It is late 1939.
The U.S. Rifle, Cal .30, M1, or simply “The Garand” had been adopted almost four years prior.
After a lengthy production setup period, new rifles have been coming off the line at a regular pace for several few months.
It’s just starting to trickle into the hands of troops.
Also, problems are showing up, and complaints are being heard.
None of this is a surprise. There will be problems with any new rifle no matter how long it was in development. Complaints were expected also, because even if the rifle had been perfect, some people were going to be unhappy about it because it was a semi-auto. But several things were working together and piling up that would make it look rather grim for Garand’s rifle for a while.
The entire muzzle area of the early issue Garand was different from what we know now. As adopted, it used a different system of capturing the gas at the muzzle. It used a “gas trap” rather than a gas port in the barrel. And it wasn’t working well.
The Garand we are familiar with taps gas pressure through a tiny hole in the barrel, sending it into a gas cylinder to push against the gas piston on the operating rod.
That’s not how it started out.
The Garand as it was adopted used an undrilled barrel. The gas cylinder went over the muzzle end of the barrel and enclosed it entirely except for an opening for the bullet to pass through. There was a gap between the “false muzzle” of the gas cylinder and the actual muzzle of the barrel. This space was called the “gas trap”.
Picture slipping a fired shotgun shell over a rifle barrel, with the primer drilled out for a bullet to pass through. Don’t slide the shell all the way down until it stops, but leave a space. That space is the gas trap.
This gas cylinder was fixed to the barrel about like the later design, and used gas pressure to push the operating rod back…it just got it’s gas pressure from that empty space at the muzzle instead of from a hole in the barrel.
It sounds like it should work, and it did. Mostly.
The gas trap space would collect carbon and unburned powder. This could give exciting results when this accumulated powder ignited from a shot. It also hurt accuracy.
It almost had to be removed just to clean the bore, since cleaning patches would sometimes fall off the cleaning rod into that gap and need to be dug out (if they were known about).
It never had a very solid attachment since there was less spline area than the later gas cylinder, and it didn’t take many removal/installations to loosen the fit and make it wobble. This may not be noticeable or even measurable at first, but the effects would add up over time and make a “wiggly” gas cylinder. With the front sight mounted on the gas cylinder, this play affected accuracy. Since the Garand rear sight moves .008″ to change the point of impact one MOA, you can see that enough play in the gas cylinder to be felt by hand could open groups dramatically.
This instability also made it appear to be a pretty unsatisfactory bayonet attach point.
John Garand basically redesigned the front end of the rifle.
He changed the barrel, gas cylinder, and front sight. All together, this was a pretty major change to a rifle that had spent nearly two decades in design, development, and testing.
The Army probably screwed up here by not informing the public, or at least the military establishment, right away. Either the Army or Springfield Armory was rather secretive about the gas cylinder change, even though they were on it pretty quickly after realizing it. I suppose they wanted to avoid controversy, but it looks like they only succeeded in creating it. The problem with the original design was becoming known, yet nobody knew they were fixing it. They were still cranking out rifles with the old design, with the plan of retrofitting new barrels and gas cylinders later.
And the NRA was curious.
I should explain that the NRA and the armed services were pretty close back then. The president of the NRA was usually an active duty Army General, the NRA’s matches had courses of fire designed with input from the Army and Marine Corps, and they coordinated on programs like the DCM arms sales.
Nobody would let the NRA test a Garand rifle, which only made them wonder why. The reason was probably that changes were coming, so there was little point in letting the NRA have a rifle that did not represent the final product. But the Army didn’t tell them that. They wouldn’t tell them much of anything.
When the Ordnance Dept demonstrated the Garand at the National Matches at Camp Perry in 1939, they knew about the gas cylinder problems. In fact, the new design was approved within six weeks following the matches and the changeover began. But not only did nobody tell the NRA this at Camp Perry, the Army kept the rifles very closely guarded. Any competitor could fire the new rifle, but an Army Ordnance representative stayed at their side. The NRA headquarters staff was turned away and not allowed to fire one at all. As I said in Part 1, the NRA smelled a rat.
This was also where the Army hid the seventh-round-stoppage scare, which was really why the rifles were closely watched. The Army Ordnance man was standing by to make sure the rifle was loaded in just the right way.
But curiosity had been aroused.
When the gas cylinder problem became known, they probably feared the worst if news got out. How they planned to keep that a secret with rifles in the hands of troops, I don’t know, but they must have thought they should try.
