The United States Army was the only combatant to enter World War II who armed their standard infantrymen with a semi-automatic rifle. The rifle was an iconic image of the American GI of our Greatest Generation during the war. And the Garand served from the steaming jungles of the Pacific to the sands of North Africa and across the countries of Europe.

The M-1 Garand was adopted by the U.S. Army as its main battle rifle on January 9, 1936, and served until 1957 when it was replaced by the M-14 rifle which used basically the same operating system. Over 5,500,000 M-1s were produced and the rifle served as the main infantry weapon of the U.S. in both WWII and Korea.

Near the end of World War II, General George S. Patton called the M-1 Garand, “the greatest battle implement ever devised”. It was simple and inexpensive to produce, (the average cost in 1945 was $26 per rifle), easy to operate and maintain and most importantly rugged and reliable.

Looking To Upgrade Their Infantry:

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

The Ordnance Department announced that they had eight principal requirements for the next generation of semi-automatic weapons in 1921. 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 had moved to the United States from Canada as a young child and was working in the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts when he submitted a design entry in 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.

Garand’s design utilized a revolutionary a long-stroke gas piston system that trapped propellant gasses which would operate the weapon. Initial testing included a new 7mm (.276 caliber) cartridge because the Army believed that if it were lighter, the average soldier could carry a lot more ammo. (Something that is being revisited in every generation). 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 first design had a gas trap system which was a small device fixed near the rifle’s muzzle captured expanding gases and used the pressure to cycle the rifle’s gas piston that ran below the barrel. This long-stroke system’s piston attached to an operating rod which rotated the M1’s bolt to unlock it and open the action. This allowed spent cases to be ejected and a fresh cartridge loaded.

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

The Garand used .30-06 caliber cartridges in 8-round “en bloc” clips loaded into an internal magazine. When the last round was fired the spent clips would be ejected as well and make an audible pinging sound.

The ping has been the subject of many legends, some claiming that enemy soldiers would wait until they heard the pinging sound to take advantage of American troops 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” were present. While they were being peppered with questions, many of their answers were geared toward humor or tongue-in-cheek.

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 to nail a German that way… myth or truth? We’ll err on the side of the myth here…

The Garand Goes to War:

The Garand M-1 rifle first saw major action during the latter stages of the American invasions of Guadalcanal in the Pacific and of North Africa in 1942 during Operation Torch. The improved rear sight, a big upgrade over the ‘03 Springfield coupled with the semi-automatic rate of fire increased the firepower nearly double that of the 20-rounds per minute that WWI troops could expect.

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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 enemy counterparts from Germany and Japan who were still using the bolt-action Mauser KAR-98 and the Arisaka rifles in their militaries.

Production ceased after World War II but when the Korean War kicked off, production was again started back up. Soon after the Korean War, the Pentagon was looking for a replacement for their workhorse rifle and settled on the M-14. That weapon is just a modernized version of the M-1, using the same basic operating system with a detachable 20-round box magazine.

The Army 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, a shorter barreled rifle more suitable for use in and around armored vehicles.

Having a chance to try all three types, the M-1 in any form is a joy to shoot and many marksmanship clubs still use it today. While it was a touch less accurate than KAR-98, the amount of firepower it generated gave it a clear advantage.

Photos: US Archives