Posted by Bruce Canfield

While I don’t want to use a lot of recycled material, a number of readers have said that they enjoyed this posting when it appeared here a year or so ago so I’m making an exception.

More thoughts on “tracing the history” of a Gun.

I get a lot of inquiries from guys wanting to find out the “history” of a particular U.S. military weapon and the question seems to be asked with more and more frequency. As we have mentioned here before, in the vast majority of cases, that simply isn’t possible. Even on those rare occasions when some information can be garnered, it is normally just a “snapshot” of the weapon at a given point. For example, factory letters can often be obtained for some U.S. military firearms manufactured under government contract. The most common of these are the various Colt handguns such as the Model 1911, Model 1909 and Model 1917 as well as some of the Smith & Wesson revolvers made for the government. Even in such cases, however, the information only reveals the date and destination of the shipment from the factory. While interesting, there is no subsequent information revealed regarding the gun in question. Likewise, for those fortunate enough to obtain a “hit” on their weapon in the Springfield Research Service database are only going to find out a snippet of information in the gun’s “chain of custody” while in military service. As mentioned before, this information can range from the mundane and relatively unimportant (i.e., the rifle was turned into Springfield Armory for refurbishing on a particular date) to extremely important and noteworthy (i.e., a M1896 Krag carbine was issued to a member of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry (“Rough Riders”) or a M1873 “Trapdoor Carbine” or Colt SAA was issued to member of the 7th Cavalry and used in the Little Big Horn battle. Most of the SRS “hits” are in the former category and, while interesting, hardly constitute a complete history of the gun in question. Since only an estimated 3% or less (probably a lot less) of U.S. military firearms are reflected in the SRS database, the odds of discovering even this modicum of information are pretty low.

Some have wondered why records regarding a particular weapon’s subsequent disposition after it left the factory weren’t maintained and available today. They point out, correctly, that there was strict accountability for the weapons issued to a particular unit, thus those records should still be around. The primary reason why this is not the case is because such accountability only existed while the weapons were in the possession of the unit to which they were issued. During peacetime, such records were maintained until the weapons were transferred to another entity or turned in for some other reason. After the guns were “off the books” of the unit, the records were destroyed as there would have been no reason to keep them. Pity they weren’t thinking of us collectors today! When a unit deployed overseas, all bets were off regarding accountability of weapons as it would have been impossible to account for guns lost, destroyed, abandoned (yes, it happened), “carried home” (yes, that also happened on some occasions), captured, traded for another weapon, etc. Theoretically, the weapons were all supposed to have been accounted for when a unit was withdrawn from a theater of operations but the realities of the situation usually meant that any gun that was missing was simply shown as “lost in action.” Even these incomplete records were destroyed when the weapons were turned in upon the unit’s return stateside. To the average supply clerk or weapon’s room sergeant, a rifle was simply something else to account for along with blankets, overcoats and socks and not the treasured and valuable collectible as we view it today.

In a perfect world, we would be able to have complete documentation on a particular weapon consisting of when it was made, every soldier to whom it was issued and when, where and how it was used. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Ideally, I would love to be able to respond to such an inquiry as follows:

“Q. Can you give me the history of my M1 rifle, serial number 123456?

A. Your rifle was assembled on March 16, 1943 beginning at 1:03 PM by Springfield Armory employee Robert Charles Wilson. The weather was unseasonably warm for mid-March in Massachusetts and Wilson wished he could have taken the day off. When he started assembling the rifle, Mr. Wilson had just finished lunch at the Springfield Armory cafeteria where he dined on broiled chicken (which was a bit overdone) and green beans that were too salty for his taste. Wilson was the youngest of four siblings (two boys and a girl). He got along with his mother but he and his father has issues that he never talked about. He tried to enlist in the Army but was flat-footed and near-sighted, thus took a job at Springfield. He was dating Cynthia Morgenstern, a rather plain-looking young lady but with a great personality who he met at a church picnic a year earlier. They talked about marriage but she insisted that he have a “paying job,” hence his employment at the Armory.

