How the M1 Garand Changed Infantry Warfare (Part 1)

“The Greatest Battle Implement Ever Devised”

In the case of World War I, human conflict was finally known on a global scale. The wheels of war, which had always been turning, finally grew big enough to encompass the globe in a singular conflict. At this time, weapons had advanced to the point of regular soldiers being able to fire up to ten rounds per minute. Machine guns had also been invented, and were a means of stationary defense for the men in the trench. As the war closed, a limited amount of sub-machine guns even saw action on the front lines. However, after the war, armies around the globe began to realize that the standard issue rifle given to infantry at the time was much heavier than needed for standard skirmishes (in both weight and round size). The US Army started trials immediately to find a competent infantry rifle that fit the specifications for the next major war. Chief among the rifles tested was the M1 Garand, soon to be known as “the greatest battle implement ever devised” by General George S. Patton himself. Created by John Cantius Garand, the rifle ended up serving as the backbone of the American war effort in World War II, and stayed in service all the way up to the beginning of the Vietnam War. The invention of this rifle gave a distinct advantage to the Allies during the Second World War, and, because America was among the first to implement a gas operated semi-automatic rifle, left the Axis to try and catch up with a similar weapon system. This advantage also helped the United States develop the foundation of its modern infantry tactics that are still used to this day.

Typical Warfare in World War 1

War Before The Garand

Before the invention of the Garand (and the fighting methods that came along with it), battle between infantry was conducted in a very specific way. Trench warfare was the most common way for nations to engage each other during the course of World War I. When it came to this kind of fighting, a strict protocol was in place for when and how to engage the enemy. While you had nations that fought their battles a certain way, the role of trench warfare required deliberate approaches that allowed cover to be in place for a sustained amount of time., Fast action to break an enemy line was not an option, due to the “difference in depth” effect. This tactic, in its simplest form, means making your front line the weakest, allowing it to be broken with ease, but allowing your enemies flanks (sides) to be exposed to your stronger back lines. Due to the risk in taking a trench head on, both sides decided on “better” courses of action. One such method was the “over the top” tactic. Before infantry advanced on an enemy trench, commanders would have their artillery units barrage the enemy defenses, with the goal of either suppressing the enemy themselves or destroying the various defences they had put in place to halt the advance of infantry. This, often times coupled with poor leadership and enemy machine gun emplacements, led to massive losses for the advancing side. If an attack was successful, the attacking side would then have to fortify the trench they just took, using sandbags, barbed wire and dirt, against the enemy counter-attack almost immediately. This would usually put the attacking infantry out of range of their own artillery, and making them more vulnerable towards counter-attack or enemy bombardments.

The Maxim

The machine gun was particularly problematic for infantry in the trenches due to its ability to fire multiple rounds in rapid succession. Germany was at the forefront of the machine gun adoption, having sixteen machine gun units in total by 1904. In 1914, Germany had six machine gunners per battalion, the Russians had eight, and the British had two., Machine guns were deployed in a very specific manner on the battlefield; their usage usually came down to suppression, covering advances, and creating space for the infantry. Machine guns were not terribly mobile (sometimes taking as many as eight people to move them), but their advantage was in their high rate of fire. These were weapons that were designed to fire as long as the trigger was held down, essentially creating a wall of lead. The machine guns of World War I used a gas cycling method; in short, after a round was fired, the gas caused by the gunpowder ignition would cause the gun’s bolt to propel backward, ejecting the spent round and moving a new one into place from a belt. This design allowed for supreme control of the “no man’s land” between trenches. Retaliating to machine gun emplacements was often difficult and fruitless. Snipers were also on the list of threats for the soldiers in the trenches. Snipers were specialized units that acted as sharpshooters; they would pick off a soldier that happened to look over the trench line, making movement extremely limited inside the trench. Furthermore, snipers used the same weapons as the standard infantryman, except they attached long range scopes to give them a distinct advantage over regular troops. The scope allowed snipers to sight in very specific targets, like officers or machine gunners. Snipers would usually work in pairs, with one “spotter,” who used a pair of binoculars to find targets, and a “shooter,” whose job it was to eliminate targets designated by the spotter. This tandem operation did not require any changes within the sniper’s unit or squad; they would simply operate with their spotter, usually separate from the main squad. The sheer unpredictability of snipers created a great fear surrounding the mysterious individuals. This, on top of the psychological impact the sniper created, made life difficult in the trench.

