How Many Johnsons Does One Man Need?

New Market Arms has a range of Johnson M1941 rifles including a rare tolroom prototype. A couple of them are for sale on GunBroker — thanks to commenter Josey Wales for tipping us off — and more are on the website. We want them all, but we’ve already got a couple of Johnsons, and how many does one need?

The right answer, of course, is “need doesn’t enter into it” with these rare and historic firearms.

The rarest of them is this tool room prototype, numbered S-3. (And see the GunBroker auction here).

This is a very rare, one of only six manufactured, Johnson Automatics Model 1941 Tool Room Sample Rifle in .30-06, that is still in its military configuration.

An amazing set of almost 200 photos of this rifle is available. It includes comparison between this pre-production and production Johnsons that are of great interest to all Johnson students and collectors.

An agreement was ultimately reached between Johnson Automatics and the Universal Windings Company that resulted in the establishment of the Cranston Arms Company of Cranston, Rhode Island, which would produce Johnson’s Model 1941 Rifle. Cranston Arms also produced Johnson’s Model of 1941 Light Machine Gun, which shared several design features with his semi-automatic rifle. Cranston Arms (a subsidiary of Universal Windings), Johnson Automatics, Inc. and Johnson Automatics Manufacturing Company (JAMCO) set up shot next to Universal Windings and produced its first assembly line rifle, serial number S-1 in April 1941. On April 19, 1941, the employees gathered at the factory rifle range for the first firing of serial number S-1. As Bruce Canfield states in his book, “Maynard Johnson picked up the first rifle off the line and carefully loaded it. He took aim at the target located at the other end of the 100-yard range, carefully squeezed the trigger and fired the rifle. To his astonishment, and the other witnesses’ shock and amazement, the rifle did not extract and eject the spent cartridge case and it failed to function as a semiautomatic. It is reported that Johnson nearly bit his frequently present cigar in half in irritation, frustration and rage.”

Canfield goes on to explain that the rifle could only be operated by direct manipulation of the bolt. The rifle was quickly unloaded and disassembled with all of the component parts compared against the blueprints. It was quickly discovered that Cranston Arms had failed to properly machine one of the bolt cams. The bolt was machined to specification, reinstalled into the rifle and the rifle was loaded for firing. This time Johnson’s rifle performed perfectly.

This particular rifle, Serial Number S-3, was probably manufactured the same day or within a day or two of rifle S-1 noted above. It is believed that only six of these tool room sample rifles with the “S” prefix were manufactured. The full production rifles were serial numbered in accordance with Dutch military policy, in serial numbered blocks of 9,999 rifles. The first block from serial number 0001-9999 did not have a prefix. The second block had prefix “A” and the third and final block of production had prefix “B.”

S-3 is interesting because, unlike the early R-models, it’s almost exactly like production guns. The differences are small and subtle and are detailed on the sales page,

As noted, this particular Johnson M1941 Rifle is serial number S-3 and is one of the initial tool room sample rifles manufactured by Cranston Arms. As can be clearly seen in the comparison photos, this tool room sample differed slightly from the final production model as Cranston and the Johnson team made some additional refinements prior to commencing main line production.

This rifle is in fine condition. The original barrel is in its original 22” military configuration with the sight protective ears and the bayonet lug. The front sight assembly is slightly different than production models with the machining and height of the front sight post slightly shorter on this tool room sample than the later production models. The front sight pins remain correctly staked in place and have never been removed. The barrel has 98% of its original finish. The barrel has strong rifling and a mirror bore so this will be an excellent shooting rifle. The muzzle gauges at approximately 0.5 and the muzzle crown remains perfect.

The Barrel Bushing has the correct “.30-’06” and “41” markings stamped on the face. The font is different, however, than later production rifles. Near the breech it has the “O [Gladius Sword] I” in a circle stamp found on all early Johnson 1941 Barrels. It is also correctly marked “J.A./30-06,” still crisply stamped. The Locking Bushing is in excellent condition with normal wear on the lugs. This bushing is also slightly different than production models in that the lugs here are more squared whereas the lugs on later production models were slightly rounded. The breech face remains in the white. The threads can be seen, which also differs from later production models. Both the Barrel and Locking Bushing have the matching assembly number “6664K” stamp. None of the M1941 Johnson Rifles were serial number matching so all of the Johnson 1941 Rifles will have different numbers on the bolt and barrel. The original Bayonet Lug is present. The first tool room rifle, serial number “S-1,” did not have the bayonet lug attached. It is unclear if serial number “S-2” had a bayonet lug so this could be the first of the Johnson rifles with this lug configuration.

