Carbine Williams

This is excerpted from the February 25, 2022 post from “War History Online”. Blog Photo: David Marshall Williams visiting Sheriff Eugene W. Biscailuz, 1951

Another blog post on our site tells the story of how the M1 Carbine came to be. But the carbine would not have materialized without the help of a former jailbird.

A man named David Marshall Williams was a guy who was always in trouble. He was raised in rural Cumberland County, North Carolina. He was expelled in the eighth grade. Then when he was 15, he attempted to enlist in the Navy and got booted out for lying about his age, claiming to be 17. A couple of years later, he got booted out of the Blackstone Military Academy after a cache of stolen rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammo were found in his car. In 1918, he got married and the pair had a son. Now with a family, he found work with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. But again, that did not last long, as he got booted from that job because he was shooting at birds flying near the rails.

So now it was Prohibition, and Williams turned to bootlegging to support his family. Near Godwin, North Carolina, Williams had a still set up, but the authorities found it and raided it. When the police were leaving the scene, two shots rang out from the woods and struck a deputy riding on a car running board, killing him with two bullets. Williams was arrested and sentenced to 30 years of hard labor at the Caledonia State Prison Farm.

Ironically, that is when Williams’ life began to turn around. The superintendent there recognized Williams had a mechanical aptitude. Over time, the super let Williams have more time in the prison machine shop. Initially Williams crafted tools missing from the shop. Later he was permitted to service the prison guards’ weapons.

Four Carbine rifles designed by David Marshall Williams while in prison.

With nothing but time on his hands, Williams began drawing and designing firearms and over time, designed four different semi-automatic rifles. Using his mother as his conduit to the outside world, she sent him names of attorneys so he could patent his four firearm designs, but was rejected by the patent office because he was incarcerated.

His sentence was commuted and he was released from Caledonia in 1929. Now a free man, Williams was able to manufacture and patent his rifle designs. Colt Manufacturing Company found out about Williams and his patents and were interested in learning more about the floating chamber Williams designed on their Colt Ace pistol. The resulting partnership created the Colt Service Ace, a .22 caliber pistol with a stronger recoil than its predecessor.

Carbine Williams, 1952, with Jimmy Stewart in the lead role.

He also petitioned the War Department and made trips to Washington, D.C., to show them what he created, thinking it would have military value. In 1935, two patents were filed, and published in 1938. The Ordnance Department recommended Williams continue work with the Winchester Repeating Arms company to improve a rifle designed by John Edmund Browning. He collaborated with two other individuals. The three men had a personality clash so Williams developed one prototype, the other men developed another prototype. It was this other prototype which became the M1 Carbine. However, that gun would not have been developed had it not been for William’s patented short-stroke gas piston.

David Marshall Williams continued to work with Winchester for several more years, and in 1952 he gained notoriety thanks to a movie about his life, titled Carbine Williams. Legendary actor Jimmy Stewart played Williams. Wherever the movie was playing, Williams followed along to sign autographs.

In the 1960s, Williams donated his entire workshop and personal collection to the North Carolina Museum of History, where it remains on display. He died in 1975 at the age of 74.

Carbine Williams