M1 Carbine

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.

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M1 Garand vs. M1 Carbine

If you are a student of WWII history or you are a WWII reenactor, you are familiar with the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine. But contrary to what many people think, the M1 Carbine is not merely a smaller version of the M1 Garand.

Back in 1888, an American named Hiram Maxim, from Sangerville Maine, invented the machine gun, which was a true wonder of the age. It used the power of the bullet to extract and eject the empty brass casing, feed another bullet into the chamber, re-cock the hammer, and fire again as long as there was ammunition. Maxim’s model was able to fire 500 rounds per minute. All over the world, arms designers scrambled to adapt the auto-loading principle to rifles and pistols. Because of the low power of its small bullet, the pistol was relatively easy, and semi-automatic handguns began to appear five years later. The rifle, however, was much more difficult, because the power of the cartridge was so strong it usually broke the rifle after only a few shots.

The standard issue weapon for U.S. troops in WWI was the 1903 Springfield (“M1903”), which was a bolt action rifle that fired a .30-06 round. The gun was heavy to carry and slow to operate, because the shooter had to recycle the next round manually with the bolt. But it was accurate at long distances, which came in handy fighting in trench warfare. So after WWI ended in 1918, U.S. Ordnance began to search aggressively for an auto-loading infantry rifle. Over the next ten years, many inventors submitted designs for testing, but none proved acceptable. If they could stand up to the punishment, they were too heavy, and if they were light enough to be portable, they had to be in a small caliber.

An enbloc clip, loaded with 8 rounds

One of the more promising designs was submitted by a young, Canadian-born inventor named John Cantius Garand. He was quickly employed by the main U.S. arms factory, Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, to develop his design further. Although promising, this rifle eventually reached a dead end, and the self-taught Garand set about on a new design. His new rifle derived the power to operate by tapping off the propellant gases of the fired bullet and using it to cycle the rifle. This design eventually beat out all the competition and was adopted as the standard U.S. infantry rifle in 1936. The rifle was simply called the “M1” (Model #1). The M1903 was retired from active service.

M1 Garand

The Garand’s 8-round enblock clip was loaded from the top. After the last shot was fired, the shooter heard a distinctive metallic “plink” sound as the clip was automatically ejected.

The M1 Garand was subsequently one of the most advanced service rifles of the war. It was a semi-automatic rifle that utilized a gas operated and rotating bolt design that enabled it to reliably feed the large .30-06 Springfield rounds (marked as .30 caliber by the military), the same ammunition that had been used for the M1903. The rifle held eight rounds and fed via an enbloc clip loaded through the top of the receiver. It also weighed less than the M1903, but still heavy in its own right. Garand’s initial desire was to use a detachable magazine which fed from the bottom, but a man named John Peterson was working on his own semi-automatic rifle design in the 1920s at the Springfield Armory and convinced the Ordinance Department to go with the enbloc clip, as he felt it was better.

Nearly 5.5 million M1 Garands were built. They remained in service with the American military throughout the Korean War and into the late 1950s, until they were finally phased out and replaced with the M14 rifle (which itself was essentially an M1 re-chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO with a detachable box magazine and shorter gas cylinder) and later the M16.

M1 Carbine

The Army decided that a smaller and lighter weapon would be needed for support troops (such as radiomen or mortar men). While the shorter Thompson sub-machine gun was in use, it was heavier than a Garand when loaded. There was also the Colt M1911A1 (aka the “Colt 45”) pistol, but this obviously lacked range.

The M1 Carbine was developed after the M1 Garand and was a completely different weapon. While a good rifle, the Garand was also quite long and heavy. 

The Garand weighed nearly 10 pounds, but the Carbine came in at just over 5 pounds.

The M1 Carbine was developed as a new weapon that would be lighter than both the Garand and the Thompson, while offering substantially superior firepower than the 1911. The new weapon was chambered for .30 carbine (not to be confused with the .30 caliber designation for the .30-06 Springfield of the Garand), which ballistically offered similar performance to the .357 Magnum. The standard magazine capacity was 15 rounds, compared to the Garand’s 8 rounds.

The new Carbine did borrow the rotating bolt design of the Garand, and it also made use of a shorter stroke piston that enabled better control for the shooter as well. The total weight of the M1 Carbine was just over five pounds, much less than the nearly ten pounds of the Garand. 

The carbine cartridge (l) is significantly better in many ways: weight, portability and recoil.

The M1 Carbine found substantial favor with American troops, to the point that it was issued as a front line service weapon alongside the M1 Garand, the Thompson, and the Browning Automatic Rifle (aka “BAR”). Soldiers (and paratroopers especially), who adopted a variant called the M1A1 Carbine (with a folding stock) liked the M1 Carbine for its light weight, compact length, and semi-automatic firing capabilities. 

Over six million M1 Carbines were built, the most of any American rifle produced during the war (even though the Garand remained the standard issue service rifle). The M1 Carbine continued to be used after the war and served alongside the M1 Garand again in the Korean War (where this time the Carbine was more commonly issued with an extended thirty round magazine). 

M1 Carbines were also distributed to American allies during the Cold War conflicts; the South Vietnamese made extensive use of them in the Vietnam War, for instance.

Aside from their similar designations, the primary factor that these two vastly different platforms shared was the fact that they each served the United States well both during World War II and in later conflicts.

In conclusion, the M1 Garand was the standard issue American service rifle of World War II, while the M1 Carbine was a completely different weapon that was lighter, shorter, and fired a significantly smaller round.

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