Meet the M1 Garand rifle. The M1’s full-length barrel and aesthetically-pleasing dark wooden stock makes it easily identifiable—it remains one of the most iconic American firearms of the past century. General George Patton is said to have praised the rifle profusely, saying that was “The best battle implement ever devised.”
Chambered in .30-06, the rifle was powerful and accurate—the .30-06 six (pronounced “thirty-aught-six”) is still used today by some hunters for taking down intermediate and large game like deer, boar, and elk. As well-known as the M1 Garand is, there is another, little-known rifle could have become standard-issue instead.
The M1941 Johnson rifle was designed by Melvin Johnson, an American firearm designer in the mid-1930s. His rifle design used a fairly novel rotary-style magazine that could accept ten rounds, giving the Johnson a two-round advantage over the M1’s eight-round en bloc-style clip.
Still, the rifle suffered from reliability issues when fired with a bayonet attached, as the gun’s barrel would reciprocate, or move backwards about a half inch each time the trigger is pulled. Unsurprisingly, this led to accuracy issues. Like other rifles chambered in so-called full-size rifle cartridges, the Johnson had a decent amount of “kick” to it. The design also suffered from having a number of small parts that could be easily lost during field stripping.
Despite losing to the M1, the M1941 Johnson enjoyed some success during the Second World War with the Paramarines, a specialized but short-lived Marine Corps battalion that was trained in air insertions via parachute. In addition, the Johnson Rifle was used in limited numbers by the Special Service Force, an elite, all-volunteer and joint American-Canadian force that served in the European Theatre during the War.
Medal of Honor
Perhaps the most famous Marine to have been issued the Johnson Rifle was Robert Hugo Dunlap, a Paramarine Captain who served on Iwo Jima. During the battle, Hugo’s actions earned him the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration.
His Medal of Honor citation reads:
“As Commanding Officer, Company C, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during the Iwo Jima campaign, Major Dunlap led his company through a hail of artillery, mortar, rifle and machine gun fire in a determined advance from low ground uphill toward the steep cliffs from where the enemy poured a devastating rain of bullets and shrapnel. It was the day following the original landing in February 19, 1945.
When finally the volume of enemy fire became too intense to advance any further toward the caves located high to the front, Major Dunlap held up his company and crawled alone approximately 200 yards forward of his front lines, while his men watched in fear and admiration.
From this position at the base of the cliff, about 50 yards from the Japanese lines, the major spotted the enemy gun positions, and, returning to his own lines, relayed the vital information to the supporting artillery and naval gunfire units. Persistently disregarding his own safety, he then placed himself in an exposed vantage point to direct a more accurate supporting fire.
Major Dunlap worked without respite for two days and two nights under constant enemy fire, skillfully directing a smashing bombardment against the almost impregnable enemy positions. During this critical phase of the battle, his company suffered heavy casualties, but by his inspiring leadership and indomitable fighting spirit Major Dunlap spurred his men on to heroic efforts which resulted in the final decisive defeat of Japanese countermeasures in that sector.”
Capitan Dunlap is said to have kept his rifle after the war, and favored the firearm for it’s reliability. A statue of him in his hometown in Illinois prominently shows him carrying the M1941.
Though the M1941 Johnson Rifle was ultimately unsuccessful in gaining more widespread use in Allied, and particularly American service, it did enjoy some success in use with various other American-Allied units after the war. Perhaps most infamously, the Johnson Rifle armed members of Brigade 2506, the Cuban unit that was associated with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Not a terrible legacy for a rifle that was never standard-issue.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.