Tactical Weapons Firearms

How the M1 carbine was invented in prison

While legendary on the battlefield, you may not know the M1 carbine was created by a convicted murderer…while he was incarcerated.
m1 carbine
Guns that Williams crafted while in prison, as shown in a museum display in North Carolina. (Wikimedia Commons)

In a story that sounds too made up to be true comes the origin of the M1 carbine. A predecessor to today’s M4, the M1 was the first military rifle to host the floating chamber and short-stroke piston, both of which are mainstays in modern firearms. Using high-pressure gas to operate semi-automatic guns, this new technology changed the way guns as we know them exist. 

But what’s even more impressive about the tech is that it was created by a convicted murderer…while he was incarcerated.

David Marshall “Carbine” Williams, was convicted of murdering Deputy Sheriff Alfred Jackson Pate, who was attempting to seize Williams’s distillery. In 1921, prohibition was in full swing, and Williams went guns blazing at Pate and other deputies, attempting to put him out of business. After being hit with two bullets, Pate died and Williams was arrested for his murder in Godwin, North Carolina. 

Just four months later, he was charged with “30 years of hard labor” and sent to the Caledonia State Prison Farm in Halifax County, North Carolina.

Wiliams demonstrating some of his M1 carbine technologies. (Public domain)

Soon into Williams’s sentence, it was noted that he had a natural affinity for machinery, especially guns. He was given access to the on-site machine shop, where Williams would build his own tools and service guns of the prison’s guards. 

During this time, Williams conceived the idea of self-loading firearms. He is said to stay up late each night, writing possible solutions and drawing blueprints for different types of guns. And while Williams’s mother got him in touch with different patent lawyers, he was unable to obtain legal protection for his ideas while imprisoned. 

Behind bars, Williams engineered and created four semi-automatic rifles, using high-pressure gas as a source of power. By creating the floating chamber/short-stroke gas piston, he made headlines with his guns. Today, a display with these models and Williams’s process sits in the North Carolina Museum of History

Due to his success in machinery, Williams’s family decided he would be more help to the world outside of prison, rather than in it. They began asking for his sentence to be shortened. They soon got his arresting sheriff, and the widow of Pate to join their cause. In 1927, just six years after he was put in prison, they submitted a formal commute request to the governor of North Carolina.

M1 carbine creator “Carbine” Williams in a late-life interview. (Public domain)

While records show that the governor shorted his sentence to 10-20 years, Williams was released in 1929, just shy of eight years of his sentence. He was able to file for and obtain multiple patents for his unique gun designs and features. 

He went on to work for major gun companies, including Colt, Remington, and Winchester, as well as working with the U.S. Department of War.