The M1 Garand: Gun of the Week

Gun of the Week: M1 Garand
The M1 Garand rifle. Among other things, General Patton called it “...that magnificent weapon.”photo by Philip Schreier

"In my opinion, the M1 Rifle is the greatest battle implement ever devised." –Lt. General George S. Patton Jr. in a letter to Maj. General L. H. Campbell on January 26, 1945

If you’re a gun geek like myself, you’ve probably read and or heard that quote from Patton almost every time someone ever wrote or said anything about the venerable M1 Garand. More often than not, it has been misquoted and it is seldom coupled with another of General Patton’s quotes on the rifle: “The M-1 rifle is the most deadly rifle in the world.”

Not since Theodore Roosevelt praised the Winchester Model 1895 within the pages of Scribner’s magazine (“The Winchester .405 is, at least for me personally, the medicine gun for lions,” he wrote) has a celebrity endorsement of a firearm taken on such iconic status. So what’s all the fuss about the Garand?

It was a rifle that was superior to all others, in every way.

Patton’s letter is often quoted but rarely published.from the National Archives

A High-Powered Semiauto

The M1 Garand bears the name of its Canadian-born designer, Jean Cantius Garand (1888-1974). Garand anglicized his first name to John when he moved to Connecticut as a young boy. People have debated the correct pronunciation of “Garand” for decades, but according to John C. Garand’s son, his father’s pronunciation rhymed with “errand.”

Working at the Springfield Armory in the post-World War I years, Garand began working on a semiautomatic rifle design that would replace the Pedersen Device then being used on the U.S. Springfield 1903 MK 1. The Pedersen Device was a way of converting the bolt-action .30-06 service rifle into a semiautomatic .30 caliber rifle with a 40-round magazine. While simplistic in its design, the .30 Pedersen cartridge did not pack the punch that the standard .30-06 delivered during combat. Pedersen and Garand both began to work on a semiautomatic, or self-loading operating system, which would handle the serious pressure of a high-power rifle cartridge.

Both designers turned their attention to a system that used the .276 cartridge, as it was thought to be flatter shooting. Garand worked on developing a gas-operated system that unlocked the bolt when triggered by the firing of a cartridge’s primer. Pedersen worked on his toggle link system. The U.S. Ordinance Board reviewed both designs, along with one by the submachine gun designer John T. Thompson, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Just when the trials were developing steam, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur ordered a stop to rifle development with the .276 cartridge, because he felt the Army had too much .30-06 in current inventory to warrant the introduction of a new caliber and cartridge into the Army procurement and inventory system.

Gun of the Week: M1 Garand
Obviously impressed by its combat effectiveness, the Japanese designed and built a few Garand copies in 7.7mm during the war. This is one of a handful that are known to exist.photo by Michael Ives - NRA Museum

Garand and Pedersen both reworked their designs to function with the .30-06 round. By 1935, Garand’s gas-operated system was a clear choice over the competition, and in 1936 it was officially adopted as the standard service rifle of the U.S. Army.

Garand had taken elements of firearms designs that trapped the escaping gasses of the fired bullet and redirected those gasses into a channel that would then operate the action, eject the spent casing, and load a new round into battery as it cocked the hammer and locked the bolt back into the receiver. It sounds simple enough, but it took years to fine-tune and balance the springs and moving parts to just the right amount so everything would work in concert with each other and not beat the gun to death from the force of the action. The result was a rifle that functioned flawlessly with a minimum amount of felt recoil--and that sent a .30-06 round downrange with stunning accuracy.

The Garand on the Battlefield

Though U.S. Marines were at first reluctant to adopt a new rifle in combat, they became the first to use it against the Japanese, and eventually warmed up to it and employed it very effectively. The Japanese thought so much of the rifle they tried to make a copy of the M1. Only a few were produced and today they are considered extremely rare.

The M1's semiautomatic design gave U.S. forces an advantage in firepower, as German, Italian, and Japanese soldiers were typically armed with slower bolt-action rifles. Also, the M1 weighed between 9.5 and 11.6 pounds. This weight, coupled with its semiautomatic action, allowed soldiers to fire its eight rounds without having to work a bolt and without having to recover from the heavy recoil of a light rifle. For example, before the M1 came along, Japanese “banzai charges” had been successful against infantrymen armed with bolt-action rifles, but when they came up against U.S. infantrymen armed with M1s, the Japanese’s charges often ended in catastrophes for the Japanese, as they were cut down by this formidable rifle’s .30-06 cartridge fired with eight fast presses of a trigger. Once emptied, the clip flew free as the action on the rifle locked back; this allowed soldiers to simply stuff in another clip of eight more rounds. Compared to other arms used at the time, this made the M1 Garand an impressive weapon when in the hands of trained infantrymen.

Gun of the Week: M1 Garand

By the war’s end in 1945, the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts and Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, Conn., had produced over 5 million M1 Garand rifles. Springfield, International Harvester, and Harrington & Richardson would make another million between 1945 and 1956. After use in WWI, Garands would be carried by American soldiers in the Korean War.

The Garand’s 8-round en-bloc clip still gives off that familiar “ping” as it self-ejects from the rifle’s receiver and falls free of the gun. Currently at Camp Perry, Ohio, during the National Matches, the John C. Garand Match brings hundreds of competitive shooters onto the firing line for one of the CMP’s most popular events each year.

As an employee of the Springfield Armory, Garand could not claim ownership of the patents received for the M1; as a result, other than his salary, he never received a dime for the rifle design he created. He passed away in 1974. Today his name is inexorably connected with the rifle that helped win World War Two, and will be forever known as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”