Although soldiers groused and kidded about the weight of the M-1, Garand’s weapon gave stout service wherever it was carried. Often making the difference between life and death for the men on the front lines, it played a vital tactical role and, ultimately, a decisive role in the Allied victory over the forces of Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan.
A variety of outstanding weapons and pieces of equipment affected the course of World War II for both the Allies and the Axis powers.
There was the British workhorse 25-pounder field gun, the deadly Supermarine Spitfire fighter, the Avro Lancaster bomber, the universal carrier, and the dependable Bren light machine gun; the rugged Soviet T-34, regarded as the best tank of the war; the devastating German 88mm antiaircraft and artillery gun, and the formidable Tiger tank series; the feared Japanese Mitsubishi Zero carrier fighter; and, from the American “arsenal of democracy” came the ubiquitous jeep, the Sherman medium tank, the half-track, the bazooka rocket launcher, the universally used C-47 transport plane—and the Garand M-1 infantry rifle.
Designed long before the war by John C. Garand, a French Canadian engineer, the semiautomatic, gas-operated, air-cooled, clip-fed M-1 was the main infantry weapon of the U.S. Army in 1941-1945. Firing a .30-caliber cartridge in eight-round clips, it was the world’s first semiautomatic rifle in military service and was used wherever American soldiers saw action, in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Pacific Theater, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.
The M-1 had a significant advantage over the bolt-action rifles used by the other Allied and enemy armies because of its semiautomatic mechanism. Its shooter could fire as fast as he could squeeze the trigger. A trained soldier was able to fire eight rounds within 20 seconds and then quickly insert a full clip without taking his sights off the target. He could also load with regular ball, tracer, armor-piercing, or incendiary ammunition, and with relative ease he could turn the weapon into a grenade launcher.
Although it weighed a hefty nine and a half pounds, John C. Garand’s rifle was easy to maintain and was deadly accurate to a range of about 550 yards. Despite its weight, GIs loved the M-1. “I dropped five Krauts with my M-1,” said one soldier in the European Theater. From the Pacific Theater came another report: “As eight Japs came charging at him with fixed bayonets, the American Marine dropped all of them with his trusty M-1 Garand. The loud ‘pling’ [of the ejecting clip] was heard by his comrades as the last Jap fell to the ground.”
Armed with the Garand, one or two U.S. soldiers could kill an entire enemy squad before it reached its objective. In short-range jungle fighting in the Far East, where opposing forces sometimes met each other in column formation on a narrow path, the penetration of the rifle’s powerful .30-06 cartridge enabled a single GI or Marine to kill up to three Japanese soldiers with a single round.
The rifle’s accuracy and durability earned high praise from generals as well as GIs. During the bitter, doomed struggle on Bataan in early 1942, General Douglas A. MacArthur, later commander of Allied ground forces in the Pacific Theater, reported on the M-1 to the U.S. Ordnance Department: “Under combat conditions, it operated with no mechanical defects, and when used in foxholes did not develop stoppages from dust or dirt. It has been in almost constant action for as much as a week without cleaning or lubrication.”
Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the highballing Third Army in Europe in 1944-1945, reported to the Ordnance Department on January 26, 1945: “In my opinion, the M-1 rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised.”
The M-1 was not as elegant as the Army’s beloved Springfield M1903 rifle, which it replaced, but it was more rugged, better suited to mass production, three times faster in rate of fire, only slightly less accurate, and much easier for a recruit to learn to handle.
The Man Behind the Marvel
The M-1’s inventor, John Cantius Garand, was born on January 1, 1888, on a small farm in the town of Saint Remi, 17 miles south of Montreal, Quebec. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to rural Connecticut. John attended school until the age of 12 and then started work, sweeping floors in a textile mill. An inquisitive boy, he became fascinated by the machinery around him and was soon using his spare time to learn about mechanics. By the age of 18, he was employed as a machinist.
John became a tool and gauge maker, took correspondence courses, and went to work at the Brown & Sharpe tool factory in Providence, Rhode Island. As a young apprentice machine-tool designer there, he found himself caught up in a revolution in machine-tool design. The growing automobile industry was demanding precision-machined components at an unprecedented cost and level of production, so the machine-tool industry had to reinvent itself.
John learned much at Brown & Sharpe, particularly the integration of design with production machinery, and his experience there would never be far from his mind. After he worked for a time in a shooting gallery, John Garand became fond of guns and target shooting. He started designing guns as a hobby. After reading about the U.S. Army’s mechanical problems with weapons during the World War I era, John designed a light machine gun. The Army took bids on designs, and John’s blueprint was eventually selected by the War Department.
He was given a position at the U.S. Bureau of Standards in August 1918 and the task of perfecting his weapon. Garand finished work on his prototype within 18 months, but World War I had ended by then and the Army lost interest. Nevertheless, the hard-working young inventor was kept on as a consulting engineer. He was now known in the gun-making world.
At the Springfield Armory
In November 1919, Garand was assigned to the historic U.S. Armory in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield. Established in 1777 by General George Washington and his artillery chief, Colonel Henry Knox, the armory was used to store muskets, cannons, and other arms during the American Revolution. Later, cartridges, gun carriages, and 800,000 muskets were produced there. With the destruction of the Harpers Ferry Armory and Arsenal during the Civil War, the Springfield Armory became the main federal manufacturing center for small arms. It was immortalized in the poem, “The Arsenal at Springfield,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
At Springfield, John Garand was to spend the rest of his career, become the chief ordnance officer, and make a unique contribution to American infantry firepower in World War II. When asked to design a semiautomatic infantry rifle for the Army, he drew on his Brown & Sharpe experience. Such a weapon would require precision in machining and assembly, with a design incorporating functionality and predictability. But things would have to be changed at the Springfield Armory if it was to mass produce a top-quality infantry weapon.
Garand learned that the armory, which had given its name to the legendary Springfield rifle series, had failed to turn out even a fraction of the weapons needed by the Army in World War I, and many of those it did produce were soon scrapped. The Springfield Armory manufactured more than 265,000 Springfield M1903 rifles during the war, but this was insufficient for the rapidly expanding Army’s needs. So, an additional 47,251 were turned out by the Rock Island (Ill.) Arsenal. The war proved to be a blow to the Springfield Armory’s prestige from which it never fully recovered, although it had warned the War Department for several years that its production capabilities were obsolete and unsuited for modern firearms.
Designing a New Rifle
When he started work at Springfield, the bespectacled, studious Garand found himself having to upgrade its production facilities. He concluded that the armory was producing the wrong rifle. The bolt-action Springfield M1903 was a fine infantry rifle, but it was difficult to produce using modern machine tools. It was designed to be constructed by skilled armorers at a leisurely pace and with abundant labor. Garand realized that time and skilled manpower were always in short supply in time of war, so he believed that the only logical course was to abandon the M1903 and start anew. The design of the British M1917 Enfield rifle produced during World War I had had the advantage of being built with machine tools and unskilled labor.