July 20, 2021
By Joe Engesser
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General Patton famously hailed the M1 Garand rifle as "the greatest battle implement ever devised." Fielded by millions of American GIs during WWII, it’s no understatement to say the M1 Garand helped turn the tide in favor of the Allied powers. The legendary rifle’s eventual adoption was far from a certainty though, and John Garand faced off against numerous competitors and struggled with multiple design challenges in his 15 year quest to engineer a perfect semi-automatic American battle rifle.
As the 20th Century dawned and semi-automatic rifles like the 1908 Mondragon, the Bang Model 1911, and the Winchester 1905 hit the market, the United States military had its eye on developing a reliable self-loading rifle of its own. One of John Garand’s early designs for the rifle trials was a unique primer-actuated system that was engineered around the U.S. military’s pyro double-graphited powder and used special large primers, taking advantage of the energy of primer setback to unlock and cycle the firearm.
A Garand rifle running on inertia? The standard military cartridges of the early 1920s used a flat indented primer that fit into a primer pocket that was struck by a forward-moving firing pin. Garand designed a larger firing pin with a fixed firing pin tip in the center, as well as special ammunition containing a larger, unseated primer.
When the Garand prototype rifle was fired, the bolt struck the larger primer face and the resulting internal pressure would have pushed the primer backwards out of the cartridge a very short distance (a.k.a. primer set-back). This in turn forced the firing pin rearward to unlock the bolt and initiate the extraction, ejection, and reloading sequence, ready to fire again at the pull of a trigger.
Put simply, in a primer-actuated design, the typical flaw of a poorly secured primer backing out of the case becomes a deliberate feature of the system, with the primer acting as a short-stroke gas piston. Other firearm designers experimented with primer actuated operation, including early Tokarev rifles and rare prototypes like this unusual M1903 trials model, and more recently on the LAW 80 rocket launcher’s spotting rifle. Though primer actuation certainly appears more complex than the gas-operated designs that followed, Garand's 1924 prototype rifle performed well with U.S. military .30-06 ammunition.
Towards the end of WWI, inventor John D. Pedersen procured a U.S. contract for a device that could convert a modified M1903 rifle into a semi-automatic. The Great War ended before the Pedersen Device was issued to troops in the field, but the concept of creating a semi-automatic standard for the American military only ramped up in the following decade.
The automatic weapons of WWI demonstrated the need to move beyond a bolt-action infantry rifle and develop a semi-automatic replacement to the Model 1903 and Model 1917. Plenty of inventors were eager to compete in the early test trials held by the U.S. Army starting in 1921, including J. D. Pedersen and John Cantius Garand.
Pedersen’s intention was a semi-automatic rifle that was light, easy to carry, and minimized recoil, a similar concept to his Pedersen Device. The first Pedersen self-loading rifles were chambered in the smaller .276 cartridge which was approved for testing in 1924. But John Garand, a former civilian employee for the Bureau of Standards, and now an employee of Springfield Armory, had been working on a prototype rifle of his own.
John Garand loved machinery and target shooting, two interests which led to a fascination for gun design. During WWI, Garand became intrigued with the idea of improving existing light machine guns and he submitted a design to the U.S. Navy. Garand’s concept won him a job at the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C. then an engineering position at the government’s Springfield Armory in 1919, where he was tasked with developing a semi-automatic infantry rifle.
Garand was just one of several designers charged to help the American military replace the bolt-action rifle. In addition to J.D. Pedersen, General John T. Thompson’s submachine gun was being considered, as well as his lesser-known Thompson Autorifle Model 1923 prototype, and the later Johnson Automatics offered a promising design.
Garand fabricated the first prototype design in 1919, which utilized the novel “primer-actuated” system to operate the action. Development continued at Springfield Armory over the next several years, with three improved models that ended in the Model 1924 primer-actuated Garand semi-automatic rifle, one of only 24 manufactured. Also sometimes called the Type 2 Garand, as it was the second primer-actuated semi-automatic rifle designed by the inventor, the new prototypes were sent to U.S. infantry and cavalry units in 1924 for field trials against the Model 1923 Thompson auto-loading rifle.
Unlike John Garand’s earlier model 1919 and 1920 prototypes with a turning bolt design, the Model 1924 uses a non-rotating, tipping bolt design where the rear of the bolt was locked up into the receiver, which allowed the primer actuated design to function properly. And unlike two of the previous prototypes, the Type 2 Garand was fitted with a fixed 5 round internal magazine in the receiver instead of a 20 or 30 round detachable magazine.
Compared with other contenders of the time, the Garand primer-actuated 1924 trials rifle performed well in testing, able to fire approximately 100 rounds in succession without any stoppages. It was lighter than its competitors too, an important factor cited by the evaluations board. All of Garand’s 24 prototypes were sent to infantry and cavalry units for field testing in three different barrel lengths. The design again proved to be completely successful, allowing it to fire approximately 100 rounds in succession without any stoppages.
