50 Famous Firearms You've Got to Own: Rick Hacker's Bucket List of Guns (2015)
It is somewhat ironic that the primary shoulder arm of U.S. troops during World War II—in fact, the rifle that’s credited with winning the war for America and her Allies—was invented by a Canadian. Fortunately for the future of world peace, Jean Cantius Garand was born in Quebec in January 1888, and developed an innate curiosity and mechanical ability to determine what made things work. An interest in firearms coupled with a proficiency in marksmanship eventually directed his talents towards trying to convert a WWI surplus bolt-action 1903 Springfield into a semi-automatic.
The activities of the young inventor (who by then had Anglicized his first name to John), eventually caught the attention of a senior military officer named Douglas MacArthur, who arranged for Garand to bring his talents to the Springfield National Armory. There the young inventor began work on what would eventually become known as “U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1.” These descriptively memorized words fairly tap danced out of the mouths of any G.I. who went through basic training with the slightly unorthodox yet extremely effective weapon. This mantra was almost always followed by the phrase, “... a gas operated, clip fed, semi-automatic shoulder weapon,” quoting right from the tan, soft-cover field training manual.
Although Garand’s initial test rifles were chambered for the government .30 cartridge, at one point in its development, the inventor was forced to rechamber his semi-automatic in .276-caliber, to make it compatible with the Pedersen rifle, which was also being tested at the time. Fortunately, General MacArthur intervened, and the .30-caliber remained the official cartridge of the M1. After a series of minor changes, the M1 Garand was officially adopted in 1936. It was a fortuitous stroke of timing, for five years later we would be at war.
A three-part firing, ejecting, and final round (with the empty clip being ejected at the last shot).
This is the proper way to load the M1 Garand, pressing down on the en bloc clip while the fleshy part of the hand holds the operating rod back. No M1 thumb here!
The M1 nomenclature was the result of the government’s then-new system of classifying weapons as “models,” and the Garand was the first to receive this designation. Thus, it became known as the M1 (i.e., Model 1), a name that has come to be used concurrently with the inventor’s own “Garand” surname.
By today’s standards, the M1, with its Parkerized finish and muscular wooden stock, was somewhat bulky-looking. As a matter of fact, it tipped the scales at 9.5 pounds. It held eight rounds in a sheet metal en bloc clip that was forcibly ejected out of the receiver with a loud “ping” when the last shot was fired. (It is a somewhat debatable point that WWII combat veterans cringed at this sound, as it supposedly signaled the enemy that the rifle was out of ammunition.) The bolt then automatically locked open, ready for the soldier to press down another loaded clip with his thumb, while using the fleshy edge of his hand to hold back the tab-eared operating rod handle. Once the clip was fully inserted, the hand was quickly raised, permitting the spring-driven bolt to slam home, chambering a round on the way. Unfortunately, many troopers forgot to lift their thumbs out of the receiver before releasing the bolt. The result was the all-too-familiar “M1 thumb,” embarrassingly painful, and easily identified by a blood-blackened thumbnail.
In spite of this and a few other shortcomings, the M1 was an extremely practical battlefield weapon. It was rugged, accurate, and rapid-firing. A steel peep sight, click-adjustable for windage and elevation, was paired with a thick, post front sight protected by two steel “ears.” A safety was mounted on the front of the trigger guard, easily snapped back to lock the trigger and just as easily pushed “off” with the thumb.
Throughout its 24 years of production, there were numerous variations made to practically every component of the M1. Perhaps one of the most notable was changing the gas trap system to a gas port in 1940, which eliminated the M1’s tendency to hang up after the sixth round was fired. Other changes were more subtle. One of the most visible was the trigger guard. The earliest rifles, those produced up until 1941, featured a milled trigger guard, with a thick hole as part of the rear trigger guard profile. But due to the expense of manufacture, a flat, stamped trigger guard was incorporated by Springfield Armory in 1943. However, in 1939, with a European war looming on the horizon, Winchester was contracted to produce the M1 along with Springfield Armory. Eschewing the stamped trigger guard, Winchester retained the milled trigger guard throughout its entire production of 513,880 rifles, which ended in 1945. (By comparison, Springfield Armory produced slightly more than three and a half million rifles during that same period.) Later, in 1952, during the Korean conflict, Harrington & Richardson and International Harvester were also contracted to make M1 Garands. These were the only four authorized manufacturers of the government-issued M1.
Another variation on the earliest Garands is the solid buttplate. In 1940, this was changed to a hinged buttplate, with a door covering two cylindrical compartments that held an oiler and grease containers, a detachable cleaning rod, and a collapsible maintenance tool with chamber brush. A stacking swivel just forward of the upper handguard was used to hook three rifles together, forming a stacked tripod of rifles for storage during bivouac. Pre-WWII Garands were issued with surplus 1903 leather slings, but a surprisingly large number of post-1941 rifles were outfitted with surplus 1917 and 1918 leather slings, which were still in great abundance at the time. Shortly after the U.S. entered WWII, a webbed M1 sling was officially adopted.
The M1 proved to be eminently adaptable to a number of accessories, including the M2 flash hider, M7 and M7A3 grenade launchers, and various evolutions of bayonets. In addition, highly accurized National Match versions were produced, along with far more lethal sniper models, which were outfitted with telescopic sights and leather cheek rests.
By the end of WWII, there were slightly more than four million M1 rifles in the government’s inventory, and most were destined for refurbishing. Thus, the chance of obtaining an unaltered M1 Garand today pretty much dictates that it be unissued and coated in original cosmoline.
Not wishing to date myself, I remember training with the M1 Garand during my Junior ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) years at West High School in Phoenix, Arizona. By then, the old army veteran had been relegated to such status with fuzzy-faced teenagers. By the time my class had gone on to graduate college and was commissioned, standard issue was the M-16, which was light years away from the Garand, although I still trained in boot camp with the Garand, as M-16s were in such short supply. So, not surprisingly, the U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1 was resurrected for active duty in Vietnam, where it served as an infantryman’s favorite sniper rifle. I don’t want to say my training was faultless, but I can still take an M1 apart in the dark: simply pull back on the trigger guard, swing it up, lift out the trigger housing group, then lift off the stock. Pull back on the follower rod, a spitzer bullet pushes out the retaining pin, and … well, the rest just comes naturally.
In all, over six million Garands were produced, and although most are now “rebuilds,” many are extremely collectable and, considering that most have been rebarreled, they remain eminently shootable. No wonder General George S. Patton, Jr., called the M1 Garand, “The greatest battle implement ever devised.” As such, and an old friend besides, it’s definitely on my bucket list.