The M1 Garand rifle was one of the most iconic weapons of World War II. The United States military was the only WWII combatant that armed its standard infantrymen with a semi-automatic rifle. The Garand served from the steaming jungles of the Pacific to the sands of North Africa and across Europe.

The M1 Garand was adopted by the U.S. Army as its main battle rifle on January 9, 1936. It served until 1958 when it was replaced by the M14 rifle which used basically the same operating system. Over 5,500,000 M1s were produced. The rifle served as the main infantry weapon of the U.S. in both WWII and Korea.

General George S. Patton famously called the M1 Garand “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” It was simple and inexpensive to produce. Its average cost in 1945 was $26 per rifle. The rifle was easy to operate and maintain, and most importantly rugged and reliable.

John Garand
John C. Garand demonstrates the loading of the M1 rifle that carried his name. (U.S. Archives)

Upgrading the Infantryman’s Firepower

The U.S. Army had been tinkering with the idea of giving infantrymen a semi-automatic rifle since 1909. Those plans were delayed by the onset of World War I. During WWI the infantrymen were stuck with the standard 1903 Springfield rifle which was a bolt-action, five-shot weapon in .30 caliber (30-06).

In 1921, the Ordnance Department announced that it had eight principal requirements for the next generation of semi-automatic weapons. This new design was to replace the M1903 Springfield which had been in service since 1903. The Army was looking for the infantry to have more firepower than the standard bolt-action rifle. The Ordnance Department required that any new design would have to:

  • Weigh nine pounds or less;
  • Be well-balanced and adapted to shoulder firing;
  • Be fed by a magazine for quick reloading;
  • Be simple, strong, compact, and easy to manufacture;
  • Be entirely semi-automatic;
  • Use the .30 caliber service cartridge (30-06);
  • Function properly without any need for special oil, grease, or other material applied to the cartridge.

Enter John C. Garand

Garand moved to the United States from Canada as a young child. He was working in the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts when he submitted a design entry for the Army’s Light Machine Gun competition. Although his design wasn’t adopted, he was put in charge of developing a semi-automatic rifle.

Initial testing included a new 7mm (.276 caliber) cartridge since the Army believed that if the cartridge were lighter, the average soldier could carry a lot more ammo. But that was eventually nixed when then Army Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur wanted to retain the .30 caliber ammo since the U.S. had stockpiled so much of it.

Garand’s design utilized a revolutionary long-stroke gas piston system near the rifle’s muzzle that trapped propellant gasses and used the pressure to cycle the rifle’s gas piston that ran below the barrel. The piston was attached to an operating rod that rotated the M1’s bolt to unlock it and open the action. This allowed spent cases to be ejected and a fresh cartridge loaded.

The system, however, was found to be unsuitable as carbon would build up and cause malfunctions. Garand soon replaced the gas trap with a gas port through which the firing would push gas directly from the barrel to the gas piston. The gas port made the design much more reliable.

The improved rear sight, a big upgrade over the ’03 Springfield, coupled with the semi-automatic rate of fire nearly doubled the American soldier’s firepower.

The Garand used .30-06 caliber cartridges in eight-round “en bloc” clips loaded into an internal magazine. When the last round was fired the spent clips would be ejected and make an audible pinging sound.

Marines in WWII using M1s.
U.S. Marines at Tarawa in WWII used the M1 to great effect on the defending Japanese troops. (U.S. Archives)

M1 Garand Goes to War

The Garand M1 rifle first saw major action during the latter stages of the American invasions of Guadalcanal in the Pacific and in North Africa in 1942 during Operation Torch.

The Marine Corps was initially resistant to the M1, wanting to stick with the ’03 Springfield. The Marines valued precision fire over volume of fire, believing that semi-automatic fire lent itself to poor marksmanship practices. That attitude changed with the Battle of Guadalcanal. Marines saw Army troops on the “Canal” using the M1 and were clamoring for them. 

The Marines did get issued M1s and their marksmanship didn’t suffer one iota. Marine riflemen took a toll on the Japanese until the end of the war. 

The only drawback of the weapon was that it tended to be a bit bulky and heavy. But the troops loved its reliability and rate of fire. American infantry squads could easily put down much more fire than their German and Japanese enemies who were still using the bolt-action Mauser KAR-98 and the Arisaka rifles. The Germans experimented with the Gewehr-43 semi-automatic rifle, but never in large numbers. 

The M1 Garand’s Famous Ping

The ping that was produced once the last round from an M1 was fire has been the subject of many legends. Some claim that enemy soldiers would wait until they heard the pinging sound to take advantage of American troops being out of ammo. While some veterans say that during a pitched firefight it was impossible to distinguish the sound over the din of battle, others claim it to be true.

Several years ago, I happened to be at an event where several members of the “Band of Brothers,” paratroopers from Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, were present. While they were being peppered with questions, many of their answers were geared toward humor or tongue-in-cheek. When they were asked about the pinging of the en-bloc clips, it elicited an interesting response. 

One paratrooper smiled and said he’d always carry an empty en-bloc clip. And if the shooting was sporadic, he’d bounce a clip of his own helmet when one of his buddies fired, trying to catch a German peering up for a shot. He claimed that he nailed a German that way… myth or truth? We’ll err on the side of the myth here…

A U.S. paratrooper guards German prisoners with an M1 Garand on D-Day
A U.S. paratrooper guards German prisoners with an M1 Garand on D-Day in Normandy. (U.S. Army)

The M1 Is Still Popular Today

Production ceased after World War II but when the Korean War kicked off, production resumed.

Soon after the Korean War, the Pentagon looked for a replacement and settled on the M14. The M14 is just a modernized version of the M1, using the same basic operating system with a detachable 20-round box magazine.

The Army also produced a Sniper variant with a scope mounted on the side, due to the brass and en-bloc magazine ejecting straight up, as well as a Tanker variant with a shorter barreled rifle more suitable for use in and around armored vehicles.

Having a chance to fire all three types, the M1 in any form is a joy to shoot and many marksmanship clubs still use it today. While it was a touch less accurate than the German KAR-98, the difference in accuracy is quite small compared to the advantage in firepower it gave.