January 11, 2021
By Jim Dickson
The finest semi-auto combat rifle ever made was the M1941 Johnson rifle. This was by far the most reliable self-loading rifle ever made. It was as perfectly balanced and responsive as a fine British shotgun, as was proved by men killing waterfowl on the wing with it, and it was sniper-rifle accurate out to 1,000 yards. Since all the functioning parts were metal on metal, it was immune to the effects of stock warpage. Unfortunately, it suffered from the not-invented-here problem. U.S. Army Ordnance was an unbelievably tight clique where outsiders were quite unwelcome. This was never more openly shown than when the Johnson rifle appeared on the scene. After decades of unproductive work, Army Ordnance had finally adopted the M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, despite the fact that it never met the specifications it was supposed to be required to meet.
The M1 Garand could not even function with the standard 30-06 M1 ammunition of the Army. This was a higher-powered machinegun load that replaced the earlier 30-06 load in WWI. It was too powerful for the M1 to handle for any length of time without tearing up and malfunctioning. In order to get the M1 to work, the U.S. Army had to revert to the weaker original load. They disguised this step backwards by renaming it the 30-06 M2 cartridge.
The M1 also had a problem with the 16-inch blade M1905 bayonet with which it was supposed to work. Repeated firing with the bayonet attached could warp the gas cylinder and cause jams. The bayonets for the M1 were later shortened, first to a 10-inch blade length, and then to a lightweight profile 6-inch blade because of this problem.
Reliability was not up to par either. I have known M1 Garands to jam just from the sand splashed up from the surf in an amphibious landing. I have seen a bit of rust in the gas system lock up the action so tight that a man stomping on the cocking handle could not budge it. Like all gas-operated weapons, the M1 Garand required special attention to cleaning its gas system, especially with the corrosive primers that were the standard issue of the day.
Extra care and attention to cleaning takes energy and time, as well as a safe place to take your gun apart without the enemy killing you in the middle of your gun-cleaning operation. Technicians that have never seen intense
combat have no idea how difficult this sometimes can be on the front lines. This is reflected in their subsequent choices of weapons.
The M1 was replaced by the M14 in 1957. The M14 is just the M1 with a shortened cartridge, a box magazine, and the White gas system that was originally rejected by John Garand as inferior and less reliable than the one used on the M1 rifle. The M14 was replaced by the M16, which the Army admitted requires more maintenance than any weapon previously issued. Each weapon has also been less reliable in combat than its predecessor. The problem keeps getting worse instead of better.
I have been told by men in a position to know, that there was a much more sinister reason for the insistence on going with the M1. They said that the top men in Army Ordnance had misappropriated one million dollars for development of the M1, and that money could only be covered up during the production runs of the M1. If the M1 was dropped from production, the misappropriated money would come to light, and the brass hats would go to jail. Considering the arrogance and high-handed actions of the Ordnance top brass at this time, I have no problem believing this story.
So now, just as everyone’s reputation, and even career, is staked on the M1 Garand, along comes the best semi-auto of all time. What could be worse? The Japanese were more welcome at the Pearl Harbor attack than the Johnson rifle was when it showed up.
The Johnson had no malfunctioning problems. It always worked, no matter what. That means the rifleman lives in combat where a malfunction can cost him his life or his comrade’s life. The inventor, Melvin Johnson, delighted in plugging the bore with a rag and burying his invention in the sand so he could pull it out and commence firing. The Johnson is unmatched in its ability to throw sand, dirt, and mud out of its action during the firing cycle. It is impossible to keep out dirt in combat, and guns that try to shut it out, like the M16, end up with a problem once it gets in and can’t get back out. No one has made a gun that was better at throwing it out and continuing to fire than Johnson. It makes the vaunted AK47 look positively unreliable by comparison.
Unlike most other designs, the Johnson tends to keep all the powder fouling in the bore and not in the action. I am always amazed at how little gets in the gun when firing. In common with modern machineguns, it has a quick-change barrel, which makes cleaning a breeze. With the bolt unlocked, just put the point of a cartridge in the detent on the barrel release at the end of the fore end, and press. The lever will drop down, and the barrel can be slid off from the front. You can scrub out the corrosive primer residue with no fear of getting water in the action. When finished, just push the barrel back in place, and swing the lever up until it catches. This is a gun designed to be properly maintained under the worst conditions in combat, without jeopardizing the life of the rifleman. Why is this the only gun like this?
