Johnson Rifle - Myth and Reality

Posted by Bruce Canfield

Among the more interesting and in some ways enigmatic American small arms of WWII are the M1941 Johnson Rifle along with its "stablemate," the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun/Automatic Rifle.  The Johnson rifle is very popular with today's collectors and prices for original specimens in decent condition are steadily rising.  Most collectors and military arms enthusiasts are aware of the Johnson weapons but there is a LOT of misinformation bandied about in a number of books, articles, internet postings, etc. Also, there are a couple of museums I'm aware of that have incorrect information regarding the Johnson weapons in their collection.  Here are some of the misconceptions I've come across:

Myth: The M1 Garand beat out the Johnson rifle to become the standardized U.S. service rifle.

Reality:  The M1 Garand was officially adopted by the U.S. government in 1936, a couple of years before Melvin Johnson, Jr. had his semiautomatic rifle perfected sufficiently to have it tested by the Ordnance Department. By this time, the M1 was in full production and Ordnance gave the Johnson rifle cursory tests (as it did for many other rifles) before issuing a "thanks but we're not interested" verdict.  

Myth:  There were some 70,000 Johnson rifles manufactured.

Reality:  The total production of M1941 Johnson rifles was 21,988.

Myth:  The Marine Corps adopted the Johnson rifle in WWII because of a shortage of M1 rifles and it was used by Marine paratroopers, Raiders and other combat units.

Reality:  The Marine Corps procured several hundred M1941 Johnson rifles for issuance solely to the First Parachute Regiment.  The Johnson rifle was not selected because of a shortage of M1s but because of its easily removable barrel which made it attractive for airborne use.  The First Parachute Regiment was the only USMC unit to have Johnson rifles (with 243 in its TO&E).  Johnson rifles were not issued to Marine Raiders or any other units.  It is true that some Marine Raider units had Johnson Light Machine Guns, but not Johnson rifles.

Myth:  There is a "USMC Model" Johnson Rifle.

Reality: M1941 Johnson rifles and Light Machine Guns were manufactured under contract for the Dutch government under the auspices of the Netherlands Purchasing Commission.  The Marines had to procure the Johnson weapons from the Dutch. There was no particular serial number range for these rifles. There was never any special "Marine Corps model" Johnson rifle.  Also, when acquired by the Marines, no markings were added so any markings seen today such as  "USMC" "circled P" proof marks on the stock, etc. were added by a subsequent civilian owner.

Myth:  The Army's elite First Special Service Force used Johnson rifles.

Reality:  Nope. The FSSF did procure 125 M1941 Johnson Light Machine Guns from the Dutch but NO Johnson rifles.  There is often confusion between the Johnson rifle and the Johnson LMG.

Myth:  The Johnson rifle is a better weapon than the M1 Garand.

Reality:  Actually this is a subjective assessment.  Certainly any weapon, including the M1 and the Johnson, have strong and weak points.  While the Johnson does have a couple of advantages over the M1, to claim it is unquestionably a "better" weapon is really a stretch.  

While the Johnson rifle obviously didn't play a huge role in WWII, it is a noteworthy weapon and one of the more interesting arms of the era.  If you're interested in a Johnson rifle and run across a genuine example, you should seriously consider opening your checkbook wider than you'd like because prices will only go up.  As the old saying goes "they ain't making any more of them."

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