Throwback Thursday: The M3A1 Grease Gun — A Desperate Gun for Desperate Times

A surplus submachine Grease Gun

A soldier’s connection to his equipment is an odd bond. As a warrior your very life might hang on the effectiveness of your gear, and you need to believe that the equipment you use is the very best your nation can produce. In no other aspect of military service is this axiom better exemplified than in the case of a soldier’s personal weapon.

By Will Dabbs

The Second World War was the most expansive conflict in human history. Never before or since have so many combatant nations tried to resolve their differences on the battlefield. At a time when Total War demanded every measure of effort industrial, economic, and spiritual that a nation might muster, the United States attempted to produce a quality submachine gun that was both effective and inexpensive while remaining amenable to mass production.

Sale ends July 28, 2019

Sale ends July 28, 2019

The Grease Gun

A surplus submachine Grease Gun
The M3A1 was comprised of two stamped, sheet metal halves welded together. The heavy bolt rode on twin guide rods so the internal geometry of the receiver was not terribly critical.

The original M3 Grease Gun was adopted in December of 1942. In its original form, the gun was intended to be disposable so spare parts were not stockpiled. The M1A1 Thompson it replaced costs $42 at the time as opposed to $18 for the M3 and $9 for the even more utilitarian British Sten. To grant a bit of perspective, in today’s dollars this is $554, $237, and $118 respectively. By December of 1944, a number of deficiencies had been identified and corrected, and the definitive M3A1 was rolling off the lines. This variant of the gun served as personal armament for tank crews well into the 1990s.

The M3A1 was comprised of two stamped sheet metal halves welded together. The heavy bolt rode on twin guide rods so the internal geometry of the receiver was not terribly critical. The original M3 cocked by means of a ratcheting sheet steel handle that was wont to bend and break under hard use. By contrast, the M3A1 cocked by means of a simple divot in the bolt. Any handy human finger could cock the bolt easily. The pivoting dust cover incorporated a blocking device that locked the bolt either forward or back and served as a rudimentary safety. The wire stock could be removed and used as a handy magazine loader to pack 30 .45 ACP rounds into its double-column magazines that tapered to a single column for final feeding.

WWII reenactor with OD green BDUs and a Grease Gun
Many period photographs show Greasers in action with a pair of magazines taped back to back. The supply system offered rubber covers that slipped over the top of loaded magazines to keep water and crud out.

Turning Ammunition Into Noise

The Grease Gun’s rate of fire is remarkably sedate. At 450 to 500 rounds per minute, singles are easy with a delicate touch on the trigger. A full magazine dump takes a nice long time. Despite the heavy cartridge, the classic Grease Gun remains remarkably controllable.

Some GIs believed the rate of fire was too slow for proper room clearing, but a friend who carried one in action swore by the gun. Many period photographs show Greasers in action with a pair of magazines taped back to back. The supply system offered rubber covers that slipped over the top of loaded magazines to keep water and crud out.

Most GIs invariably preferred the Thompson, despite its excessive weight and bulk, but the vintage Greaser was compact and easy to carry while still throwing those heavy nearly half-inch slugs in a reliable swarm. The wire stock is neither comfortable or terribly effective, and left-handed operators were simply out of luck. However, at a time when nation states were giving their all to either fall or prevail, the Grease Gun was available in quantity on the battlefield. Handy enough to tuck into the fighting compartment of a Sherman tank or across a reserve chute for a combat jump, the M3A1 Grease Gun was a desperate tool for desperate times.


Dr. Will Dabbs was raised in Clarksdale in the heart of the Mississippi delta. He attended Ole Miss and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering while being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Regular Army. After eight years on active duty Dr. Dabbs left the Army as a Major with 1,100 flight hours piloting UH-1H, OH-58A/C, CH-47D, and AH-1S helicopters. He then attended medical school and a Family Medicine residency at the University Medical Center in Jackson. He was married in 1987 to his high school sweetheart and they have three children. Dr. Dabbs’ hobbies include tactical shooting, reading, commercial writing, woodworking, firearms design and manufacturing, and teaching the Young Married Sunday School class at First Baptist Church Oxford.

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Comments (56)

  1. I asked my uncle about the M3.
    He made all four drops in WWII as a member of the 2/505 PIR 82nd.
    As far as he was concerned he thought they were junk and better suited for tankers.
    He carried an M1 Grand up till the time he got hit for the third time during the battle of the bulge which ended his time in the war.
    Most of the firefights took place at over two hundred yards and that was why he always carried an M1.
    Some Officers and NCO’s carried Thomsons but were not effective at long ranges even when firing single fire.
    Even General Galvin the Div. Commander carried an M1

  2. Steve, I rode with Crazy Horse and used a M3 to great effect against “Yellow Hair,’ and his troops. Those blue boys never knew what hit them!

  3. In early 1951 was at Ft Benning attending the “Light & Heavy Weapons Inf Leaders Course. We trained and qualified on “ALL” Inf weapons from .45 auto to 81mm mortar. Fam tng on other weapons, flame thrower, hand/rifle grenades, bayonet, ect.

    Fired both models of the “Grease Gun” good weapon for tight spaces.

    The Thompsen climbed up and to the right when fired. Had to compensate.

    My favorite was the M1917A1 .30 cal water cooled machine gun. Extremely accurate. Could increase rate of fire by turning screw plug on trigger grip clockwise, or in emergency remove plug, insert nickle, reassemble and continue firing at a higher rate of fire.

  4. Bill, 80% of comments here are poorly contrived
    horse ca-ca.

    And “greasers”? Seriously?!?!

    James Dean is rolling in his grave…

    But really, my unit had M3’s…lots of em. We
    used em to deadly effect on our FPF against
    Pickett’s unit, on Seminary Ridge. Mowed
    em down in droves…then there was the time
    at Waterloo, we reinforced the Brits…the
    Frenchies couldn’t understand how fast
    we fired!

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