Small Arms of the Korean

By Charles Cutshaw

Although this short article is written under my “by line,” the actual research was accomplished over 50 years ago by Brigadier General S. L. A. (“Slam”) Marshall, who traveled to Korea to study first hand the usage of small arms in combat, their effect of the outcome of the land battle and the effect of combat on American soldiers and Marines. The combat lessons and principles that General Marshall documented are timeless; the lessons of weapons usage are likewise applicable to today’s combat. In the pages that follow, we present the lessons only of specific and limited types small arms. The reader is encouraged to obtain a copy of the classic Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage in Korea, Winter of 1950-51, study it and remember well the lessons documented therein.

Korea was the first of America’s “small wars.” In the wake of the Allied victory in World War II, the United States hastened to reduce its military to pre-war levels. As a result, the army was unprepared for Korean combat, which introduced the concept of a war without flanks, where the enemy was likely to be encountered virtually everywhere. Traditional rear areas were no longer secure; during the time of General Marshall’s study, American forces never had sufficient strength to block infiltrators with a continuous, closely knit front line. Moreover, the enemy had the advantage of superior numbers, plus he rarely used conventional tactics. The Chinese communist (Chicom) forces attacked in large numbers, generally using frontal assault tactics. Chicom weapons were by and large small arms, with large numbers of machine guns and some mortar support. The Americans adapted to this overwhelming tactic by abandoning traditional linear tactics in favor of what worked at the time - a perimeter or “hedgehog” defense which provided an all around defense capability with the best chance to avoid being overrun by Chinese “human sea” attacks. American artillery and air superiority was partially countered by the large numbers of Chicom troops who would close with the American forces in close combat if possible and attempt to overrun their positions, thus effectively preventing the use of any type of fire support. These tactics forced the American units to depend to a great extent on the weapons that they had at hand - small arms, mortars, rocket launchers (bazookas) and recoilless rifles. The former were used in the direct fire role, while bazookas, mortars and recoilless rifles were used as company level fire support weapons.

The Korean War also saw the beginning of mobile forces and tactics that would form the basis of infantry combat in another dirty little war that began a little over ten years after the Korean Conflict was fought to a stalemate. That war resulted only in reestablishing the conditions that existed prior to the conflict. Helicopters were first used in Korea to move troops on the battlefield, beginning the concept of vertical envelopment. In the final analysis, however, small arms played a dominant role in infantry combat in Korea.

One of the foremost principles that were learned in Korea was the reaffirmation that “only hits count,” and to this principle was added the corollary that fully automatic fire is generally less effective than semiautomatic. Although many readers may disagree with this principle, it is as true today as it was 50 years ago. The infantry soldiers who fought the Chicoms to a standstill were in total agreement that they actively did not want for every man to have a fully automatic weapon. Moreover, many battles were resolved by M1 rifle fire after the machine guns and other automatic weapons had run out of ammunition. To quote from General Marshall’s study, “In perimeter defense, the time ...comes when the automatic weapons run short of ammunition, with the...issue still to be decided. The semiautomatic weapons...compose the weapons reserve which becomes of inestimable value in the last hours when both sides are nearing the point of exhaustion.” As Col. Jeff Cooper once said, “Pray that your enemy is on full automatic.” In Vietnam, we called automatic fire “Spray and pray.”

Of course, without ammunition, any firearm is no more than a very expensive club, so the question arises as to how experienced combat soldiers equipped themselves prior to battle. During the course of his very thorough study, General Marshall arrived at what he called the “natural load” for infantrymen. The load consisted of about 40 pounds of gear that the combat infantryman carried when moving into battle. (Some things never change. When I was a young infantry officer in the mid-1960’s, we carried about the same amount of gear on our backs - sometimes more.) In terms of ammunition, this load translated to four magazines (120 rounds) for those armed with carbines, 90 to 120 rounds for the M1 Garand and two grenades per man. Machine guns averaged between three or four boxes of ammunition (600 to 800 rounds) per gun. Browning Automatic riflemen carried four to eight magazines (80 to 160 rounds) each. Bazooka gunners carried about ten rounds per tube, while 60mm mortars had 50 to 75 rounds per tube. 57mm recoilless rifles had a basic load of 10 to 20 rounds. With this, a company could expect to stand up to two to eight hours of attack, depending upon fire discipline, fields of fire, effectiveness of fire support and whether the action was day or night.

In combat, weapons failure is catastrophic. Any machine made by man is subject to failure, but some are more prone to failure than others. Most notable are the egregious Chauchat light machine gun of World War I and the M16 rifle failures early in the Vietnam War. Both weapons failed, but the former was simply a poor design, while the M16 was plagued by ammunition problems in the early days of its existence. Failures may also be induced by climate or by individual lack of basic maintenance. In Korea, environmental conditions during the time of the study could not have been much worse on either man or machine. Failures of small arms in wintertime Korea were almost universally attributed to the intense cold that required special procedures simply to keep weapons functioning. This included special lubrication and in the coldest conditions, periodic warm-up firing. We will elaborate on this below as we examine each weapon’s performance in detail. Nonetheless, some weapons were inherently superior to others, as we shall presently see.

