M1S & M1A1S

The US Armed Forces Fielded Many Arms With The Same Names During WWII.

By the time the majority of American ground troops entered battle in World War II, most of their personal arms were designated M1 or M1A1. Ever wonder why some American weapons in that war were named after years such as M1911A1 for .45 ACP pistols or M1903 for bolt-action .30-06 rifles? Then others were simply named M1 or M1A1?

It’s because in the 1930s the US War Department decided that thereafter equipment would have model numbers instead of being called by the year the item was adopted. So the primary infantry rifle became M1, the only carbine fielded by American forces in WWII also became M1 with a specialized M1A1 version following. The same M1 and M1A1 terms were put on Thompson submachine guns. Incidentally the literal translations of those labels are “Model One” and “Model One, Alteration One.”

A logical thinker familiar with America’s WWII weapons has to wonder about some of this. For instance: when the government gave Remington Arms Company permission to remodel the Model 1903 “Springfield” into the Model 1903A3 the two rifles then had only 26 parts interchangeable. Yet when the Thompson submachine gun was remodeled in 1942 it went from 1928A1 to M1. Also, there were several changes incorporated in the M1 Garand rifle during its 20 years of service, such as a different mode of operation for its rear sight and, at the Springfield Armory during the war, a switch was made from all machined parts to some stamped ones. However, instead of getting A1 added to its name it stayed always the M1.

The real meat of the matter is that M1s and M1A1s in regards to rifles, carbines, and submachine guns were made to the tune of millions. They served worldwide not only in American hands but also with most of our allies.

There could probably be an argument about which M1 is most well known: the rifle or carbine. There certainly would not be about which M1 was the least known. That would be the M1 Thompson submachine gun. Whereas the difference between an M1 Carbine and an M1A1 Carbine is immediately visible, someone has to know what they are looking for to discern an M1 Thompson from the M1A1 version.

The M1 Garand rifle was first. It’s commonly but unofficially called Garand because of its primary designer. The US Army officially adopted it in 1936, although only about 50,000 had been produced by government-owned Springfield Armory by 1940. That was when the government prevailed on Winchester to also make M1 rifles. Those two facilities were the only ones to produce M1 rifles during WWII. The government factory out produced Winchester by a factor of about seven to one; or in general terms about 3,500,000 to about 500,000. (In the 1950s, the companies of Harrington & Richardson and International Harvester added their logos to M1 rifles also.)

M1 rifles were all of a type: 24-inch barrels, .30-caliber, semi-auto function fed by an 8-round en-bloc loader and wooden stock and handguard. Metal finish was a phosphate coating called Parkerizing. Garands may have worn the best rear sight ever put on a battle rifle. It is a peep type adjustable for both windage and elevation. The WWII version is called a locking bar type. To function it the bar is rotated backwards two clicks, the proper adjustment dialed in, and then the bar rotated forward again. Garand front sights were simple posts protected by wings.

They are fairly heavy rifles at 10 pounds but their semi-auto firepower was a significant advantage to American infantry wherever they fought. The most noteworthy criticism leveled at the M1 by troops was that it was impossible to top off a partially loaded magazine. The en-bloc loader ejected when the last round was fired. To fill a partially fired clip you had to pop out the en-bloc loader with whatever cartridges were still in it and then put in a fresh one. M1 rifles were amazingly reliable overall but not foolproof. Oral history from veterans say the black volcanic ash of Iwo Jima clogged them up and the intense cold in the snow of the Ardennes forest sometimes froze them shut.


Duke’s three WWII M1s include (from top) an M1 .30 Carbine by Winchester, M1 .45 Thompson
submachine gun by Savage and an M1 Garand rifle by Winchester.

The .276

Also it is a little known fact that the M1 Garand was not a shoe-in for government adoption. Another semi-auto rifle named Pedersen for its designer unsuccessfully competed against it. Also there was a Model 1941 Johnson semi-auto that actually saw service in the hands of US Marines early in the war. Here’s another little tidbit. The Johnson was chambered in .30-06 as was the M1 but the Garand and Pedersen were initially designed for a .276 cartridge. The M1 won the trials over the Pederson but then Douglas MacArthur, as US Army Chief of Staff ruled against the .276 chambering. He decreed that Springfield Armory go back and redesign the Garand for .30-06, which delayed its introduction by several years.

The advent of the M1 Carbine is an amazing story by itself. We’ll condense it to this. In 1940 the government decided it needed a carbine to replace handguns and submachine guns in service. Winchester Repeating Arms was busy with other work and didn’t want to be involved although they did the research and development work to come up with the .30 Carbine caliber. They based the new round on their already existing .32 Winchester Self-Loading caliber. No carbine met the government standards in the first testing, so Winchester was unofficially approached by government officials who asked that they submit a carbine for the next tests.

The result was the M1 Carbine. Even then Winchester didn’t want to be the sole manufacturer of M1 Carbines. They couldn’t be; the government wanted too many made. So the Winchester firm sold the rights to the US Government who in turn had a total of 10 different plants producing M1 Carbines during WWII to the tune of 6,250,000. Winchester carbines were the second most numerous. Inland, a division of General Motors was first. As opposed to M1 Rifles M1 Carbines were made only between 1941 and war’s end in 1945.

