With a new world war igniting Europe in 1939, U.S. Army senior commanders witnessed a tactic not seen in the previous conflict of 1914-1918.
Germany had developed the concept of blitzkrieg—the use of parachute and mechanized units supported by aviation to strike, achieve quick penetration into rear areas and destroy communications, supplies and reinforcements before the enemy could react. For the first time in modern warfare, there were no clearly defined front lines.
Consequently, the U.S. Army realized that rear echelon troops, officers and NCOs would need a weapon that offered more fighting capability than the M1911 pistol with which many were armed, yet was handier than the M1 Garand main battle rifle. These troops would need to carry on their assigned duties of communications, supply, command, etc, yet required a fighting capability through a weapon designed to bridge the gap between pistol and rifle.
BIRTH OF THE M1 CARBINE
On 15 June 1940, the Secretary of War issued orders for the development of a “light rifle” designed to meet the needs of other-than-front-line combat troops. The Ordnance Corps was directed to contact gun manufacturers and request that they submit test sample weapons with the following characteristics:
1. Weight not to exceed five pounds.
2. Effective range up to 300 yards, semiautomatic fire essential, full automatic fire desirable.
3. Carried by a sling or comparable device.
4. Chambered for a cartridge of caliber
.30 of the Winchester self-loading type with a case similar to that of the commercial Winchester self-loading cartridge caliber .32. Winchester redesigned their .32 selfloading round to .30 caliber, but initial ammunition design issues precluded a suitable cartridge being available for designers to build test weapons around until May 1941.
Various inventors and manufacturers submitted prototypes for Ordnance evaluation, and from these trials the concept of the light rifle was further refined. Winchester, which had done the cartridge design but was heavily involved in M1 Garand manufacturing, had a design that had been developed for the Marine Corps but was not submitted in the original light rifle tests.
At the urging of the Ordnance Corps, Winchester submitted a model weapon utilizing a short tappet principle that had been designed in part by David Williams in conjunction with Winchester engineers. The initial non-firing sample closely matched the published requirements for the light rifle.
Various modifications of the Winchester design took place throughout 1941 and, in September 1941, the Winchester entry was accepted. On 22 October 1941, the Winchester light rifle officially became Carbine, Caliber .30 M1, and the ammunition designated Cartridge, Carbine, Caliber .30 M1. In November 1941, a contract for 350,000 carbines was placed with Winchester, with a total estimated requirement of nearly 900,000 carbines for all branches of the service. December 7th quickly changed those requirements.
M1 AT WAR
By the end of WWII, nearly 6,300,000 carbines had been produced by nine major contractors, making it the most widely produced and used military weapon in the nation’s history. By war’s end, the M1 Carbine had been produced in models with full automatic fire capability, in a folding stock paratrooper model and, with the addition of “carbine” grenades and launcher, it could stop light armored vehicles. What was originally designed for combat and combat support troops’ use became one of the most sought-after weapons of the war.
The M1 Carbine finished WWII with a reputation for good reliability, but controversy regarding its ability to stop an enemy soldier. Historians comment that soldiers either swore by the carbine or swore at it.
The M1 Carbine went on to serve in Korea, where the full automatic version, the M2, saw widespread use. Here the most serious condemnation of the carbine came out. Many experienced combat infantrymen complained about the carbine cartridge’s inability to stop North Korean and Chinese soldiers, especially when dressed in their heavily padded overcoats during winter fighting. Analysis of these complaints was done by various groups, and the Army collected information from their combat units as well as the Marine Corps on the issue of stopping power.
The cartridge specification called for a nominal 110-gr. round nose, full metal jacket bullet at 1,900 feet-per-second (fps). Tests of Korean War-vintage carbine ammunition and later lots have shown velocities to be less than required by specification, which might give some support to issues of lack of penetration, yet tests in ordnance gelatin have shown this bullet, when fired at 1,800 to 1,900 fps, to penetrate 20-plus inches.
Some observers have opined that, since many carbines were of the M2 model, troops facing massed wave assaults of Chinese soldiers often used the full automatic feature, with ensuing poor hit ratios. Nonetheless, its reputation for being unable to incapacitate an assailant has dogged the M1 Carbine since inception. This continued into the Vietnam conflict, where many U.S. military advisors carried the carbine in the early days of the conflict.
LAW ENFORCEMENT USE OF M1
The M1 Carbine found a home in U.S. law enforcement in the 1960s. Riots in major cities and an increasing awareness of the usefulness of the carbine for domestic law enforcement applications led many agencies to obtain surplus carbines for issue. A number of individual officers, my father included, purchased carbines when the Director of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM) made them available in 1963 for the princely sum of $20 plus shipping. These became the early “car guns” for many state troopers, and they served well in that role. Major police departments such as Detroit and New York City used the carbine for special details and stakeout squads with excellent results.
The guns were popular because many of the policemen of that era had had experience with the gun during military service. They were handy, carried a large number of rounds compared to the shotgun, and seemed relatively inoffensive to an increasingly large number of police administrators. The carbines were easy to shoot and suitably accurate, and had good sights and low recoil. The carbine bullet penetrated car metal and glass well and, when the bullet was well placed, ended confrontations.
M1 TODAY AS A PERSONAL DEFENSE WEAPON
The M1 Carbine today sees varied use, from a collector’s item, to a big bore plinker, to use in military rifle matches, and in its original role as a personal defense weapon.
