The M1 Garand service rifle was one of the outstanding American weapons of the twentieth century. Simple, sturdy, and well designed for its time, the Garand gave U.S. Army soldiers and Marines far greater firepower than their enemies—and allies too for that matter. Gen. George S. Patton, commander of the U.S. Third Army, described the M1 as “magnificent” and “the greatest battle implement ever devised”, crediting it with giving the Army a rifle tailor made for the liberation of Europe and the Pacific. The M1 has become synonymous with the U.S. Army in World War II.
During the 1930s, the U.S. Army was searching for a replacement for the M1903 Springfield rifle. Introduced in 1903, the Springfield utilized the Mauser bolt action operating system, weighed nine pounds, and carried five .30-06 rounds in an internal magazine. Accurate and dependable with an effective range of 600 meters, the weapon as good as if not slightly better than its contemporaries, particularly the German Karabiner Modell 1898 Kurz, otherwise known as the Karabiner 98k, and the Japanese Arisaka Model 99.
The U.S. Army was determined to replace the 1903 Springfield with a new rifle using the latest in small-arms technology. The Army Ordnance department wanted a “simple, strong and compact” rifle that was self-loading, in other words semi-automatic, did not exceed nine pounds in weight, was well-balanced and well-suited for shoulder firing, magazine-fed from “clips or chargers,” and entirely semi-automatic and not fire fully automatic by malfunction.
John C. Garand, an employee of the U.S. Government’s Springfield Armory, developed a gas-operated infantry rifle design. Garand’s design was an early example of the “gas operated, rotating bolt” operating system that came to dominate small arms design, used in such well-regarded weapons as the M14 battle rifle, AK-47 assault rifle, and M16 rifle. In Garand’s design a small amount of gas is diverted to push a piston that in turn drives an operating rod, which in turn drives the bolt.
The semi-automatic operating system was coupled to an eight-round internal magazine fed by eight-round clips. Once the final round in the clip was fired, the clip was ejected and the bolt remained in the open position, the rifle ready to accept a fresh clip. This process expedited reloading of the magazine, allowing a U.S. soldier or Marine to fire nearly continuously during an attack. Like the Springfield, the Garand combined the high velocity .30-06 cartridge with a 24 inch long barrel, producing a muzzle velocity of 2805 feet per second at the muzzle and an effective range of 600 meters. This compared favorably to the German 98k’s 2477 feet-per-second and the Japanese Model 99’s 2239 feet per second, respectively. The resulting rifle weighed a hefty nine pounds, eight ounces, its weight no doubt pushed up by the piston and operating rod.
The combination of semi-automatic fire and an eight-round magazine gave the individual U.S. soldier fire superiority over his enemies and the ability to produce what Patton called “marching fire”—accurate fire at targets of opportunity while advancing on foot. The U.S. Army considered semi-automatic weapons superior to bolt action weapons in the advance, as soldiers fired their guns without working the bolt. This produced more rapid, accurate fire. German and Japanese infantry rifles, by comparison, were relatively slow-firing bolt-action weapons that fired from a five round internal magazine. Soldier for soldier U.S. infantrymen could unleash more firepower than their adversaries, although the proliferation of German machine guns such as the MG42 tended to even things out at the platoon, company, and higher unit levels.
The M1 entered service in 1932 as "U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1,” but only began being issued in 1936. By 1941 the majority of U.S. forces were issued the weapon, although a significant number of M1903s were still in service and saw combat in early campaigns including the Solomon Islands, the Gilbert Islands, and North Africa. By 1944 both the U.S. Army and Marines were fully equipped with the M1. The Japanese Army and Navy in particularly were forced to adapt their tactics, eschewing banzai charges in the face of the wall of firepower put out by U.S. soldiers and Marines.
The M1 did have some disadvantages. The rifle is heavy and a bit on the bulky side, and the thickness of the wood stock forend, concealing the semi-automatic operating system, is less ergonomic for smaller hands. The Garand’s action could not accept a clip with fewer than eight rounds, and the rifle could not accept individual rounds. Once spent an empty clip was ejected with a distinctive “ping” noise, which rumor has it telegraphed to enemy soldiers their American enemy was holding an unloaded weapon.
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The M1 remained in service through the end of the war and even through the Korean War in 1950–53. The Garand soldiered on through the 1950s when the deployment of the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle essentially rendered it obsolete. Although an excellent weapon, the M1 had overstayed its welcome.
Starting in 1959, the M1 was replaced in Army and Marine Corps service by the M14 battle rifle—essentially the same weapon chambered in .308, with a slightly shorter barrel and fed through a detachable twenty-round box magazine. Retired in favor of the M16, M14s were again brought back from armories in the early 2000s to provide a long range designated marksman weapon for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The M1 effectively soldiered on well into the twenty-first century, far longer than John Garand could have ever intended.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.