Weapons from the Arsenal of Democracy: American Small Arms of World War II
It has been said that during World War II the British paid with time, the Soviets with blood and the Americans with material. Nowhere was this fact truer than in the sheer numbers of small arms produced in the aptly labeled “Arsenal of Democracy.”
However, the types of small arms used by American forces around the globe are usually forgotten today. Thanks to movies and TV shows from the last 60 years, the most iconic American small arm of the Second World War is probably the “Tommy Gun,” but this was just one of a very diverse arsenal that included a range of rifles, submachine guns and other automatic weapons. In fact, while the American M1 became the most widely used semi-automatic rifle of the war, American military planners weren’t really ready for the conflict.
But the factories of America geared up quickly, and by the end of the war churned out millions of small arms. Practically every company that could make industrial products helped out, with firms such as IBM, Smith Corona, US Postal Meter and Westinghouse joining Winchester and Springfield in producing rifles.
Here is a look at the key American small arms of World War II:
The American stripper clip-loaded, 5-shot, bolt action-rifle was still the main line rifle of the United States Marine Corp at the outbreak of World War II, even though the gun was nearly 40 years old. It was developed in 1902 and officially adopted in 1905 replacing the underperforming Springfield Model 1892-99 Krag-Jorgensen rifle that had been used in the Spanish-American War. The .30-06 Springfield was the standard issue rifle issued to American forces in World War I, with nearly 850,000 being produced at the Springfield Armory and Rock Island Arsenal. Production resumed on the Springfield with the outbreak of World War II, with Remington Arms and Smith-Corona being the main suppliers. Following World War II, the rifle saw use in Korea and even a limited role as a sniper rifle in Vietnam.
Thompson Submachine Gun
Few firearms are as “infamous” as the Thompson. It was developed by John T. Thompson at the tail end of World War I, and officially introduced in 1919. Too late for the war, it was originally marketed to the civilians such as cattleman and hunters. Gangsters and bank robbers tended to pick up the .45 caliber submachine gun, and the firearm known as the “Chicago Typewriter” or “Tommy Gun” likely led to the introduction of the National Firearms Act of 1934 that prohibited fully automatic weapons from being widely owned by civilians – thank you for that Mr. Thompson. But the weapon, in the Model 1928 version, was eventually adopted by the U.S. military – and even used to some extend by the British, notably in Africa and by Commando units. The USMC and U.S. Navy adopted the Model 1928 version, complete with the familiar drum magazine. The gun entered mass production for widespread military use as the M1928A1, dropping the drum magazine for a stick magazine. This was the version used by the US Army in Europe. Contrary to early movies that suggest every soldier had one, with a cost of $209 in 1939 this certainly wasn’t the case. The later M1A1 version, which brought the cost down to $45 in 1944, was still far more expensive than other guns of the era.
The Tommy Gun wasn’t the mostly widely used American small arm, as that distinction goes to the M1 Garand, which also happens to be the most widely issued semi-automatic rifle of World War II. The irony is that it was developed by Canadian born John Cantius Garand, who had worked at the Army’s Springfield Armory. His design was one of 24 rifles that were considered as replacements for the aging bolt-action M1903 Springfield. The original competition was with the .275 Pedersen T1 rifle, but it was Garand’s T1E2 that became the military’s “Semi-Automatic Rifle, Caliber .30, M1.” The gas-operated, semi-automatic was clip-fed – the latter fact being its largest drawback as it made it difficult to add rounds until the 8-round clip was expended. While being developed the rifle was chambered for the .276 Pedersen cartridge; but this was changed to the then-standard .30-06 Springfield round – a fact that likely made supplying ammunition easier as the M1903 was phased out and the M1 phased in. The rifle saw in service in Korea and was eventually replaced by the M14, a rifle some have called the M1’s big brother. Some 6,000,000 were produced from 1936 to 1957 with pre-1945 dated ones being the most desirable to collectors.
Despite the success of the M1 Garand, military planners considered that it had potential shortcomings – notably that the M1 was too large for support personnel and others who might benefit from a smaller weapon. The result was to take the gun’s essential inner workings and reduce the gun in size. This became the M1 Carbine, a gun ideal for officers, medics, engineers, drivers and even paratroopers. The gun was chambered for a reduced-powered .30 carbine cartridge, and yet received mixed reviews from soldiers. The praise it did receive typically came from soldiers who never, or seldom, used the full-size M1. The M1 Carbine was also issued to paratroopers with a folding stock as the M1A1. In early 1945 a selective fire version was also developed, and along with it a 30-round magazine – something required for full auto fire as the basic magazine held just 15 rounds. The M1 Carbine actually remained in service well after the M1 Garand was replaced by the M14, with some 6.5million being produced from 1942 until 1973.