The Receiver retains virtually all of its original parkerized finish. It has the correct “CRANSTON ARMS CO.” triangle on the right rear of the receiver. Significantly, it does not have the star stamp above the triangle. The star indicated original Dutch acceptance according to Bruce Canfield, prior to Japanese occupation of Dutch possessions in the Pacific and before these rifles were then offered to the Marine Corps. Since this was a tool room sample, it would not have received the Dutch acceptance star since it was never intended to be shipped to the Dutch. The Receiver markings are still very crisp on the top of the receiver. These markings include Johnson’s patent information, “JOHNSON AUTOMATICS” over “MODEL OF 1941,” and the manufacturer’s location, “MADE IN PROVIDENCE, R.I., U.S.” The font and size of the receiver markings are slightly different than later production models. Below that is the serial number “S-3.” All of the stampings remain crisp. The ventilated forward portion of the receiver, which becomes a ventilated top handguard, retains virtually all of its original parkerized finish.

The Rear Sight Assembly is in very fine condition and it also differs slightly from later main line production rifles. The Windage Knob is in fine condition and adjusts perfectly. The Aperture remains in its original military configuration. The Rear Sight Protective Wings retain virtually all of their original finish and differ slightly than later production models. The Rear Sight Elevator has a different font than later production models. The numbers on the right side still have the original paint that has yellowed slightly.

The original Firing Pin Stop Assembly is present and it retains all of its original blue finish. The original Firing Pin is present and it differs from later production models by slight machining differences towards the point. The Firing Pin retains virtually all of its original parkerized finish. The pin has the assembly number “J9303” on the side along with a “0” stamp towards the front. The Firing Pin Spring remains in the white.

 

The Bolt Catch Assembly is present and differs from later production models by the length of the machined channel.

This Johnson Model 1941 comes with a very rare and original Dutch Model leather sling. .

This Johnson Model 1941 Rifle also comes with an original and very rare Johnson Model 1941 Bayonet and leather scabbard.

This is an extraordinarily rare Johnson Model 1941 Tool Room Sample Rifle and is just the third of these pre-production rifles manufactured.

What is its provenance?

This rifle was purchased by an employee of Cranston Arms when the rifle was manufactured and was passed down through his family to his grandson. This rifle is in the exact condition it was when it was manufactured in 1941 and undoubtedly was fired by Maynard Johnson himself.

On the website, New Market is asking $16,000 for S-3; on GunBroker, bids in the $7,500 range did not meet reserve and it’s relisted. There is a buy-it-now of $

In addition to S-3, New Market has several more Johnsons for sale.

They do provide, with each listing, a very solid capsule history of the Johnson M1941, which appears to be a distillation of Bruce Canfield’s book (this is a good thing; we recently recommended it to specialists in a book-review roundup (Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews #5). (If you want early Johnson history beyond this, there’s more at the sales page for S-3, and of course the most comprehensive answer is the Canfield book).

The history of the Johnson 1941 Rifle, and its designer, is a very interesting one that began on the eve of WWII. The designer of the rifle was Melvin Maynard Johnson, Jr., who graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He was also an avid firearms enthusiast from a young age and, around the same time that he graduated from law school he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps Reserve. Johnson took advantage of his association with the Marine Corps to pen various articles for the Marine Corps Gazette in the early 1930s. One of his articles was a general critique of the new M1 Garand Semi-Automatic Rifle. Johnson took issue in his article with the M1s “gas trap” design and its en block clip loading design, as well as several other issues with the rifle.

Melvin Johnson began an early relationship with the United Automatic Rifles Corporation in the early 1930s, initially in his role as an attorney, and began to provide the company with mechanical and engineering work on various rifle designs. The relationship did not survive but it solidified in Johnson the desire to experiment with and develop his own weapons designs. One of his first experiments, undoubtedly as a counter to the gas operated M1 Garand design, was in recoil operated automatic weapons design. Johnson eventually partnered with Marlin Firearms to build a semi-automatic rifle and light machine gun, both of which used a vertical feed design through the use of Browning Automatic Rifle 20-round magazines. The magazines developed several problems during tests at Fort Benning but Johnson was undeterred and continued developing both weapons. This led Johnson to begin work on a rotary magazine design.