One of the dirty little secrets of WWII is the lot of defective powder, which had the same fouling characteristics of black powder, that was used in some of the cartridges. None of the gas-operated weapons would function for more than a few shots with these cartridges, but the recoil-operated guns continued to function with it.
The Johnson has no gas system to cause jams as it gets fouled or rusts. The barrel moves back slightly on firing, with a cam rotating the bolt with multiple locking lugs, so that it unlocks and can be driven back on the recoil spring by the forces of the gun’s recoil. There is a long bolt throw with the recoil spring in the stock, where it doesn’t shorten the space for the bolt to travel. The result is more recoil cancellation and a very pleasant gun to fire. The Johnson in 30-06 has less felt recoil than the M16 or the AK47 with their much smaller and weaker cartridges. U.S. Army Ordnance reaction was to lie and claim that the Johnson kicked so hard that it would break the soldiers’ shoulders.
Accuracy of the Johnson was second to none. It is all metal on metal with no stock bedding involved, and the action is inherently accurate.
The 30-06 cartridge is in the 50,000psi pressure range, and the small difference between the original 30-06 load and the hotter WWI machinegun load, standardized as the 30-06 M1, was enough to ruin the M1 Garand. The Johnson works fine up to 75,000psi. It is very forgiving about recoil impulse, working perfectly with a wide range of cartridges, from 7mm Mauser, 270 Winchester, and 30-06 in any loading, to 35 Whelen with 250- or 300-grain loads. My personal Johnson has a spare .35 Whelen barrel that takes 310-grain Woodleigh 350 Rigby projectiles loaded to 350 Rigby ballistics by Wolfgang Romey in Petershagen, Germany, with no problems. All it takes is a different barrel to swap calibers.
The Johnson has a unique rotary 10-shot magazine that can be topped off with five-round stripper clips or single cartridges in combat so that you don’t run out of ammo and have to reload in close proximity to an enemy bayonet. This worthwhile feature was the result of the Army Ordnance sabotaging an early Johnson test rifle equipped with BAR magazines. Ordnance had its men load the cartridges backwards, ruining the feed lips so that the magazine could not feed the cartridges successfully. Johnson caught this and demanded that new, undamaged magazines be used, but Ordnance high-handedly refused, and continued the tests with magazines everyone knew would no longer work. Of course, when the test results were written up, the gun got the blame instead of the Ordnance saboteurs.
Johnson then made the rotary magazine with its fixed machined feed lips that could never cause a failure to feed. A side effect was that it is not sensitive to overall cartridge length like a box magazine, making life easier for those of us that like to swap out barrels of different calibers. Johnson also designed his rotary magazine so it could be topped off with the standard Springfield five-round stripper clips in use, so theoretically, you never had to run out of ammunition in combat.
Contrast this with the M1 Garand’s tossing the empty clip with a highly audible ping when the last round was fired. In close quarter combat, that was always the enemy’s cue to rise up and lob a grenade. It was sometimes a sufficient problem that men took to counting their shots and manually removing the last round and its clip to avoid the tell-tale ping of death.
The Johnson is the only military rifle that has the liveliness of a British Best Quality shotgun. It comes on target instantly and accurately. Waterfowl have been successfully killed on the wing using the Johnson just like a shotgun. That ease of hitting without sights has never been equaled in a military rifle. It translates into enemy soldiers hit that otherwise might have been missed. I have killed running deer in mid-air leaps without using the sights with the Johnson, and that’s harder than hitting your average soldier on the battlefield.
The Johnson was also much faster, easier and cheaper to manufacture than the Garand. This would have been of the utmost importance in WWII, because many U.S. soldiers went into combat throughout the war armed with WWI bolt-action rifles instead of semi-autos, because there were not enough M1 Garands to go around. Had the Johnson been adopted, there would have been enough for everyone, as well as for allied armies.
Rapid fire for any length of time has been known to set the M1 Garand’s top hand guard on fire. This is a serious problem if you are facing a Chinese human wave attack in Korea. That is a very bad time to have your rifle blaze up on fire. The Johnson has a quick-change barrel with full exposure to the air for cooling, and there is nothing that is going to catch fire, even if the barrel gets red hot. You won’t burn your hand either.
When firing in a heavy tropical monsoon rain, the Garand throws so much water in the firer’s face with each shot that it earned the derogatory nickname “the bath gun.” The well-mannered Johnson does not throw water in your face and works flawlessly in the rain. That means you keep on hitting the enemy, instead of flinching and ending up with an enemy bayonet in your gut when you were temporarily blinded by a splash of water in your eyes.