Tools of the Trade

The Tool Of A Soldier

On top of all of these problems, the standard infantry soldier would have a bolt action rifle as their main weapon. The standard issue rifle for United States ground infantry during World War I was the Springfield M1903. The 1903 held five rounds, and was top loaded with a stripper clip. This means the magazine for the gun was actually built into the gun itself (as opposed to modern day rifles, almost all of which use detachable magazines). The clip was just a piece of metal that held the bullets before they were loaded into the gun itself, and had be discarded from the main housing before the rifle could be fired. The clip could be reused, but was often disregarded on the battlefield. The British infantry were issued the Lee-Enfield, which was also a bolt action rifle, but carried ten rounds in its internal magazine rather than five. This gave the british a little bit of an advantage when it came to infantry on infantry combat, allowing the more accurate shooters to get off anywhere from twelve to thirty rounds a minute. Besides the slight advantage of round capacity between the rifles, all bolt action rifles suffer from the same issues. On the plus side, the muzzle velocity on bolt action rifles is much higher than other kinds of guns. This allows a very high kill potential when a soldier hits his intended target. The chamber of the gun, which houses the bullet, is manually opened and closed by the operator via bolt. Since bolt operated rifles do not use the gas from the shot itself to eject the shell and load a new round, they can attain a higher overall muzzle velocity, because the gas from the shot stays in the chamber. Another downside is the actual process of cycling a the bolt itself. Operating a bolt on a rifle takes four distinct movements; unlocking the bolt using an upward motion, pulling it back towards the operator so that the spent round can eject, pushing it forward to close the chamber, and locking the bolt back into the down position so that the rifle is ready to fire. This process makes firing in rapid succession very difficult, and follow up shots next to impossible. On top of firing restrictions due to the design of the rifle, actually shooting almost always gave the position of the soldier away, eliminating most chances of using that particular position again. In a close combat situation, having a bolt action rifle was more of a burden than anything else. While suited for ranged combat, a bolt rifle was better used as a club up close; late in the war, the Americans began using trench guns and Thompson sub-machine guns as a way to take advantage of close combat situations. Lastly, the rounds used for the infantry issued rifles at the time were very heavy by today’s standards. The round for the M1903, the .30–06, was meant to be effective at around a thousand yards. Trenches (and most engagements between troops) were at anywhere between two hundred and four hundred yards, sometimes even within one hundred yards. This meant that using a large, heavy grain round was not really necessary, as most of the fighting was far inside the effective range that the round was meant for.

John Garand

Beginnings Of The Garand

During the course of World War I, Danish arms designer Soren Hansen Bang created a semi-automatic weapon system in the form of a rifle. Its design allowed for the gasses from gunpowder ignition to eject the spent round with forward blowback, allowing a new round to be cycled in quickly each time the trigger was pulled. The mechanism on the Bang rifle, as it was known, was a sliding muzzle cap system (which the Germans later emulated for the Gewehr 41; more on that later). This, during government testing, proved to be not only an unnecessarily complex system, but one that was prone to gas fouling in the field, so it was never officially adopted. Its system, however, inspired a young John Cantius Garand to create one of the most well known and reliable semi-automatic rifles ever created.