After cutting his finger on a screwdriver and smashing his thumb with an assembly mallet, Wilson completed assembly of the rifle at 3:47 PM. He would have finished it earlier but the overdone chicken resulted in some intestinal distress which resulted in several “delays.” The rifle was then passed to Bob G. Willett, an employee of the Ordnance Department for inspection. It was found to be satisfactory and he applied the proof firing mark and the final inspection stamp. He always found it curious that the stamp was “GAW” when his initials were “BGW” but he never asked anyone as he didn’t want to appear dense. The rifle was packed in a wooden crate with nine other rifles and shipped out via truck express the following day (March 17) at 9:10 am en route to the Springfield Ordnance District receiving facility. It remained in storage there until March 23 when it was sent to Camp Beauregard (near Alexandria, Louisiana) and arrived on March 31 at 4:14 PM. On April 3, 1943, the rifle was unpacked and logged into the arms room records by supply sergeant Timothy “Tiny Tim” (don’t ask how he got the nickname) Jones. Jones was a recent draftee from Skunkworks, New Hampshire and was not at all happy about being assigned to Camp Beauregard. He wanted to do his job, “keep his nose clean,” and get out of the Army as soon as possible. The rifles in the shipment were eventually issued to Company B, 3rd Infantry and your particular weapon was assigned to 19 year old Pvt. Millard Duckworth, (ID #5589689878) who had just joined the unit the previous month after volunteering at the recruiting center in his hometown of Ames, Iowa. He often thought about what on earth possessed him to volunteer. Duckworth played baseball in high school (left hand pitcher) and imagined himself going to the big leagues after his stint in the Army. However, he wasn’t nearly as good as he thought himself to be as his fastball was actually pretty lame and his control wasn’t up to pro standards, however he was a decent hitter (for a pitcher). Pvt. Duckworth qualified with the rifle at Camp Beauregard but thought it was too heavy and recoiled too much and he much preferred his Marlin .30-30 lever action that he used back home for deer hunting. On the evening of June 2, 1943 Duckworth and his squad had detailed-stripped their M1 rifles and he accidentally got the trigger assembly mixed up with the one of the rifle belonging to PFC George Wray (rifle serial # 222098) which had different drawing numbers on the housing and hammer. It worked fine and neither soldier was aware of the switch even though the rifle became “non-original” at that point. 

On November 17, 1943, Duckworth and three other members of his unit were transferred to the Camp Sludge motor pool at Bayonne, New Jersey. It may not be coincidental that all four were given poor fitness reports by their first sergeant. Pvt. Duckworth dutifully turned in his rifle and the supply sergeant commented that he didn’t take very good care of the weapon and made him clean it again before he would accept it. The rifle remained in the arms room as newer Garands had been received just before the unit shipped out to Great Britain to train for the rumored cross-channel invasion. Rifle #123456 along with three other rifles (serial numbers 345681, 199098, and 333598) were shipped to the Hartford Ordnance District depot on February 12, 1944 for storage and subsequent disposition and arrived at the facility on March 3, 1944. Your rifle was cleaned by a part-time worker, Phil Hendershot (middle name not known) and put back into storage where it remained until after the war.

On March 7, 1946, your rifle, along with several hundred others in storage at the Hartford OD, were sent to Raritan Arsenal for inspection and overhaul where they arrived on March 15. In an amazing coincidence, Pvt. Duckworth was discharged from the Army from the Army the same day in the same state (New Jersey).

