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The History of the Classic M1 Carbine

The M1 Carbine is a storied gun with many different models and a premier service record.

The History of the Classic M1 Carbine

The History of the Classic M1 Carbine (RifleShooter photo)

With the winds of World War II blowing across the European continent, U.S. military leaders began to consider the adoption of a new defensive rifle. A study of the Blitzkrieg tactics of the Germans revealed that the use of fast-moving tanks and other armor could suddenly expose support personnel such as clerks, cooks and mechanics to combat. The answer for them as well as frontline officers, machine gun crewmen and others was an autoloading rifle that was considerably lighter and more compact than the M1 Garand. The Colt 1911 pistol had largely served that role during World War I, but its effective range had proven to be severely limited in the hands of thousands of soldiers who had no previous experience and limited military training with handguns. The new lightweight rifle was intended to largely supplant it.

Specifications sent to several manufacturers included a maximum weight of five pounds. Winchester won the contract, and among those responsible for its design was David Marshall Williams, a moonshiner from the mountains of North Carolina who had a talent for designing things no one else had thought of. Several of his ideas, later used by Colt and Winchester in various firearms, came to him in a machine shop while serving time in a minimum-security state work farm for shooting a revenue officer who was busting up one of his liquor stills. One of Williams’ most important inventions at the time was the short-stroke piston variation of gas operation used in the M1 Carbine.

M1 Carbine magazine
Early rifles had the safety and magazine latch close together, which caused mistakes in battle. Later designs incorporated a rotary-style magazine latch. (RifleShooter photo)

Due to the overall simplicity of its design, Winchester was able to pre-sent a prototype for military trials only 13 days after receiving a contract on November 24, 1941. Thirteen days later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and three days thereafter the final design was ready for production. By mid-1942, thousands of M1 Carbines were headed toward Europe and the Pacific. When production ground to a halt in 1945, more than 6.5 million had been built. That was about a million more than for the M1 Garand.

M1 Manufacturing

M1 Carbines were built by 10 different companies, including the Inland Division of General Motors, which was the biggest manufacturer at 2,363,097 units. Winchester, Underwood-Elliott-Fisher (the typewriter company) and Rock-Ola, maker of juke boxes, were among other big producers. Counting the number of M1 Carbines built for the commercial market since World War II, total numbers have likely exceeded 8 million.


The .30 Carbine, for which the little battle rifle was chambered, pushed a 110-grain, full-metal-jacket bullet from the M1’s 18-inch barrel at 1,860 fps. Magazine capacity was 15 rounds. The cartridge was similar in size to the .32 Self-Loading cartridge developed by Winchester for the Model 1905 autoloading rifle during that year. The .30 Carbine was the first U.S. military cartridge to be loaded with ball powder. The propellant later became available to the canister trade as Winchester 296 Ball Powder or W296 for short. Sometime later, Hodgdon purchased the same powder from Winchester and sold it as H110.


Early M1 Carbines have a non-adjustable, flip-over rear sight with apertures for 100- and 300-yard zeroes. During manufacture, the front sight blade was intentionally left a bit too tall and then filed down to the proper zero during function testing of the firearm. The rear sight was changed to a single, fully adjustable aperture, and a bayonet lug was added to the barrel. A transverse safety is at the front of the trigger guard and another button just beyond it is the magazine latch. Pushing the wrong button during the heat of battle dropped the magazine, so the safety was eventually changed to rotary-type. Leaving the top of the M1 Garand-style rotating bolt round rather than machining it flat reduced production time.

Different M1 Models

M1 Carbine Bolt
The rotating bolt is quite similar to the bolt of the M1 Garand, but the M1 Carbine uses a short-stroke piston gas operation. (RifleShooter photo)

In addition to the standard semiautomatic version, the select-fire M2—capable of both semiautomatic and full-automatic fire at a rate of 750 rounds per minute—was introduced in 1944, and with it came a 30-round magazine. About 600,000 M2s were made. During my youth, an older friend bought an M2 and several cases of military surplus ammo, which in those days was slightly cheaper than good dirt. During our first outing, we got the barrel so hot the walnut handguard began to smoke.

The M1A1 was adopted in 1942 for use by airborne troops, and it came with a canvas jump scabbard. Folding its metal stock reduced the length of an already short firearm to just 25.5 inches. Almost 141,000 of them were made. Another version called T3 was the first U.S. military rifle to be equipped with a darkness-piercing sighting system. It consisted of a telescopic sight and a sealed-beam lamp with an infrared filter powered by a large lead-acid battery carried in a backpack. The total weight of the T3 package was around 35 pounds, but since it was designed to be used from a stationary defensive position, weight was not a factor.

First used in the invasion of Okinawa during mid-1945, the firepower of the M1 Carbine combined with night vision capability proved to be quite successful at repelling night-time attacks by the Japanese. Combat reports revealed that during the first week of action, soldiers armed with T3s were responsible for roughly 30 percent of Japanese casualties caused by small arms fire. When the U.S. military declared the M1 Carbine obsolete, thousands were given to South Vietnam, France, South Korea, Norway and dozens of other countries. Some were sold to U.S. citizens through the military-surplus market, and with the exception of those bought by NRA members during the 1960s, they were never cheap.




