M1 Carbine: The Classic Warhorse

Winchester M1 Carbine

Not to long ago, a friend of mine was over, and we got into a conversation about the renewed interest in that ‘Old War Horse,’ the M1 Carbine. Seems like that ‘oldie but goodie’ will never leave us, and in my opinion, it never should. Other aficionados must feel the same way, because most recently, the Inland name has been taken over and given new life producing new M1 and M1A1 Carbines.

Winchester M1 Carbine
Winchester M1 Carbine

Who would have guessed that? Perhaps those noting all of the M1 Carbines released through the DCM, CMP, and the many commercial brands produced over the years that showed the demand for the quick, light, versatile, and fun to shoot carbine still couldn’t be satisfied.

My association with the M1 Carbine started many years ago, and to call it a love affair would not be too much of a stretch. My first and brief exposure was in the military where it proved to be a handy, light, and easy to operate and maintain companion. Now, I know there are many that, (in my opinion) give way to much credence to the stories of ineffectiveness in Korea where the M1 Carbine was called upon to fill a roll it was never intended to fill. To really judge the M1 Carbine, one must look at the original specifications. Only then does it become apparent why it is still so popular—almost 80 years after the Chief of Infantry requested that the Ordnance Department develop a “light rifle” or carbine.

In June of 1940, the Secretary of War approved and allocated funds for the acquisition of a light rifle. Winchester was chosen to develop the cartridge. The date set for the submission of designs was May 1, 1941. Nine designers and company representatives submitted designs; the one glaring omission from the entries was Winchester because of its commitment to M1 Garand production.

Fortunately for us, behind the scenes negotiations convinced the folks at Winchester to design and fabricate a prototype light rifle for submission. Using David “Carbine” William’s innovative short stroke gas piston, Winchester worked around the clock and the prototype was complete on September 12. If you are interested, the 1952 Hollywood version of the story can be seen in the MGM production “Carbine Williams” starring Jimmy Stewart. Testing began on September 15, 1941 and ended on September 30, 1941 with the Winchester-submitted design being unanimously selected by the Ordnance Committee.

Army advisor in Viet Nam carrying an M1 Carbine
Army advisor in Viet Nam

The M1 Carbine was originally intended to replace the M1911 pistol for those whose primary function was not frontline infantry or whose primary function was support. Examples would include the Signal Corps, those operating crew-served weapons such as mortar crewmen, machine gun teams, ammunition carriers, bazooka teams, radio operators, drivers, tank crewmen, artillerymen, officers, NCO’s, and those “in the rear with the gear.” Additionally, paratroopers were issued a specially modified version with a collapsible stock.

In all those roles, the M1 Carbine served admirably. Remember, it was to replace a pistol, and, in that, it excelled. It had better accuracy and penetration than the .45ACP fired from a pistol or submachinegun. It also had greater range, plus the ammunition was lighter so you could carry a whole lot more.

The cartridge it fired was based on the .32 Winchester Self-Loading cartridge introduced in 1905, but with new propellant and a 110-grain bullet it attained almost 2,000 feet per second and developed 967 foot pounds of energy. This made it much more powerful than the venerable .357 Magnum. Considering it was initially issued with 15-round magazines—until the 30-round magazine made its debut—that was a lot of rounds you could put downrange.

Certainly those statistics are enough to compensate for any critique of its stopping ability out to 200 yards or so. Hell, the .223/5.56 isn’t much better past 200 yards. It was also the first U.S. service round to make use of non-corrosive primers that development alone made maintenance easier and extended service life. It was apparent that Winchester had a winner.

Production Numbers

The M1 Carbine was the most prolifically produced weapon of the Second World War with over 6.2 million produced from 1942 to 1945. The specifications of which were:

Weight 5.2 lbs.
Length 35.6 in.
Barrel 18 in.
Operation Semi-automatic gas operated piston
Rate of fire 750 rds. Per minute
Caliber .30 carbine
Cost $45.00

The M1 Carbine is a shining example of the manufacturing might that the United States displayed during WWII, so a little non-revisionist history might be in order. This one example shows how great ‘The Greatest Generation’ truly was. With all of our current technology, we would be hard pressed to duplicate that manufacturing and logistical feat today.

Winchester ad for the M1 Carbine
Winchester ad

There were 11 prime contractors producing the M1 Carbine, of which only one was an established firearms company, Winchester Repeating Arms. Following is a list of the prime contractors and the number of Carbines manufactured by each:

  • Inland Division, General Motors 2,632,097 or 43%
  • Winchester Repeating Arms 828,059 or 13%
  • Saginaw Steering Gear Division, General Motors (At both Saginaw & Grand Rapids locations)  517,212 or 8.5%
  • Underwood Elliot Fisher 545,616 or 8.9%
  • International Business Machines 346,500 or 5.7%
  • Standard Products 247,100 or 4%
  • Rock-Ola Music Company 228,500 or 3.7%
  • National Postal Meter 413,017 or 6.8%
  • Quality Hardware & Machine 359,666 or 5.9%
  • Irwin-Pedersen (An interesting story.) 3,542
  • Union Switch & Signal (Made receivers only & assembled Carbines using other manufacturers supplied parts.) Approx. 35,000

Additionally, I have heard that as many as 1,800 subcontractors supplied parts and every part was marked with the maker’s assigned mark.

