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M1 and M2 .30 Carbine: The U.S. Military’s Best Rifles Ever?

M1 Carbine
M1 Carbine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

M1 and M2 .30 Carbine: A Short History – There’s just something about the alphanumeric designation of “M1” that has such ubiquity in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces.

There’s the M1 Garand battle rifle – “the greatest battle implement ever devised” according to Gen. Patton – and the M1 Thompson submachine gun of World War II.

In the present day, there’s the M1 Abrams main battle tank (MBT). And from WWII all the way through the Vietnam War, we had the subject of this article, the M1 .30 Carbine and its sister gun, the M2 .30 Carbine (not to be confused with that other M2, the legendary Browning “Ma Deuce” .50 caliber machine gun).  

M1 .30 Carbine History and Specifications 

As noted by Dave Campbell in a September 2017 article for NRA American Rifleman titled “A Look Back at the M1 Carbine,” “One of the universal truths in life is, according to virtually every U.S. serviceman, their rifle is too darned heavy…All that grumbling finally caught an ear with military brass, and in 1938 the Chief of Infantry requested that the Ordnance Department develop a light rifle or carbine. The idea was to develop an arm handier than a battle rifle, yet more powerful and accurate than a handgun with an effective range of 300 yards so that support troops could defend themselves in the event of a surprise attack.” 

The task of the actual development of the M1 Carbine fell upon one David Marshall “Carbine” Williams, who ironically had been serving a 30-year prison sentence for second-degree murder and operating an illegal distillery, but was lucky enough to have that sentence commuted in 1927 by then-North Carolina Governor Angus Wilton McLean once Mr. McLean was made aware of Williams’ excellent work in the Caledonia State Prison Farm repairing and inventing firearms.

Of particular significance to our story was Mr. Williams’s development of the floating chamber concept for operating semi-automatic rifles; this system utilizes high-pressure gases produced during powder combustion to work on the floating chamber—actually a chamber within a chamber—effectively turning it into a short-recoil piston that drives the bolt rearward to cycle the action. 

Long story short, Mr. Williams’s ingenuity eventually became the M1 .30 Carbine, a short rifle that combined those mechanics with a 110-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) at 1,990 feet per second and 967 ft.-lbs. of energy in an 18″ barrel and an effective firing range of 300 yards.

Whilst the weapon itself proved to be accurate and reliable, it also generated complaints about lacking stopping power, which is somewhat ironic in light of the fact that it had been envisioned by some as a replacement for the M1911-A1 .45 ACP, which was legendary for its effective stopping power.

In any event, the M1 weighed a user-friendly 5.2 pounds empty and 5.8 pounds with fully loaded 15-round magazine along with a sling.  Overall length was 35.6 inches and barrel length was 17.75 inches. 

The M1 Carbine design was officially accepted in October 1941, and was first “blooded” in combat during the European theatre in 1942. During WWII alone, some 6.1 million copies of them were produced, thus actually outstripping the M1 Garand at 5.4 million and making it the most popularly produced long gun of that era.

And thinking back to that Patton quote on the M1 Garand at the beginning of this article, well, Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his part praised the M1 Carbine as “One of the strongest contribution factors in our victory in the Pacific.” 

M2 .30 Carbine History and Specifications 

As noted by my colleague Sebastien Roblin, “In 1943, the War Office decided to produce an M2 Carbine capable of automatic fire, entailing the addition of a small number additional parts, and strengthening the butt of the gun and the magazine intake. The new weapon had a cyclic fire rate of 750 rounds per minute, and could use a new curved thirty-round magazine. Externally, the M1 and M2 seemed almost identical, save for a fire-selector switch and a ‘2’ etched on the latter’s receiver ring. Numerous kits were also issued to convert M1s to M2s.” 

The M2 variant made its way to the frontlines of both the European and Pacific theatres during the last weeks of the war. It continued to serve ably during the Korean War – aforementioned stopping power concerns notwithstanding – and was even used by both U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Security Police (HOOAH!) in the early days of the Vietnam War before being replaced by the M16.  

Personal Shooting Impressions 

As historically significant as the .30 Carbine series is, I only fired the weapon on one occasion. It was a rental M1 at the Los Angeles Gun Club in Downtown L.A, way back in 1993 during my freshman year at the University of Southern California (USC; Fight On, Trojans!!). The lanes at LAGC only go out to 50 feet, so I wasn’t able to properly assess the weapon’s long-distance accuracy potential. That said, the rifle functioned flawlessly through the 50 rounds of range reloads I put through it, and it was quite pleasant to shoot.   

Want Your Own? 

If you’re willing and able to deal with the bureaucratic headaches expense of the BATFE paperwork necessary to legally obtain fully-automatic weapons in the U.S, then once you’ve jumped through those paperwork hoops, break out your bankbook: the website has an M2 listed at $1,795.00 USD, whilst Rock Island Auction Company has one with an “Estimated Price” of $5,000.00 to $7,500.00! 

If you’re content with semiauto-only, well, you’re still gonna pay a pretty penny if you want a genuine WWII-vintage specimen, with a starting price of $1,595.00 on the Guns International website. On the other hand, if you’re willing to settle for a modern-day replica, the prices become slightly more affordable; Auto-Ordnance/Kahr Firearms Group – the same folks who produce the Tommy Gun – lists two different variants, a fixed-stock version and a Paratrooper Folding Stock” version at $1,271.00 and $1,395.00 respectively.        

Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. 

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).