There are few firearms developed for the U.S. military that have received such mixed reviews as the M1 Carbine. Depending upon which vet you talk to, this handy little semi-auto .30 was either the best or most execrable firearm ever given to the fighting man.
The M1 Carbine was the brainchild of David Marshall "Carbine" Williams. Williams, who formulated many of his firearms designs while serving a prison term for second degree murder, has the distinction of being one of the only firearms designers to have a movie made about him--"Carbine Williams," starring James Stewart. The M1 Carbine didn't spring full-blown from Williams' workshop, however. It was the result of considerable development by him and others.
Basically the M1 Carbine was developed in response to a requirement for a handy rifle to be carried by clerks, cooks, machine gunners, linemen and the like--soldiers who were not normally issued a pistol but to whom, because of the nature of their duties, the larger M1 Garand might be inappropriate. Though initiated in 1938, the request was shelved until 1940 when America's entry into World War II seemed imminent. In late 1940, a number of manufacturers were sent specifications and told to work up a light carbine. Winchester produced the round, a .30 caliber, straight-cased rimless cartridge which pushed its 110-grain, round-nosed bullet out of an 18-inch barrel at some 1,860 fps.
After his release from prison, Williams made something of a name for himself in the firearms files working for Winchester. His semi-auto carbine, submitted by his employers, was the arm selected by the government as most appropriate to its needs. This attractive gun was simple and rugged. With a barrel length of 18 inches, an overall length of just under 3 feet and a well-balanced heft of 5 1/2 pounds, it personified the word "handy."
Although the round didn't have the punch of the .30-06 chambered in the Garand, at least within reasonable distances it packed enough muscle to be a fairly effective combat round (110-grain FMJ bullet at 1,975 fps) with a relative stopping power of 16.3--about the same as that of the .38 Special. Designated the "M1 Carbine," the semi-auto employed a clever, reliable operating system. When a round is fired, gas is tapped off into a gas port in the barrel. The port connects with a chamber containing a short-stroke piston that is forced back about one third of an inch. The piston pushes the operating slide to the rear, which in turn operates the rotating bolt to eject the empty case. A coil-operating rod spring forces the bolt forward, where it strips off and chambers a fresh cartridge from the 15-round, sheet steel detachable box magazine. The forward motion of the slide also repositions the gas piston.
The M1 Carbine's production began in September 1941 with very few modifications to Williams' original design. Though the first guns were turned out by Winchester, Pearl Harbor caused manufacture to be stepped up considerably. Contracts and sub-contracts were let out to a number of other makers including such unlikely firms as Rock-Ola (jukeboxes), U.S. Postal Meter, Quality Hardware, the Inland Division of General Motors and Underwood (business machines). Before the war's end, more than 6 million M1 Carbines had been turned out to supply an enthusiastic demand by American and Allied forces. After World War II, M1 Carbines continued to be produced and remained in the inventory. When the Korean conflict broke out, they accompanied troops to Asia where they received some of their severest criticism, when the .30 Carbine bullets allegedly had a hard time penetrating the quilted Chinese uniforms.
During the Cold War years, thousands of the rifles were sent to various friendly governments and many others were sold surplus to U.S. civilians throughout the DCM. Even surplus sales were not enough to satisfy the American public, so M1 carbines were made commercially by several manufacturers--including one in Japan! There are so many variations to the M1 Carbine that the arm is a collector's dream. Add this to the fact that thousands have been brought back into the country in recent years, and you end up with a gun that is just about as popular today as when it was first issued.
Minor variations on the basic theme included such things as an early "I"-cut oiler/sling slot in the buttstock (as opposed to the later and more common rounded cut); an "L"-type slip-over rear sight which evolved into a sliding adjustable ramped style; addition of a bayonet lug; rounded as opposed to a flat bolt; flip-type safety replacing a push button; and scores of others too arcane to include here.
Major model changes were the M1A1, which employed a folding metal stock for airborne troops; the selective fire M2; and the M3, which was an M2 modified to accept special infrared night sighting units.