Putting the M1 Carbine in the Right Context
In the years since WWII there are few military rifles that have drawn more bad press and controversy than the M1 Carbine. Touted as inaccurate, underpowered and generally useless, I really can’t remember the last time I read a real positive article about the little carbine.
Well I’m going to cut coarsely across the grain and say that, when paired with the right ammo, the M1 Carbine is one of the finest defensive carbines available to anyone, anywhere.
While the M1 carbine needs little introduction to most American shooters, I believe a touch of history is in order. Rather than talk about how it was created, production numbers and all the usual preliminaries, I think it’s much more important to discuss why it was created.
By 1940 it was clear to the Army that the US would very soon end up as a participant in WWII. By that time the army had worked through nearly all of the normal development issues associated with a new infantry weapon, and the M1 Garand was endearing itself to at least the US Army (the Marines were still quite skeptical). Our soldiers were becoming convinced that self loaders were the better way to do things, and were comfortable and confident with their new semi-autos.
And while it was a major technological breakthrough the Garand clearly wasn’t a great weapon support troops, (cooks, truck drivers, radio operators, officers, heavy equipment operators etc) because of its size, weight, and cost. Size and weight are the primary problem. They remain the problem today; if the soldier has a job other than fighting, chances are his hands are already full with his/her primary tasks, and a weapon is an inconvenient afterthought. If that weapon is big and heavy, it simply gets left behind.
In 1940, the alternatives were the Thompson SMG, which was just as heavy and just as expensive as the M1 Garand, or the M1911A1 pistol. Now I won’t be so bold as to knock the M1911A1 as a fighting tool, but at the end of the day, it was still a pistol. The top brass decided that none of them would ever want to knowingly wander into a war zone armed only with a pistol, and decided that they couldn’t ask our troops to either, a very wise decision that brought us the M1 carbine.
To save us space and time, I wont go into the design and procurement process, there are a host of good books that get into that. Lets just leave it at this: The M1 carbine won out because it was the superior design at the time.
The M1 carbine was an immediate hit with the troops, both main line and support. It was quite the technological breakthrough for its day, and was that close to being the first assault rifle. Weighing only 5.5 lbs, nearly half the weight as the M1 Garand (a reduction in weight is always welcomed by soldiers), and a semi-automatic operation very similar to the Garand made training a snap. Add in a 15-round detachable box magazine, storing a feather soft recoiling little .30 cal cartridge that has more energy at 100 yards than the .45ACP, had at the muzzle; this little carbine was unlike anything ever issued to a soldier before.
A Perfect Fit
Almost immediately, the M1 Carbine had proven its worth on battlefields, being utterly reliable, lightweight, handy and powerful enough for the role it was created for.
The biggest complaint of the little Carbine has always been its puny cartridge’s inability to drop an enemy soldier with any kind of authority. Really, the problem has never been power, rather it’s the application of that power. Again let us not forget, the M1 Carbine was created as a better option than a handgun, which it has proved time and time again, to be.
Pushing the M1 Carbine into front line service in the pacific theatre, or any tropical climate for that matter, proved just fine even though it was never created for serious front line use. Here, clothing was thin and ranges were short, just perfect for the M1 Carbine. But in cold weather climates and longer ranges, some problems arose and the complaints began rolling in.
How a Good Gun Got a Bad Rap
The true case study for the M1 Carbine’s bad rap was Korea. This is where the Carbine was told to do something it was never designed to do. In Korea ranges were much longer and the clothing was very heavy because of the bitter cold. Because the carbine was a whole lot more fun to tote than a Garand, an inordinate number of them found their way into front line service in a conflict that easily exceeded the design parameters.
The little 110gr bullet just didn’t have enough punch to close the deal under these conditions; clearly this was a job for a Garand and it’s superb .30-06 cartridge.
So the bad reputation came from pressing a tool to do something it was never intended to do, I don’t see how we can pan the M1 Carbine as worthless just because it didn’t do what it was never intended to do.
The State of the M1 Carbine Today
Still there are those who will cite the M1 Carbine’s lack of accuracy and the relative ineffectiveness of the .30 carbine cartridge, and to some degree, they’re right. Since these are the two major contentions with the little M1, let’s take a closer look.
Inaccuracy – While the M1 Carbine will never put you into the top 10 at a rifle match, it possessed more than enough practical accuracy for its intended purpose. Since WWII average combat ranges have been somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 yards. Inside of 100 yards the M1 Carbine is one of the easiest rifles to hit with that I have ever shouldered, once again, exactly what it was designed for. Its sights are graduated to 300 yards and believe me, you wouldn’t want a good rifleman shooting at you with a Carbine at that distance regardless of what the cartridge can or cannot do.
