Rifles and Reliability — 70 Years of Progress

Let's play with found data, shall we?

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





% #



1480 12.3% 49 0.4%


1547 12.9% 74 0.6%
Winchester 2864 23.9% 97


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?

27 thoughts on “Rifles and Reliability — 70 Years of Progress

  1. LFMayor

    Was the difference in the two tests due to changing lubricants? Wasn’t this about the timeframe that dry lubes became all suave and the dippers and drippers had to eat out back?

    1. Kirk

      Scuttlebutt had it that the first test was run honestly, and the second, they used off-the-rack M4s and magazines they just gathered up from somewhere–Meanwhile, the other weapons tested were brand-new, had full factory support, and brand-new magazines.

      Supposedly, this was ordered so that they could justify replacing the M4, and having a new rifle program.

      Don’t know about the accuracy of that set of “facts”, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The chicanery surrounding the ordnance testing processes is legendary, and something we badly need to fix.

      1. looserounds.com

        What you said about the test has been backed up by a few guys that were part of that dust test.
        A FN rep even admitted that the SCAR and HKs had been cherry picked and had a chance to be tuned for the test and that had lubrication.

        While the M4s were models at least 10 years old and given no check ups or extra lubrication during the test. Colt was not asked to provide 10 new M4s test.

        1. looserounds.com

          In a comment to my comment above, I should have noted that , the people giving that info had been posting in a tech thread on the topic on arfcom back in 09 I think it was. The FN employee came into the thread and so did some of the guys that worked the test, I recall HK asked for a lot of things before the test.

          I am trying to use the abysmal search function to find the archive with my team member account, I will come back and post a link to update if and when I find it

  2. BAP45

    Reading every day? No (doesn’t work right on my phone and is blocked at work) but absolutely watch every episode on YouTube.

  3. TRX

    I hit Ian’s site every day for years, until he installed some kind of adware that crashes my web browser.

  4. Claypigeonshooter

    I don’t read Forgotten weapons as often as I used to, but I found your website through the links on that website.

  5. Simon

    Yes, I go there regularly as well, but probably not every day. How many of those stoppages will be due to rifle issues and how many to poor quality ammunition? I would expect the quality of both factors to have changed over the years, and you can have serious issues in a modern weapon when using cruddy ammunition.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If you look at the full presentation, Simon, they do break down the failures in some detail, and about half of them are magazine related. I think the 30-round GI M16 magazine has been redesigned about forty times, including at least four times in the last ten years, three of them follower-related but one involving reorienting the feed lips. But Aberdeen has no explanation for why the M4 was 3-4x as bad in the Fall ’07 tests (which put it head-to-head against other entrants like the ACR, SCAR, and HK416) than in the Summer ’07 tests (which were an M4-only rodeo, as far as I know).

      You wish the US military communicated in, you know, a scientific report with tabular data instead of in a freaking PowerPoint with infographics.

      1. Boat Guy

        That would be akin to asking them to concentrate on warfighting and Good Order and Discipline instead of pursuing the SJW agenda.
        Though I’m from the M16A1/M14 era I saw one non-magazine-related (or operator-error) failure; a hammer pin backed out of an M16A1 lower. These were “loaner” weapons and so I have no idea of the root cause.

        1. Hognose Post author

          Hey, but the Navy’s naming a ship for gay martyr Harvey Milk.

          Maybe we could get Mabus to authorize building enough ships if we told him we had to name one for every AIDS victim.

  6. Al T.

    No big surprise there. If you read some of the better WWII history books (Battle of Montain is a fav) , GI Joe frequently had weapons issues, ammunition management (like going dry) and watching various 57/75 and 105mm projectiles merely remodeling the German paint jobs on various armored vehicles.


    I’m scratching my head over the stoppage figures for the Garand.

    12% is almost exactly one in eight, so if I understand this correctly the Garand was recorded as getting a stoppage on almost every reload. Averages can be deceptive, but that figure just don’t seem right to me. Does that match the actual recorded experiences of the grunts in action during WWII and Korea?

    And I may be viewing history through rose coloured glasses, but I carried the Australian L1A1 SLR version of the FAL for ten years (when I wasn’t schlepping the damn pig), and I would describe it’s reliability as legendary. Our rifles functioned reliably under very adverse conditions and stoppages were rare enough to be remarked on. If the numbers are correct, the FAL was orders of magnitude more reliable than the Garand, though perhaps less so than the current M4.

    1. Daniel E. Watters

      It might be the infamous 7th round stoppage that plagued early M1 until they compared the receivers of toolroom models versus the production line model.

    2. Ian

      I suspect that the stoppage count for this series of tests included counting all the problems in all the various adverse conditions tests, which often completely disabled the best of guns. The count is too high on all the rifles to simplybe males that occurred during normal firing. I would need to find the original test report (which is apparently a couple hundred pages long) to say for sure, though.

      1. Hognose Post author

        Hatcher’s Garand book discusses the seventh round stoppage problem and also covers the tests on pp.141-52. The title of the report is decribed by a footnote in a 1951 Ordnance history that’s part of the Army’s mega-multi-volume official WWII history (Thomson, Harry C, & Mayo, Lida: The Ordnance Department: Procurement and Supply, p.167) as “Report of Board to Conduct Competitive Test with Caliber .30 Rifles Held at Marine Corps Base, San Diego, Calif., 12 Nov 40-21 Dec 40, dtd 15 Jan 41, prepared by Hq Fleet Marine Force, Marine Corps Base, San Diego, Calif., OKD 474.1/27.1.”

    3. archy

      12% is almost exactly one in eight, … .Does that match the actual recorded experiences of the grunts in action during WWII and Korea?

      When you figure in the number of rifles jammed from sand ingestion during beachhead work, very likely. One WWII vet I knew told me how his loadout for Utah Beach included 8 Mark II pineapple grenades but only three Garand clips, the same number of magazines he carried for his M1911A1 pistol. One reason was he really didn’t want to drown, and could ditch the frags pretty quickly; I suspect he was carrying them in an engineer bag, haversack or other one-strap sidebag. The other was that anyone who had low-crawled with a Garand was likely to find they had a straight-pull bolt-action rifle- IF the bolt would close at all. That’s part of the reason the M14 that replaced the Garand had the roller on the bolt. And, of course, don’t forget the little thumbnail-sized pot of grease carried in the Gartandbuttstock, the better to help try to keep the op rod cycling after repeated [tropical monsoon] or freezing [Europe, Korea] rains had washed away the last traces of oil-based lubricants. BTW, the Koreans from the Tiger Division who could get Dri-Slide favoured by many on M16A1s also flat loved it on Garands when they could get any.

  8. Mark

    Didn’t early Garands suffer from a seventh round stoppage problem? If this test was conducted before the cause was diagnosed and fixed the 12% or one in eight failure rate would be, um, ‘highly significant’.

  9. joshua

    ” That the Marines no longer carry the once-beloved M1 … ”

    There were 2 M1 Garands on my Rifle Expert badge.

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  13. Joe Bly

    I wonder though if these are really an apples to apples comparison. The test sighted for Garand was at its very beginning/prototype stage. The M1 went through a lot of changes, upgrades, and refinements through the years. The M1 produced during the 50s was far better then the prototype.
    So is comparing the refined and improved M4 to the prototype M1 really a fair comparison?

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