Did America Not Need the Garand?

By Tom Laemlein
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Did America Not Need the Garand?

October 6th, 2020

9 minute read

Right now, many who read that headline are thinking “Why would you even ask such a ridiculous question?” Not so many years ago, I would have reacted the same way. However, after a great deal of research into the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a completely legitimate question to ask.

Many American units had an assortment of M1 and M1903 rifles, like these men of the 32nd Infantry Division arriving in Australia during November 1943. Image: NARA

The United States was the only combatant nation to use a semi-auto battle rifle on widespread basis. Germany, with its G41, G43 and Sturmgewehr StG44 (to learn more about that rifle, click here), and the Soviet Union with its SVT-40 (to learn more about that rifle, click here), also deployed semi-auto (and select-fire) rifles in combat, but never in any numbers close to the amount of M1 Garand rifles made and used. Also, German and Soviet manufacturing could never satisfy their troops’ demand for rifles period, much less produce semi-auto rifles to meet their needs.

An M1903 rifle with the American Army of Occupation in Germany, near Coblenz, in 1919. Image: NARA

Herein lies an undiscussed challenge: despite the more than five million M1s made during World War II, there were never enough Garand rifles allocated to meet the needs of all of America’s combat troops. So how did we pick up the slack? The answer: the venerable M1903 Springfield rifle.

Pearl Harbor defenders with M1903 rifles and a Browning .30 caliber anti-aircraft machinegun. Image: NARA

The Model of 1903

At the turn of the 20th Century, most major military forces around the world had adopted a modern bolt action rifle. America followed this trend with the M1903 rifle (updated to fire the new .30-06 round in 1906). A contemporary of the German Mauser and British Lee-Enfield, the M1903 quickly joined the ranks of the greatest bolt-action rifles ever made.

Venerable, reliable and still totally reliable as a battle rifle, the M1903 served on through the interwar period and throughout World War II. Image: NARA

Before World War I, the M1903 was manufactured at Springfield Armory in Massachusetts as well as Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois. Production was steady but not particularly great in number. When America finally entered World War I in April 1917, the U.S. military found itself without enough M1903 rifles, and the M1917 “Enfield” was produced in large numbers to meet the demand for battle rifles.

The U.S. Marine Corps’ two primary rifles in World War II: the M1903 Springfield (middle) and the M1 Garand (bottom). A .30-40 “Krag” rifle is shown at top. Image: USMC

Even as M1903 production ramped up, the M1917 became America’s most-used combat rifle during the Great War. Afterwards, the M1917 rifles went into storage and the M1903 was issued across the board to the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps.

The M1903 was more than just a training rifle. It was a capable weapon that served throughout World War II. Image: NARA

Battle-tested and supremely accurate, there were few complaints about the M1903. However, the forward-thinking leadership of U.S. Ordnance began to work on semi-auto rifle designs as early as 1922. John Garand was hired and after a great deal of experimentation, the M1 rifle was born (to learn more about John Garand and his rifle, click here).

The M1903 rifle served throughout the battle for Guadalcanal. In the later stages of the fight, the Springfield was joined by a small amount of M1 rifles. Image: NARA

In 1936 the M1 was officially adopted, but even though there was much discussion about the new rifle, deliveries to the troops were very slow. Certain issues with the original M1s cropped up and many of the “gas trap” rifles were reworked (to learn more about the “gas trap” rifle, click here). Even so, on the eve of World War II most American troops were still armed with the M1903.

M1903s and M1s are mixed within this unit during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of Vichy French North Africa, during early November 1943. Image: NARA

A WWI Veteran Serves

Many firearms enthusiasts see the M1903 as nothing more than a training rifle during World War II. Others recognize its use as a sniper rifle, and the eventual development of the M1903A4 sniper variant. Over the years, few have acknowledged the critical role it played as a battle rifle, not only in the earliest days of the war when the issue was in doubt, but also as America turned the tide and was progressing toward victory.

An M1903-armed sentry in England, guarding masses of American M3 half-tracks during early 1944. Image: NARA

When Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Springfield rifles fired some of America’s first shots in anger. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, M1903 rifles were favored over the new M1 rifles for one simple reason: U.S. Ordnance logistics was not completely familiar with the new Garand rifle, and too few of the unique “en bloc” clips were available to the island defenders.

A soldier of the 57th Signal Battalion carries his M1903 for defense against the Germans, the dentist, or maybe both in December 1943. Image: NARA

While the M1 rifle performed well in the defense of the islands, American troops using the M1 were reduced to searching for their ejected clips, and then reloading them by hand while under fire. The old Springfield was free from any of the new semi-auto rifle’s technological issues.

M1903 rifles with the “Paramarines” during the Solomon Islands campaign. Image: NARA

When the Marines went on the offensive on Guadalcanal during August of 1942, they carried the M1903 with them, and the Springfield was the primary battle rifle throughout the fighting there. Even as the U.S. Army began to appear in the Solomon Islands campaign, not every G.I. carried the M1 Garand. Many Army units in the PTO were equipped with a mix of M1903 and M1 rifles until the end of 1943, and the M1903 remained in USMC first-line service until the end of WWII. The reasons for the M1903’s combat longevity are easy to see — reliability, flexibility and, based on the preference of the rifleman, some considered the M1903 to offer greater accuracy.

