M1 Carbine history: more than the Garand’s little brother

Get your learnin’ on. Let’s talk about M1 Carbine history.

Despite the name and basic appearance, the M1 Carbine—officially the United States Carbine, Caliber .30, M1–isn’t really a carbine version of the M1 Garand rifle. The confusion lies in the fact that both are called “M1” but this dates back to the U.S. Army naming system, which began on July 1, 1925. From that point, the “M” was simply the designation for “Model” while the number represented the sequential development of the equipment and weapons.

This is also why the U.S. Army’s steel helmet, recoilless anti-tank rocket launcher (bazooka), flamethrower and even the WWII era Thompson all were designated “M1”. Simply put, the “M1 Carbine” was the first carbine to be developed. Thus while it does have similarities–notably, both WWII versions were semi-automatic–to the M1 Garand, these are in fact different weapons.

M1 Carbine Design

The M1 Garand–designed by Canadian-American John Garand at the Springfield Armory–features a gas-operated, rotating bolt system. This concept has been commonly used with firearms chambered for high powered cartridges. The M1 Carbine also features a rotating bolt but it utilizes a short-stroke piston. The short-stroke piston enables better control of the weapon because less mass is needed to be stopped at either end of the bolt carrier travel.

M1 Garand and M1 Carbine
Both M1 Garand and M1 Carbine feature rotating bolts, but the M1 Carbine uses a short-stroke piston.

.30 Carbine

The confusion between the two weapons is enhanced by the fact that both are designated as firing “.30 caliber”. The distinction is that the M1 Carbine fires a .30 carbine (7.62x33mm) whereas the M1 Garand fires a .30-06 Springfield (7.62x63mm) round. In this regard the .30 caliber is similar to how the Soviets utilized various 7.62mm rounds – including the full-size 7.62x54mmR rifle round, 7.62x39mm intermediate cartridge, and the 7.62x25mm pistol/submachine gun round.

A Lighter Rifle Round

However, the American .30 carbine cartridge, which was designed specifically for the M1 Carbine, is a light rifle round. It shouldn’t be seen as an intermediate round – notably those used with modern assault rifles. In fact, the rimless .30 Carbine was basically an improved design based on the much older .32 Winchester Self-Loading cartridge or 1906, which was introduced for the Winchester Model rifle. The .30 Carbine is actually a lighter bullet and utilizes modern power. It is 600 feet per second faster and has 27 percent more power than its parent cartridge.

Compact, Lightweight Defense Weapon

The straight case and rounded nose have also convinced some to believe it was designed for use in pistols, but this isn’t actually the case. In fact, the M1 Carbine was developed as a weapon that offers more firepower than the military pistols of the era but lighter–and thus easier to carry–than the full-sized M1 Garand. It was clear to military planners that support troops, including staff, mortarmen, and radiomen; as well as officers and even some NCOs needed a more compact weapon.

The M1 Carbine also addressed the calls for a compact, lightweight defense weapon with a greater range, accuracy, and firepower than a sidearm. The fact that the carbine weighed about half that of the Thompson submachine gun or M1 Garand helped convince the military planners that this was the right weapon for the job.

“Carbine Williams” –  Legendary Designer

One other notable distinction about the M1 Carbine is that unlike the M1 Garand or Thompson M1A1, it is named after its designer. This could be due to the fact that David Marshall Williams – later known as “Carbine” Williams – was also a bootlegger and convicted murderer! While largely forgotten today, even among gun aficionados, Williams had become a bit of a folk legend due to the 1960s Hollywood movie that suggested that he invented the M1 Carbine using scrap metal and crude machinery while serving a prison sentence in the 1920s.

M1 Carbine History - Carbine Williams 1952 Movie
Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1952 movie “Carbine Williams”.

The story is a little less colorful than Hollywood would have us believe, but Williams was still quite a character.

Rough Start in Life

Born in November, 1900 and known as “Marsh” – the Carbine would come later – he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and worked for a period on the family farm before taking a job at a blacksmith shop. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and claimed he was 17. When his true age was found out, he was discharged. He then enrolled in the Blackstone Military Academy but failed to complete the first semester as he was expelled for theft of government property – which included several rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Today that would make the evening news. Let’s just say things were simpler back in 1917 and the matter was dropped.