Something else happened around this time to hurt the Garand’s image. It shouldn’t have, but it did. People began to wonder if the rifle would handle the full power .30-06 military cartridge.
Some events have to be known to see the entire story here:
-In WWI, the standard load for the .30-06 was the M1906 round: a 150 grain bullet at 2,700 fps.
-After WWI, there was a lot of studying done on machinegun tactics, and one result was the desire for longer range from the .30-06. So in 1925, the Army changed to the .30M1 cartridge: a 174.5 grain bullet at 2,647 fps.
-Some National Guard ranges weren’t long enough to handle the range of the new cartridge, so the Guard asked for more of the old cartridge to be loaded. After some development (they never were pleased with the old 150 bullet’s cupro-nickel jacket) they started making another loading called the .30M2: a 152 grain bullet at 2,700 fps.
-After playing around with the Nat’l Guard’s new “training” load, regular Army machinegunners found that it’s more curved trajectory worked better for sweeping the back side of hills since the trajectory allowed them to drop rounds in. After raising the velocity of the .30M2 152 grain bullet to 2,805 fps, it was adopted as the standard infantry round in 1940.
The Garand had been designed around the .30M1 (174 grain @ 2,650) cartridge, but would work fine with the .30M2 (152 @ 2,805). But somewhere, somehow, someone got the idea that the new “light load” was made for the Garand because it couldn’t handle the “more powerful” .30M1 cartridge.
That made no sense, since that load didn’t even exist when the rifle was adopted, let alone while it was being developed, but that’s what some thought. And it wasn’t just being tossed around as gunshop gossip. High ranking Army officers who should have known better believed it. A Major General who later commanded the 29th Infantry in Europe was one of the biggest, and wrote at least a couple of articles about it that made newspapers and The American Rifleman. “The M2 ammunition…is specified for the Garand because the Garand will not operate satisfactorily with the more efficient M1 ammunition….which is inferior from many angles…The Garand, because of its mechanical faults, cannot satisfactorily use the M1 ammunition…and is restricted to the use of M2 ammunition, throwing a projectile of 150 grains, with a lighter powder charge (which was incorrect)…”
And he wasn’t the only one. It was off to the races in 1940, and there would be a congressional investigation before it was all over.
People questioned the “reduced power ammo it required”.
The gas cylinder was becoming a known problem, but the fix wasn’t.
“Time” and other magazines and newspapers were running articles about the “failed” new rifle.
The NRA was asking questions. I have one issue of the American Rifleman where the Rifleman’s tech expert F.C. Ness finally gets to test an M-1 Garand for a long weekend, and I can only describe it as brutal. From Aug 1938 to Jan 1940, the NRA had published at least four articles either questioning the Garand or praising the new Johnson rifle which wasn’t even being tested yet.
And that rifle of Melvin Johnson’s was yet another threat.
The Johnson Rifle.
The Johnson semi-automatic rifle is usually talked about as having been a threat to the M1 Garand. I don’t think it was- at least not much- because the Johnson wasn’t really ready until most of the Garand’s problems were fixed. Whether it was or it wasn’t a threat to it can be debated. Personally, I feel the Johnson’s existence helped save the Garand rifle.
The Marine Corps was not yet interested in a semi-auto service rifle, and after testing some semiautos was happy to stay with the M1903 Springfield. But partially out of their own desire for information, and maybe partially due to pressure from outsiders to “catch up”, and certainly partially due to pressure from Captain Melvin Johnson, UMSCR, the USMC conducted a pretty in-depth evaluation of available semi-auto service rifles in late 1940.
Headed by a board of six USMC officers, the test was done on several M1903s, M1 Garands, two different new designs from Winchester, and the first truly serious look at the Johnson. Forty enlisted men, from new recruits, to WWI vets, to USMC rifle team members, did the shooting. They tested for weeks, fired at least 12,000 rds through each design. They ran at least 38 tests, testing for accuracy from 200 to 1,000 yards, reliability, ease of training new recruits, endurance, field firing under ideal and under adverse conditions, etc.
Everyone knew the M1 was having trouble.
Everyone thought they knew the Johnson was at least as good as the M1. Some people were pushing for a change, even in mid-stream, to the Johnson.
And it was no secret that Melvin Johnson had friends in the Marines and Congress (maybe not as many as people were saying, but he wasn’t about to stop them from thinking it).