The M1903 on duty in Tarawa during November 1943. Image: NARA

The story is essentially the same in the MTO (Mediterranean Theater of Operations) and the ETO (European Theater of Operations). U.S. Army units participating in the invasion of North Africa in November 1942 came ashore with more M1903 rifles than M1s, and this remained the case throughout the fighting in Tunisia. More M1 rifles began to appear as the fighting moved to the Italian mainland, but the M1903 was still regularly seen as a battle rifle until the early months of 1944. The need for rifles was spread across all of the U.S. military, and consequently the Springfield rifle fired shots in anger while serving with the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard.

The M1903 came ashore in Normandy on D-Day and fought until the end of the war in Europe, particularly in the hands of MPs, combat engineers and artillerymen. My father joined the Army in early 1942 and his initial training was all conducted with the M1903. When the M1 was introduced to his unit in 1943, he retrained (and requalified as a marksman) with the new rifle.

Thompson SMG- and M1903 rifle-armed G.I.s of the 172nd Infantry Regiment, on New Georgia during July 1943. Image: NARA

By the time he went into combat in Normandy in June 1944, the M1903 was still around. He commented: “If a G.I. got his company commander’s approval, he could take a Springfield rifle into combat as opposed to an M1.” I wish he was still here for me to pester him with questions about the subject, but at least I got a little bit of his first-hand knowledge of the issue to share with you.

Grenade-Launching Challenge

In combat, the M1903 had one distinct advantage over the wartime M1 rifle — grenade launching. The Springfield rifle used the simple M1 Grenade Launcher, and ultimately the M1903 was the U.S. military’s most effective grenade-launching platform during World War II.

A Marine checks a Japanese bunker on Bougainville during November 1943. His rifle is an M1903A3. Note the .45 caliber revolver and M1918 trench knife on his hip. Image: NARA

The critical difference is that M1 Launcher used on the M1903 allowed the rifle to fire grenades as well as firing standard rifle ammo in the normal way. The M7 grenade launchers for the gas-operated M1 Garand limited the functionality of that rifle to being a specific grenade launcher while it was fitted.

The advance across France: Men of the 3rd Armored Division armed with M1903 rifles, July 14, 1944. Image: Library of Congress

When an M1 rifle was fitted with a launcher, it took one rifleman out of the firepower of his platoon. However, if the grenadier used an M1903, he could instantly alternate between grenade-launcher and rifleman, and his company retained most of its rifle firepower.

Flushing out snipers in Normandy, June 1944. The sergeant at the far right holds an M1 Carbine. Image: NARA

Desperate Needs

Even with all the M1 rifles produced during the war, and on top of all the M1903 rifles that had been made before World War II, America still needed more rifles. To help with emergency production, Remington brought the Rock Island tooling to its facility in Ilion, New York and began making M1903 rifles to the same specifications and quality as those produced in World War I.

An M1903 equipped with a grenade launcher with the 101st Airborne in Holland, September 18, 1944. Image: NARA

However, even that was not enough, and so the revised and simplified M1903A3 was introduced on May 21, 1942. The original M1905 sight and its fixed base were redesigned and replaced with an adjustable rear sight. This modification saved time and money, and ultimately provided a better battle sight for the rifle.

With an M1903A3 rifle slung over his back, an MP checks the papers of refugees near Bastogne, December 21, 1944. Image: NARA

The M1903A3 did away with the Springfield rifle’s traditional elegance, introducing many stamped metal parts, a simplified stock and noticeably reduced “fit and finish.” Production at Remington was supplemented by additional manufacturing by the Smith & Corona Typewriter Company, beginning in February 1942. All of these rifles performed well, and many served in combat.

Was It Really Needed?

As the M1903 was an exceptional and capable rifle, did we really need the M1 Garand? Most certainly, yes. The M1 Garand is legitimately “the greatest battle weapon ever devised.” It’s one of the cornerstones of Allied victory in World War II, and a shining example of America’s Arsenal of Democracy.

A marksman of the 1st Cavalry aboard an LVT (“Alligator”) on Leyte, Philippines during December 1944. Image: NARA

Could we have won the war without the M1 rifle? I believe that we could have, but it would have taken longer, and cost more lives to do it. The M1903 Springfield was the equal or better than any Axis bolt-action rifle. Also, the qualities of the American rifleman are unmatched. Many Americans are natural-born marksmen. However, the advantages of the Garand are hard to dismiss.

G.I.s engage the Japanese in Burma during January 1945. The man closest to the camera has an M1903A3, while a M1904A4 sniper rifle and a Browning M1919 are in the background. Image: NARA

In reality, in our soldiers’ hands, the M1903 or the M1 was a war-winning weapon. Thankfully we had both at our disposal during World War II and ultimately did not have to choose.

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Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein

Tom Laemlein is a historian. While that might sound mind-numbingly awful to some, he enjoys it. His deep dives into historical research keep him (mostly) out of trouble and, yet, too often away from the rifle range. Tom is the author of more than 30 books on military history and weapons systems. He regularly contributes articles to national magazines and websites on military history and firearms topics, and historical photos from his collection are used by publishers around the world. In those times that he is cornered in a corporate environment, he will talk about marketing until he is released. Tom is married to a very patient woman, and they live on America’s North Coast, near Lake Ontario. His regular misadventures with Wally, his young Tibetan Mastiff, remind him that life must be enjoyed full-bore, at least until you are ready for a nap.

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