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"The greatest battle implement ever devised"

The M1 Garand rifle

U.S. Marine at Guadalcanal with his M1 Garand (Photo: U.S. military)
 

Few weapons, and certainly no small arms, are as iconic of the U.S. war effort in World War II as the M1 Garand. Adoption of the Garand was the first time in history that the rank-and-file soldiers of an entire army were uniformly equipped with a rapid-firing semi-automatic rifle. Its historical and cultural importance stand in testimony to the power of the idea of equipping highly trained soldiers with the best available equipment.

A soldier of the 69th Infantry Division in Europe in March 1945, with his Garand rifle (Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
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The rifle's inventor is commonly known as John Garand, but his original name was actually Jean Cantius Garand. He was born in Canada as one of twelve children in the family. The family moved to Connecticut when he was still a baby. He and his brothers worked in textile mills from an early age, and little John learned valuable machining skills there. He also found an interest in guns and shooting while working at a shooting gallery.

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John C. Garand in his workshop at the Springfield Armory in 1940 (Photo: National Park Service)

He first designed guns as a hobby, but his passion turned serious in 1917, when he submitted a light machine gun design to the Army, and his submission was selected from the entries. He soon found himself working as an engineer at the Springfield Armory, one of the nation's primary centers for military firearm production. It was there that he began working on a gas-actuated self-loading infantry rifle. The 15-year project eventually gave birth to the Semiautomatic, Caliber .30, M1 Rifle, commonly known as the M1 Garand, America's premier rifle in World War II.

Garand demonstrating how to load the rifle (Photo: National Archives)

A common misconception regarding the gun must be mentioned in connection with its name. Many people believe that the M1 Carbine, another American small arm in WWII mostly used by officers, paratroopers or forward artillery observers, is a smaller, lighter-caliber modification of the Garand. This is, in fact, incorrect. The M1 Carbine was designed by different people, has a different firing mechanism, and doesn't use the Garand's en bloc clip. The confusion is caused by both weapons having "M1" in their names, but this is simply an artifact of U.S. military designation conventions at the time, signifying that both were "Mark 1", i.e. the first designs in their respective (and separate) categories.

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U.S. soldiers interrogating captured Germans in Normandy. Note the M1 Carbine held by the soldier on the left. (Photo: 90th Infantry Division Preservation Group)

The Garand was chosen out of several competing entries to become the military's mainstay rifle. It was accurate, which, combined with its high rate of fire and the "every man a marksman" training philosophy of the time, allowed a single squad of soldiers to pour a high volume of deadly fire downrange. It was also sturdy, dependable, and could be field stripped without tools in a matter of seconds. Accordingly, it earned numerous accolades. General Patton called it "the greatest battle implement ever devised" in a letter to the Springfield Armory. James Gavin, the famous "jumping general" of the 82nd Airborne Division, praised it with actions rather than words. Though officers were usually expected to carry a lighter carbine, he insisted on not only jumping with his troops, but doing so while carrying a heavier Garand.

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General James Gavin with his trusty M1 during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944 (Photo: milsurps.com)

One notable feature of the Garand was the en bloc (French for "altogether") clip. It wasn't the first gun to use such a clip, but certainly the one to make to make it well-known. Traditional stripper clips are used to speed up the loading of a rifle: you insert the clip with the cartridges, remove the clip, and then you're ready to fire. You can, however, also load such a rifle manually, it just takes longer. In contrast, the en bloc clip isn't (and cannot be) removed, and stays in the rifle until the last bullet is fired, when the empty clip is also ejected. The Garand could be loaded very quickly, but the user had to be careful: many soldiers suffered "Garand thumb" after they held their hand the wrong way and got the rifle's operating rod slam onto the named body part.

An M1 Garand en bloc clip (left) and a stripper clip (right) (Photo: Wikipedia)

Popular culture made much of the distinctive "ping" sound the clip makes when it is ejected. Soldiers at the time were greatly concerned that the ping would let nearby Germans know that the rifle was empty, giving them a chance to jump out of cover and shoot the rifleman mid-reload. Silent, plastic clips were experimented with, and many soldiers carried an empty clip they would occasionally drop on the ground to make the sound and prompt Germans to reveal themselves at the wrong time. Germans soldiers, on the other hand, later claimed that the sound of the clip was inaudible in the middle of combat. They also added that even if one American soldier was reloading, his squad mates probably still had loaded guns, so jumping the man would have been suicidal.
 
Another misconception about the clip is that it's hard to remove when full or partially expended, so soldiers often just discharged their remaining rounds into the air so they could put a new one in. This in incorrect; in fact, such clips were easily removed via a special clip latch button. What is true is that the clip got in the way when launching a rifle grenade.

A soldier launching a practice grenade with his M1 and the attached M7 grenade launcher (Photo: U.S. Army)

The clip is also linked to a peculiar teething problem with the first run of Garands. The eight cartridges held in the clip are not arranged symmetrically; instead, they're offset slightly so they go left-right-left-right. Or the other way around, since the rifle was designed to accept the cartridge both ways, making it easier and quicker to reload. Tests on the first few Garands revealed a mysterious problem: the seventh round would sometimes jam, but only if the clip was inserted so that the top round was on the right. If the top round was on the left, the jam never occurred.

The en bloc clip in a Garand (Photo: usconcealedcarry.com)

As it happened, this was discovered shortly before a demonstration at the National Matches at Camp Perry, a highly popular firearm event at the time. The Garand was new, untested, and had just beaten out several competitors for adoption by the Army; a spectacular failure would have caused a great loss of prestige. Colonel James Hatcher, the officer in charge of the rifles, quickly had the receivers modified so they would only accept clips loaded the "safe" way, and also made sure that all the clips shipped to the exhibition had the top round on the left. This helped avoid a public embarrassment, but the Army still didn't know why the stoppages were happening.

1961 photo of some of the participants at the National Matches (Photo: getzone.com)

Careful examination pinned the phenomena on a small, undocumented change in the manufacturing process. A drill going slightly too far would remove a tiny part off a small metal nub in the receiver. If this happened in a rifle where other manufacturing tolerances also stacked up, and a right-round-on-top clip was loaded, the jam would happen on the seventh round. Once the root of the problem was found, fixing it was trivial.
 
Another, similarly obscure, weakness of the Garand was the gas cylinder. While it worked fine, it was made of stainless steel, which meant it couldn't be parkerized, given an anti-corrosion coating. This left the cylinder shiny, which made the rifle and its wielder easier to spot unless it was blackened over a stove.

Numerous versions of the Garand were created, though most never saw service. In 1944, even the Japanese tried to copy the rifle, but their version had numerous problems and the war ended before the so-called Type 4 Rifle could see service.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. A Yokosuka Type 4 (top) and an M1 Garand (bottom). (Photo: thearmorylife.com)

Despite these small setbacks, the M1 Garand became a highly successful and rightly iconic rifle. Almost five and a half million pieces were manufactured over its career. The U.S. military replaced it with the M14 in 1958, but it is still used for instruction and by drill teams and honor guards in many countries. Replicas and military surplus Garands are favored by military enthusiasts and can be bought for a considerable price at auctions. Before holding or shooting an original or a replica at a shooting range, many of today’s younger generations got to know the Garand and its unmistakable clip-ejection sound from movies like Saving Private Ryan, and video games such as Medal of Honor or Call of Duty.

An M1 Garand rifle in the video game Call of Duty (Photo: moddb.com)

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