I think knowing this was taking place help light a fire under Army Ordnance to correct the M1 Garand’s problems. That’s only personal opinion, and one big guess, but it sure looks that way to me whenever I read all the separate stories and put them all together.
The final result of that Marine Corps test was that the Marine Corps would stay with the M1903 as was expected, but the “test conclusively proved that the M1 rifle is the most satisfactory semiautomatic rifle available.” The M1 was the highest placing semi-auto in most categories (though it should be remembered that only the M1903 and Garand were fully developed rifles and the others were basically prototypes).
Aside from maybe causing the USMC to warm up to the idea that a semi-auto might be OK, it vindicated the M1 Garand.
The test results came at a great time. The new gas cylinder changeover was well along (and working), production was growing every day, more troops were getting the new rifle and liking it, it was doing well in the field. All the fixes were working.
One last big problem haunted the M1 Garand. The rear sight was an improvement for combat use over the M1903 sights, but the rear sight of the M1 wouldn’t hold elevation adjustment. It would “jump” under recoil. The original sight had a slotted nut you could tighten after zeroing, but it was too small to hold, and was easily lost besides. I have one, and snapped one combination tool trying to keep it tight and was always worried about losing that nut on the nice clean range. I can only guess how one might look at it if heading into a war.
The first rear sight change was to replace that slotted nut with a bar shaped nut, or lockbar. You didn’t need tools, and could get a grip on it with your fingers. You backed it off, made the adjustment, then tightened it. But you had to keep it tight, as it also tended to loosen under recoil. It was not captive, so if it came off, it was lost and there was nothing to hold the sight together so the parts would work their way out and be lost.
The next change was to make the sight’s pinion shaft longer, then after the lockbar nut was threaded on, this end was staked to keep the nut from coming back off. Now the lockbar nut was mostly safe from loss, but you still had to back it off each time you wanted a sight adjustment and remember to tighten it back.
This was the common sight during WWII.
While it now had a locking system, it was still a mystery as to why the sight would “self-adjust” under recoil to begin with. The knobs were spring-loaded into matching receiver serrations, and if set correctly, took a reasonably strong grasp to turn. The recoil should transmit less force than a strong grip would, so what was going on?
It was late in WWII before it was figured out and a fix was designed. Essentially, the sight was backwards from how it needed to be. The spring-loading parts were under the elevation knob on the left side. This gave that knob a little more mass than it would have by itself, and that was enough. Under recoil, this mass increase was enough to make the elevation knob bounce out from the receiver serrations under inertia, where it could move, then snap back. So they put the springs, clips, etc under the other side under the windage knob. It would still hold the knob against the serrations since they were joined by a common shaft. This made the actual moving part lighter, and that was light enough to keep it from developing enough inertia under recoil to unseat from it’s serrations.
Though developed right before war’s end, this sight design was adopted in 1947 and retrofitted in postwar rebuilds.
It’s a really great sight, but you still have to keep the screw tight or the aperture will fall to the bottom of its travel under recoil.
As we all know now, the M1 Garand went on to be the best battle rifle of WWII in the opinion of many.
But it was touchy for a while.
If you talk to people about the M1 now, and all you hear is how wonderful it is. A lot of people didn’t think so back about 1940. Many don’t realize that now.
John Garand started making prototypes around 1920, the M1 was adopted in 1936, and the final gas cylinder design was in production in early 1940. That is twenty years of development…20 YEARS!…and it still needed some small bugs chased out.
I like to think about that when I read about this or that gun having problems after being made five years.
It’s nothing new, and it will always be this way. Development takes time. I think about this when someone talks about early failures of the M16.
The M1 Garand also underwent changes all throughout production. One thing about having a rifle built by a gov’t armory is that they aren’t so concerned with profit margins. SA made a lot of changes for various reasons. Some were to streamline production, but most were to make it stronger or better in some way. The other WWII manufacturer, Winchester, made very few changes until the very last rifles they made. Yes, there was war on, but Winchester still had stockholders to please.
SA changed the receiver in small ways many times. If you look at an early one, then look at a later one, the contours show the later one is beefier.
The bolt was changed at least six times during production. There are at least 19 dash numbers on bolts (D28287-1SA, D28287-2SA, etc) but we only know of about six or eight that made it into production. The rest probably couldn’t get into production before another revision came out.
There are five different follower numbers, 10 to 12 trigger housings, seven or eight operating rods, and even the safety was changed several times. That’s just part of it.
General Patton may be correct that the M-1 Garand was the “greatest battle implement ever devised” but it took a long time to get there.