He married a year later, but family life for a young man of just 18 years of age didn’t mean the end of the line for him and trouble. To supplement his income he operated an illegal still and produced what by some accounts was quality moonshine. However, it also resulted in tragedy.

Incarceration

In 1921 his North Carolina bootlegging operation was raided by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department. Reportedly, Williams engaged in a shootout with the deputies. That was when Deputy Sheriff Alfred Jackson Pate was struck by two bullets and was killed.

Williams was arrested for the murder, and he was held to answer for First Degree Murder and even faced the death penalty. While he said he had fired a couple of shots, he didn’t intend to kill the deputy. He also claimed he gave the rifle to one of his employees – and that it was Ham Dawson who fired the remaining shots with the intent to kill the deputy. The first trial ended in a hung jury. Rather than risk a second trial, Williams entered a plea of guilty to Second Degree Murder. He received a sentence to 30 years of hard labor.

Productive Jail Time

While serving his sentence he spent hours sketching diagrams for firearm mechanisms – and that gained the attention of the guards and eventually the prison superintendent, H.T. Peoples. Instead of being worried, Williams–being a fairly model inmate–was given access to the prison workshop and he spent his time repairing and maintaining prison equipment. He was also allowed to work on his firearm designs and built four semi-automatic rifles while in prison! Imagine such a thing today.

His mother provided Williams with a drafting set and technical data on guns. He was also provided with patent attorney contacts, but they were unable to help while he was incarcerated. However, his family, and even the sheriff who arrested him and the widow of the man he was convicted of killing worked on a campaign to commute his sentence. In December 1927 North Carolina Governor Angus McLean commuted the 30-year sentence to just 10 years with a maximum of 20 years, and Williams was actually granted parole in 1929 and released from prison entirely in 1931.

Demand for Designs

Once out of prison Williams filed several patents for his designs. These included the use of high-pressure gas to operate a semi-automatic rifle. Two of his most significant designs were for a “floating chamber” and for the short-stroke gas piston. Both were crucial in the development of the M1 Carbine.

Today it would seem odd that a convicted felon–for murder, no less–would work with firearms. But in the 1930s Williams’ design caught the attention of the United States Ordnance Department. He received a contract to modify the .30 caliber Browning machine gun to use a floating chamber system to fire .22 caliber rimfire ammunition during training exercises.

Later, Remington Arms contacted Williams to develop a .22 long rifle for the commercial market. While his design wasn’t accepted by Remington, it was redesigned by the company as the Model 550. Later patents for the rifle did credit Williams’ earlier patent for the floating chamber design.

However, Williams’ impact on firearms came when he went to work for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. There, he was charged with refining the .30-06 Winchester M2 Military Rifle, which was designed by Jonathan “Ed” Browning, the brother of famous gun designer John Browning. In the end, the M2 design was adopted – and instead, the U.S. military stuck with the M1 Garand.

However, the U.S. Ordnance Department announced that it needed a light rifle that would replace both the M1911 pistol and Thompson submachine gun. Williams, along with other designers at Winchester, developed a prototype that would become the M1 Carbine. It was approved in October 1941.

Hollywood Noticed

The story of the gun’s development even was made into a 1952 movie Carbine Williams, starring James Stewart. According to reports, the movie overstressed Williams’ role in the carbine’s development but it was his short-stroke gas piston design that made the gun a success.

M1 Carbine History - Jimmy Stewart and Carbine Williams
The 1952 movie “Carbine Williams” starred James Stewart. Here, he stands next to Carbine Williams, holding an M1 Carbine.

M1 Carbine Wartime Service

M1 Carbine
The M1 Carbine had a removable 15-round magazine.

World War II

The M1 Carbine fell into a category all its own during World War II. Its .30 carbine caliber round is twice as powerful as the .45ACP caliber that was used in the Thompson and M3 “Grease Gun” submachine guns. It offers better range, accuracy, and penetration to those small arms, and yet it weighs half that of the Thompson. However, compared to the German StG44 – the world’s first true “assault rifle” – the M1 Carbine is vastly underpowered. In this regard, firearms experts argue that it falls between a submachine gun and an assault rifle. It had an advantage over the larger M1 Garand in that it had a removable 15-round magazine. This feature was later adopted in the M14, a firearm that does resemble a larger M1 Carbine.

