The M1 carbine was the most produced American military firearm of World War II. In 1938, the Chief of Infantry asked the Artillery Department to develop a lightweight rifle with which to arm mortarmen, radio operators, truck drivers and similar support troops. The formalized requirement was approved two years later. At that time, the world was going completely sideways.
Work had been underway at Winchester on similar projects for some time. Ed Browning, John Browning’s half brother, had been working on a replacement for the M1 Garand that would fire a full size .30-06 rifle cartridge. This proposed M2 rifle turned out to be insufficiently reliable. After Browning’s death in 1939, David “Carbine” Williams was brought in to refine the design.
David Williams was serving time in the penitentiary for killing a law enforcement officer, but had a clear penchant for guns. The warden even allowed Williams to service the guards’ weapons in the prison machine shop – that would certainly sound weird today. After his release, Williams tweaked Browning’s M2 and ended up with a reliable, short-stroke piston weapon that shaved two pounds off the Garand’s weight.
Due to the ongoing effort with the proposed M2, Winchester had not planned to submit a candidate for Light Rifle trials. With the encouragement of Major Rene Studler of the Ordnance Department, Winchester engineers miniaturized the M2 action to accommodate a 7.62x33mm straight wall cartridge. This unique .30 rifle cartridge is derived from the 1906 rimless .32 Winchester self-loading cartridge.
A group of half a dozen designers from Winchester created a working prototype for the Light Rifle competition in just 13 days. This radical little gun revolved around a miniaturized version of David Williams’ short-stroke piston action. The resulting M1 carbine was officially standardized in October 1942.
The American industry eventually produced some 6,121,309 copies of the tidy little rifle from 10 major contractors. At the peak of production, we were making 65,000 rifles a day. The typical GI carbine cost the government about $45 during the war. It would be around $675 today.