Gun History: The M1 Garand Rifle

GIs from Normandy to Pork Chop Hill carried it. Patton called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” Here’s a close-up look at the U.S. military’s first-ever semiautomatic rifle.

The M1 Garand
GIs were issued canvas ammo belts with 10 pouches; each pouch held 8 rounds for a total of 80 rounds.author photo

The M1 Garand means different things to different people, and since some 6.5 million of them have been produced, the M1 Garand has a lot of meaning:

Collectors covet the M1 Garand, with not just one specimen satisfying a true enthusiast’s passion, since different model variants and rifles from completely different manufacturers are out there.

To those who shoot competitive service rifle matches, the Garand is a tool they use to hit 3-inch bull’s-eyes at 200 yards with open sights.

For those older few who used one in service of our nation, the M1 Garand is a respected, revered firearm. The Garand is the Greatest Generation’s combat rifle, with a legacy that spans over 80 years, from the beaches of Normandy during World War II to the Korean War at Pork Chop Hill. Millions were produced. Millions were used in conflict. Thousands are used in competition today. One of them is mine.

The M1 Garand
This soldier demonstrates the proper method of inserting the en-bloc clip into the Garand.Courtesy Springfield Armory National Historic Site

A Personal Connection

My connection to the M1 Garand involves more than just personal interest. It’s about my Uncle Harry talking about his time on Iwo Jima in 1945. It’s about my dad, the submariner, shooting sharks off the bow of an old diesel boat shortly before Castro brought his revolution to Cuba. It’s about a shooting pal who runs a D-Day Match at a local club. He’ll let you borrow his Garand, and he’ll show you how to load it with out getting “Garand Thumb.” And it’s about a friend who buys estates and came across a collection of 23 Garands. Mine is one from that collection.

But my connection with the M1 Garand really started in a small town where I attended grammar school. When I was a kid, Jewett City, Connecticut, was a sleepy, run down former mill town. The textile mills had all left by my day, but in the early 1900s the town hummed with industry, and that is where John Garand, the inventor of the M1 Garand, combined his love of machinery and shooting.

A Radical Design

Garand was born in Canada and moved with his family to the United States as a child. He later began work at one of the mills and eventually became a machinist. In 1917, the U.S. Army solicited designs for a lightweight machine gun and Garand—pronounced like “errand”— submitted a design.

The M1 Garand
The M1 Garand clip (left) compared to an M1 Carbine magazine (right).author photo

The design was accepted, and Garand was hired by the government to design guns at the Springfield Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. After over a decade of designing and prototyping the M1 was patented in 1934 and adopted by the U.S. military in 1936, with the official designation of Rifle, Caliber .30, M1.

The M1 Garand was radical. While every standing army in the world in the 1930s was armed with manually operated bolt-action rifles, the Garand was a semi-automatic rifle. It fired eight shots as quickly as the trigger could be pressed, with a rate of fire of 40 to 50 rounds per minute. It easily outclassed bolt-action rifles, and it offered superior firepower over Germany’s slower firing five-shot Mauser K98 and Japan’s five-shot Arisaka Type 99 rifle.

The Garand received a lot of accolades. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas McArthur said the “Garand rifle is one of the greatest contributions to our armed forces.” General George S. Patton is quoted as saying the M1 was “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

The M1 Garand
With the operating handle fully to the rear the Garand is ready for an 8-round clip to be inserted into the magazine.author photo

The M1 Garand employs a gas-operated, long-stroke piston system. The one-piece operating rod consists of the long-stroke piston and a handle combined with a rotating bolt that features two locking lugs. Originally the M1 featured a gas trap in a muzzle extension. Find one of these gas-trap rifles and you have discovered what is, to a collector, the Holy Grail of Garands. Since most rifles were converted in 1940 to use a gas port drilled in the bottom of the barrel. The rifle’s mechanism cycles when expanding gases from a fired cartridge travels through the port and into a gas cylinder holding the long stroke piston. This system is still in use today in the M21 and M25 U.S. military sniper rifles and AK-47/74 pattern rifles.

The .30-06 Connection

Part of the M1’s enduring legacy is the .30-06 Springfield cartridge. Originally, the M1 design was chambered in .276 Pedersen, an experimental 7mm round the U.S. military was developing. General MacArthur thought the new round was a bad idea, because there was plenty of .30-06 Springfield ammo available that had been made for the bolt-action 1903 Springfield and M1917 Enfield rifles used in World War I. The .30-06 was a popular round—Doughboys returning home from the trenches of World War I had used the cartridge and brought the round to deer camp.

The M1 Garand
The Garand's clip ejected along with the last empty case, making an "pinging" sound that some thought the enemy could hear, indicating that the soldier was temporarily out of ammo, but post-war interviews indicated that wasn't true.author photo

The Garand also incorporated an en-bloc clip that held eight .30-06 cartridges—again, a radical departure for combat rifles of the time. This clip allowed a soldier to quickly and efficiently load the M1 by locking back the operating handle and pushing the clip into the M1’s internal magazine. When the last round is fired, the M1 Grand ejected the clip with a characteristic metallic pinging noise. Many believe enemy soldiers waited for the sound to take advantage of soldiers reloading their M1s, but this is a myth. After WWII, soldiers on both sides who were interviewed said that the ping was hard to hear over the noise of battle.

To load the Garand, the bolt must be pulled rearward and fully locked. If you fail to do so and attempt to seat the clip, the bolt will slam forward, trapping your thumb between the bolt and the chamber. Trust me, you only have to get “Garand Thumb” once for you to get the loading process right.