The Garand primer-actuated 1924 trials rifle is an impressive looking firearm, with a high level of fit and finish. The connection to its famous M1 Garand successor is readily apparent, and so are many of the differences. A touch lighter than an M1 Garand, from stock to muzzle the 1924 prototype looks something like a composite between a BAR, an M1, and a Springfield M1903.
Being a prototype, the Type 2 Garand used plenty of available parts from the era, and the barrel, front sight blade, and barrel bands are all similar to the M1903. The rifle is equipped with an adjustable Lyman rear sight and features a similar safety to the M1 Garand, and the geometry looks great all around. The M1924 Garand is a balanced firearm, with a reasonable weight, a comfortable grip, and a well-placed trigger. It's a great feeling rifle that truly looks the part of an M1 Garand intermediary, and closer to the famous M1 than one might expect this early in development.
John Garand spent a few years fine-tuning his primer-actuated concept, and the design philosophy that made his M1 Garand a success is fully present in the M1924 prototype. The rifle’s componentry is mechanically efficient, with parts organized into compact, self-contained units. For a prototype, it feels incredibly polished, showing off the eye for craftsmanship that won Garand his engineering position in the first place.
John Garand's prototypes worked well with U.S. military .30-06 ammunition with the special large primers, but in the following years the Army made a number of changes that adversely impacted the rifle’s design. The military switched its powder specifications from .30 caliber to .276, and then back again, finally settling on the new .30 M1 Ball with quick burning IMR (Improved Rifle Powder) 174 grain bullet as the standard rifle ammunition in lieu of the old .30 Model of 1906 with slower burning pyro double-graphited powder and a 150 grain bullet.
The IMR pressure curve changed enough so that the new ammo didn't reliably cycle the gun, and Garand had carefully calibrated the M1924 around the the prior ammunition. The pressure rise difference made Garand’s primer-actuated prototypes unreliable, so he abandoned the design and altered his operating system from primer actuated to gas. Through no fault of its own, the Type 2 Garand had struck a dead end.
More than a decade would pass before Garand finally had a rifle adopted by the U.S. Military, but the seeds of the legendary M1 rifle design were present in its primer-actuated forerunner, with most of the few surviving examples of these unique Type 2 Garand rifles residing in government museums today. Finding a Model 1924 Garand offered for public sale is an exceptionally rare and exciting opportunity for gun collectors, and one of the few chances to own such a pivotal piece of John Garand’s famous legacy.
In a report issued in late 1929, the Service Rifle Selection Board narrowed their recommendation down to two competitors: the T1 Pedersen and the T3 Garand rifle. Springfield Armory manufactured twenty Pedersen rifles for initial field testing, which was to run concurrently with the .276 caliber semi-automatic rifle developed by John C. Garand. The Pedersen rifle performed well in the initial service tests, and in 1929, Pedersen contracted with Vickers-Armstrong to manufacture approximately 200 of the Pedersen self-loading rifles for use in the final U.S. tests. Although both passed, in 1932 the army selected the T3 Garand design in .30-06 for limited procurement, and shortly after ended all further development of the Pedersen rifle.
In 1936, after a decade and a half of development, the M1 Garand was adopted by the U.S. Military, fulfilling their wish for an effective gas-operated, self-loading infantry rifle. The weapon was designed to fire the .30-06 Springfield cartridge, the same cartridge utilized with the M1903 Springfield bolt action rifle, the BAR and the .30 caliber Browning machine gun, so the supply was abundant and reliable. The M1 Garand would come to signify reliability as well, proving itself from the beaches of Normandy to the islands of the South Pacific, and through the Korean War and beyond. The U.S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1 earned its legendary reputation, and it all started with a Canadian born inventor with a knack for engineering.
Nearly a century later, and the M1 Garand is more popular than ever with shooters, collectors, and WW2 gun enthusiasts. Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premier Firearms Auction features a number of notable M1 Garands and a vast assortment of equally fantastic U.S. military firearms and militaria from the storied collections of Dr. Robert Azar, George Moller, Putnam Green/Sycamore, and more. From Jamestown to Fallujah, from flintlocks to M16s, September's auction covers the full breadth of American military history, and you can own a part of it this fall.
As always, if there are any questions regarding consignment, registration, or future auctions, please contact Rock Island Auction Company today. Our upcoming auction schedule is updated frequently on our website, so be sure to go through the listing and start making your plans to visit. All our events adhere to the latest COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions. We can’t wait to see you here!
1. Julian S. Hatcher, Book of the Garand.
2. Billy Pyle, The Gas Trap Garand.
3. Bruce Canfield, The M1 Garand Rifle.
Special thanks to Austin Ellis, Lead Historian at Rock Island Auction Company.
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