Those of us who are interested in firearms in general, and U.S. military weapons in particular, have to contend with a lot of controversial subjects and some enduring myths. The former include such things as the wisdom of firing “low numbered” M1903 rifles and what type of rifle Alvin York used in World War I. The latter includes things addressed in this site before such as the “deadly ping sound” of an ejected M1 rifle clip and that Mattel Company manufactured M16 rifles. On topic that touches on both categories is the combat effectiveness of the .30 caliber M1 carbine.
Even though most of you who read this column are aware of the origins of the M1 carbine, perhaps a brief recitation may be in order. The semiautomatic carbine was developed primarily as a light weight weapon for officers and some troops (crewed-served weapons personnel, etc.) whose primary duties would prelude carrying a standard full size and weight service rifle. The carbine was chambered for a .30 caliber cartridge much smaller than the .30-06 service rifle cartridge. In reality, the weapon was designed to be a replacement for the .45 pistol and was never intended to take the place of the Garand rifle.
Even though the carbine had less power, range and accuracy than the M1 rifle, its light weight and rapid-firing capability appealed to many combat soldiers who grew weary of carrying around the 10 pound Garand. Once in combat, the limitations of the carbine as a substitute for the service rifle became apparent and many soldiers ditched their carbines in favor of the heavier, but more powerful, Garand. Thus the misconception that the carbine was a badly flawed combat weapon was born. Yes, compared to the Garand, the carbine was much less powerful, had less range and was less accurate. No question about it. However, as stated, the carbine was never intended as a replacement for the Garand. When compared to the .45 pistol (the weapon for it was intended to replace), the carbine fares quite differently. Yes, the point-blank stopping power of the .45 ACP round is undeniable. The problem is that any pistol, including the superb M1911, is not very effective at ranges much beyond 25 yards or so in the hands of an average shooter. The U.S. WWII submachine guns (Thompson and M3 grease gun) made up for this lack of range and accuracy by throwing a lot of .45 ACP bullets downrange in a hurry. Even with the submachine guns, however, hitting a target more distant than 100 yards or so was pretty problematic. The carbine, on the other hand, was accurate in the hands of a decent marksman at several hundred yards. At that range, the comparatively high velocity of the .30 carbine round was more effective than the near-terminal velocity of the ponderous 230 grain ACP bullet. In other words, the average shooter could hit a target much easier with a carbine than with a pistol. This truism was the driving force behind the development of the carbine in the first place. Yes, a M1 rifle would be more effective than the carbine at all ranges but it is unfair and misleading to compare it to the Garand. They were designed for entirely different purposes. If a carbine was used in lieu of a Garand, it would indeed be judged deficient. On the other hand, a hit with a carbine bullet would be infinitely better than a missing with a .45 pistol bullet.
While the efficacy of the carbine can be rationally debated, the subject is not without its enduring myths, or at least questionable assertions, as well. One of the more pervasive of these is the oft-told tale about the miserable failures of the carbine against the Chinese Communists in Korea. The most common fable is how the carbine bullet was unable to penetrate the heavy quilted coats worn by our Chinese adversaries. There are numerous anecdotes of our soldiers and marines emptying the magazines of their carbines into on-rushing Chinese and having the enemy hardly flinch because their coats made them immune to the anemic .30 caliber carbine bullets. This fable seems to be somewhat akin to the infamous myth about the Garand’s “deadly clip ping” sound. In a number of cases, one wonders how many times the enemy soldier was actually hit. Most of the carbines employed in Korea were M2s which were notoriously inaccurate in full-automatic mode because of the high rate of fire. There were certainly numerous instances when magazines were, in fact, emptied but few of the bullets hit the target although the shooter undoubtedly assumed the opposite. Also, it is doubtful in the extreme that a carbine bullet could not penetrate an overcoat. This myth is easily deflated by taking a heavy overcoat (or multiple overcoats), quilted or otherwise, and setting it up a hundred yards down range and shooting it with a carbine. Unless the coat had a Kevlar liner, it will surely be penetrated with each shot (assuming the shooter was on target!).
Comparing the carbine to the Garand is like comparing a pickup truck to an 18-wheeler. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you want to move a dresser to a new apartment across town, both would work although the pickup would be much more practical. On the other hand, if you want to move tons of material across country, the 18-wheeler would be the only way to go. They are both useful and functional vehicles but if you try to replace a Freightliner with a Ford F-150, you’re going to be very unhappy indeed!