Wartime Production

During WWII, the Garand was manufactured by Winchester and by Springfield Armory— the actual U.S. military armory, not the commercial firearm manufacturer known as Springfield Armory (though, to confuse matters, for a time the commercial Springfield Armory did manufacture civilian versions of M1 Garands). Springfield Armory was the first to start producing rifle and cranked them out at a high of 100 rifles a day. Winchester followed.

While the M1 was being used in during WWII, experimental models such as the Tanker model, which featured a shorter 18-inch barrel, were developed. The experimental T20E2 was a model with selective fire.

The M1 Garand
The experimental Tanker variant (top) feared an 18-inch barrel. A standard issue M1 Garand (bottom) used a 24-inch barrel.photos from imfdb.org

Of all the variants, the sniper models got traction. The M1C and M1D sniper models were built toward the end of WWII and saw limited use. Both models used either a 2.5x M81/M82 scope or a 2.2x M84 scope and a leather cheek pad. The M1D model also featured an M2 flash suppressor. Since the en-bloc clip was inserted and ejected out of the top of the receiver, the optic was side mounted to the rifles. U.S. snipers during the Korean War made use of the sniper variant and consistently scored kills out to 600 yards.

In the 1950s, with the Korean War raging, the U.S. Military tapped International Harvester and Harrington & Richardson to produce Garands. A variation of the M1 Garand was produced by Beretta for NATO in the 1950s as well.

The M1 Garand
The M1C sniper variant (top) uses a side-mount optic, leather cheek piece and was often fitted with a flash hider. It was common for snipers to consistently hit targets out to 600 yards. The M1D (bottom) with M84 scope was used extensively during the Korean War.photos from imfdb.org

My M1 Garand was manufactured by Springfield Armory in November 1943, according to serial number research. The condition of the rifle is very good, and I suspect the rifle has gone through an arsenal refinishing and may have had the stock replaced. Since WWII ended in September 1945, I don’t think this rifle saw a lot of service.

The Garand set the standard for ease of use with military weapons by being simple to disassemble and assemble. It takes seconds to field-strip a Garand into three main groups: barrel and receiver, buttstock, and trigger group. The parts snap back together.

After the transfer I opened the package, took out the parts, and intuitively assembled the rifle without ever having disassembled or assembled a Garand previously.

Yes, it was designed to be easy, but I like to think the Garand is in our nation’s DNA.

The Shooting Experience

A Garand’s inherent accuracy depends on the condition of that particular rifle and the quality of the barrel. My expectation was 3 to 4 minutes of angle with my Garand. The bore looked good, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Stocks can contract and interfere with the harmonics of barrel. (A fiberglass bedded receiver and quality barrel can greatly improve the accuracy in these old warhorses, resulting in accuracy, at 1 MOA or even better.)

The M1 Garand
M1 Garands use a gas-operated, long-stroke piston system.author photo

While in service, the M1 Garands ran on 150-grain FMJ M2 Ball ammo with a muzzle velocity of about 2800 fps. Federal American Eagle .30-06 Springfield ammunition is designed to a similar spec and pushes a 150-grain FMJ at 2740 fps. Be aware that modern, higher-pressure .30-06 ammunition can be harmful to your M1’s gas piston system and can lead to bent operating rods as well as other issues. Surplus ammo is a good choice, if you can find it.

Wrapping yourself into the Garand’s sling gives you the real shooting experience. The heft of the rifle alleviates felt recoil. The two-stage trigger allows you to pre-load the trigger for the shot to the break. The mechanism operates with lots of movement and sound. After eight shots, the ping of the clip ejecting is obvious.

The M1 Garand
The front sight employs protective wings; the gas cylinder is below the barrel.author photo

The front sight is fixed, protected by wings. The rear aperture sight is adjustable for windage and elevation. The windage adjustment range is 16 clicks to the right or to the left of center index; elevation can be adjusted from 0 to 72 clicks. The rear sight, which was designed for use with the standard M2 150-grain FMJ ammunition, can be adjusted out to 1000 yards. Experienced Garand shooters have their come-ups memorized. Assuming a 100-yard zero, you need to adjust the rear sight 3 clicks to hit at 200 yards. You move it 3 more clicks to hit at 300 yards, 4 more clicks to 400 yards and 4 additional clicks to hit at 500 yards. If you remember 3-3-4-4, then you’ll have no problem hitting out to 500 yards.

The M1 Garand
The trigger group is easily removed from the Garand, making cleaning and maintenance simple.author photo

From sandbags, the old warhorse strutted its stuff, giving me 3.5 MOA groups. The sights make the rifle easy to aim, and all this has led to my shooting the Garand a lot. The cosmoline sweating up through the stock, mingling with the smell of burned powder, gives you pause as you think about who used this rifle when in harm’s way.

Any shooter’s bucket list should include trigger time with M1 Garand. It is not a perfect weapon, but the rifle’s legend is woven into the fabric of our nation.

The M1 Garand
US Troops firing M1 Garands in a firefight during the Korean War.Courtesy Springfield Armory National Historic Site

Specifications

M1 Garand (Rifle, Caliber .30, M1)
Action: Gas-operated rotating bolt semi-automatic
Caliber: .30-06 Springfield (7.62x63mm)
Finish: Parkerized
Shoulder Stock: Walnut with steel butt plate
Front Sight: Fixed, wing protected
Rear Sight: Adjustable aperture
Barrel Length: 24 inches
Overall Length: 43.5 inches
Weight: 10 pounds
Capacity: 8-round en-bloc clip
Twist: 1:10 RH
Rifle Grooves: Four
Effective Range: 500 Yards
The M1 Garand
A GI takes aim with an M1 Garand fitted with bayonet; maximum effective range was 500 yards.Courtesy Springfield Armory National Historic Site