Issue grade M1 Carbine has about the same mechanical accuracy as the issue grade M1 Garand. Meaning; as issued, the rifle shot about as well as the M1 Garand with everything being equal; but everything is never equal. The Garand’s balance steadies itself better for precision shooting, has a nicer trigger, and also lends itself better to match grade tuning. The .30-06 cartridge has a much flatter trajectory than the .30 Carbine beyond 100 yards, which makes the average rack grade Garand seem more accurate, when in fact the cartridge just made longer range shots easier. So when you compare the M1 Carbine to the M1 Garand on the target range, the Garand is always going to win. But wait a minute…Why are we comparing a replacement for a pistol to a main line battle rifle. Well, I would contend that it naturally happens because the M1 Carbine is so damn good that we naturally forget that it is a replacement arm for a pistol. And since the Carbine and Garand are of the same era, and look quite similar, the comparison tends to come natually… as unfair as it is.
On the subject of accuracy, I just can’t resist the opportunity to tell my favorite M1 Carbine story. At the local range in my former hometown, there was this ole curmudgeon of a rangemaster who was a retired rangemaster from the Air Force. I’d love to say he was a great guy, but the truth of the matter is, he was just a jerk. He assumed everyone was an idiot, can’t shoot, and showed up to his range with the express intention to arrange an accident that would cut short his term here on earth.
One day I show up with my M1 Carbine and he says I can’t shoot it on the rifle range, and that I’ll have to shoot it on the pistol range. When I inquired as to why, he informed me that the M1 Carbine is an inaccurate POS and even in the hands of the most talented rifleman, incapable of even printing on the paper at 100 yards. I said; “Oh really?” and then asked if he was willing to bet on that. So I said, “I’ll bet you my range fee (6 bucks back then) that I can put 5 shots into less than 4 inches from the bench with the issue open sights. After he stopped laughing at me he said, you’re on.
About 10 minutes later, I walked back and handed him my target with a 2.10” 5 shot group from my inaccurate POS. He was shocked and asked what I had done to my carbine. Wanting to be 100% truthful, I informed him that I did upgrade the recoil plate (the part that joins the back of the receiver to the stock) to the later version, because in my experience it always improved accuracy a touch.
“No no, what else did you do to it, you lap the barrel? Glass bed it, trigger work?”
“No sir, just the recoil plate, but even before I swapped out the recoil plate, it would print under 4” all day long.”
He said he was a rangemaster for over 18 years and he’d never seen a carbine shoot like that. I told him that the problem has never been the mechanical accuracy of the M1 Carbine, but more the fact that the balance, lack of weight, and stiff triggers just made them a bit harder to cluster itty bitty groups.
Now comes the good part … the rangemaster in question must have been on the edge of Alzheimer’s, because he couldn’t remember things too well, and I won that bet once a year for the next 4 years, with the worst group being around 3.5” on a day I wasn’t shooting so well … come on, you gotta love that one.
The .30 Carbine
Power – Simply put it’s there, you just need to think on how you apply it. With all that it has on paper, why isn’t the .30 carbine a better performer? No one has ever called the .357 Magnum a pip-squeak and the .30 Carbine cartridge is almost identical to the .357 ballistically. I’ll give two reasons, application and development.
Let’s look at another former “worthless” cartridge, the 9mm. Not long ago, the 9mm was loathed by most as being utterly worthless, but these days it rarely gets bad press; what changed? Development! The 9mm has been expertly developed into a very capable combat cartridge and the .30 Carbine never got much development at all. The 9mm has had so much development that there are a host of handy lightweight defensive carbines and few are calling these guns worthless.
It took a long time, but finally there exists a straight up world class performer for the Carbine, Cor-Bon’s 100 grain DPX jacketed hollow point. This is the bullet the Carbine has been begging for since day one. At the heart of the cartridge is a 100 grain Barnes X bullet designed specifically for the velocity range that the M1 Carbine operates at, offering excellent expansion and penetration in all but the most extreme situations. With this load, the M1 Carbine becomes one of the best urban defensive carbines in existence.
For the handloader, Speer makes a great little bullet in the form of their 110 grain semi jacketed hollow point. Add a moderate dose of WW- 296, H-110 or AA #9 and you have a great performer for everything up to and including the biggest mountain lion, or two legged varmints for that matter.
Proven Performance in Hostile Environs
One of the greatest features of the M1 Carbine that hardly ever gets mentioned is the reliability which is simply outstanding. The little M1 has always been extremely reliable in most environmental conditions. Being that the US is involved in two Middle Eastern wars currently, there’s a lot of attention paid to how a rifle performs in a desert environment, and in such an environ, the M1 Carbine is a proven performer.
Take my personal M1 you see in the photos. Following WWII where it’s unlikely that it was ever even unpackaged, it was arsenal upgraded to add adjustable sights and bayonet lug (as well as some other parts), and returned to the shelf. Then it was sent to Israel in the form of aid for the war that was declared on them 20 minutes after Israel became a nation. Following that war, then the Six Days War, and the ’73 war, it was relegated to storage as more modern rifles supplanted it. Eventually in the ’80’s my boss went over to Israel and brought it and a little more than 4,000 more back with him to sell on the civilian market. To this day, the Israelis make extensive use of the M1 Carbine; mostly in the hands of Israeli/Palestinian reservists. The Israeli’s have always loved the M1 Carbine because it’s one of the most inherently shootable weapons in existence and completely reliable in adverse conditions.