The rifle was logged into Raritan’s records the following day and on March 17, it was one of the rifles assigned to Armory worker Ralph Waldo Fosdick for inspection and refurbishment. Fosdick, a native of Troy, New York, had worked at the Raritan for about a year and a half was glad he was able to miss getting drafted. As Fosdick looked at the rifle he muttered, “Gee, what idiot had this rifle? The stock looks like a fencepost and the barrel a sewer pipe.” Fosdick rebarrelled the rifle and replaced the stock along with some worn springs. He stamped the stock with a “RA-P” inspection stamp. He had always been curious about the letters and guessed that the “RA” meant Raritan Arsenal but couldn’t figure out what the “P” mean until somebody told him it was the initial of his boss, Harry Petersen. When preparing to send the rifle to the warehouse for storage, he accidentally bumped it on the side of the rack which is why you see that 2 ¼ “ ding on the left side, below the stock ferrule (assuming you haven’t sanded it out yet). Fosdick looked around to make sure no one else saw what happened and the rifle was sent to the “cosmoline room” (Fosdick pitied the poor schmucks who worked there) before being sent to the warehouse where it remained until May 5, 1951. This rifle, and 671 other M1s, were shipped to Benicia Arsenal for possible use in Korea. The rifles, including yours, arrived in California on June 1, 1951 where they were sent to the storage facility there after being logged in by Arsenal employee Selma Frump. As events transpired, the rifles were never issued and remained in storage at Benicia until August 15, 1961 when they were ordered to be transferred to Anniston Army Depot. As these rifles, including #123456, had been unused since being overhauled at Raritan they didn’t require any work and were logged into Anniston upon arrival in Alabama by Depot employee Lester F. Myers who dutifully checked the serial number and general condition of the rifle. Since it was covered with cosmoline and was slippery, Myers accidentally dropped the rifle on the concrete floor which is why the buttplate is indented a bit . He shrugged and then picked up the rifle and placed it in a wooden crate along with hundreds of others for long-term storage. The rifle remained in storage at Anniston until January 18, 1999 when it was acquired by the Civilian Marksmanship Program for sale to qualified purchasers. CMP armorer Wesley G. Rogers cleaned and degreased the rifle and inspected it for functioning, etc. and it was placed in the “sale rack.” The rifle selected to fill an order by Clark W. Griswold of Brokeback, Texas on April 16, 2000. He used his income tax refund to buy the rifle which seriously ticked off his wife who wanted new drapes for the living room. Griswold had to sleep on the couch for a few days until he wised up and sent her some flowers which got him out of the doghouse. He received the rifle on May 7, 2000 at 5:33 PM and eagerly opened the FedEx box. Upon examining the rifle, he was a bit disappointed as he had hoped to have gotten lucky and received a M1 still remaining in its WWII configuration rather than the usual post-war rebuild. He took the rifle to the local range and fired 4 clips at the target with mediocre results and took the rifle back home and gave it a cursory cleaning. After getting fed up with his wife’s constant complaining about the old drapes, he took the rifle to the Dallas Market Hall Gun Show on September 18, 2000 to sell it and stop the old bag’s (excuse me…”concerned spouse’s”) incessant nagging. The rifle was bought by Doug Surpie, a part-time gun dealer and flea market merchant for $75.00 more than it originally cost Griswold. On October 5, 2000, Surpie had the rifle on his table at the local gun show in your town. Dan Stickett saw the rifle and wanted to buy it but only had a personal check which was refused (which is a good thing as it would have bounced as he only had $14.31 available in his account at that time). Several other people at the show looked at the rifle until you came along at 11:47 AM and bought it after haggling $25.00 off the price, giving Surpie a total profit on the rifle of $175.00 (some of which went to buy watered-down soft drinks, stale nachos and a greasy barbeque sandwich at the gun show concession stand).

I apologize for not having any information on Pvt. Duckworth’s E.R.A. when he pitched in high school or Phil Hendershot’s middle name. Regardless, I still hope the above thumbnail sketch of your rifle’s history is of some interest to you. Please let me know if you require any additional information regarding your rifle as time didn’t permit me to fully research the weapon so I could give you a more detailed response. Best wishes.”

OK, I guess this proves that I occasionally have too much time on my hands. Anyway, if such a scenario could happen (yea, right!), we would have an answer to the age-old collector wish….”If this old gun could only talk.” In the case of M1 rifle #123456, somebody would quickly tell it to shut up.

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