Melvin Johnson was a gun designer who felt that the M1 Garand rifle had several significant flaws – so he developed his own semiauto .30-06 rifle to supplement the M1. His thought was that if problems arose with the M1 in combat, production of his rifle could provide a continuing supply of arms while problems with the M1 were worked out. The rifle he designed was a short-recoil system with a multi-lug rotating bolt (which was the direct ancestor of the AR bolt design). When the Johnson rifle was tested formally alongside the M1, the two were found to be pretty much evenly matched – which led the Army to dismiss the Johnson. If it wasn’t a significant improvement over the Garand, Ordnance didn’t see the use in siphoning off resources to produce a second rifle.
The Johnson had some interesting features – primarily its magazine design. It used a fixed 10-round rotary magazine, which could be fed by 5-round standard stripper clips or loose individual cartridges. It could also be topped up without interfering with the rifle’s action, unlike the M1. On the other hand, it was not well suited to using a bayonet, since the extra weight on the barrel was liable to cause reliability problems (since the recoil action has to be balanced for a specific reciprocating mass). Johnson thought bayonets were mostly useless, but the Army used the issue as a rationale to dismiss the Johnson from consideration.
However, Johnson was able to make sales of the rifle to the Dutch government, which was in urgent need of arms for the East Indies colonies. This is where the M1941 designation came from – it was the Dutch model name. Only a few of the 30,000 manufactured rifles were delivered before the Japanese overran the Dutch islands, rendering the rest of the shipment moot.
At this point, Johnson was also working to interest the newly-formed Marine Paratroop battalions in a light machine gun version of his rifle. The Paramarines needed an LMG which could be broken down for jumping, light enough for a single man to effectively carry, and quick to reassemble upon landing. The Johnson LMG met these requirements extremely well, and was adopted for the purpose. The Paramarines were being issues Reising folding-stock submachine guns in addition to the Johnson LMGs, and they found the Reisings less than desirable. Someone noticed that thousands of M1941 Johnson rifles (which could also have their barrel quickly and easily removed for compact storage) were effectively sitting abandoned on the docks, and the Para Marines liberated more than a few of them. These rifles were never officially on the US Army books, but they were used on Bougainville and a few other small islands.
Want a more complete version of the Johnson rifle story? A fellow on PracticallyShooting.com has written an excellent detailed explanation of the whole development and use of the Johnson. If that’s not enough for you, Bruce Canfield’s book (Johnson Rifles and Machine Guns: The Story of Melvin Maynard Johnson, Jr. and His Guns) is the definitive Johnson resource out there, and still readily available.
Nice rifle! It almost functions like a video game gun with the “one bullet clip” ability, since the primary feed is not through the same place where spent cartridges are ejected. Unlike the Springfield version of the Krag-Jorgensen, whose trapdoor magazine was not easily loaded, the Johnson’s clip loading approach combines the best. You can top off the magazine rather than swap magazines (video games forget that in real life numerous partially empty magazines do not use a magical ammo hopper or something like that to combine themselves into fewer but fully loaded magazines) and you can load the empty magazine rather quickly without smashing your thumb (forgetting to lock the Garand bolt back all the way will get you a Garand thumb).
Forget bayoneting enemies with this gun. Adding a barrel shroud might give you a proper bayonet lug for a knife bayonet (rather than the impractical pig sticker which looks useless for most applications not related to killing) but it would be too heavy!
Parachuted Marines with Johnson rifles and the Johnson LMG sneak around a Japanese-held airfield. The Japanese, relying on their Arisaka rifles and Nambu machine guns, are cut down before they can take cover as the Marines jump out of the foliage. Despite a few Johnsons getting entangled by jungle undergrowth during the ambush, the Marines practically exterminate the enemy. Sound realistic?
There were some Johnsons used… The Dutch in the Dutch East Indies, and the USMC “paramarine” concept and raiders.
Bayonets don’t matter in the age of sharpened spades [WWI and WWII] and the USMC did issue the KA-BAR fighting knife during WWII after telling them that Japanese troops widely used night-time infiltration tactics and so on.
I once brought up the Johnson’s reputation for vertical stringing when hot–something common to quite a few light-barrel rifle designs. The owner was convinved it was the be-all end-all design in self-loading rifles!
In his 1954 book Weapons, Edwin Tunis observed that paratroops liked the M1 carbine (especially the folding-stock M1A1 version) because they could “carry it with them and land shooting instead of waiting for the rifles to come down on the next elevator” (i.e., in a drop canister).
The M1A1 folding-stock carbine only became available in mid-1943. The drop-harness case for the M1 Garand was first issued about a month before Operation Overlord began.
So, if the ParaMarines wanted a rifle-caliber weapon they could drop with onto Bougainville, etc., at the time, the Johnson was the only game in town, irrespective of its other merits and/or faults.
As one of my college profs (non-para Marine, recon, Guadalcanal and etc.) told me, the Johnson worked considerably better in jungle conditions than the Reising. It was also a bit lighter than a fully-loaded Thompson (10 lbs. vs. 12), and reached out further and hit harder.
