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M1941 Johnson Rifle: AR-15 Progenitor

By Alton Chiu

Melvin Johnson’s unconventional alternative to the M1 Garand did not see widespread use, but its innovative features were incorporated into Eugene Stoner’s AR-10/15 series rifle.

The Model 1941 Johnson Rifle is unique in many ways. It utilizes a short recoil mechanism whilst contemporaries are gas operated (short-stroke piston of the SVT-40, long-stroke piston of the M1 Garand, or direct impingement of the Ag m/42 Ljungman). It also uses a multi-lug rotating bolt that is part of the bolt group. Unlike other rifles which disassemble into the proverbial lock, stock, and barrel, it disassembles into upper and lower halves. This article delves into the technical details of the rifle, and how the innovations were adapted into Eugene Stoner’s AR-10/15, which will henceforth be treat as the same design for brevity.


The gestation period for the M1 Garand was not swift and smooth. John Garand started development with his Model 1921, with his T1E1 being ordered for tests in 1929 and production first delivered in 1937. These early “gas-trap” rifles have a chamber in front of the barrel to trap some of the pressure for use by the operating rod, similar to the muzzle booster of the MG42 and Vickers machine gun. Deficiencies in this system led to changes where gas pressure is tapped via a hole drilled in the barrel. In the midst of these challenges, Melvin Johnson set about to design an alternative with the prototype being completed in August 1936.

The Army Ordnance Board trials in December 1939 found the Johnson rifle unsuitable for service as it would not reliably function with the bayonet attached and the magazine too delicate. In contrast, the Marine Corp trials of May 1940 concluded the Johnson rifle to be superior to the M1 Garand in accuracy and potential efficiency; however, further tests in November 1940 found the Garand to only just edge out the Johnson. The Johnson rifle was officially turned down in favor of the M1 Garand which was already in full production by then.

Despite the setback, Melvin Johnson captured a contract with the Netherlands Purchasing Commission for use...


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