Though my law enforcement career never saw the use of the carbine (our issue support weapon was either the shotgun or a submachine gun), there was always an M1 Carbine in my house. My son’s first “high power” rifle shot was fired from a carbine. He enjoyed the lack of recoil and it fit his 12-year-old frame perfectly. He became so enthused about the carbine, and such an accurate shot with it, that we had to undertake a serious reloading program to keep from going bankrupt buying factory ammunition! While my son still enjoys shooting it when he’s home, he eventually succumbed to the AR and today looks at the M1 Carbine as an “old” gun. I suspect his sentiments are shared by many, especially younger shooters and law enforcement officers today.
I’ll grant you the carbine is old—the last U.S. military weapon came off the assembly line in 1945—but does that make it inefficient for its intended purpose? I think not. I have felt for some time that, as a personal defense weapon, the M1 Carbine today is as useful as it was when it began. I still have the original carbine my father purchased in 1963 (an Underwood) and recently I purchased an Auto-Ordnance M1 Carbine reproduction.
AUTO-ORDNANCE M1 CARBINE
The Auto-Ordnance (AO) gun is exactly as the M1 Carbine was designed and produced in 1941: no bayonet lug (a later WWII feature installed during arsenal rebuild), a two-leaf flip adjustable for elevation only rear sight, a push button safety, and the “flat” bolt. The gun came with a 15-round magazine and looks like the 1941 carbines that collectors cherish.
I bought the AO because my Underwood has collector’s value that I did not want to diminish by extensive shooting, and I had read excellent reviews of the Auto-Ordnance carbine when the gun was introduced in 2006. Utilizing precision investment castings, a barrel made by Green Mountain, and a quality walnut stock, the AO carbine is as well made and finished as any M1 Carbine that came from a government contractor and, in most cases, much better.
Today .30 Carbine ammunition is readily available from all the major manufacturers and several importers. The original military-type loading with a jacketed bullet is available, and Remington, Winchester and Federal all produce a softpoint version of the carbine load. CorBon loads the excellent Barnes DPX all-copper bullet in the carbine round.
A study of the carbine load’s effectiveness with various manufacturers’ bullets can be found by searching the internet for a study conducted by Dr. Gary Roberts entitled The Best Choices for Self Defense Ammunition. Dr. Roberts explores the performance of carbine ammunition in the context of personal defense.
Around the time this study was published, Speer introduced a .30 Carbine round incorporating a newly designed Speer 110-gr. Gold Dot Soft Point bullet at 2,000 fps. This new Speer loading, product code 24460, appears to be the best .30 Carbine round ever offered for sale and, after reviewing the test data, it became my round of choice for the carbine.
The sights on the carbine are basic U.S. military and follow a design that began with the M1 Garand, incorporating a peep rear coupled with a wing protected blade front. Simple, rugged and easy to use. But I wanted to add a modern sighting system to the carbine and chose an Aimpoint T-1.
To mount the T-1, I purchased an Ultimak M6-B cantilever rail handguard system from Brownells. This railed mount replaces the handguard, clamps to the barrel and allows the use of many Picatinny interface mounts, although it is slightly wider than a true Picatinny, MILSTD- 1913 rail.
A note about the Ultimak handguard: if you have other than a genuine issue GI stock on your carbine, be prepared to get out the Dremel tool and rout out wood, or find a friend with a milling machine. Also on my AO carbine, in order to get the barrel band to lock in place, I had to use a Dremel tool to cut off the lip that holds the front edge of the handguard in place. This may be unique to the AO carbine.
I have been told that the GI carbine’s front band will lock in place without this modification. Ultimak has very detailed and clear instructions about the work you need to do to fit their handguard to other than a GI stock. I had to remove about an inch of wood from behind the barrel channel to get mine to properly fit in the Auto- Ordnance stock.
I firmly believe that any fighting weapon needs a light source, but I had difficulty in finding a suitable light mount for the carbine. A call to the tech guys at Brownells solved my problem. They sent out a Double Star 45-degree angled mount for Picatinny rails that allowed me to use a Streamlight Super Tac light in a Streamlight mount. Installed on the port side of the carbine, there is a slight intrusion into the field of view of the T-1, but not enough to impact the dot and certainly not enough to obstruct a target.
As with any semiautomatic weapon, the magazine is a critical component for reliable functioning. There are many GI surplus magazines currently available: at a local gun show within the last six months, I purchased several still in their original greased paper wraps. While they functioned flawlessly, I had no way of knowing if they had been produced in the 1940s or more recently.
Checking with Fulton Armory, one of the best sources for U.S. military weapons parts, accessories and refurbishing, I found they offer new production 15-round magazines, and a dozen were purchased for our tests. Most readers are aware that, with the introduction of the M2 selectfire carbine, the military required a larger magazine capacity than the original 15-round design.
The 30-round “banana” magazine was designed specifically for the M2, and many are available as reproductions or original military surplus. My experience with them has not been entirely satisfactory, with issues of feeding reliability. I stay away from them and also find that they detract from the sleekness of the carbine.
Range work with our product-improved carbine resulted in no surprises. The Auto-Ordnance carbine functioned flawlessly through 500 rounds of Federal and Winchester ball and the new Speer Gold Dot Soft Point. Groups were more than adequate for anti-personnel purposes at all ranges, and the carbine was controllable in rapid-fire, multiple-target drills.
The day on the range included passing the carbine around to several shooters who were working out with their ARs. The smiles on their faces after shooting the carbine fulfilled the adage of a picture being worth a thousand words. One comment could summarize this article: “I can’t believe how well this gun shoots, and how easy it is to shoot.”
If you haven’t already adopted the AR platform as a personal defense weapon, or even if you have and are thinking about an alternative that is less costly, nostalgic and very effective, look at the M1 Carbine and especially the Auto-Ordnance version.And while you’re at it, buy a copy of LTC John George’s book, Shots Fired in Anger. It is a great read, written by someone who has seen the metaphorical elephant—and did it with an M1 Carbine in his hands.
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