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Mosby: Column sparks gun-collecting conversation

Posted: January 18, 2013 - 10:15pm

Sometimes a side dish is more appetizing than the main course.

A recent writing in this space led to a discussion about guns and gun collecting with reader David Shelton. Three military-connected firearms of years gone by, World War II to be specific, are the M1 rifle, the M1 carbine and the Johnson rifle. The latter is little known today except to firearm historians and maybe a handful of US Marine veterans of long ago.

The M1 rifle, also known as the Garand after its inventor, was the basic American infantry weapon of World War II and also the Korean Conflict. The M1 carbine was also widely used in both wars as an auxiliary or alternate to the bigger and heavier M1 rifle. Both of these weapons had their conceptions in the 1920s, and in both cases birth came years later.

The Johnson emerged at the beginning of World War II and had some features superior to the M1. But a basic shortcoming was it did not function well with a bayonet attached. Some Johnsons were used by Marine units in the Pacific in World War II. Much later, many of the Johnson’s features were worked into today’s AR-15 rifles.

The M1 rifle and the M1 carbine had interesting developers. John Garand was a French-Canadian by birth but moved to Connecticut as a child. The M1 carbine was invented by a North Carolina prison inmate, and David Marshall Williams is much better known than Garand because of a 1950s movie that starred Jimmy Stewart.

Both the M1 rifle and M1 carbine emerged as a result of a worldwide quest for more effective firearms after World War I. More effective included more rapid firing — semi-automatic in place of bolt action for rifles.

In the early 1920s, the U.S. Army tried to convert its 1903 Springfield rifles to rapid firing with something called the Pederson device. But it used a different cartridge, something like a pistol load that was low powered. It did not succeed.

Garand built a rifle that used a gas-operated piston and the well-liked .30-06 cartridge. It took a dozen or so years for the thing to get into American military use, and by that time, World War II was underway. Most US soldiers had those old WWI Springfields in their hands when the war started.

Only the United States and Germany had semi-automatic rifles in extensive use during World War II.

A need for light and short close-range guns got the M1 carbine up and running. It was deemed a superior weapon to the several short-range machine pistols than came out in the United States, Great Britain, Germany and Russia.

After World War II, civilian rifle use in this country centered on hunting, especially deer hunting. The M1 rifle or Garand was not available except in controlled numbers in government-supervised marksmanship channels. But foreign surplus bolt action rifles were abundant and were readily “sporterized” for hunting, making them lighter in weight. The Garand wasn’t adaptable to such modification.

Then semi-automatic hunting rifles emerged, guns like the Browning BARs (not to be confused with an earlier military weapon of the same label), and the Remington 742s. Later, some hunters looked for bigger punch, and the Magnums came forth. Others favored smaller and lighter, and the loads like the .243 were brought out. Still later came the fascination with the “assault rifles” like the .223 AR-15 types.

And where did this assault rifle phase come from? Just after World War II, Russia’s Mikhael Kalashnikov produced the first AK-47. The number indicates the year of its berth.

We have the AR-15 in this country, but far more AK-47s and its Chinese cousin, the SKS, have been made worldwide than AR-15s.

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