The phrase "every Marine a rifleman" is more than just empty words and Marines have always taken pride in their proficiency with the service rifle. The striking power of the Fleet Marine Force derived from the expertise of the individual rifleman and his rifle. The M1 gave the Marine rifleman superior firepower against his Japanese opponent. It was dependable and easy to maintain in the field. An M1-equipped Marine rifle platoon could sustain the same volume of fire as a company armed with bolt-action rifles.
The M1 rifle's chief creator was John Garand, a firearms designer at the US Army Springfield Arsenal. Garand worked on the development of a semi-automatic service rifle through the 1920s and 30s and the M1's basic design was adopted on 9 January 1936. Springfield began low-rate production thereafter, and the Marine Corps placed its first order for the new rifle a few weeks later. In the late-1930s the Corps bought a small number of these weapons for field-testing and troop trials.
In November 1940 the Marine Corps conducted a competitive trial of the M1, M1903A3, the Johnson and Winchester rifles. This test was carried out at Marine Corps Base, San Diego by forty experienced Marines who had recently qualified as expert riflemen or sharpshooters. LtCol "Red Mike" Edson, among the best shooters in the Corps, was one of the senior officers assigned to the test board. The testing procedures were designed to replicate actual service conditions to the greatest possible extent.
In the tests Marines fired more than 12,000 rounds during four weeks of shooting. At various phases, the test rifles were submerged in salt water, packed with mud, sprayed with fresh water to simulate rain, sprinkled with sand and exposed to heavy dust, all followed by extensive test-firing. Testers also evaluated the rifles for ease of maintenance, infantry drill, and firing with fixed bayonets. The test board concluded with the following evaluation:
In November 1941, the Marine Corps classified the M1 as its standard service rifle although it would take almost two years to get enough of these weapons to the Fleet Marine Force. Throughout World War II the Army Ordnance Department was responsible for acquiring small arms for both the Army and Marine Corps. As the armed forces expanded rapidly in the first year of the war, demand for small arms of every type far outstripped the capacity of America's firearms industry. With countless Army and Marine units deploying overseas, it was impossible to build enough new rifles.
To meet the demand, Springfield Armory built M1s on a round-the-clock production line and the respected firm Winchester Repeating Arms Company also produced M1s. By early 1943, rifle production had ramped up enough to equip the all of Corps' infantry regiments units with these modern weapons. But many support units continued to field the venerable '03 throughout the war. By war's end, Springfield and Winchester had produced more than 4,000,000 M1 rifles, an astonishing number by any measure.
The rifle's gas-operating system absorbed a significant amount of energy during the cycle-of-fire, decreasing felt recoil in comparison with bolt-action rifles. This made the M1 a very forgiving rifle to shoot, even for smaller-statured Marines. the only real problem experienced with this rifle was 'M1 thumb.' Mostly an issue with new shooters, M1 thumb occurred when the rifleman failed to quickly remove his thumb off the clip as he was loading. When the bolt unlocked, it could smash his thumb against the front of the ejection port. This only happened once for most new shooters.
Operation, field-stripping and cleaning of the M1 was simple. A Marine could quickly disassemble his rifle without the need for tools, an important consideration in combat. Routine maintenance was quick and simple. The rifleman loaded ammunition loaded via an eight-round clip into the top of the receiver. When he fired his last round, the bolt locked to the rear and the empty clip ejected with a distinctive ping sound. To reload, the rifleman simply pushed a loaded clip into the top of the receiver. Once the clip was fully inserted, it would unlock the bolt, which stripped off the first round to load in the chamber.
Countless Marine riflemen performed acts of heroism under intense danger during the war. Their mission placed these men in the breach again and again in every campaign from start to finish. One of these gallant Leathernecks was Pfc Donald J. Ruhl of Columbus, Mont., a 21-year old rifleman in 3rd Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, Fifth Marine Division, during the assault and capture of Iwo Jima in February 1945. Already a combat veteran of the 3rd Parachute Battalion on Bougainville, his performance on that hellish island reached the heights of courage. As described in The Lions of Iwo Jima by MajGen Fred Haynes, Pfc Ruhl faced the fire from the very start on D-Day:
But Pfc Ruhl wasn't finished. The next day, he spotted a wounded Marine and rushed through heavy fire to rescue him. Ruhl carried his wounded comrade 300 yards back to dressing station. Then he manned a captured emplacement 75 yards ahead of friendly lines through the night to ensure that the enemy did not reoccupy it. On D+2 Ruhl and his platoon began to assault and clear a large Japanese defensive area at the base of Mount Suribachi. An incoming grenade suddenly came flying out of a nearby enemy trench. Ruhl shouted to warn another Marine and then unhesitatingly dove onto the grenade, taking the full blast of the explosion. In sacrificing his own life, Pfc Ruhl saved his buddy from certain death. For his heroism above and beyond the call of duty, Pfc Donald J. Ruhl was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. And he was just one Marine rifleman.
At the time of its development and production, the M1 ranked as the first truly successful semi-automatic service rifle in the world. Other combatant nations fielded semi-automatic rifles in World War II, notably the Soviet Union and Germany, no othes matched the M1 in terms of reliability, firepower and ease of operation. Although the M1 had some minor deficiencies, it was without question the finest service rifle of World War II. Marines who carried it in combat swore by its reliability, simplicty and hard-hitting firepower. It went on the serve the Marine Corps in the Korean War, and through many years of the Cold War until it was retired from service in the early 1960s.
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