Army Ordnance was surprised that a Marine Captain developing a gun on his own could not be run off like they were used to. Ordnance responded with the most brazen lies and rigged tests imaginable. Melvin Johnson had powerful supporters though. Fred Ness of the National Rifle Association and members of Congress and the Senate who had seen the miraculous gun put through its paces lobbied hard for the Johnson to replace the Garand.
Ordnance fought tooth and nail against it, but the coming of WWII gave them the excuse to keep the Garand that they wanted. A war was on, so this was no time to change rifles, they said. Germany didn’t have any trouble adopting the FG42 and Stg44 in wartime, but this argument served to force the Johnson off stage. Today, the lies told about it by Ordnance are remembered more than the truth about the wonder gun.
The Dutch bought some M1941 Johnson rifles, but they were soon out of the war. The U. S. Marine Corps took over some that were originally intended for the Dutch, but under pressure from Army Ordnance, these were soon withdrawn from service. Ordnance even had many of the 10-round magazines blocked to hold only eight rounds, like the M1 Garand, so the troops wouldn’t demand the gun that held more ammo. My Johnson was one of these, and I had to have the magazine converted back to 10-round capacity.
Some may say, “So what?” The semi-auto rifle is a dead issue today. Well, in 1941, Captain Melvin Johnson came out with a 12½-pound LMG version that was as controllable as a BAR. It also had no recoil spring mounted under the barrel, where heat from full-auto firing could weaken the spring like the BAR has. This design flaw of the BAR has gotten a lot of BAR operators and the men depending on them killed in heavy combat, where the barrel of the BAR heats up fast. The Johnson has a quick-change barrel for when that happens, enabling the Johnson to keep firing long after the BAR has overheated and stopped, and, unlike the BAR, it is hard to burn yourself on the well-shrouded Johnson barrel.
In 1944, Johnson continued to modify the basic M1941 rifle design and came out with the M1944 Johnson LMG. A compact 42.5 inches long, this 14.7-pound 30-06 LMG was FULLY CONTROLLABLE in full-automatic fire with open-bolt firing and sniper accurate at 1,000 yards firing semi auto with closed-bolt firing. Johnson knew that open-bolt firing gets rid of 50% more recoil than closed-bolt firing as well as prevents cook-offs in a hot chamber. Thanks to this and the advanced recoil cancellation system used, the actual recoil impact energy of the M1944 fired full auto from the shoulder is only 1.33 foot pounds per shot.
Cyclic rate could be made for anything from 450 rpm to 750 rpm, but experience dating back to WWI has proven that anything over 500 rpm means a lot fewer hits per rounds fired. Precision semi-auto needs closed-bolt firing though. Johnson took the obvious solution and made a trigger mechanism that fired open bolt when the selector was set on full auto, and fired closed bolt when the selector was set on semi-auto. This type of firing mode was seriously looked into as recently as 12-years ago as the USMC was considering the features of their IAR (Infantry Automatic Rifle) when American Defense Management, Inc. and Vision Technologies Kinetics (U.S.-based division of Singapore Technologies Kinetics) proposed their contender, the Ultimax100 MK4, which was to incorporate that system.
The Johnson machinegun also featured an even better recoil cancellation system, making it one of the few fully controllable, fully automatic arms ever designed and made. Fully controllable by the average soldier is something the M16 and AK-47 with their pipsqueak cartridges can never claim. The M1944 Johnson achieves it with the full power 30-06 cartridge, which will shoot through the foliage and battlefield cover that stops the intermediate cartridges cold. The importance of this was demonstrated by the fact that there was a serious effort to replace the 30-06 M2 ball ammo by standardizing the 30-06 M2 AP, because of its drastically increased effectiveness in Pacific Island fighting. The increased cost per cartridge predictably killed that idea. Money, as always, was more valuable than enlisted men’s lives.
It should be noted that the 30-06 M2 ball AP ammo’s margin of effectiveness is far greater over the more recent 7.62 NATO than it is over standard M2 ball ammo. As for the current 5.56 NATO, there is no comparison, as the 5.56 NATO does not handle even jungle foliage well, and is the most prone to deflection of any military round I have encountered. If your bullets can’t reach the enemy, what good are they? The military has been sacrificing combat effectiveness in exchange for more compact cartridges in the last two cartridges standardized. This is obviously a bad trade.
