From its origins as an alternative to the GI .45-caliber pistol to its role introducing night vision to the American fighting man, this handy firearm remained relevant even during the age of the Kalashnikov.
For more than three decades, the M-1 carbine did more than it was ever expected to do. Long overshadowed by the iconic and heavy-hitting M-1 Garand, the M-1 Carbine began its existence in 1940 when the Secretary of War issued orders for the development of a lightweight and reliable "intermediate rifle."
Although developed to replace the venerable M1911 pistol, other factors convinced the War Department to develop a carbine. The success of the German blitzkrieg in 1939 also had convinced the Army that rapidly deployed maneuver forces such as airborne soldiers or armored columns could punch through front lines and endanger support troops.
In theory, the M-1 carbine was never intended to replace the Garand as a battle rifle – it was supposed to arm cooks and clerks.
"It was a compromise," said Doug Wicklund, senior curator at the NRA National Firearms Museum, Fairfax, Virginia. "They called it the 'war baby,' the younger sibling of the Garand, and it was for soldiers who were not on the front line, something that they would have a better chance of hitting the enemy and defending themselves with."
But by 1943, up to 40 percent of some infantry divisions were carrying the.30-caliber M-1 carbine as their primary weapon, according to The M-1 Carbine, Leroy Thompson's history of the weapon's development and use.
"It was an easier gun to carry than the Garand," Wicklund said. "It was shorter, it was lighter, it was reliable, it was easier to shoot and easier to clean, and it had a 15-round magazine. It was easy to tape two magazines together and get 30 rounds to fire. Stopping power was not there with the carbine, but you could fire it more times."
Once the United States entered into World War II, the Army issued contracts ramping up production of the M-1 Carbine. Eventually, more than six million of the weapons in both semi-automatic and select fire models poured out of factories – two million more than the number of Garands produced during the war.
Winchester was one leading producer, but as American companies turned to war production Inland Manufacturing (a General Motors division and producer of a majority of the weapons), National Postal Meter, IBM and even Underwood Typewriter Co. cranked out hundreds of thousands of the carbines.
During World War II and the Korean War, it was completely possible for the Army to issue a company clerk an Underwood typewriter and an Underwood M-1 Carbine.
Two Korean War-era M-1 Carbines. Both were arsenal rebuilt to include bayonet lugs and adjustable sights. (Photo: Paul R. Huard)
In 1944, it was modified to shoot both in semi-automatic and full-auto modes. Called the M-2, it spit out bullets at a rate of 900 rounds per minute.
When German troops received the history-changing MP 44 Sturmgewehr, the Wehrmacht put increased firepower in the hands of small units that could direct fully automatic fire at U.S. troops with an assault rifle. The M-1 Garand, hard-hitting as it was, carried only eight rounds to the MP 44's 30 rounds contained in a detachable box magazine.
Inland Division produced 570,000 M-2 select fire carbines as a solution. The weapon has a selector switch on the left side of the receiver and it can hold a 30-round box magazine.
It wasn't a Sturmgewehr, but it was available. "The U.S. military has always used what it has already," said Wicklund. "We had it in inventory. They were everywhere."
It was also the ideal platform for a technological development that presaged how the United States would own the night during future wars.
During the same year, a version designed to use the first U.S. night-vision gear (the "Sniperscope") was used by Marines against the Japanese on Okinawa, leading to one out of three enemy soldiers killed by small arms fire dying because of the carbine's prowess as a night-fighter's tool.
The Electronic Laboratories Co. developed active infrared night vision in the form of the Sniperscope, a 20-pound package of telescopic sight, infrared flood light, image tube, cables and powerpack. The scope had a range of about 70 yards and could be mounted on either an M-1 or M-2 carbine.
The system not only saw action in the Pacific Theater during World War II but troops used it widely during the Korean War. For example, Marines using carbines with the Sniperscope would fire tracers down on the positions of North Korean and Chinese troops mounting night attacks so machinegunners could target the enemy with heavier fire.
Once again, the M-1 Carbine so frequently described with words such as "handy" and "reliable" was in the right place at the right time. One of the reasons it was selected as the weapon of choice for the Sniperscope was the technological marvel's weight and bulk. The lightweight carbine kept the weight penalty on an already heavy weapon system to a minimum, a boon for the GI who had to slog the battlefield with it.
In some ways, the M-1 Carbine was the weapon that refused to say "die."
In Vietnam, even though thousands of the new M-16s had been issued to U.S. troops including the Special Forces in 1964 many Green Berets preferred the M-1 carbine, the weapon of their fathers' wars.
What's more, by that time the Viet Cong were was almost certainly wielding the more modern Kalashnikov assault rifle. As for the montagnard tribesman Green Berets trained and led, they can be clearly seen in photographs of the times carrying some of the 800,000 M-1 carbines the U.S. sent to South Vietnam.