuracy, and that unmistakable “ping” when it ejects an empty clip. Original parts, barrels, wood, clips, accessories and even dummy rifle grenades are all available, and Sarco (SarcoInc.com) has an extensive offering. Plus, there is no better rifle for when you are sitting around with friends watching Band of Brothers. A true American classic, the M1 rifle will always be an important part of our shooting culture and history.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article or the M1 Garand rifle we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@OutdoorSG.com.