Live Fire Maneuver: A New Approach to Studying Small Arms in a Historical Context

By Miles Vining

Much of our interaction with historical small arms has been on a very individual level; examining one particular rifle or handgun, maybe comparing it to the next one. We can take these small arms out and shoot them at a static target, or we can even participate in an action match with them, attempting to possibly replicate what a soldier in the Second World War would have had to accomplish while under an extreme amount of stress. We can also talk to veterans of previous wars, or if they have long since passed away we can read their memoirs or sift through after-action reports.

From a historical perspective of trying to understand how these weapons were utilized in combat, this allows us a thorough picture of the capabilities and limitations of these small arms. However, the author wanted to take a more direct approach to studying these weapon systems, especially when it came to U.S. small arms in the Second World War. Shooting an M1 Garand at a static target isn’t replicating what a soldier at Bastogne would have been doing, because his targets were moving. An action match might induce stress on an individual level, but imagine that same stress across a squad of 12 men, working together in bounds of firing and moving, while trying their hardest to not have a negligent discharge. Different generations record and talk about events in such contrasting points that they leave scholars always asking for more. Oftentimes this sort of information isn’t written down because it was such common knowledge or mundane at the time, why should it be recorded?

But one of the most important aspects we believe should have more emphasis placed on in the historical research field is the context of these weapon systems. The M1 Garand wasn’t designed to be shot from 200-800 meters, with match ammunition, by a tight leather coat clad shooter who had a full breakfast. It was instead designed to be used by large numbers of men, working very closely together in a risk adverse environment, to overwhelm and suppress a German, Japanese or North Korean objective. These men were often tired, cold, hungry, and shooting from positions and with ammunition that were probably not conducive to a high rate of good effects on target. So although we gain much from studying these small arms individually, the author believes we could conduct more research through trying to replicate the group settings that these small arms were used in.

With that goal in mind, the author and a large number of volunteers consisting of re-enactors, Marine Infantry veterans, photographers, range safety officers, and even an emergency medical technician, put forth their best efforts to replicate what an organizationally correct U.S. Army Paratrooper squad would have encountered while running through a textbook live fire training attack. Because the re-enactors we were working with portrayed a group from the 82nd Airborne Division in the Second World War, we decided to study the M1 Garand, M1A1 Carbine, M1919A4 LMG, M1903 Springfield and accompanying M7 rifle grenade launcher through the employment of what a typical Airborne squad would have looked like in late 1944. All of these firearms were actual, working weapons, with live ammunition. This wasn’t a re-enactment, which is organized around blank rounds.

Breaking this squad down required us to have the three teams that the Parachute Infantry troopers in WW II would have had—Able, consisting of two lead scouts and a squad leader. These men would have been armed with two M1s and a Thompson or M1A1 Carbine. Then in the middle of the squad was the Baker element, consisting of the 1919 light machine gun team with leader, gunner and ammunition bearer. These soldiers would have been armed with M1s or M1A1 Carbines. Finally, at the rear was the Charlie team which consisted of the bulk of the squad with six Infantrymen and the assistant squad leader. All armed with M1s apart from the assistant squad leader who might be armed with the ‘03 rifle and M7 rifle grenade.

Our scenario required the squad to use the Security, Support and Assault building blocks of squad tactics that WW II infantrymen would have been overly familiar with. The squad was set up in a tactical column and took fire from a “German” position 100 meters away. Upon receiving contact, Security was established by forming the Charlie element online, allowing the Support/Baker team to set up on some elevation with their tripod mounted M1919A4. Upon gaining fire superiority, the maneuver element of the squad advanced towards the German position under concealment of smoke and using a charge from the dummy rifle grenade to signal the buddy-rush assault towards the objective. Once overcoming the “German” position, the squad took notional fire from a 500 meter “German” position, requiring the Support element to break down, and sprint 100 meters as fast as possible to re-establish that fire superiority.

