One of the forgotten American weapons of World War II, the Johnson Light Machine gun was the creation of Melvin Johnson, also the inventor of the Johnson M1941 semi-automatic rifle. A creation that used similar operating principles as his rifle (short recoil, rotating bolt) the Johnson LMG was created to be an alternative to the older Browning Automatic Rifle and in many ways the Johnson LMG was far superior to the BAR. Both had similar firepower at 600 rounds per minute, which was adjustable for slower fire if needed. Both used .30-06, the standard caliber of the US military.
When it comes to weight and size the Johnson certainly pulls ahead. At 12 pounds, it was 8 pounds lighter than the BAR. Being lighter, more compact, and more ergonomic than the BAR, the Johnson LMG was also easier to fire from the shoulder in standing position like a rifle. The Johnson exceeded the BAR in terms of magazine capacity, holding 25 rounds in a detachable box magazine which was mounted horizontally, whereas the BAR held 20. An interesting feature, the Johnson could be loaded with the magazine attached using five round stripper clips through the ejection port. Finally the Johnson had a detachable barrel which could be replaced to prevent overheating.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Johnson LMG was its in-line stock, a system where all the moving parts of the firearm traveled in direct line with the users shoulder. Since most of the recoil is directed into the user shoulder, an in-line stock prevents muzzle climb when firing. Today the system is common in M16/AR15 rifles as Melvin Johnson often helped Armalite’s Eugene Stoner with his designs.
While the Johnson LMG surpassed the BAR in many ways, it was rejected by the US Military for one reason, it was not as rugged or reliable as the BAR. Often the Johnson was susceptible to dirt, dust, and moisture which caused the weapon to jam or misfire. Also taken into consideration was the fact that on the eve of war, it was not a good time for American industry to retool in order to manufacture a brand new light machine gun. For the most part the Johnson LMG was issued to elite forces who needed a more compact and lighter light machine gun than the BAR. Most notable for using the Johnson were the Marine Corps Paramarines and Marine Raiders of the Pacific. A few were also issued to paratroopers and Army Rangers in Europe. A total of 9,500 were produced.
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.
Developed from rejected designs in the US Army service rifle trials, the M1941 Johnson was originally produced for the Dutch military forces in the Far East. Japanese incursions prevented delivery of the weapon however, and the Marines, desperate for more semi-automatic arms, bought up the stocks. The weapon proved to be rather popular, although it never supplanted the M1 Garand.