M1941 Johnson Rifle
Think of the Johnson Rifle as being the gun that almost was, as in almost was the standard semi-automatic rifle for the US Military. While the Pedersen was considered in the early stages of the M1’s development, the M1941 Johnson Rifle was another “also ran.” Invented by Melvin Johnson, the rifle was rejected by the U.S. Military but the Netherlands ordered some 70,000 for use in the Dutch East Indies. As the Japanese soon overran the Dutch colonies most of the guns were never delivered, and it seems that the full order was not produced. The gun was eventually adopted as the small arm for American Para Marines, who needed a semi-automatic rifle at the outbreak of World War II. With no M1s available at the time, the Marines turned to the M1941 Johnson. Despite this fact only some 20,000 were ever produced, making it sought after by collectors today.
M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle
Much like the Thompson, the BAR was a widely used World War II small arm that was actually developed a generation earlier during World War I. Gun inventor John Browning originally developed the BAR as the BMR – or Browning Machine Rifle, and it was meant to replace the French made Chauchat. Originally developed as a selective fire weapon, the BAR fed using a double-column 20-round box magazine, and was chambered for the .30-06 Springfield round. The M1918A2 version, which entered service in 1940 reduced the full auto fire but also removed the semi-automatic fire capability. In this capacity it served in the role of a squad light machine gun, although the size of the magazine severely limited its ability to serve in that capacity. World War I and inter-war versions were modified, while new production was undertaken by New England Small Arms Corp. and IBM. As with other WWII era small arms the BAR was called into service again in the Korean War.
Browning M1917/M1919 Machine Gun
Credit John Browning for not only supplying the U.S. Military with the BAR, but also with two heavy machine guns – the M1917 Browning Machine Gun and the M1919 Browning. The former saw service from World War I to the Korean War – and was not (despite appearances) based on the Maxim machine gun. Both the Maxim and the Browning were water cooled, featuring the familiar cylinder around the barrel. While more ideal as a defensive weapon, the M1917 saw much of its use early in WWII, whereas the air cooled M1919 proved to be the more versatile weapon as the American forces advanced across Europe and the Pacific. The M1919 required at least two-persons to operate it, but in many cases it was used by a team of four. So reliable was the M1919 that it remains in service today, albeit re-chambered in the 7.62x51mm NATO round.
Browning M2 Machine Gun
This .50 caliber version of the M1919 is essentially the big brother of the .30 caliber version. While still technically a “small arm,” the M2 has been primarily used while mounted on jeeps, half-tracks, armored cars and even in twin and quad configurations in an anti-aircraft role. As with the M1919, the M2 remains very much in use today – and unlike the M1919 it is used in its original caliber.
M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun
While Melvin Johnson tried his hand with a semi-automatic rifle, he also worked to develop a light machine gun to replace the BAR. The result of this was the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun. What is notable about the Johnson Light Machine Gun is that it featured selective fire with semi-automatic capability, making it more accurate than the BAR, and interestingly a detachable barrel that provided increased sustained fire. It was fired from a box magazine but additional rounds could also be added without removing the magazine. Because of shortages of the BAR, much like with the shortages of the M1 in the early days following America’s entry in World War II, the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun found a place in the arsenal and was used by Marines in a limited role in the Pacific. About 10,000 M1941s were produced, but there was a problem – notably that the detachable 20-round box magazine was not produced in large enough numbers. This and the fact that the gun wasn’t really thoroughly field tested resulted in a weapon that wasn’t up to battlefield conditions.
M3 Submachine Gun
The high cost of the Thompson Submachine Gun remained an issue throughout World War II, and military designers looked for a replacement. Noting the success of the stamped British StenGun, as well as the German MP40 submachine, the designers came up with the cost-effect M3, a .45-caliber submachine gun known as the “Grease Gun” due to its resemblance to the mechanics’ tool. During the course of the war about 700,000 of the all-metal firearm were created. Interestingly, the M3 was designed to be easily converted to fire 9x19mm Parabellum – by swapping out the barrel and bolt and magazine as well. This allowed the gun to be compatible with Sten magazines and fire British 9mm or German 9mm ammunition. The OSS used the M3 with an integral sound suppressor and about 1,000 or so were delivered for this use. Also notable is that the M3A1 version, which was introduced in December of 1944, was still in use by drivers of the 19th Engineer Battalion attached to the 1st Armored Division during the Gulf War of 1991!