From the 1940s to the coming of the M4, when you talked about “a carbine” in the gun shop, everybody knew you meant the Carbine, the US .30 Carbine M1. Which was produced from 1942 to 1945 in such numbers that it took us until about fifty years for supply to tighten up.
Suddenly, there are new M1 carbines available, which has turned a drought of “shooter” quality guns into a flood of reasonably priced GI-spec carbines. We believe two things are driving this: the first is increased interest in the 20th-Century weapon thanks to movies and TV shows like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Saints and Soldiers (a little-known series of movies that have a much higher profile in the WWII buff and reenactor community). The second is the belated realization that once-common M1 carbines had become collectors’ items, their prices bid up into the stratosphere.
Clinton and Bush administration decisions to destroy these carbines rather than release them through surplus sales or the CMP helped the supply dry up, as did the Obama administration’s insistence that these were “crime weapons,” banning their reimportation from the US allies who once depended on them just as GIs had (Clinton had also banned reimportation, which was quietly resumed after his retirement).
The Capsule History of the M1 Carbine
The M1 Carbine was not the original Personal Defense Weapon — decades before the Army wanted something like it, the first PDWs were the stocked Mauser ’96 and the Lange Pistole 08 — but it was an unusual idea when it was first proposed.
Several vendors competed for the contract. The Winchester design, which used a bolt and operating rod familiar to any M1 rifle operator, and a novel short-stroke gas system designed by a felon (!), won. While Winchester would build nearly a million of them between 1942 and 1945, over 50% of the guns were made by divisions of General Motors: Inland Manufacturing and Saginaw Steering Gear. Others were made by business machine vendors and even a juke-box manufacturer, Rock-Ola Co. You could amuse yourself for life just trying to collect one of each version of carbine that was produced during the production run of the gun, which barely exceeded three years.
Along with the variations in manufacturers, there were “high wood” and “low wood” stocks, a bayonet lug added in 1945, a select-fire version (yclept M2), a night-vision variant (M3), and, briefly, a paratrooper variant with a rickety folding stock (M1A1).
They were not intended as frontline combat weapons, except as personal weapons by the members of crews such as mortar crews. Paratroopers used them, with mized results. General James Gavin used one in Sicily that jammed badly, and he became an exponent of the M1 Rifle ever after. Marine Sterling Mace, in his memoir Battleground Pacific (we recounted his other thoughts on weapons in October) even used it as a put-down for rear-echelon Marines: “carbine Marines,” as opposed to riflemen who went out to close with the Japs; of course, Mace carried, until a leadership job took it out of his hands, the king of rifles, the BAR.
After WWII the military began to dispose of its carbines, and they were once very common (production was 6.2 million from 9 contractors, not counting Irwin-Pedersen, none of whose ~3,500 carbines was accepted by the Army). After all, some 6.2 million of them were made, and the US would never need so many rifles again. Many of them were supplied to allies. Short-statured nations particularly liked the M1 and M2 carbines. The late Ben “the Plunderer” Roberts swore by the M2 Carbine in Vietnam; he had access to other weapons, but, “I liked having the same weapon and the same round as my little people.” We still very occasionally see an M1 Carbine carried by a guard somewhere.
On the Civilian Market
Large numbers of carbines and lots of ammunition were released in the 1960s. The Army committed to the M14 and M16A1 rifles, which replaced all the carbines in inventory from 1957–72 or so. The carbines struggled to find a niche. Everyone who handles the compact gun likes its ergonomics and its light weight, but its round fell into an “uncanny valley” between rimfire plinking ammo and big-game hunting ammo. Most states would not allow the use of a .30 Carbine against big game such as deer and elk.
A few police departments used them, or to be more precise, trained with and issued them. They were used very occasionally by criminals. (The weirdo Symbionese Liberation Army of the 1970s was fond of carbines amateur-converted to full auto).
But the carbines still sold. Indeed, commercial copies with more or less interchangeability with the GI carbine were made by Plainfield, Universal and Iver Johnson. In addition, Melvin Johnson of Johnson Rifle fame (no relation to old Iver) designed a 5.7mm variant of cartridge and carbine called the Johnson Spitfire, which is itself a rare collector’s item today. A variety of other stocks (including an MP40-like underfolder and an M3 Greasegun-like slider) were sold on the market and sometimes turn up in your local gun shop. The production of all these commercial variants has long ceased (many of them are well-documented on the website M1CarbinesInc.com).
Prior to the Obama administration, many carbines were reimported, but that is now streng verboten. It’s possible that CMP, which receives arms directly from the USG rather than through importing channels, may get some more, but it’s not highly likely.
Over the decades the original M1s have been retired into collections, become corrosion casualties or are sitting forgotten in closets. These legacy guns occasionally show up on gun turn-ins, where clueless cops show them to muddled media as “assault weapons we got off the street”. But the supply of existing carbines was low when demand spiked after their above-mentioned movie appearances.
Enter the New Carbines
The vendors of current carbines, two of whom have revived old WWII trade names, include:
- Kahr — Kahr Arms was the first of the new-line vendors to produce the old-school carbine. Kahr acquired the Auto-Ordnance brand and inventory from Numrich in 1999 and has produced carbines under that trademark; the original Auto-Ordnance firm founded by James T. Thompson produced carbine parts, including 50% of the required receivers, for IBM’s carbine contract, so bringing carbines to Auto-Ordnance seems logical, but… they actually came by accident. A Kahr partner firm, Saeilo Manufacturing Industries, made carbine receivers for Israel Arms International, which went paws up in 2003. Stuck with unpaid-for receivers anyway, and tooling it received as a bankruptcy settlement, Kahr went ahead and brought a carbine to SHOT to gauge interest. The carbine has been in production since, and several models are made.