In the late 1930s, Johnson founded Johnson Automatics, Incorporated, which would be the operating entity that would own the patent rights (and hopefully obtain manufacturing rights) for all of Johnson’s weapons designs. Johnson then began a determined effort to sell his designs, and his weapons, to the US Army and Marine Corps and various countries, including Great Britain and France. The rifle design that Johnson settled on, which he felt was superior to the M1 Garand rifle, was what became his Model 1941 Rifle. This rifle had a detachable barrel, a 10-round rotary magazine, and was recoil operated. The US Army, however, had settled on the M1 Garand rifle, which was then in production at Springfield Armory. Johnson continued to believe that his rifle design was just as good as John C. Garand’s design and he began to lobby members of Congress in an attempt to reopen the weapons tests that led to the adoption of the M1. Congress eventually held several rounds of hearings and, after an additional series of “head-to-head” tests, the M1 Garand was deemed superior by the Army. This left Melvin Johnson continuing to try and win a contract from the Marine Corps, which had not formally adopted a replacement for the 1903 Rifle, and from various foreign governments. Melvin Johnson had finalized his Model 1941 design by this point and now needed the assistance of an established manufacturing business to go forward with large-scale production.

An agreement was ultimately reached between Johnson Automatics and the Universal Windings Company that resulted in the establishment of the Cranston Arms Company of Cranston, Rhode Island, which would produce Johnson’s Model 1941 Rifle. Cranston Arms also produced Johnson’s Model of 1941 Light Machine Gun, which shared several design features with his semi-automatic rifle. Only a limited number of M1941 rifles had been shipped to the Dutch in the East Indies prior to the Japanese capture of Dutch possessions in the Pacific in early 1942. Some of these rifles were ultimately captured by the Japanese near the airfield at Tarikan and the port of Balikpapan in 1942. The rest were evacuated and used by the Free Dutch forces fighting in Timor through 1943. Some of the Dutch M1941 rifles were even used for a time by Australian forces fighting in Timor. The remaining M1941 rifles were then embargoed to keep them from being sent to the East Indies and possibly captured by the Japanese.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941, demand for military arms soared. By this time, the Marine Corps had followed the Army’s lead in adopting the M1 as its standard battle rifle, but M1 production was initially unable to meet demand. In addition, much to the Marine Corps’ chagrin, the Army had first priority on available supplies and on future output from Springfield Armory and Winchester, the two manufacturers of the M1 Rifle. As a result, the Johnson M1941 rifle was adopted by the Marines for issue to Marine Raiders and to newly-formed Para-Marine airborne units (because the barrel could be removed for ease of jumping the weapon), and these rifles saw action in the Solomons campaign of 1942. As M1s became available to Marine units, the Johnson rifles were withdrawn from combat use. Only a few thousand of these arms had been procured by the U.S. government before production ended in 1944, and, in addition to their limited use with the Marine Corps, some Johnson rifles were issued to clandestine O.S.S. operatives. Because the rifle was never officially adopted by the US military, and because WWII prevented any opportunity Johnson may have had for robust foreign sales, the total number of Johnson 1941 Rifles manufactured was very small, only about 30,000. Johnson Model 1941 Rifles were serial numbered in groups of 10,000, with the first 10,000 having no prefix, the second group with prefix “A,” third group with prefix “B.”

For the tool room prototype, he provides more history.

The prices seem high to us (one of our Johnsons cost us $4k, and one $700 — decades earlier, when a 1911 was $225) but New Market has sold Johnsons they were listing for $6,250 and $7,500 recently.

12 thoughts on “How Many Johnsons Does One Man Need?

  1. Josey Wales

    “The Locking Bushing is in excellent condition with normal wear on the lugs. This bushing is also slightly different than production models in that the lugs here are more squared whereas the lugs on later production models were slightly rounded.”

    The need to do this was rediscovered by the Dutch in their 3 years of production of the Armalite AR-10. The early production Sudanese contract and “Transitional” guns had locking lugs that were sharp 90 deg. both on top of the lug and in the recesses between them. These guns occasionally would shear the locking lug below the extractor and the problem was cured by making the lugs a bit thicker and radiusing the corners above and below.

    Reply
  2. John M.

    Copy/paste error from caption:
    “that is still in its military configuration.An am”

    Also, no “buy it now” price is listed.

    -John M.

    Reply
  3. James F.

    I agree that no one really needs three Johnson’s, and I am, in fact, rather startled to hear that you have two.

    On his COMEDIANS IN CARS series, Jerry Seinfeld was asked how many vehicles he owned.

    His reply, from memory, was “The number is larger than, if I told you how big it was, you’d say ‘That makes sense!’ “

    Reply
  4. Sando182

    I don’t know how the Johnson compares to the M1 Garand in terms of reliability, function or operation but to my eye the Garand wins hands down in the style category.

    Reply
  5. Keith

    That was a great article. Thanks for the link to all the pictures I’ve seen several video’s of Johnson’s being fired but none of that detail. Too bad all the prices are out of reach of a working person.

    Reply
  6. Dienekes

    Nice! Just finished reading Canfield’s book recently. Got to shoot one of the rifles about 40 years ago, and a Johnson LMG a while back. Johnson was one interesting guy.

    Reply

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