All parts of the M1 Carbine are truly interchangeable and that is one of the reasons original, “as issued” examples are so valuable today. Virtually all of the carbines currently in circulation have been rebuilt many times over with a potpourri of parts and they all function flawlessly. What a manufacturing tour de force? Another very interesting story on how it was accomplished of course. All that is not to say the M1 Carbine did not have its detractors though.

Here are the most notable reports of problems encountered, some of which are more substantiated than others:

  • The early reports of failure to fire stemmed from early lots of ammunition and were attributed to moisture. Remember, non-corrosive priming was a new technology, and some bugs still needed to be worked out when it was rushed into the field.
  • There were some reports of jamming attributed to weak return springs under harsh conditions, and that was also corrected.
  • The most damning criticism said by some was that the Carbine round had insufficient penetration and stopping power.

The comment about insufficient penetration was from both WWII and Korea. In its defense I would say, when the M1 Carbine was used as a frontline weapon, which it was not intended to be, the tendency was to compare it to the venerable M1 Garand. Remember, the Garand is a full battle rifle and an unfair comparison to the Carbine.

Rear Aperture Sight
Rear Aperture Sight

More likely, poor shot placement played a role in the reports of poor stopping ability. Rounds being deflected by brush and/or debris may also have contributed to stopping problems. Remember, it does not take much for a (light) 110-grain bullet to become distracted. I am confident that there are many more enemy combatants that succumbed to the carbine than those that did not. Additionally, I would say that the overwhelming praise for the ubiquitous M1 Carbine far outweighed the negative comments that numerically fall in the minority.

During the war, a number of manufacturing changes occurred with features changed and added. In this story is a photo of what the M1 Carbine looked like when first issued. It had a simple aperture rear sight that pivoted and flipped revealing two sizes for sighting at distances of 100 and 300 yards. This rear sight was modified and upgraded to adjustable sights with gradations for windage and elevation. The first was machined, the second made use of stampings to ease manufacture.

Another easily recognized feature was the barrel band, which went through three major changes ending with a bayonet lug at the end of the war. Most carbines received this upgrade after the war, so if you are watching an older war movie, you will often see the incorrect “post war rebuilt” carbine being used.

The safety also changed from a push button to a rotating lever. The magazine release is a push-type, and its close proximity to the safety is one of the reasons the safety was changed. G.I.s under stress would sometimes hit the mag release instead of the safety ejecting loaded mags. Not good when being shot at. The rotating safety fixed that problem. A small bar or protrusion identifies the later magazine release that was added to securely hold the more weighty 30-round magazines that debuted with the M2 Carbine, but that is another story.

Bayonet Lug
Bayonet Lug

There were other small manufacturing changes made during the course of production to speed things up and or to use fewer resources. Most are not worth mentioning at this time but are of interest to the collector. Some contractors, such as Underwood, even made their trigger housings from stampings that were then brazed together.


I guess, at this point, I should mention some of the variants of the M1 Carbine. I previously mentioned the M1A1 variant but I did not offer an explanation. The M1A1 was manufactured by Inland utilizing a folding metal stock and was intended to be used by paratroops. This variant has become a valuable collector—when all original, as issued specimens are encountered. The details one should be knowledgeable of for proper identification will not be covered here. That said, educate yourself if you plan on acquiring one because forgeries abound so buyers beware.

The T3 variant was made by Inland and Winchester and has an integral receiver bracket for mounting an infrared scope. This is a very rare variant and extremely pricey. Need I say, forgeries abound.

The most significant variant to the M1 was the M2. The M2 Carbine added a full-auto mode via a selector on the upper-left side of the receiver. Again, only Inland and Winchester made this variant adopted in October of 1944.

Now that you know a little about the history and creation of the M1 Carbine how does one explain the unquenchable demand for M1 Carbines 70 years later?

In the next installment I will try to address some of the issues regarding the M1 Carbines continued widespread appeal and popularity.

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Comments (45)

  1. In Viet Nam I was a Medevac pilot flying UH1 in I corps. After a crash I found only those items attached to my body was going to going to get out of the helicopter in a panic situation I looked for a stouter weapon than my .38 revolver. I found a M 2 carbine that had been cut off in front of the fore stock and behind the hand grip and had a strap that I put over my neck and another that went around my body holding it tight to my chest.. Flying right seat I pointed it out the right window and out the left flying that side.. It was a personal weapon so did contravene the geneva convention protacols. Some crew members carried m 16s but it could not be strapped to me so I preferred the M 2 carbine. (I completed my tour with no further problems so never had occasion to actually need the weapon)

  2. i,m an old ex- marine, my old m-1 was made by Inland mfg div., general motors, 1-45. on the side of barrel, blue sky this appears to be stamped. i wonder if it was refurbished there? any m-1 collectors out there have any ideas or history on this? SEMPER FI

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