The Forgotten Marine: The M1941 Johnson Rifle - .30-06 Springfield
The Johnson rifle, the oddball of the US War effort, the Johnson was a substitute rifle the US Marine Corp adopted in the early parts of the war. But before I get into the nitty gritty of this gun, we’re gonna need a bit of context.
So during the 1920′s and 1930′s, most militaries in the Western World were trying to replace older bolt action rifles with some kind of brand new semi automatic design. The Germans had the G41 program, which sort of worked and sort of didn’t, the Russians had the SVT-38 and later SVT-40 but those never managed to replace the older Mosin Nagant in service, even the Republic of China had the General Liu rifle, but the designer suffered a stroke and the ship carrying the tooling sank and never went anywhere. The US was really the only country who’s semi-automatic rifle program went somewhere.
So the US trials boiled down to two main designs. The Springfield Arsenal’s M1 Garand, designed by John Garand and the Pedersen Rifle submitted by Remington and designed by John Pedersen. Skipping a lot of technical changes, the US Army liked both rifles, but a number of generals wanted to have a gun chambered in the already common .30-06 caliber. The M1 Garand ended up winning the trial due to being able to use .30-06 over the .276 Pedersen cartridge.
However, there was a problem. In 1941, the war broke out and the Garand’s were in pretty limited production and to rectify that, the US Army started shipping soldiers with M1903 Springfields. But the USMC didn’t really go that way, and they ended up running into a man named Melvin Johnson.
Melvin Johnson was a former lawyer from Boston and had served with the USMC as an observer at the Springfield Armory. During his time there, he began designing a different military rifle, something he thought was better than the M1 Garand as well as a LMG. The rifle was a short recoil, rotating bolt gun, fed via a rotary magazine fed by individual rounds as well as M1903 Stripper clips. With these designs, he went and founded the Johnson Automatic Incorporated Company and got his first contract, oddly with the Dutch.
The Dutch contract was to arm the KNIL, the Dutch Colonial Army with new rifles, and the Johnson was chosen. However, by the time the rifles were being shipped over, the Dutch East Indies had collapsed. However, Johnson lucked out as the USMC took some of the Dutch shipment and began ordering more.
The USMC had a large change with the beginning of the war. They went from a small 6,000 man force usually serving as ship support to a large 600,000 man mobile army that was the primary American force in the Pacific. And with a change like that meant a scramble to get guns in the hands of troops. And besides older US Army models were a number of designs not standard, including the Reising M50 and M55 SMG, the Johnson LMG as well as the Johnson rifle.
Marines liked the Johnson rifle, and while it slowly was replaced by the M1 Garand as the war progress, soldiers like Hugo Dunlap still loved their Johnson rifles. It was used by the US Para-Marines, normal USMC soldiers and the First Special Service Force. The Free French Army recieved a shipment of 10,000 rifles and 1,000 Johnson LMG’s and later on, Johnson’s floated on to be used by Argentina and the CIA and rather infamously, used by Brigade 2506, the Cuban regiment sent into the Bay Of Pigs.
And while Johnson’s company was bought up by Winchester, Johnson didn’t stop designing, managing to become the weapons consultant for the Department of Defense from 1951 until his death in 1955. But his rifle’s rotating bolt influenced one of the most famous rifles ever made. A little known company named ArmaLite used Johnson’s rotating bolt patent as well as straight in-line stock idea in their new rifles, the AR-10 and AR-15. The rest is history.