- The Model 130 represents the D-Day era carbine visually. It has a walnut stock and handguard and a 15-round magazine. It has a cross-bolt “push” safety, and no bayonet lug, like early M1s. It’s also available as the Model 140, in ten-shot ban-state configuration. Both have an MSRP of $846.
- The Model 150 is the M1A1-styled gun. It has the same (correct for 1942-44 production) safety and barrel band, but the M1A1-style stock. It has an MSRP of $933 and is the most economical route to stylin’ like Malarkey and the guys from Easy Company on your next range trip. We do note that while the M1A1 looks stone cool, the stock is actually pretty horrible (note that our experience is with GI M1A1s, not with any of the current copies). It’s not very rigid and doesn’t lock positively, either open or closed.
- The Model 160 is the “tactical,” folding-plastic-stock version. It has the stamped-steel handguard found on commercial Universal carbines (but never on a GI one). We guess every manufacturer has to have one of these variants, because they sell, but at $860 there are a lot of better “tactical” options out there. If you actually want a practical folding stock, this one is much better than the GI solution.
In addition to these current Auto-Ordnance models, some now-discontinued early models had more “commercial carbine” features, like stamped-steel handguards, and birch stocks.
Important note: Kahr’s parts and processes are not similar to GI. Key parts including receiver, slide and trigger group housing are cast. Interchangeability with GI carbines is limited. And Kahr has struggled with quality control.
Note #2: Kahr is in the process of building a new factory and headqurters in Pennsylvania. As of November, the steel frame was up. Whether the Auto-Ordnance line will move to PA is unknown; certainly production from New York is going there, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see Kahr’s Worcester, Massachusetts plant, where the carbines are made, close. This may disrupt production.
Note #3: Kahr’s website (and the separate Auto-Ordnance site, which annoyingly isn’t linked from Kahr) load like they’re under attack by the Norks or somebody. Sloooow.
- James River Armory — This firm, best known for its restorations of WWII rifles and careful reproductions of WWII sniper rifles, has revived the Rock-ola brand (not only for carbines, where it’s correct, but for M14s, which were only made by Winchester, Springfield, and TRW). Right now, JRA catalogs a single Rock-ola carbine style, which from the photographs resembles a late-WWII, 1945-production gun. It has a bayonet lug, an adjustable aperture sight like the one on the 1903A3, and a rotating safety. It sells for $1,194. JRA’s Rockola reciever is machined from billet steel.
On the JRA website, Mark Hartman, who shares our love for history and process engineering, explains why they chose this name as a tribute to the production warriors of WWII:
Production of the M1 Carbine is fascinating since the only contractor with any experience in the arms industry was the developer, Winchester. Ten additional companies were tasked with producing the rifle and what they accomplished is beyond amazing. In short within only a few months of receiving a contract Rockola Music Company completely transformed its production capabilities to making almost every part on this rifle and actually delivering completed rifles at a rate exceeding 10,000 per month. Coming from a modern perspective this is mind boggling. The company would have had to completely retool, add thousands of new employees, virtually all would need to be trained, engineer and fixture dozens of complex precision parts all with nothing more sophisticated than drafting tables and slide rules. The quality of Rockola’s supervisors, engineers, and employees had to be exceptional to pull off what they did. Any M1 Carbine collector will tell you that their product was among the best of the carbines produced.
We literally spent months with original blueprints and original parts creating the receiver into computer solid model and programmed for CNC production. Rockola pulled off the entire rifle in less time. The challenges they faced were unbelievable. Our victory in WWII started with companies like Rockola and this was repeated by small to mid-sized manufacturers all over the country doing war work. I remember a class on logistics at Quantico when I was a young Lieutenant, we figured training, tactics, and leadership won battles until an instructor commented that logistics is how war is won, (of course we didn’t understand, thinking “why die, go supply.”) In reality, he was right. The logistical support we needed started on the home front with companies like Rockola. This incredible support is what allowed the US Serviceman to defeat the enemy and win the war.
A long excerpt, but worth sharing. Indeed, go Read The Whole Thing™.
- Fulton Armory — Fulton builds their carbines to order. They say expect 8-10 weeks for delivery. They use old receivers and a mix of old and new parts (including new barrels and stocks) to make several versions of the carbine, including M1, M1A1, and updated railed variants, one with a plastic folding stock, and a fixed-stock one they call the M3 Scout Carbine. Their carbines are all list-priced at a stiff $1,500; they do have a reputation for using nice figured wood in their stocks. Numerous upgrades are available, including chrome bores. Fulton is also a good source for parts, accessories, tools and gages. (They have both throat and muzzle erosion gages, nice to have if you’re hunting quality carbines, in the small gun shops of America).
- Inland Manufacturing — the name is being revived by a Dayton firm that builds its guns from bought-in parts on cast receivers. It is the latest carbine maker to throw their hat in the ring. According to our information, it’s a separate firm, but connected to Springfield Armory and Rock Island Armory.
They plan to make three models, which will ship in the new year:
- The M1 1944 which is wood stocked and has a barrel band ($1049 MSRP)
- The M1 1945 which is wood stocked and has a bayonet lug ($1049), and
- The M1A1 1944 which has an M1A1 stock and barrel band ($1179).
The Inland carbines are made on a cast receiver and have late sights and safety. They are distributed by MKS Supply.
What’s next, Winchester? (The Illinois firm Springfield Armory and its sister company Rock Island Armory produced some carbine receivers in the 1980s, and numerous other companies have had short runs of commercial carbines).