The M1 Garand Rifle

Of all the small arms used in the Korean Conflict, the M1 Garand stands out as a true milestone. The weapon was universally regarded with a respect bordering on affection by every soldier who used it. The writer can confirm the universal love of the M1 by soldiers, because it was still in limited service when he joined the Army in 1964, some units still not having received their M14s. The M1, described by George S. Patton as “The greatest battle instrument ever devised by man,” was and remains a viable battle rifle. In the harsh Korean winter, the M1 was the least sensitive to icing and extreme cold. It was reasonably accurate and perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to a small arm is the fact that the soldiers who used it could think of no way to improve it. In fact, when asked, they flatly stated that they wanted their beloved M1 left as it was. Failures of the M1 due to cold amounted to only two to four per cent of the weapons in service, even under the worst conditions. In these instances, the most common M1 failures were due to frost lock, broken firing pins or dirty chambers. Although most soldiers maintained their rifles well (It is remarkable how well one takes care of an item upon which one’s life depends.), the chamber brush was apparently not sufficiently large to ensure removal of all chamber fouling. Other than those limited numbers of failures, the Garand lived up to its well-earned reputation for ruggedness and dependability. As mentioned earlier, the M1 Rifle was in many instances, the final arbiter of many close combat engagements after other small arms had either failed or run out of ammunition.

The M2 Carbine

Although much loved by many civilian shooters and touted today as a “long gun” alternative for law enforcement officers, the carbine can charitably be described as an abject failure in the harsh Korean winter of 1950-51.

Originally designed as a semiautomatic personal defense weapon in World War II, the carbine was found wanting due to its lack of “stopping power” in its semiautomatic guise, and was redesigned to select fire. The modification only worsened the situation, apparently making the weapon more sensitive to dust, dirt, snow, ice and cold. In the hot Korean summer, the slightest amount of dust or moisture caused stoppages. In the winter, the carbine refused to fire on full automatic until up to 20 shots had been fired through it. The carbine was the least reliable small arm used by the U.S. forces in Korea. The carbine suffered up to a 30 per cent failure rate. Ammunition in magazines would corrode in very short order at the point where the cartridges contacted the magazine lips, necessitating frequent unloading cartridges, cleaning and reloading them. Otherwise, the corrosion would be injected into the chamber, causing stoppages. Soldiers and Marines alike despised the weapon not only for its unreliability, but also for its inaccuracy at even moderate distances.

The carbine’s worst failing, though, was its inability to reliably stop enemy soldiers, even after they had been shot repeatedly. The words of one Marine officer says it all: “...the main reason my men lost confidence in the carbine was because they would put a bullet right into a Chink’s chest at 25 yards range, and he wouldn’t stop. This happened to me. The bullet struck home; the man simply winced and kept on coming. There were about half a dozen of my men made this same complaint; some of them swore they had fired three or four times, hit the man each time, and still not stopped him.”

In sum, the carbine was light, short and handy, but in the crucible of combat, it was found wanting. Soldiers and Marines alike preferred the utter reliability and “stopping power” of the M1 Garand, despite its heavier weight and greater length.

The M1918A1 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)

Marshall refers to the BAR in his study as “The Mainstay.” The reason for this accolade is the fact that in Korea, the BAR was the basis for establishing a base of fire around which the remainder of the infantry weapons fire builds into a united combat force.

Officers and men alike revered the BAR with almost the same awe in which they held the M1 Rifle. The BAR was described as “the mainspring of their action” and all stated that wherever the BAR was used, it gave fresh impulse to the firing line. The performance of the BAR was blemished only by a noticeably higher failure rate than during World War II. Marshall does not mention the actual percentage of weapon failure as a portion of those in operation, but he does comment on it and investigated the problem.

Cold weather did not seem to appreciably affect the overall performance of the BAR. Failures came in both heat and cold. After a particularly intense engagement by the 2/38th Infantry Regiment, the commander reported that there had been so many BAR failures that his men had lost confidence in the weapon. While this unit was the only one to cast such harsh judgement on the BAR, it caused the investigation to intensify. Problems seemed to be centered on the weapon’s recoil spring. Upon further investigation, it was discovered that factory new weapons did not suffer failures, but performed with reliability approaching that of the M1 Rifle. The only BARs that failed were older weapons that had been “reconditioned” by Ordnance in Japan. Finally, it was discovered that the 2/38th Infantry, a well-respected staunch fighting unit, had received a disproportionate number of these reconditioned BARs, resulting in an inordinate number of failures. Once the problem was identified, it was corrected, BAR failures all but ceased, and complaints faded away.

