Buyer's Guide: How to Choose an M1 Garand
May 28, 2013
Nostalgia, desirability and collectability are closely linked, and such is the case with what has arguably become one of America's most popular wartime weapons, a rifle that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. once called "The greatest battle implement ever devised."
He was, of course, referring to the M1 Garand, the primary shoulder arm of U.S. troops during World War II and beyond. In fact, the Garand continued to serve our GIs throughout the Korean War and was reenlisted as a sniper rifle in Vietnam. And although there was a time when WWII vets didn't have a choice of Garands—they simply had to take the gun that was issued to them—today's shooters and collectors can select from varying conditions, styles and price ranges. After all, with more than 6 million M1 Garands produced between 1936 and 1957, the "U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1," as it was officially known, is still very much with us.
Although no longer our official battle rifle, the M1 Garand continues to prove itself as a National Match gun and in events that include CMP and 3-Gun competitions, not to mention reenactments, casual target shooting, hunting and collecting.
In fact, it is as a collectible that the M1 Garand has come into its own in a way that might surprise many who simply saw it as a rugged, no-nonsense wartime tool. Today's surviving M1s have become much more than that as the supply of good shootable and collectible versions is starting to dry up. Consequently, prices have been rising over the past few years. Much of this increased demand is due to the realization of the Garand's growing historical significance, which is being kept alive in movies and on TV.
Obviously, the M1 Garand was not a major factor in Hollywood before World War II, but beginning with The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and escalating with such post-war blockbusters as To Hell and Back with Audie Murphy (1955), The Longest Day with John Wayne (1963) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), among others, the memory of the Garand continues to be kept front and center, thanks to DVD and cable TV.
Likewise, these same factors are at play in both old and new TV programs such as Combat! (1962-67), M*A*S*H (1972-83), Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010). Thus, while the demand for Garands keeps increasing, the number of existing originals is diminishing—especially those with GI parts.
This is especially frustrating for those who are looking for the Holy Grail of M1 Garands: a gun with all matching armory components. To be sure, there was a time when every M1 Garand had all matching parts, original wood and no import stamps. But those cherished examples existed just prior to and during World War IIâ€”and only as each rifle rolled off the assembly line.
As soon the Garand went into battle, it immediately became subject to the mix-and-match vicissitudes of military armorers whose job it was to keep these accurate and rapid-firing rifles battle ready. Parts were swapped and stocks were changed with no thought that these firearms would one day become collectible.
Of course, some perfect specimens still can be found, but these are, for the most part, guns that saw little or no battlefield use or were otherwise preserved in their "as-issued" state. Most are in museums or private collections, and when they come on the market, their prices reflect their scarcity.
All of which brings up the question of which Garand represents the best value? The answer is, it all depends on the individual. After all, a reenactor is not going to drag a minty original through the mud or rake it over a barbed wire fence.
On the other hand, I have no compunction about taking my re-Parkerized Garand with its new Criterion barrel out on a coyote hunt. And even if it's a used collectible with all GI parts, it won't hurt to take it out to the range. I mean, these rifles were made for combat. But before we get into the choices of Garands available today, a brief overview about the rifle might be helpful.
The M1 Garand derives its name from its inventor, a Canadian named Jean Cantius Garand, who was born on January 1, 1888, in Quebec and eventually emigrated to the United States, where he became a naturalized citizen and anglicized his first name to John.
It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who brought young Garand to Springfield Armory, where he subsequently developed the Model 1 rifle (hence "M1")—a "gas operated, clip fed, semi-automatic shoulder weapon," to quote from the Army's field training manual. Designed to replace the Springfield 1903-A3 bolt action, the popularity of Garand's rifle would become so great that it became synonymous with the inventor's surname.
Chambered for the standard .30 Government cartridge, the M1 was loaded via an eight-shot, en bloc stamped steel clip, which ejected with a loud "ping" after the last shot was fired. This also locked the bolt open. The rifle was then quickly reloaded by pressing a new loaded clip straight down into the receiver with the thumb, while keeping the bolt pressed back with the fleshy part of the hand.
Once the clip was fully inserted, the hand was quickly lifted, permitting the spring-driven bolt to slam home, chambering a round on the way. However, care had to be taken to make sure the thumb was raised out of the receiver, lest the shooter end up with a blood-blacked thumbnail, which was colloquially known as an "M1 thumb."
The Garand was officially adopted by the U.S. Army in 1936. It was a timely move, because five years later we entered World War II. Interestingly, only two companies manufactured the M1 Garand during WWII. Springfield was the original producer, but with war imminent, in 1939 Winchester was also contracted to make the M1.
Although numerous minor changes were incorporated throughout the Garand's existence, one of the most notable occurred in 1940, when the original gas trap system was changed to a gas port.
In addition, rifles produced by both Springfield and Winchester initially featured a thick milled trigger guard with a hole in the rear portion of the guard to enable a steel cleaning rod or similar object to be passed through it to facilitate pulling the guard back and up, in order to lift it out of the barrel and receiver group for disassembly.
However, in 1943 Springfield Armory adopted a stamped steel trigger guard as a cost-savings measure. Winchester, though, retained the milled guard during its entire production run of 513,880 rifles, which ended in 1945. By comparison, Springfield Armory produced slightly more than 3.5 million rifles during WWII.