Accuracy was on a par with the M1917 Enfield .30 bolt action; according to him, there were far more M1917s than M1903 Springfields on “the Canal”, until the Army arrived.
He did consider the Johnson a poor bayonet mount. He stated that anyone who thinks a bayonet is unnecessary for infantry combat has never been there for real. Especially in a jungle. (He didn’t think much of the M-16 as a bayonet “handle”, either.)
BTW, he considered himself fortunate. After being issued a Reising, he “acquired” from stores a Thompson M1921 that had apparently seen service in Nicaragua a decade earlier. It had the horizontal forearm, with the front sling swivel on the left side instead of underneath the forearm. Because it had a bayonet bar mount attached underneath, for the eighteen-inch bladed M1917 Enfield bayonet.
That weapon was his constant companion right up to Okinawa. And yes, he used the bayonet for things besides opening ration cans.
Strictly speaking, the only reasonable bayonet mount in service today is the Mossberg 590 shotgun.
Eon .. Been several occasions during my rather uneventful military career that only me, God and the laundry man know how “concerned” I was! One was while attached with the 173rde in 65, War Zone D and with a platoon that had just crossed a rice paddy like area, hunkered down with my radio operator and the word came ” NVA company heading this way ..Fix Bayonets .. being armed with a CAR 15; I rather came up a bit short and W/O bayonet! Another time involving the thing attached to the end of a barrel was at a SF camp in II Corp, 67, that had one evening a good 75% chance we were going to get penetrated, also know as being overrun, or having to go “hand-to-gland. On this occasion I had available a M16 in addition to several other weapons of assorted makes and nationalities. When I looked a the Bayonet stuck in a 4×4 of my A6 LMG bunker … I thought NAW … and kept loading 1911 magazines as fast as my bony fingers could move. Since these two educational events in my life I have figured if I have to get to the bayonet drill thing I’m am going to kick the crap out of every Artilleryman and every AF Pilot and every Rotary wing pilot I ever meet. No matter what the circumstances .. Bayonet fighting on ANY WITH ANY weapon is a very BAD THING!
Yep. As my prof also said, “When it’s down to bayonet ‘range’ you know things didn’t go like the Big Brains thought it would”.
That’s why he liked the Thompson. With 20 and 30-round magazines he only had to reload one-fourth to one-sixth as often as the guys with bolt-actions. He also generally kept it on semi-auto (M1921 was selective-fire of course) except when things got really close-in.
He pointed out to me that the bayonet had an advantage in house-to-house work (as he and others experienced in the Philippines)that is often overlooked. When you go through a doorway, and some Mother’s Son is on the other side of it and attempts to grab your weapon by the barrel to wrest it from you… he gets a double handful of very sharp steel instead of getting control of the weapon.
He probably ends up minus a few fingers in the process, too.
Infantry combat isn’t pretty. (But you already knew that.)
And thank you for your service.
Ouch! I’d hate to think about the guy who grabbed that bayonet, since most bayonets have sharp edges, be they spikes or blades. But if that were an Enfield No. 4’s spike bayonet with no cutting edge except at the tip (I checked), things might have been different.
On the other hand, back with the Johnson rifle, you still don’t want to use it as a bayonet mount. In close quarters spaces like jungle or urban ruin, a sub machine gun or machete is preferred for dealing with baddies in the dark. In the case of going through a door, I’ll take the machete…
If nobody’s mentioned it before, Japan does have its own form of bayonet fencing, with practice weapons fit to be used with Kendo armor. Jukendo, or Japanese bayonet fencing, was actually implemented in battle. I’d hate to go man to man against the master since the Type 38 Rifle with the Type 30 Bayonet fixed becomes a very effective glaive. If I don’t get into a position where the Jukendo master’s weapon can’t stab me or slash me, I’ll be shish-kabobbed!
A small gun shop in Lomira, WI had two Johnson rifles for sale a few months ago. One rifle was stock and the other was sporterized. It was fun to look the guns over but they were quite expensive.
Is the rifle in the video a non-prefix gun as I have never seen one without the bayonet lug. Guess I have to dig out my copy of Canfield’s book. My rifle is a “B” prefix and has the bayonet lug. Maybe I missed it in the video but I thought I would mention that some barrels/rifles are chambered in 7×57 mauser.
Canfield’s book identifies about a dozen rifles that are documented to be used by the USMC. Does anyone know if any more guns and their serial numbers have been discovered and their serial numbers identified.
Popular in Latin America, specifically, Venezuela and Chile, in 7x57mm.
“When the Johnson rifle was tested formally alongside the M1”
It was compared to early gas-trap Garand or standard Garand?
An Apology to all that may have visited the Video.
The Camera is absolutely a marvel for it’s size (not the problem), The cameraman .. Wellllll that is the problem, being the old fart only has a 28% functional lung and at 5000 ft elevation has a bit of a breathing problem, I only have to walk 50 ft to sound that way, which Ian is very much aware of. As for the idiot remark, I quite often refer to MYSELF that way when attempting to use my TV remotes. So as my dear father told me before his death, “M ….., you’ll find there are a lot more horses asses in the world than there are horses.” Sorry Ian if I embarrassed you.