The BAR was so well-respected that the great majority of combat commanders recommended that the combat strength of infantry companies could be greatly increased by doubling the number of BARs and proportionally reducing the number of M1 Rifles. This is not to disparage the M1 Rifle, but rather a compliment on the effectiveness of the BAR in the harsh conditions of Korea. Commanders universally felt that this change could be accomplished without unduly burdening the company’s load and was justified by the judgment that it would make a perfect balance of a unit’s offensive and defensive capabilities.

Machine Guns

The M1917 water-cooled and M1919 air-cooled machine guns used in the Korean Conflict played less of a role than might be expected. Because of the terrain, their use was limited to unconventional employment. This was due to lack of good fields of fire, which deprived the weapon of its usual tactical power, thus shifting the onus onto other weapons, which was the primary reason that the M1 rifle and BAR played such a decisive role in the Korean fighting.

Since fields of fire were limited by the mountainous terrain, machine guns could usually not be set up to provide overall protection, but rather were employed to cover a relatively narrow segment of the perimeter. Terrain permitting, they usually were positioned on a finger or fold in a ridgeline at right angles to the defending line, so that their fire would enfilade (flank) any body of troops attempting to move directly into the defended position. They were also deployed so as to cover terrain that posed the most likely avenue of approach for an enemy force. Because of the limitations discussed above, machine gun fire was rarely sufficient to break up enemy attacks and provide security.

Machine gun crews and the guns themselves suffered heavy losses in Korea. Because of the terrain and tactics, the guns were seldom provided with more than rudimentary protection, thus exposing them to enemy fire. The deployment of machine guns was also driven by the fluid nature of Korean combat. Units were constantly maneuvering, which made preparation of traditional machine gun emplacements with their concomitant protection almost impossible. As a result, machine guns and crews suffered disproportionate losses.

The failure rate of Browning designed .30 caliber machine guns was a surprise to Marshall. These guns had established a sterling reputation during World War II, but in Korea, the guns failed at what can be best described as an alarming rate. Marshall states that the guns in general suffered a 20 per cent failure rate, with the caveat that the 20 per cent figure was on the conservative side. Unfortunately, the causes of this high failure rate were never discovered due to a variety of reasons. In many cases, the gun crews simply didn’t know why their gun failed. In some instances, the gun failed, but was gotten back into operation. In others, the gun was captured. In still others, the gun was shot up and abandoned. In the words of Marshall, “These actualities of the battlefield prohibit precise evaluation of weapons difficulties.” Nonetheless, the after action reports of most company sized engagements note that one or more of the unit’s machine guns went out of operation either permanently or for a significant period during which the loss of machine gun firepower degraded the unit’s combat effectiveness. Needless to say, the failures did not include guns that ran out of ammunition.

The M2 .50 caliber machine gun did not see extensive use in Korean front line combat, being generally restricted to close defense of artillery positions and other units operating to the rear of the infantry. This was again attributable to the Korean terrain and the nature of the war itself. Marshall comments, however, that the artillery would have had a difficult time preventing itself from being overrun by infiltrators were it not for the .50 caliber machine gun. In bivouac, the big machine guns were often placed on high ground on the flanks to provide overwatch fires. Often the guns were deployed right alongside the artillery pieces themselves.

Marshall’s report makes no comments regarding the reliability of the “Ma Deuce.” We can only assume that the revered machine gun performed just as well in Korea as it has in every conflict before or since. The M2 heavy machine gun is one of those classic weapons that is simply too good to die. It has been in military service since the mid-1920s and shows no signs of retirement, despite the best efforts of the army’s small arms bureaucracy to eliminate it.

The M1911A1 Pistol

A surprise came when the usage of the M1911A1 pistol fell under scrutiny. Although generally considered a secondary or even tertiary weapon, the M191A1 .45 pistol’s use in combat at ranges of 10 to 25 yards was documented in greater numbers during the Korean winter of 1950-51 than during the entire Second World War! The pistol was almost always brought into action when the user had no other weapon available, but apparently when it was used, the venerable .45 delivered the goods.

In Marshall’s words: “The pistol is of definite value in the type of warfare experienced by the Eighth Army, and one hears more words said about its proved usefulness than during either World War.”

“Old slabsides” was fairly reliable until the weather got really cold. Under those conditions, it required special attention to prevent frost lock. These included removing all oil and then firing the pistol from time to time to ensure reliable functioning. Otherwise, the M1911A1 “soldiered on.”

Marshall reports on many other weapons used by the infantry, including the 2.75 and 3.5 inch rocket launchers (bazookas), 57mm and 75mm recoilless rifles, mortars and hand grenades. While Marshall’s report makes for fascinating reading in its entirety, the larger weapons are not truly small arms and are thus beyond the scope of this brief article. Although his report is ostensibly devoted only to weapons usage, Marshall also studies the human element of combat, with insights into subjects as varied as communications and combat stress. His study is a true combat classic that belongs in the library of every student of small arms usage in combat.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N12 (September 2001)
and was posted online on April 18, 2014


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