While in high school, I purchased one through the Director of Civilian Marksmanship for $18.50 plus $2.50 for shipping. Beneath a heavy layer of Cosmoline lurked a little beauty that was as close to mint condition as a firearm of its age could have been. No magazine was included, but back then magazines were both abundant and cheap.  The good old days of gun show and DCM prices are long gone, and a really good one can cost $1,000 and up—often way up. Several years ago, an M1A1 paratrooper with a D-Day provenance went for more than $20,000, so there is still a great deal of interest among collectors of military firearms.

M1 Carbine Stock
The M1A1 had a folding metal stock that reduced the length of an already short firearm to just 25.5 inches and was meant for paratroopers. (RifleShooter photo)

The M1 Carbine was criticized for its wimpy stopping power, which was true when compared to the M1 Garand. But a more meaningful comparison is between the carbine and the 1911 pistol. In the hands of most soldiers, the carbine proved to be more effective because it was far easier to shoot accurately. Common sense tells us that a .30 caliber bullet fired into center mass beats a magazine full of .45 caliber bullets fired into open air. Expanding bullets now loaded in the .30 Carbine make it more effective than the full-metal-jacket bullets of World War II. While .30 Carbine ammunition is presently cataloged by several sources, the 110-grain FTX of Hornady’s Critical Defense loading is the one most likely to expand. But like most factory ammo, it is just about impossible to find, and that makes the .30 Carbine an excellent candidate for handloading, assuming a supply of cases is on hand.

The cartridge headspaces on the mouth of its case, so keeping them trimmed to the same length is important. After full-length resizing, the mouth of the case has to be slightly belled for easy bullet seating and then a taper crimp applied. As propellants go, W296 is as good today as it was when Winchester began loading it in the .30 Carbine back in the 1940s, although Alliant Power Pro 300-MP and VihtaVuori N110 are also quite good. This cartridge likes the Remington 7½ Small Rifle primer, but these days we have to use what we can find.

Recommended


M1 Function

Most M1 Carbines run smoothly when fed ammo loaded with 110-grain softnose bullets of roundnose form, although in rifles that will accept it, the Hornady 100-grain Short Jacket with lots of lead exposed at the nose does a better job of expanding. The same applies to the similar 100-grain Plinker from Speer. Maximum overall cartridge length is 1.680 inches. The M1 Carbine is short, light, handy and comfortable to shoot, and while most in civilian hands do little more than punch holes in paper and bounce tin cans, other uses have been found for it. In my part of the country, feral pigs have always been overly abundant, and there are no closed seasons on private lands. Using hounds to chase down and bay the critters has long been popular, and a friend and I spent a lot of time doing just that.

M1 Carbine Accuracy Data

The country was thick with brush, and the distance from gun muzzle to bayed pork was usually measured in feet rather than yards, so I mostly used a revolver to finish the chase. My hunting buddy was not into handguns, so he carried a battle-scarred old M1 Carbine with its magazine charged with military surplus ammo. A quick double-tap to the head never failed to drop a pig in mid-oink. The demand for M1 Carbines among recreational shooters far exceeded the number available on the military surplus market, and that prompted Iver Johnson, Universal Firearms, Plainfield Machine Co. and several others to offer them with newly manufactured barreled actions and stocks. Most were priced at a bit less than $100.

Plainfield even offered one with a Bushnell Phantom 1-3X long-eye-relief handgun scope mounted out on the barrel. One of the more unusual was the Johnson 5.7mm Spitfire Carbine created by Col. Melvin Johnson who had previously developed a machine gun bearing his name for the U.S military. The cartridge his carbine was chambered for was formed by necking down the .30 Carbine case for 0.224-inch bullets. Pushing a 40-grain bullet from an 18-inch barrel at 3,000 fps put it about midway between the .22 Hornet and .221 Fireball in a rifle. The Auto-Ordnance division of Kahr Arms continues production of commercial M1 Carbines. The standard version is available with the historically correct 15-round magazine as well as a California-correct 10 rounder. The current price is $1,223. For $119 more, you get the Paratrooper version with folding metal stock.

All have nice walnut, a matte black metal finish and features of the early military version. Various parts and accessories, including magazines and stock-attached magazine pouches, are also offered. Inland Manufacturing builds not only the M1 Carbine, but also the M1A1. Made in the USA, Inland offerings include the 1944 Carbine, a replica of the original Inland carbines, as well as a 1945 version incorporating changes the original Inland made in that year, which was the last year of production. Other models reflecting World War II-era guns are the M1 Jungle, which features a flash hider, the T30 Sniper and the folding-stock M1A1 Paratrooper. Inland also offers modernized M1 Carbines with synthetic stocks, adjustable stocks, Picatinny rails and other features today’s shooters are often looking for. Prices run from around $1,100 to a little over $1,500.

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