The M1 Garand rifle has long been recognized as one of the premier battle rifles of World War II and is one of the best-known military firearms of all time. Given the fame and respect the M1 has rightfully garnered through the years, it may be surprising to some that its development and subsequent adoption was far from a foregone conclusion. While John Garand was working on his rifle, another talented inventor, John D. Pedersen, was developing a competing design. Both inventors had their supporters and detractors and, for a number of years, there were some questions and controversies about which gun the U.S. military should select as its new semi-automatic service rifle.
The U.S. Ordnance Dept. tried to develop a semi-automatic service rifle as early as 1909, when Springfield Armory was directed to formulate guidelines for the desired specifications for such an arm. Several designs were submitted over the next few years, some of which centered around the conversion of the Model 1903 Springfield from bolt-action to autoloading operation. None of the proposals was sufficient to merit much interest, although a Danish inventor named R.M.H. Bang developed the most promising design. The Bang rifle (named after the inventor, not the sound it made) was a gas-operated, turning-bolt model tested by the Ordnance Dept. in 1912. Although it fared well, officials still had some misgivings about its questionable functioning and excessive manufacturing costs. Even so, Ordnance continued to test improved versions as late as 1914.
During this same period, Mexico adopted a rather rudimentary semi-automatic military rifle, the Mondragon. Manufactured in Switzerland, the operation of this gas-operated rifle left a lot to be desired. In 1914, the Germans tested the Mondragon and determined that it was unsuitable for further consideration, given its functioning problems, and that the nation should continue equipping its troops with the bolt-action Mauser.
World War I conclusively demonstrated the superiority of full-automatic arms over the bolt-action service rifles fielded by all of the belligerent nations. Each nation developed heavy machine guns, and some also fielded lighter full-automatic rifles that performed with varying degrees of effectiveness. Although full-automatic arms were widely used during the war, no military adopted a semi-automatic rifle. There were several semi-automatic civilian sporting rifles on the market before the war; however, none could manage the powerful service cartridges of the day, such as the American .30 Springfield (.30-’06 Sprg.). The U.S. military was aware of the advantages of a semi-automatic rifle chambered in a standard service cartridge, and even before the conclusion of the war the U.S. Army Ordnance Dept. was charged with developing a suitable rifle of this type.
Some of the preliminary work in designing a semi-automatic rifle for the U.S. military had been in progress since the summer of 1918 by a civilian employee of the Bureau of Standards, John Cantius Garand. Born in St. Remi, Canada, on January 1, 1888, Garand trained as a tool and gauge maker after immigrating to the United States. Garand was interested in firearms, and soon after the outbreak of World War I he began to formulate methods to improve the functioning of full-automatic arms. The Bureau of Standards eventually hired him to work on his concept for an improved light machine gun. In June 1918, Garand finalized the prototype of his “machine rifle.” The design impressed the Bureau of Standards, and Garand was promoted on Aug. 16, 1918, to “master gauge and gun experimenter.” On Nov. 4, 1919, Garand was transferred to Springfield Armory as a civilian employee with an annual salary of $3,500.
Garand shifted the emphasis of his work from an automatic “machine rifle” to the development of a semi-automatic rifle. He fabricated a prototype in 1919, and further development continued at Springfield Armory in 1920. Garand’s rifle, designated the “T1920,” utilized a novel “primer-actuated” mechanism teamed with an efficient “turning bolt” design....