By Robert Bruce
“The greater firepower of the Garand, its superior sights, its freedom from mechanical troubles and...ease of maintenance all made the Marines put up a howl for the M1 which was heard as far away as Washington. Later units landing on the island (Guadalcanal) came equipped with the M1 and were highly satisfied with it.” From Hatcher’s Book of the Garand, Major General Julian S. Hatcher, NRA Books, 1948
The Greatest Battle Implement
Even the casual student of military weaponry should be greatly impressed by the sheer magnitude of documentary evidence to the unsurpassed combat efficiency of the Garand rifle in WWII. Alone among combatants on both sides of history’s most monumental war, America’s infantrymen carried as standard issue a most extraordinary semiautomatic rifle. Its accuracy, reliability, and high volume of effective fire often gave our soldiers and marines the decisive edge against Hirohito’s forces from the frozen misery of the Aleutians through steaming South Pacific jungles, and into Japan herself. On the other side of the world, from blowing sands of North Africa through Hitler’s “Fortress Europe,” the M1 steadily and unfailingly gained the respect and admiration of friend and foe alike.
Between the World Wars
Although miserly appropriations stifled American small arms development in the years of peace following the Great War, a quiet and modest mechanical genius named John C. Garand was steadily working on a semiautomatic rifle at the Army’s historic Springfield Armory. When the smoke of testing finally cleared, Garand’s gas operated, clip fed rifle was judged superior to all comers and officially adopted in 1936 as the “US Semiautomatic Rifle, Caliber .30 M1.”
A glowing account of the superiority of the new M1 rifle over the old M1903 was published in the Sep-Oct 1938 issue of the influential magazine INFANTRY JOURNAL. The following excerpt captures the flavor of the feature:
“The new weapon has received a thorough workout. Results indicate that men armed with it not only fire much more rapidly than with the 1903 rifle, but more accurately and with less fatigue, and that they can maintain accuracy during a far longer period. The tests have shown, too, that the new weapon is staunch mechanically, and that malfunctions can be expected to be few.
The M1’s semiautomatic action deserves the credit for the significantly higher rate of accurate fire with less fatigue than that of the bolt-action Springfield. With a bolt-action rifle, each aimed shot must be followed by a brief period where the infantryman pulls and pushes the bolt by hand to extract the empty then feed and lock a fresh cartridge. He must also resume a steady shooting position and reacquire the target in his sights. Finally, all of the recoil forces of the powerful .30 caliber service cartridge are pounded directly into his shoulder.
This isn’t such a big deal when the shooting is being done on the range and the soldiers aren’t overly tired. However, in combat, when the exhausted infantryman is likely to be presented with multiple targets, a semiautomatic rifle offers distinct advantages.
First, the gas operating system of the M1 absorbs about twenty percent of the recoil forces. Less “kick” means less flinching and greater accuracy. Then, automatic cycling of the bolt with each shot allows the rifleman to keep his target in sight at all times. This gives him the tremendous advantage of being able to squeeze off an immediate second or third shot if the first one doesn’t do the job. All of this contributes not only to higher volume of firepower, but also higher volume with higher accuracy. In a timed combat style test recounted in the previously cited article, troops armed with the M1903 were able to fire fewer rounds and scored less than half the hits that a comparable group got with the new M1.”
World War Two
When America entered the war against the Axis Powers in December, 1941, there were less than 100,000 M1 rifles in service — all with the US Army. But production accelerated steadily and by January 1944, some 4,400 were leaving Springfield and Winchester each day! The Marines, stubbornly hanging on to their beloved M1903 rifles, finally got the message during the battle for Guadalcanal in late 1942. Fighting side-by-side with soldiers, Leathernecks clearly saw how the firepower, accuracy and reliability of the Garand put their old bolt-action rifles to shame. This was soon corrected and the M1 distinguished itself in Corps service throughout the rest of the Pacific war.
Hip Pocket Artillery
One of the best aspects of the Garand rifle is its adaptability to a variety of tactical situations. Along with its predecessor, it could fire a full range of specialized ammunition including standard ball, tracer, armor piercing and incendiary cartridges. It was also well suited to bayonet fighting and sturdy and strong enough for launching heavy grenades.
It was this capability for firing grenades that really gave the American infantry squad a power punch. The M7 launcher, a spigot style device that fitted the end of the muzzle and secured to the bayonet lug, was standardized in March 1943. This allowed the M1 to fire all of the existing signal and offensive grenades previously used only by the M1903. Now, any riflemen in the squad could be immediately pressed into duty in the nasty job of blasting the Japanese out of their bunkers and caves with high explosive and fragmentation grenades.
The Emperor’s army extensively employed snipers to harass and impede American forces both in the assault and in the relative safety of camps and bases during the consolidation phase of island-hopping. Most of these weren’t the type of highly trained marksmen with specially accurized rifles that we usually associate with the term “sniper.” Rather, they were most often ordinary soldiers with standard bolt-action Arisaka rifles, hiding in trees in the thick jungle foliage or in well-camouflaged one-man dugouts nicknamed “spider holes.”
But on the GI side, another handy use for the M1 was as a precision sniper rifle, fitted with an optical sight, flash hider and leather cheek pad. The first model fielded was designated M1C, with a special offset mount for the scope fabricated so that clips of cartridges could still be loaded through the top.
A semiauto sniper rifle offers a couple of theoretical advantages over its bolt action counterpart. First, the bolt does not need to by cycled by hand so there is less movement that may give away the sniper’s position. Then, if the first shot doesn’t do the job, a second is immediately available. Although the M1C and subsequent M1D sniper versions were said to be acceptably accurate, it is generally conceded that they never were able to equal the precision of the M1903 in its own sniper configuration.
The urge to tinker with their weapons in order to “improve” them is a universal trait of soldiers. Despite the near-perfection of the M1, there were calls during WWII for a shorter and lighter version (the M1 Carbine had proven woefully inadequate in penetration and stopping power).
This resulted in the M1E5 with its 18 in. barrel and folding pantograph style buttstock. Despite blinding muzzle flash and much heavier recoil, it was intended for issue to paratroopers operating in the pacific. The war ended before it could be put into production. It is the inspiration for the so-called “Tanker Garand.” Several thousand of these postwar counterfeits were manufactured from surplus parts in the 1960’s.
In Japan near the end of the war, some captured Garands were modified to fire the 7.7mm rifle cartridge and issued to naval infantry troops. The Type 5, a last-ditch copy of the M1, also used the Type 99 7.7mm cartridge. Instead of the characteristic 8 round “en bloc” clip, this rifle loaded from two 5 round stripper clips through the top.
Despite being relatively heavy and a bit long and awkward for moving through jungle growth, the M1 made up for all this with legendary reliability and undeniable effectiveness. In the rain and mud of Guadalcanal, the volcanic ash of Iwo Jima, and the caves and bunkers of Okinawa, John Garand’s “clip-fed, gas-operated, air-cooled, semiautomatic shoulder weapon” arguably proved the most valuable tool carried by any infantryman in WWII.
Its powerful .30-06 cartridge would plow right through thick vegetation with impressive terminal effects against enemy soldiers, and its capability to launch grenades greatly extended the range and punch of the Army and Marine rifle squad.
Primary Reference Sources: Hatcher’s Book of the Garand, MG Julian Hatcher, NRA Books, 1948 (Reprinted by Gun Room Press) and US Army Field Manual 23-5.
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