The M1941 semi-auto rifle had morphed into the ultimate one-man infantry weapon with the M1944 LMG. As long as nitrocellulose is our propellant, it looks like it will remain the champ. Although the Paramarines did deploy the Johnson machinegun in the Pacific Theatre during WWII with great success, the Marine Corps was not able to fully adopt it as Army Ordnance put a stop to that with another spat of lies. There are a few M1944 LMG examples out there, but most people have never seen one, let alone fired one. Firing a M1944 Johnson is an eye-opening experience. There is nothing else like it.
You cannot make a carbine or infantry rifle into a useful machinegun by simply adding a selector switch. You just end up with an uncontrollable, high-climbing noisemaker. You can, however, make a light machinegun that will double as a rifle, and this is the only way to put effective full-auto firepower into the hands of every soldier. Even today, the M1944 Johnson has no valid competitor in this. While it weighs more than an M1 carbine, its 14.7-pound weight is the proven absolute minimum weight for a controllable machinegun firing a full-power cartridge like the 30-06. The brass determines how much weight the soldier can carry into combat, and if you take weight off one item, they will just add that weight onto your combat load somewhere else. Personally, I prefer it on my weapon, where it will do the most good in keeping me and my men alive.
For those who don’t like Johnson’s side-mounted, 20-round, single-column magazine, designed to be totally jam-proof in combat, the gun can always be made for conventional box magazines, like the early prototypes. It should be noted that this gun holds five rounds in the gun itself, in addition to what’s in the magazine, for a total of 25 rounds, fully loaded. For those who want belt feed, the belt-fed version is known as the T48 LMG.
The M1944 Johnson came with an innovative monopod instead of a bipod. It has a large foot and makes a secure grip on the ground noticeably faster and more secure and steady than a bipod, which normally has to shift into position a bit. Some of these had a shock absorber built into them, which also helped dampen recoil and firing vibration, disproving the nay-sayers, who said that it would not help. The monopod also makes a good fore-end grip. Personally, I always shoot better with a vertical fore-end grip than I do with a horizontal one. You can also use this monopod to good advantage as a vertical foregrip when firing prone, something that you can’t do with a bipod.
Despite the obvious need for the M1944 Johnson’s firepower, Ordnance left the troops to face Japan’s banzai charges and the planned invasion of Japan armed with the eight-round M1 Garand. In Korea, the Garand proved a poor choice of weapon against the human wave assaults that overran units and pushed the Army back. Had every soldier had an M1944 Johnson, the human wave assaults would have been cut to pieces with accurate full-auto fire.
In Vietnam, the troops wasted ammo, wildly firing the M16 in full-auto as the gun climbed off target and the bullets deflected in the jungle foliage. The M1944 Johnson would have delivered accurate full-auto fire in a straight line, and its 30-06 M2 AP ammo would have cut straight through the jungle foliage to reach the enemy. The widely reported cases of troops killed when their guns jammed or even while trying to take apart their M16s to get them to work would have been conspicuously absent.
The 5.56 cartridge has been plagued with consistent, confirmed reports of multiple rounds failing to have an immediate effect on the enemy. That never happened with the 30-06, nor has it the range limitations that have handicapped the M4 carbine users in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Ordnance’s response to the troops’ demand for a weapon like the M1944 Johnson was to put a selector switch on the M1 carbine and M1 rifle. The selective-fire version of the M1 rifle, the T20, had a 20-shot BAR magazine and climbed like a scared squirrel. It also brought the problem of the M1 rifle charring and burning fore ends to a new high point.
The mistake was repeated in 1957, with the M14, which should have been called the M1A1, for that is all it really is. No one could control it in full-auto fire either. This is the solution of technicians who have never been in combat. It fires full auto, so that makes it a machinegun. Wrong. In these cases, it just makes a noisy ammo waster. A machinegun with which the average soldier can’t draw a straight line of bullets across the target in a long burst is good only for the enemy.
Ordnance’s solution was to cop out and invent three-round burst kits and to tell people to use short bursts, hoping the first shot or two would be on target. You are better off using aimed rapid fire when you have a gun that can’t deliver long, accurate bursts. It certainly can’t qualify as a machinegun, except in the strictest legal sense of the word.
Today, the Johnson rifles and machineguns remain a vivid example of what happens when the best products run afoul of corrupt powers-that-be; men who could not care less about the lives of mere enlisted men dying because their weapons failed them in combat. From their point of view, it was all about their careers. Nothing much has changed in the world since then.