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European Theater of Operations

The M1 saw its initial use in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) during World War II. Despite the advantages in weight and accuracy, it wasn’t universally liked or respected. In the Pacific, it was well-liked by those who operated in heavy jungle terrain, but those who used it in frequent fighting in both Europe and the Pacific found it to have insufficient penetration and stopping power. The carbine reportedly didn’t do well against German or even Japanese helmets for example.

Korean War

During the Korean War, the M1 Carbine was generally disliked by the United States Marine Corps. There were reports that the carbine bullets failed to penetrate the heavy padded winter clothing worn by the North Korean and Chinese soldiers. Some Marine units issued orders that carbine users should always aim for the head as a result!

Vietnam War

The M1 and M2 Carbines (see below) remained in use throughout the Vietnam War and were used by every branch of the U.S. military.

M1 Carbine History - Korean War
Here you can see the M1 Carbine in use during the Korean War.

Brittish Military Use

The M1 Carbine was used by the British SAS during World War II. Later it saw use with the British military during the Malayan Emergency. The Israeli Palmach used it during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Also, the military forces of both South Korea and South Vietnam used it—while Viet Cong forces also used large numbers of captured M1 Carbines.

M1 Carbine History—Variations

Late in World War II, a select-fire M2 Carbine was introduced. Interestingly, select-fire was a feature originally intended for the M1 Carbine, but the demand for the gun made that impossible to refine and perfect in time. Only in the closing stages of the war was the M2 introduced. Some of these saw use in the final engagements in the Philippines.

The M1 Carbine, as well as the M2 Carbine, remained in use throughout the Korean War and into the Vietnam War. However, today the World War II version of the M1 Carbine is most sought after by collectors. These lack a bayonet lug, a feature added only at the tail end of the war. While many war movies feature M1 Carbines with the bayonet lug, this is an anachronism and armorers making do with what was available.

One of the more “unique” variations of the weapon was the M3 version. The M3 featured the M2 Carbine in select-fire with a night sight. These were introduced in the latter stages of the Second World War. They also saw use in the Korean War with a refined infrared sniper scope.

The M1 Carbine in Popular Culture

Less than a year after being used in combat the M1 Carbine made its big-screen debut in the 1943 film Gung Ho! This is notable in that few if any M1 Carbines were widely issued in the Pacific by the time of the film’s production. The weapon was subsequently seen in The Story of G.I. Joe. In the early Cold War it became a “go-to” weapon that was carried by U.S. soldiers in a variety of “monster” and “alien invasion” films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The War of the Worlds.

 The M1 Carbine can be seen in several high profile World War II films including The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. Ironically Korean War versions can be seen as noted by the bayonet lugs.

M1 Carbine History - The Longest Day
The weapon as seen in The Longest Day.
M1 Carbine History - Used in the movie "A Bridge Too Far."
M1 Carbine History as seen in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

Correct WWII versions of the M1 Carbine can be seen in more recent films, such as Saving Private Ryan. That film and HBO’s epic mini-series Band of Brothers featured numerous examples of the paratrooper version of the M1 Carbine with a folding stock.

M1 Carbine in Saving Private Ryan
M1 Carbine in Saving Private Ryan
M1 Carbine History - Seen in the HBO series "Band of Brothers."
M1 Carbine history as seen in the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

 

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Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.


Peter Suciu has 7 posts and counting. See all posts by Peter Suciu

2 thoughts on “M1 Carbine history: more than the Garand’s little brother

  • March 28, 2020 at 2:11 pm
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    Famed NY policeman Jim Cirillo (who probably was involved in more firefights than any other US LEO of the second half of the 20th Century) repeatedly said that the one firearm that surpassed all others, more than the .45 ACP, the .44 Mag, 12-gauge 00 buck or 12-gauge slugs, in terms of likelihood of producing a 1-shot stop, was the .30 carbine shooting hollowpoints.

    Reply
  • January 31, 2020 at 12:41 pm
    Permalink

    I love my M1 Carbine.
    The worst gun I ever owned was an Iver Johnson Enforcer. Enforcers were PISTOLS 8 inch barreled carbine PISTOLS. I was told they never work properly but bought it anyway. It never fired more then two shots before malfunctioning FTF.
    Live and learn

    Reply

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