The Johnson pictured does not have a prefix to the SN 4xxx, and original barrel.
Hi, Thomas :
I still thought you did a pretty good job behind the camera. Sorry to hear about the breathing issue — hope all is okay with you. And don’t worry about the “remark” episode — it could have happened to anyone, and I’m sure most people would understand.
Take care and hope you’re feeling better.
Thanks Earl .. As I think you no doubt have suspected this was not the first time my mouth ran before my brain. Just still being alive I consider quite unfathomable.
You’re welcome, Thomas. I think we all have done the same thing at one time or the other, or we wouldn’t be human :). Keep on truckin’, and stay with us for a long time to come, okay? ( Somebody’s got to stick around to bury me, or at least take the body out for recycling, so it might as well be you! ):):).
Pshaw – you are far too hard on yourself, Thomas. If I thought the camera work was unsuitable, I wouldn’t have used the video. I’m in your debt for the chance to play with the rifle!
An excellent video and historical treatise on the Johnson. Thanks!
To the question of identifying the “23 Marine Johnsons”” It is believed that many more than the original 23 rifles ended up in Marine Corps hands. Remember, Marines have often been asked to do more with less. Many/most Marines landed on Canal with 03 Springfields. This was 5 years after the Garand was adopted! You can see where the Navy spend their budget. Marines then (and now) were very good scroungers. They had to take what they could get and the Johnson shot faster than a Springfield.
Over the years I have seen many attempt to pass off Johnson’s as Marine issue. Some dealers being so bold as to stamp USMC on the stock. It would be very difficult to determine if a Johnson was “issued”. Several did come back with Guadalcanal Marines. One telltale sign is, Marines often chopped off the protective ears on the front sight. This was said to aid in faster target acquisition.
Bruce Canfield’s book and http://www.johnsonautomatics.com are great sources of information about this great rifle.
Interesting that Melvin Johnson was thinking in WWI terms:
Then/ M1903 “standard” Now/ M1 Garand
Then/ M1917 “substitute standard/ “Now”/ Johnson.
I guess what we got was
M1 Garand with M1903A3 and M1 carbine “substitute standard?” Sort of?
I’ve just gotta see Johnson LMG vs. Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 “run and gun” competitions now… For some reason.
The substitute standard was not a bad guess, the reason the 1917 was a substitute was that industry was tooled up to make them for the Brits then it was easier to re-tool to 30-06 than to switch over the whole production line to the ’03. The US had
few military armaments, then had to ramp up over night–WWII was similar to WWI in that regard. Look at what were basically substitute standards during the war: P40’s and P47’s, B25’s and A26’s all coming off the assembly lines at the same time, one was clearly superior to the other, but manufacturing capacity was there for the lesser plane, so it was built.
The Johnson wasn’t really tooled up anywhere, but it would have apparently been easier to tool up for than the M1. Johnson was a genius in that regard. Garand was the tool & die man, but Johnson had the more manufacturable design–figure that one out.
Regarding bayonets, in the book Random Shots that Ian reviewed, the military gave the M14 points over the FAL for being better for bayonet fighting.
Interesting fact is the US has not had a serious “Bayonet Training” program since actually the late 1960’s. In the 1970’s US Army infantry soldiers going through basic received only a few hours of bayonet training or the short lived “pugal Stick” USMC training. Today it is near non-existent due to the M4 carbine type weapon being the weapon of issue.
These days it is less–or no–bayonet training, more PT.
There are two things Marines still do well. Shoot to kill out to 500 meters and delivering cold steel! We still train to do both. That is why Infantry Marines are still issued the M16a4.
AJ . You are sadly enough;correct. The marines have,I don’t believe, given up on the basic premise that every Marine is a infantryman first. Believing you can and will use a bayonet takes a certain mindset that takes training to build confidence in one’s self and one’s learned ability from training. My “field first” in basic training was SFC Campbell(he was a E-6 with E-7 stripes)was our bayonet instructor in 1957. His face had one slash from beside his right eye to under his chin through his mouth. A bad day in Korea 1952. He made sure we knew what the bayonet was for and would bust you in the mouth in a second with his M1 if he thought you were “lolly-gaggin” as he put it. The 7th Inf Div moto used to be “Spirit of the Bayonet.” //
I read somewhere that Canadian troops involved in the Aleution Islands campaign were armed with the Johnson. Can anyone shed light on that story?
One aspect of the Johnson rifle that I have not seen discussed is if the Johnson was easier to produce than the Garand, then would it have been more likely to have been copied by the Axis powers?
Presumably there were no captured Johnsons that were taken to Tokyo, much less to Berlin. If they had, it seems like one of history’s what if’s.
The US/Canadian First Special Force used the Johnson LMG in Italy instead of the BAR. They reportedly thought highly of them.
Did the 1941 Johnson have matching bolt serial numbers with the receiver?