Getting A Grip On History
By Charles Brown

Many owners of military firearms spend a lot of time trying to return their M1 Garand or M1 carbine or some other piece of historical weaponry to “correct” configuration, that is to have all of the parts as best as can be determined from the same time period attempting to recreate a weapon as it left the factory. You can see them at gun show parts tables looking through pocket guides and consulting their note books, examining parts with magnifying glasses and pocket flashlights and rooting through bins of parts looking for their particular treasure. Sometimes you find the treasure and sometimes the treasure finds you.

Last October the author got a call from Rollin Lofdahl who was doing some treasure hunting of his own at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot. He had just seen a set of stocks (grips) on a Browning back plate that he had no previous knowledge of and asked me if anything in research done so far could shed light on the mystery stocks. Rollin was partnered up in his search for a pair of good condition walnut stocks for a M1917 Browning project gun with Russ Brindisi who was looking for a couple of Buffalo Arms marked back plates for his M1919A4 “twins” project. After checking a couple of vendors they stopped at the Numrich Gun Parts Co. table and started through their pile of back plates. Rollin found one with a decent pair of walnut stocks and Russ picked up one that “looked different”. This back plate had a pair of metal stocks that were shaped just like the standard walnut or plastic M1917 stocks. They had no checkering and appeared to be made from aluminum. The author could vaguely remember reading something in Dolf Goldsmith’s The Browning Machine Gun Volume 1 about early 1930s field trials of aluminum two piece stocks. A quick refresher read on Goldsmith’s information produced a good starting point for some detailed research on the mystery grips.

The author has in his possession digital copies of the Ordnance Committee Meeting minutes obtained from Jodie Wesemann at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum covering the period January 1921 to December 1942 including those referenced by Goldsmith. The purpose of the Ordnance Committee, later known as the Ordnance Technical Committee, which met weekly in Washington D.C., was to consider suggestions, recommendations, new ideas or inventions from military and civilian sources, review accidents, and reports of malfunctioning ammunition and weapons. They also sought to insure that all of the service branches would have input to Ordnance Department decisions.

The Ordnance Committee was formed as a result of the reign of Brigadier General William Crozier as the U.S. Army’s Chief of Ordnance from 1901 to 1918. While Crozier was an extremely talented administrator and a mechanical genius as well, an insight into his severe lack of people skills is shown by his frequent pronouncement that “the technician knows what is best for the troops.” While this may be true to a degree, the “troops” and their leaders were not likely to be impressed with the “you will use what we give you and like it” attitude.

Crozier oversaw the adoption of the M1903 rifle, the M1911 pistol, the M1917 Browning water-cooled machine gun and the M1918 Browning Machine Rifle. He was extremely autocratic and for the most part fought off advice from above and below. The only one who has ever seemed to have been capable of getting his attention was President Teddy Roosevelt who apparently gave the General a “tune up” over the original telescoping rod style bayonet on the M1903 rifle. General Crozier was forced into retirement in 1918 and replaced by Major General Clarence C. Williams who operated under the policy that “if the troops want elephants we will get them elephants”.

In any event, at the Ordnance Committee Meeting held on April 23, 1931 they took up Item 8888 which concerned a letter to the Chief of Ordnance over the signature of Colonel David M. King the Commanding Officer of the Rock Island Arsenal. This communication concerned possible cost reduction of around 50% that could be achieved by replacing standard wood (walnut) stocks on the M1911 pistol, the M1917 Browning machine gun and bayonets with those made of cast aluminum. The use of the cast aluminum stocks would also eliminate the need for copying lathes and wood working equipment and allow the stocks to be produced by just about any firm engaged in die casting metals. After study the Subcommittee on Small Arms suggested that Bakelite stocks might be just as good as or better than the aluminum. They also felt that it was not necessary to make up any bayonet stocks as if the aluminum or Bakelite stocks were satisfactory on the M1911 and M1917 they would suffice for the bayonets.

(Authors note: Even though the subject of this and future Ordnance Committee meetings on the same items are consistently referred to as “grips” they are and have always been according to official nomenclature properly named “stocks.”)

At the July 21, 1932 meeting of the Ordnance Committee Major G.P. Wilhelm read into the record on behalf of the Subcommittee on Small Arms Item 10011 that the “approximately” 100 pairs each of aluminum and Bakelite grips for the M1911 and the M1917 Browning machine gun had been produced. The Subcommittee recommended that: “... these items be subjected to test by the Infantry and Cavalry Boards with a view to determination of their durability, resistance to hard usage, and general suitability as substitutes for the standard wooden articles now in use. Tests should extend over a period of not less than six months.” They further recommended that 45 pairs of each type for each weapon be issued to the Infantry Board and the Cavalry Board and the remainder to Aberdeen Proving Ground.

On August 4, 1932 the Ordnance Committee considered Item 10045, Modified Aluminum and Bakelite Grips for Browning Machine Guns. Major Wilhelm again did the honors reading another report from the Subcommittee on Small Arms in which the Subcommittee wanted to submit 7 additional grips of a different design of each material to be tested alongside the ones previously supplied to the Infantry, Cavalry and Aberdeen Proving Ground. The new grips were described as “longer and wider but the cross section of which is thinner, thus allowing approximately the same length of perimeter.” These grips appeared on drawing B128438 which is not present in the RIA Museum files. The Subcommittee also realized that producing a mould for the Bakelite grips might be cost prohibitive for only 7 grips and agreed that if this were indeed the case only the aluminum ones need be manufactured. That apparently was the case as there is no record of the oversized Bakelite stocks being either tested or manufactured.

By November 16, 1933 the verdict was in. In a rare show of intra-service unity, none of the testing entities reported in favor of the aluminum stocks in either style, and everybody favored the Bakelite stocks in the original shape.

In spite of all this equanimity about adopting stocks made from something other than wood it was not until November 20, 1939 that the Ordnance Department adopted an alternate material for stock fabrication for the M1917, M1919 Tank Machine Gun and the M1 .22 caliber training machine gun. The material adopted was “Coltwood” plastic or its “equivalent.” Coltwood was a plastic material developed for handgun stocks used on commercial weapons produced by the Colt’s Patent Firearms Company.

No mention was made in the minutes of the disposition of the 100 or so pairs of field trial M1911 or M1917 aluminum stocks. Other than Goldsmith’s reference they became a nearly unknown footnote in the history of Browning development until nearly 80 years and couple of wars later a pair of the field trial stocks show up on a parts table at a machine gun shoot in Kentucky.

The trial stocks are very close to the size of the wood stocks and are equipped with non ferrous escutcheons which appear brass colored, however, the drawings for this part called out German silver before June 1942 when the escutcheon material changed to phosphate coated or painted steel. It is possible that the escutcheons are merely discolored. The escutcheons are press fit into the aluminum and the stocks which have properly drilled holes for the stock screw and locating pin. The stocks appear to have been cast and have no markings and when discovered were attached to a back plate having no locating pin, which would explain the circular scratches on the back of the stocks likely caused when the stock screw loosened and the stocks rotated on the stock screw. The stocks exhibit an amount of wear and discoloration consistent with nearly 80 years of use and storage.

While there is no way to prove absolutely that they are indeed veterans of the 1932/33 field trials. the preponderance of evidence would certainly indicate that they are. The moral of this story is that there are certainly treasures out there and sometimes they are buried in a parts bin.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (May 2012)
and was posted online on March 23, 2012


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