Let’s play with found data, shall we?
In an interesting commentary that accompanies the third in an ongoing series of videos he did on Winchester’s also-ran G30M rifle and related prototypes, Ian McCollum at Forgotten Weapons reports these results from the 1940 Marine Corps tests of then state-of-the-art M1 Garand and Johnson semi-automatic rifles.
Ultimately the trials were won by the Garand, with the G30M placing third in total malfunctions and broken parts. This had involved 37 different tests and more than 12,000 rounds through each rifle. The Garand had 1,480 total malfunctions and 49 parts broken, replaced, or repaired. The Johnson had 1,547 and 72 respectively, and the G30M 2,864 and 97 (roughly double the number of problems as the Garand).
These numbers are indicative of just how far we’ve come in firearms reliability in ¾ of a century. This table shows (assuming 12,000 rounds as our denominator, which is close enough because our purpose here is comparison) that as reliable as those rifles were for their day, hey were pretty buggy by today’s standards. Looking at the percentages really makes the data pop.
Assuming a “malfunction” equals a stoppage, we’ll label those percentage of stoppages and we’ll label the parts breakages “failures.”
USMC Rifle Test 1940
Now, those numbers are good for the era! As you might expect, the Garand, which had had the most development, was the most reliable, with the Johnson closely behind. The Winchester prototype, designed by Ed Browning and updated by David Marshall Williams, was about twice as prone to stoppage and breakage as the Garand, but as you can see if you watch Ian’s video of these rare prototypes at the Cody Center, they were pretty raw, hand-tooled prototypes and probably could have been further improved with more time. Like the Johnson, though, they were out of time, pursuing the pretty-darn-good M1 Garand in an adoption stern chase in which they had no chance of overtaking the leader, unless they were really strikingly better at something. But the advantages of the Johnson and Winchester designs were small, and on key reliability numbers they were at a disadvantage.
But the think that really struck us is, how much less reliable these 1940 weapons were than a modern AR or AK. While many other things have been improved in service rifles since the 1940s, rifle reliability is probably the greatest. Yes, you can seize up an M4 pretty good if you burn through hundreds of rounds on cyclic rate, but you’d be doing immediate action a lot more often on a World War II era rifle.
This is borne out by data from the many, many M16 and M4 tests. For example, in the worst M4 test ever, the notorious and outlying 2007 extreme dust test, ten M4s fired 6,000 rounds per rifle with 1.4% stoppages. (You can download the .ppt of the test results at this post at The Firearm Blog).
And this number was over 4x the number of failures in an earlier iteration of the same test, a result the Army Research Lab has never explained insofar as we know.
Now we can’t compare the 1940 and 2007 tests directly and say that the M4 is nearly ten times more reliable than the M1. But we are pretty confident that an apples to apples test would show the new rifle as significantly more reliable.
It is also our experience, although we can’t back it up with bench data, that the current rifles like the M4 and the AK-74 are substantially more reliable than 1950s and 1960s rifles like the FN-FAL, H&K G3, and M16A1.
Of course, if you want reliable cycling, it’s hard to beat the rifle the Marines used as a control in the 1940 tests — the US Rifle Cal. .30 M1903, your basic turn-bolt Mauser action.
This is completely aside from the points Ian was making in his great series of videos. Certainly the Marines, like every armed service, tried their best to give their servicemen a rifle that was the State of the Art, and their combat performance with that rifle bears out the judgment of their ordnance officers and the Commandant at the time. That the Marines no longer carry the once-beloved M1 just proves that today’s ordnance officers and Commandant are still trying to give their servicemen (and now, -women) a rifle that is the State of the Art.
In monarchies, the passing of a monarch is often announced with a cry: “The King is dead. Long live the King!” Maybe that’s how we should think about service rifles? The 1903, M1, M14, M16 and now M4 have all worn the crown. One day, the M4 will pass on to the museums and some future counterpart of Ian will study it, but a new King shall sit upon the rifle throne.
via Forgotten Weapons, which you guys are reading every day… right?