Key point: Here is how one unusual gun made its way in the fight against the Axis. The M1941 did its job, but the BAR was still the weapon of choice.
The M1941 Johnson machine gun, designed by Melvin Johnson, Jr., was a light machine gun that despite never becoming standard-issue, nonetheless served in small numbers with the United States Marine Corps. The decidedly odd-looking rifle had a few interesting features.
Johnson’s original intent was to create a semi-automatic rifle that could not only give the legendary M1 Garand a run for its money, but replace it. You can read about his other fascinating firearm here. In addition to a semi-automatic rifle, Johnson also designed and built a fully-automatic machine gun that was in some ways similar to the Browning Automatic Rifle.
Like the BAR, Johnson’s M1941 Johnson machine gun was chambered in the .30-06 Springfield, a robust and full-sized .30 caliber rifle cartridge that was America’s standard-issue rifle cartridge during both the First and Second World War as well as during the conflict in Korea. But, unlike the BAR, which weighed nearly twenty-five pounds, the M1941 Johnson was quite light by comparison at about thirteen pounds.
There were two ways to feed cartridges into the Johnson’s action: a long, single-stack twenty-round magazine could be inserted into the left side of the receiver, much like the Sten, a British submachine gun used during the Second World War. But, the rifle could also be loaded by inserting stripper clips into the ejection port. The M1941 Johnson had two rates of fire: the first was rather slow, at approximately 200-rounds per minute, or alternatively a much faster 600-rounds per minute rate of fire.
The rifle’s unique buttstock was designed to channel recoil generated by firing back and into the shooter’s shoulder in order to reduce muzzle climb. While this was achieved, the design necessitated rather tall sights. Like the BAR, the M1941 Johnson machine gun also had a metallic bipod attached to the barrel, as well as a flash hider reminiscent of the much later M14 battle rifle.
With the Marines
But what kind of service did the M1941 Johnson machine gun actually see? Though difficult to definitively verify, it appears that a little over a hundred Johnson machine guns were used by the United States Marine Corps.
The rifles that the Marines were able to get their hands on were actually intended to be used by the Dutch colonial forces, though by the time they reached their Pacific destination, Dutch forces had already been overrun. As the M1941 Johnson machine gun was chambered in the American .30-06, they were a handy addition to the Marines, who modified a number of weapons during their slog through the Pacific.
Though difficult to verify with absolute certainty, it appears that the M1941 Johnson was also briefly used by the First Special Service Force, a joint Canadian-American special forces unit.
A version of the M1941 Johnson machine gun was also briefly in service with the Haganah, the group that preceded the Israel Defense Forces. Though visually quite similar to the M1941 Johnson on which it was based, the Israeli Dror was chambered in several other cartridges, namely Second World War British and German surplus.
Though the M1941 Johnson machine gun did not unseat the mighty BAR, it did enjoy some amount of success with certain elite troops and overseas. Melvin Johnson Jr.’s pattern also influenced the AR-15 design, perhaps one of the most widely-produced rifles if not in the world, than certainly in the United States. Not too bad for an overall unsuccessful World War Two rifle.
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. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.