John Cantius Garand was born on New Years Day in 1888, in Saint-Remy, Quebec. As a child, he moved with his family to the rural town of Jewett City, Connecticut. A year later, at age eleven, he began work as a floor sweeper in a textile mile. Eventually, after working there for several years, he began working as a machinist in the mill. It was at this time that Garand also developed an interest in target shooting. Being naturally adept at machining, his hobby and his work started to blend together, and beginnings of what would be “the rifle that won the war (as it would be soon be known)” started to take shape. After the beginning of the United States’ involvement in World War I, the United States Army let it be known that it was looking for designs for a new machine gun. This piqued Garand’s interest, so Garand, living in New York City at the time, came to a deal with a fellow gun designer by the name of John Kewish. Eventually, the design was selected by the War Department, but due to it being a two-man operation, the fully functioning prototype was not built until 1919. This was a little too late (seeing as the war was over months beforehand), but the War Department recognized the potential in Garand, and so they gave him a position at Springfield Armory in Massachusetts as a consulting engineer. His first task was to design an infantry rifle based around the .30 caliber Springfield round. In 1921, the Ordnance Department announced eight specifications for the new semi-automatic infantry rifle. The rifle had to weigh no more than nine pounds, be well balanced and adapted to shoulder firing, have a magazine fed from clips, be simple and easy to manufacture but strong at the same time, used the .30 caliber service round, be designed to that premature unlocking was not an issue (accidental discharge), and it needed to function properly without the need of special oils, grease or anything else on the actual bullets. This is where the Bang rifle of the early 1910s came in handy; its gas operated system is what Gerand what looking to make in his new prototype (more on gas systems later). As stated earlier, however, the Bang rifle had glaring issues with its complexity and possible gas fouling of its muzzle cup. In 1921, Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company (now simply known as “Colt Manufacturing Company” or “CMC”) submitted the Thompson Autorifle Model 1921 to the Ordnance Department as part of the quest for finding the next infantry rifle. The Thompson Autorifle was pit against the Garand M1, but performed poorly. It had the advantage of using a system that relied on the gradual buildup of pressure between differently angled plates, known as the Blish Lock System. When this system was implemented in the Autorifle, however, it posed a few issues. The ammunition had to come pre-lubricated so that the gun would not jam, and the ejection system itself was known to be hazardous to bystanders. Another arms designer by the name of John Pedersen submitted his “Pedersen Device” against Colt and the young Garand.

Pedersen’s Device

Pedersen’s “Device” was not a separate rifle, but a modification to the existing Springfield M1903. Seeing limited use in the very late stages of World War I, the device fit into the open bolt of the M1903 (meaning the bolt was pulled back as if you were cycling a round, but instead of moving back into its locked position, it stayed open). The device would allow the M1903 to be fired in a semi-automatic capacity by creating what is essentially a blowback pistol inside of the rifle. This new method of firing required a modification to the rifle itself by cutting an ejection port into the housing of the bolt. Pedersen even developed a rifle for said trials and submitted it along with his device. The Army, however, picked the Garand rifle as the winner in the trials in 1921. The initial rifle design had to change for a short period of time, however, due to the planned adoption of the new .276 cartridge. The .276 redesign of the Garand rifle was accepted over the Pedersen design yet again after the change in caliber, but shortly after the trials, General Douglas MacArthur stopped the change, due to the overwhelming amount of .30–06 ammunition already on hand, and the United States machine guns were using the .30–06 cartridge already; keeping ammunition as standardized as possible across multiple platforms would make future war efforts simpler in a logistic sense.

A detailed look at the Garand’s gas system and action

Gas operated systems played arguably the most important role in the creation of the M1 Garand. This kind of system uses the gas from the shots fired by the rifle to create the cycling of rounds without having to manually pull a bolt, as per earlier rifle designs. By putting a barrel trap in the rifle, the energy of the gas expelling is able to force the action open, letting the spent casing eject, moving a new round into position, and closing the action all in one movement. The major differences between the earlier mentioned gas system and this one is that the Garand fed its ammunition out of an internal, spring loaded magazine instead of a belt, and the size of the actual piston. The piston used to push the action itself was vastly different than a piston in a machine gun at the time. One of the best things about the long-stroke piston (which the Garand uses) is the length and weight of of the piston itself for momentum, which causes better chambering, ejection and locking. Also, with a long-stroke system, the gas itself is not pushed back into the chamber, which keeps the weapon cleaner for longer periods of time. However, because the piston is long and heavy, the center of mass of the gun can jump abruptly during sustained fire, during the beginning and after the piston travels.


Part 2 soon to come.