The only climate that has given the M1 Carbine real challenges is the cold, and it’s the same issue that the very similar Garand and M14 have in the cold. Ice can build up on the op-rod rail and really slow things down. The key is proper lubrication and a little more attention to maintenance of your weapon; never a bad idea.
Despite that, the M1 Carbine has always been more reliable than the Garand, M14, M16 … in fact, to me at least, it is the most reliable self loading weapon that US soldiers have ever been issued.
But wait you say, didn’t the M2 Carbines have problems on full auto? Well yes they did, but this wasn’t the weapon, it was the magazine. The M2’s 30 round magazine shares a striking resemblance to the also hastily developed 30 round M16 magazine, which has been a problem child for the M16 series since Eugene Stoner reluctantly (under duress) agreed to make one. (as a note, 40 years later with the likes of the Magpul PMAG, a truly good M16 series 30 rounder may have actually arrived).
The problem is the straight, then curved design that does weird things to the follower trying to transition that direction change under varying conditions of semi-auto and full auto fire. In semi-automatic the 30 rounders for the M1 Carbine (the GI ones at least) are pretty darned reliable. But when put on full auto, the demands of the follower and spring are vastly greater, and you begin having problems. Stuff a 15 rounder in there and even in full auto, good luck getting an M1 Carbine to malfunction. So really, there has never been reliability problems with the M1 Carbine (GI Carbines, that is; commercial carbines, while generally pretty good, have never equaled the quality of Uncle Sam’s version).
The Day My M1 Carbine Jammed
The straight walls and sharp taper of the .30 Carbine cartridge is also a great help to reliability. After more than a decade of owning my carbine and God only knows how many rounds (for the first decade, I wouldn’t even take it out if I didn’t have 400 rounds – that’s ‘cause a Carbine is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes still on), one day at the range my M1 Carbine stovepiped on me. I mean, here’s a rifle that hadn’t had a single jam in over a decade, more reliable than most of my bolt action rifles. I was dumbfounded, and called all my friends over so they could actually witness a jam on an M1 Carbine that wasn’t due to a bad magazine.
After my initial shock wore off, I stripped the jammed case out of the action, and pumped through the rest of the magazine. Then half way through the next magazine it happened again; okay, that’s two in the same day, this isn’t an anomaly, something’s up. I began by isolating magazines, but half way through every 15 round magazine I tried it stovepiped; this is odd.
As a gunsmith for a small arms importer, I have completely stripped, refinished, and reassembled somewhere in the neighborhood of around 16,000 Carbines, so I’m pretty good with this design. I thought, I’ll bet the gas piston has come un-staked, so I began stripping the gun down. When I got to removing the bolt, I took a look at what was left of the extractor…only the post that seats down in the bolt was left, the entire extractor was gone. And without an extractor, my carbine still managed to cycle 14 out of 15 rounds of a magazine. I’m here to tell you, that impressed the hell out of me. Fortunately Carbine parts are cheap and readily available, I picked up a replacement extractor that same day and was back in business.
That does bring us to one weakness of the Carbine (and all firearms have weak points): parts breakage. Since the M1 Carbine was only made for 4 years, there wasn’t much opportunity to correct any design, materials, or manufacturing flaws like were done with the Garand and M16. Carbines exist warts and all, and one of those warts is the tendency to break extractors and eventually, crack locking lugs on the bolt. Yes, replacement parts were made for long years past WW II and post WW II bolts with cracked locking lugs are far less common than the original “flat” style bolt that my carbine has.
Now don’t read too much into that, I’m not saying that this happens to carbines left and right. Remember, my carbine served for over 50 years in at least 3 wars, and then a decade and well over 20,000 rounds by me personally. (okay, there’s no way to know if my Carbine had parts replacement before me, but you get my point). So at the very least, my Carbine devoured over 20,000 (not sure how much over 20k, but my best friend, who was there nearly every outing will vouch for me, the number is at least 20k) rounds before the extractor broke.
As for cracked bolt lugs, I’m not going to lose any sleep on that one; my carbine doesn’t get the kind of abuse a military service rifle gets and chances are my great grandchildren might have to swap out a bolt about a century after I’m pushing up daisies.
The M1 Carbine is one of the most successful stories in American small arms development. From the get go, the Carbine has worked and worked well. With several manufacturers and literally dozens of sub-contractors the door was wide open for something to go wrong. But nevertheless, there has never been a “bad” M1 Carbine. I mean the Winchester is as good as the Inland, which is as good as the Rock Ola, which is as good as the IBM … and so on. There has never been any problems with durability, reliability or parts inter-changability.
The Standard by Which All Others Are Measured
To this writer at least, the M1 Carbine it is still the PDW that all comers are measured against. And I’ve yet to see where the new 21st century PDW’s have much improved on the little carbine that’s pushing 70 years old. The new ones are certainly smaller, but they’re no lighter, certainly no more accurate, and their cartridges remain unproven and suspect at best.
The M1 Carbine is, and remains one of the greatest small arms ever developed. If you disagree, you have your God given right to be wrong.