During the Korean conflict, beginning in 1952, Harrington & Richardson and International Harvester were enlisted along with Springfield Armory to manufacture M1 Garands. These were the only four authorized manufacturers of government-issued M1s; Winchester made Garands only during WWII.
Also during World War II, but before we entered that conflict, a number of "lend-lease" Garands were shipped to our allies, most notably Great Britain. British guns are often marked with a red band painted on the fore-end. However, few Garands were issued to British troops, and of the few authenticated British lend lease guns I have seen, all appeared to have their original issue parts. Many postwar Garands were exported as "surplus" guns and have been returned to the U.S. over the years and bear import marks, which adversely affect their collectibility but not their shootability.
It should be noted that after the Armistice, approximately 4 million Garandsâ€”easily two-thirds of the total productionâ€”were reconditioned by Springfield Armory. Parts were replaced, guns were re-Parkerized and often rebarreled. Thus, the chances of finding an "as-issued" Garand today is extremely rare, although many collectors are buying original G.I. parts with the correct armory stampings to reassemble an "original" gun. While this isn't exactly a devious practice, it is becoming an expensive one, as original parts are becoming harder to find and therefore more costly.
There are the only four armory stampings you should find on an M1 Garand: "SA" for guns produced by Springfield Armory, "W.R.A." for Winchester Repeating Arms, "H.R.A." or "H&R" for Harrington & Richardson and "IHC" for International Harvester Corp. In addition, the stocks are usually stamped with the government's "circle P" proofed cartouche (found directly behind the trigger guard and in line with it), the inspector's stamp and crossed-cannon ordnance marks on the left side of the stock, and the eagle and stars design of the Department of Defense Acceptance stamp.
There may also be a small crossed cannon stamp on the bottom of the pistol grip on Springfield Armory manufactured rifles made during World War II. Of course, these stampings are not always sharp or even legible, and many have been obliterated completely thanks to overzealous cleaning or just normal wear.
Matching armory stampings on all components are important for a collectible Garand but not for a shooter. For a shooter the main criteria are how the gun functions, the condition of the bore and the headspace. And although the most desirable M1s are those made by Winchester, some sellers may charge slightly more for a Garand with a Winchester receiver even though the rest of the parts are not marked "W.R.A."
As a rule, there is a premium for Garands with all matching parts, even rebuilds. But it is often difficult if not impossible to tell whether a Garand has been reassembled with parts from another gun. Obviously, most of them have. Determining the degree of finish—making sure all the parts have the same amount of wear and that the Parkerizing colors match—is one method. When in doubt, try to find an experienced collector and get a second opinion. And if purchasing a minty gun for a minty price, insist on getting a detailed bill of sale.
Another problem facing Garand purchasers is that, for some unknown reason, many former owners have felt compelled to sand or refinish the stocks, thereby removing or certainly dulling the original stampings. And then there is the matter of stock replacement itself.
I once acquired an otherwise pristine Garand that had been shipped to the Danish Navy, which replaced the original walnut stock with a birch monstrosity that looked like it had been carved with a jackhammer. The first thing I did was to replace the stock with a used GI version I found on eBay. If a government pedigree is not of concern, excellent repro stocks are offered by Boyd's and Fulton Armory.
As for prices of original Garands, at a recent gunshow in Ventura, Calif., I found an aftermarket mash-up of parts (many from non-G.I. sources) for $600, while at Wally Beinfeld's Antique Arms Show in Las Vegas two years ago, I saw a pristine, World War II Garand that looked like all it was lacking was the cosmoline. It also carried a $3,750 price tag. In between these two extremes are a number of World War II, Korean and import veterans.
If you want a top-of-the-line, historically correct reconditioned shooter, I'd suggest contacting someone like James River Armory where for approximately $1,250 (Winchesters are slightly higher) you can get an "arsenal reissued" restored Garand with new but properly cartouched stock, many with an accurate Criterion barrel. Miltech offers rebuilt M1 Garands with match-grade barrels for $1,795 plus M1-D Sniper Rifles for $3,250, complete with M84 scope.
Of course, one of the most popular go-to sources for M1 Garands is the CMP or Civilian Marksmanship Program, although recent runs on its reassembled but 100 percent authentic GI guns has been rapidly drying up supplies. Most of the lesser priced (i.e., Rack Grade) guns are currently sold out as are all Winchester Garands, but those still available include Field Grades at $625, Special Grades at $995 (which feature new stocks and Criterion barrels) and M1C Sniper Models (ranging from $1,600 to $3,000 but without scopes or cheek pads).
Still, the thing to remember is that 100 percent original Garands, while costing more, will always appreciate faster. Obviously, if you start to put wear and tear on these old warhorses, their values will diminish appropriately. On the other hand, if you purchase a low- to medium-grade shooter, it will always be worth about what you paid for it and over the long term might even appreciate in value slightly, given the ever declining supply of original M1s.
And keep in mind that the Garand was made to disassemble, so metal parts can easily be replaced, but once a wooden stock is gouged or cracked, it stays that way forever. And to my mind, there is nothing uglier than a rough-textured stock.
So my advice is to buy the very best Garand you can afford, shoot it, enjoy it, treat it with respect and, to paraphrase the old Army adage, take care of your Garand, and it will take care of you.