M1 Carbines all had 18-inch barrels, wooden stocks and handguards, semi-auto function fed by 15-round detachable magazines and the same metal finish as with M1 rifles. They weighed a mere 5-1/2 pounds. It’s a safe bet to say their original sights were deficient—at least the rear one was. It was simply an L-shaped piece of steel with apertures. One leg was meant for 100 yards and the other for 300 yards. Windage could only be set by drifting the rear sight in its dovetail. The front sight was a simple post protected by wings. Later a fully adjustable rear sight was added but mostly that happened after WWII. So did the M2 select-fire, full-auto version and 30-round magazines.

The biggest criticism that came about M1 Carbines was that its cartridge lacked stopping power. Nominally the round featured a 110-grain FMJ bullet at 1,970 fps. As originally intended M1 Carbines were meant as self-defense weapons for troops whose primary job was not fighting with rifles. Such were mortar or machine gun crewmen, communication specialists, dog handlers, etc. All those troops previously had been given handguns. So it was felt weak ballistics wouldn’t be a great factor. As matters developed, M1 Carbines did see much frontline service where their lack of stopping power became a factor to troops. Many veterans said they dropped their M1 Carbines and picked up M1 Rifles as soon as battlefield conditions permitted. Nowhere have I found veterans’ oral histories saying they discarded M1 Carbines in favor of handguns.

The M1A1 version of the M1 Carbine was simply the standard M1 Carbine barreled action dropped into a folding stock. They were dedicated paratrooper weapons. Interestingly, M1A1 Carbines were made only by Inland.

The reason M1 and M1A1 Thompson submachine guns came about was financial. In 1940 Model 1928 Tommy-guns cost the US Government over $200 each (sources vary as to exact figure). The owner of manufacturing rights of Tommy-guns was the Auto-Ordnance Corporation, an entity that had no manufacturing capability. All Tommy-guns had been made at the Colt factory until about 1940. That amounted only to 15,000. When war orders began arriving Auto Ordnance wanted Colt to make more but that company declined. Next asked was Savage.

First Savage made M1928s and Model 1928A1s but their engineers figured out ways to simplify the gun, increase production and lower cost per each to about $44. The government thought that was a much better idea than Auto-Ordnance did. Of course the government prevailed. This remodeled Tommy-gun first appeared in 1942. It had a 10.5-inch barrel, wooden stock and horizontal fore grip. Parkerized finish was on receivers but barrels were blued in the beginning. Soon they were Parkerized also. M1 submachine guns were capable of full-auto or semi-auto fire by the flip of a switch, and could be fed from 20- or 30-round detachable magazines. The big 50- and 100-round drums that all prior Tommy-guns could accept would not fit the new M1. Nominal cyclic rate of M1 Thompsons was 700 rounds per minute.

M1 submachine guns were astoundingly heavy, which was perhaps the chief criticism leveled at them. With a loaded 30-round magazine they weighed over 13 pounds. Another problem arose with the rear sight. It was only a bent piece of steel welded to the top of the receiver. There were no protective ears around it and no provision at all for adjustment. With the M1A1 came the protective ears, which make the two versions immediately evident if the rear sight can be viewed. A change that can’t be seen without fieldstripping is that instead of a separate moving firing pin inside the bolt, that piece was now a protrusion machined into the bolt face. Also a reinforcing bolt was added to the buttstock. Interestingly, M1 and M1A1 buttstocks and bolts were totally interchangeable.

While the .45 ACP cartridges used in all American military Tommy-guns had undisputed knockdown power, they also weighed twice as much as 9mm rounds used in German MP40s. There exist oral histories of American GIs discarding their Thompsons in favor of the German subgun. However, that was rigorously discouraged because the MP40’s firing sound was distinctive. Other American troops tended to shoot at the sound and look later.

Over the past decade I’ve managed to add WWII vintage samples of M1 rifle, carbine and submachine gun to my growing collection but haven’t gotten an M1A1 yet. Un-accurized M1 rifles and carbines are not tack-drivers. Mine generally hold about 3-plus MOA at 100 yards. They are very reliable but of course mine don’t see battlefield conditions. Even more so is the M1 Thompson; I can’t seem to make it fail to function at all. However, hitting with it takes some practice. You must get off and on the trigger, firing short bursts or its muzzle climbs amazingly fast.

America was the only major combatant nation of WWII whose frontline fighting units were almost totally armed with autoloading weapons. That must have been a great comfort to the men carrying them.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos By Yvonne Venturino

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One thought on “M1S & M1A1S

  1. J Compton

    My Thompson M1A1 brings up only one complaint. I am not as healthy, strong, or agile as I use to be, admittedly, but the Thompsons make the Garand feel light. I would hate to lug one all day in battle. It is a tough and reliable weapon otherwise, and in it’s final form, (M1A1), a simple rugged piece of firepower.


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