The lessons that we took away from this live fire, and have since been backed up and confirmed by several veterans who have come forth with their experiences, have been extremely invaluable. Perhaps the largest of these lessons was that the two prevailing myths surrounding the M1 Garand, that of the “M1 Thumb” and the last round “Ping” revealing a soldier’s position, were proven to be unsubstantiated, if not completely unrepresentative of the actual experiences of the M1 in combat by U.S. Soldiers and Marines. The “Thumb” jamming problem didn’t come up throughout the live fire at all, despite over eight M1 Garand armed shooters going through multiple cycles of reloading their rifles and despite these men having little to no experience on the M1 previously and needing to quickly reload their rifles. This has led us to believe that the myth was probably perpetuated by recruits who didn’t fully understand their rifles and not by soldiers in combat. Keith Pettle, a Marine who trained on the M1 in the early 1960s contacted the author with these comments, “The “M1 thumb” thing happened a lot in boot camp (and in ROTC before I enlisted). The thing is, it happened when you were releasing the bolt on an empty rifle, because you used your thumb to depress the follower deeply enough to release the bolt.”

One of the detractors of the Garand from a tactical level was the loud “Ping” noise heard when the rifle ran out of ammunition and ejected the 8-round en-bloc clip, thus alerting German or Japanese soldiers that their U.S. adversary was in the middle of reloading and was now vulnerable. First of all, without even firing these Garands on a live fire maneuver range, any combat veteran will question the validity of this claim, with the sheer noise levels that exist in combat. During the video review of the live fire, it was close to impossible to even identify a single “Ping” from the gunfire throughout the video. If this was at all a problem, it could only have existed if there was a single U.S. soldier returning fire at an enemy, within 20 or shorter yards. Even at that distance, we are still talking about a mere several seconds before that Garand could get back into action. From Pettle, “All the NCO’s and Mustang officers had used the M1 in the Pacific and in Korea. None of them had a problem in that regard; when firing at will it was apparently rare for everyone to run dry at the same time. Several said it would have been great to have the bad guys assume you were empty and charge if they could hear a ‘ping’—someone else would have blown them away when they broke cover.”

Ian McCullum, a small arms historian and founder of Forgotten Weapons accurately pointed out that a M1919A4 light machine gun team should be able to break down or set up the M1919A4 within 20 seconds, according to Field Manual 23-55 Browning Machine Guns, Caliber .30. We found that this timing could easily be adhered to during the live fire when it came to our machine gun team. However when it comes to machine gun employment, we discovered that much around the “Light Thirty’s” usage in the Second World War was similar to current day usage of the M240 medium machine gun in today’s U.S. Army and Marine Corps’ arsenal. Placing the machine gun in the middle of the squad while on a foot patrol allows for it to be protected from the front and the rear, in addition to allowing the squad to maneuver off of the gun team because it is in the center and can serve as a hinge of fire support. Carrying the M1919A4 and the M240 has both proved to be a hard, but very important task when squads or platoons need those assets in the fight. Although the weight has been reduced from the Second World War to today, gun teams are still carrying as much if not more equipment.

The lesson that was most revealing was a particular malfunction that involved the M1 Garand. During the process of removing en-bloc clips from cartridge belts or bandoleers, jamming them into the open space of an M1’s magazine and attempting to push clips in as fast as possible, a certain jam can happen that is unique to the M1. Essentially, when the loaded en-bloc clip is handled very roughly, if one of the rounds is pushed forward ahead of all the others ever so slightly, it creates an issue wherein that longer round can find itself in the space below the chamber of the rifle and get caught during insertion of the clip. This creates a predicament wherein the clip cannot be pushed down, or pushed out. It must be cleared round by round, from the rounds in the first loading position, until the entire clip can be emptied from the rifle. Sometimes known as the “Long Round” problem, Soldiers and Marines in WW II had to be cognizant of properly seating bullets in clips and understand how to remedy the issue quickly if it happened under fire. Indeed, Pettle also informed us about this issue, “We trained to prevent [it]. It was a genuine problem, but from the first day on the rifle range we were taught to smack, on the butt of the rifle, the bullet end of the clip we were loading to push any ‘long’ rounds back even with the other seven, and then load the clip into the rifle.”

Overall, we were very happy with what we found out about these WW II small arms, in ways that would have almost been impossible to replicate on a square range and at an individual level. We also hope to continue this unique research, given the opportunity to do it again.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N5 (June 2017)
and was posted online on April 21, 2017


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