1953, Korea. The leader of a patrol from the 35th Infantry Division uses his bayonet as a pointer as he briefs his men in advance of another night recon. Note the 30 round “banana clips” taped end to end on M2 carbines carried by him and the two soldiers to his left. Because of the carbine’s poor reputation for reliability, it is not surprising to see the inclusion of a BAR man in the patrol. Steel helmets, armored vests and fragmentation grenades also provide insurance. Credit: SC/NA/RB
By Robert Bruce
“The Marine criticism is even more harsh than that of the Army. From top to bottom, 1st Marine Division takes the dim view of this weapon; their experience with it during the Chosin Reservoir operation was the final blow to confidence. They want it either eliminated or made into a dependable weapon.” Operations Research Office Report R-13, Oct 1951
The compact, lightweight, semiautomatic M1 Carbine, born in 1941, had served the Marines reasonably well in the Pacific island-hopping campaign of WWII. The Army was generally pleased as well, although the “Baby Garand’s” lack of stopping power was one major factor in preventing it from replacing the .45 pistol as originally intended. So, what happened to destroy the little Winchester-designed rifle’s reputation in the Korean War? Selective Fire
Although the Army’s original specifications for what was to become the M1 Carbine called for semi and full auto capability, this last was dropped in the interests of simplicity and wartime pressure in order to field the maximum number in the shortest time. However, in 1944 when things began to look up for the allies, the first production-line full auto M2 versions began to reach the troops in Europe and the Pacific.
This was cleverly contrived so that only minor modifications were needed to the existing semiauto carbine to allow application of a few add-on parts. The most notable of these are the selector and the disconnector lever that, as long as the trigger is held back, allow the hammer to keep falling after each round is fired.
For whatever reasons, the best known official reports recapping weapons performance in WWII are not notably critical of the new selective fire carbine. Rather, they tend to list in general the whole family’s inherent shortcomings such as being about as powerful as a pistol and about as handy as a rifle. Not exactly a ringing endorsement….
Despite these and other problems the weapon was serviceable for its intended purpose and tremendous numbers had been produced of all versions including the folding stock M1A1 paratrooper model. Consequently, the postwar US Armed Forces had thoroughly integrated them into their small arms mix with particular emphasis on arming those troops whose duties are not primarily as riflemen. Notably, this included troops of artillery, combat engineers, signal and other supporting units.
“The carbine is a handy weapon for the individual whose duties take him to the line only occasionally, for rear area troops dealing with minor threats to their local security, and for minor escort and convoy duties where there is a danger of being jumped suddenly and at close range.” ORO-R-13
So far, so good, but almost as soon as the Korean War began reports of serious problems with the carbine started flooding in from Army and Marine units.
“Since being made full automatic, it is hyper-sensitive. In hot weather, even small amounts of dust and moisture together will cause it to misfire. In cold weather, it is more sensitive to frost than any other weapon, and more difficult to lubricate in such a way that it will remain operative.” ORO-R-13
The carbine’s catalog of Korean War woes goes on and on including lack of controllability in fast (750 rpm) full auto fire and feed problems with the relatively new 30 round “banana clip.” These blued sheet metal mags were also denounced for unwelcome contributions to chamber fouling caused by a tendency to rust at the feed lips so that crud would be dragged along with the ammo as the weapon cycled.
Perhaps most distressing is the carry-over of justified criticism from WWII experience denouncing the short rifle as underpowered and inaccurate at moderate distances. Numerous combat accounts provide chilling testimony to the lack of stopping power of the carbine’s puny110 grain full metal jacketed bullet.
“But the main reason my men lost confidence in the carbine was because they would put a bullet right in a Chink’s chest at 25 yards range, and he wouldn’t stop. This happened to me. The bullet struck home; the man simply winced and kept on coming.” 1st Lieutenant Joseph R. Fisher, 1st Marine Regiment (ORO-R-13)
To be fair, there are also many instances on record attesting to the carbine’s combat utility. Interestingly, a number of those officers and men who gave the ORO task force some of the worst stories observed among their peers were themselves quite fond of their own “pet” carbines that were said to perform without problems. Perhaps they took better care or were just lucky to have particularly good ones. Also, many of the less fortunate troops interviewed would readily admit that the weapon was not intended to fill the role of the Garand or the submachine gun, but, properly maintained and used, served well on patrol and other situations.
The small, light, handy carbine was a natural choice for Ordnance when the time came to field the infrared Sniperscope in quantity. This night vision weapon sight was based on the German “Vampir” (vampire) program, encountered in the closing months of WWII. Fortunately for our guys, this had been steadily developed in the years following so it was ready for issue in Korea where night combat with persistent enemy infiltration was the rule.
Because the range of this relatively primitive apparatus was limited to about 125 yards and its weight was a formidable 32 pounds, it made sense to use the carbine as its primary platform. As such, the selective fire M2 was chosen and modified by installation of a sight tube mounting bracket on top and attachment of a foregrip with switch assembly. Once these external changes had been made the carbine was then designated as an M3.
Although touted as equally useful in attack or defense, it is not surprising that the Sniperscope/Carbine combo showed greatest utility on forward observation posts where extra batteries could be stockpiled and a sandbag rest would be available. There, despite the considerable weight penalty and somewhat ungainly handling, its ability to pierce the blackest night to detect probing enemies was a godsend.
FM23-7 and TM 5-9342
Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, “Commentary on Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage in Korea; Winter of 1950-51,” Johns Hopkins University, Operations Research Office Report ORO-R-13, Oct 27, 1951 Larry Ruth, “War Baby” Vol I and II, Collector Grade Publications, 1993
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N12 (September 2001)