Vintage Saturday: Unsure

Men of the First Special Service Force with a Johnson LMG at Anzio
This guy doesn’t look all that impressed with his Johnson LMG…

Forcemen of 5-2, First Special Service Force, with an M1941 Johnson light machine gun on the Anzio beachhead, Italy, April 1944. They are in the process of disassembling (or reassembling) the gun. Thanks to Michael G. for sending the photo!


  1. I bought a transferable Johnson MG back in the 1990s from Mandall’s in Scottsdale for $9000.
    I sold it about 2 years later, to an NFA dealer in IL, for what I thought was a great profit of, to him for $16,000. A couple of years ago, after all of the internet crazy sales prices of NFA Weapons, I found the same guy, sold that Johnson for $68,000! I really wish I had kept that one!
    Overall, after shooting the M1941, I enjoyed it. It has it’s flaws, as most MGs of past designs do, ie the US M-60, but, it’s a fast to move package, that can throw a lot of lead and it ran very reliably when kept clean. For the time, it was the only US type of Man-Portable weapon, in .30 cal, that was comparable to the Bren. Given the choice of being a Grunt, with and invasion force, with small numbers of resistance, I’d still take an M1941, over carrying an M1919.

  2. This photo really emphasizes the “light” nature of the Johnson LMG as opposed to the cast iron BAR! I’d love to see a side-by-side video comparison of the two. Sometimes it is hard to judge the scale of a weapon photographed by its self. I had envisioned the Johnson being somewhat bulkier than this rather slim weapon. Compared to the M240/FN MAG 58, this appears to be a featherweight! I wonder how controllable it was?

  3. The Johnson M1941 LMG is one of those truly excellent yet under-rated weapons that has had the misfortune of being sidelined by historical and political circumstances as well as market timing. It had many advanced but practical and highly-functional features such as a rotating bolt, straight-line construction and a quick-change barrel. It was light ( 12.5 lbs. empty ) but very well-made, reliable, durable, was easy to disassemble and maintain, had low field maintenance requirements, accurate and controllable ( thanks to the straight-line construction ) in spite of being chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge. The easily-detached barrel also enabled the Johnson to sustain a higher rate of fire without overheating. Written battlefield accounts and after-action reports from the Marine Corps and other users consistently rated the Johnson very highly indeed, even higher than the venerable tried-and-trusted BAR, especially for jungle warfare and mobile special operations. The Johnson was judged the superior weapon on account of its light weight, portability, compactness ( overall length was 42 inches ), accuracy, easily-adjustable sights, extremely low maintenance and a reliability / durability factor at least as good as the BAR’s.

    The only complaints were that the long side-mounted single-stack 25-round magazine sometimes got in the way during engagements in dense jungle or brush, and that there were no suitable pouches to securely carry the magazines while keeping them readily available for action. A special backpack capable of accommodating 12 magazines was eventually manufactured in limited quantities, but did not see universal service.

    Contributor “Capital Ordnance” is to be congratulated for having the distinct privilege of having owned and fired one. I only wish he had kept it as he would then be in a position to share more with the rest of us!

  4. The “First Special Service Force” as a joint USA-Canada unit that was created in WWII in a fit of a perhaps misguided allied cooperation attempt (their training and procedures would not have been very compatible). It took part in operations in Italy before being disbanded. No doubt it made good propaganda about solidarity between allies though.

    The unit was given various odds and sods of kit, mostly of American origin. I imagine they got the Johnson because none of the regular units wanted it.

    The two soldiers in the picture are actually Canadians. If they were machine gunners in their original units, they would have been Bren gunners. In that case they would be comparing one of the best and most reliable machine guns of the period (the Bren) with one that had a reputation for unreliability. So yes, they may not have been all that impressed.

    • As far as I can tell, the FSSF was given the M1941 Johnson LMG because it suited their operational needs for a durable but compact, lightweight automatic weapon with good firepower. The easily-detachable barrel played a part in this decision since it meant that the gun could be quickly disassembled for missions requiring maximum portability ( such as parachute drops ), yet could still be re-assembled and brought into action very quickly. By the time the FSSF was formed, the Johnson had already been proven in action in the Solomons Campaign and had been adopted by the Marine paratroopers as their LMG of choice. In fact, the first batch of 125 M1941’s was supplied to the FSSF from Marine Corps stocks, along with training manuals and other accessories. The notion that the Johnson was a cast-off that was foisted upon special services and other “irregular” units because no-one wanted it probably stemmed from the U.S. Army’s Ordnance Department’s original decision after the successful initial field trials of the Johnson to stick with the BAR because mass production and universal distribution to Army units was already well underway. Once entrained, the sheer inertia of this sort of process is very difficult to stop or modify since so much has been invested in it ( from manufacturing facilities and tooling to training, deployment and logistical support ), especially when the prospects of a world war are involved. Additionally, the Ordnance Department may have felt that there was simply not enough time under the circumstances to re-evaluate the Johnson in a second round of trials after the prototype’s teething troubles ( common to every new gun design ) had been addressed. In the end, Melvin Johnson went ahead and improved the design details of his gun independently to fulfill the needs of the Marine Corps, who had a real interest in it.

  5. MG, you might read about the assault on Mt De la Difensa and some of the other actions of 1SSF before dismissing them so cavalierly.

    • No offence was intended. The unit was formed and trained specifically for the purposes of a very ill conceived operation in Norway that fortunately never took place. They did see action later in the war elsewhere, but were then disbanded and the troops returned to their respective parachute (or other) formations.

      The amount of bureaucracy inherent in an “international” formation of this sort means I believe that they would have been more effectively used if each country had simply fielded their own forces and placed them at the disposal of their own staffs. While some may argue that the proposed Norway operation may have been justified as a special case, after that was cancelled there was little justification for the unit’s existence (which was apparently also the conclusion that both countries eventually came to).

      If you are objecting to the word “propaganda”, I think you’ll find that many of the photos which Ian is posting here were originally propaganda photos. Propaganda photos are a normal part of war, and we are very fortunate to have these records today. As you go back to WW1 they become much scarcer, and Boer War era photos of troops with their small arms are rare indeed.

      As for their being equipped with “odds and sods”, that was normal for “private armies” at the time. Quartermasters seemed delighted to empty out their shelves of odd and otherwise un-issuable kit. It sometimes meant that the recipients were able to get *more* kit than they could get if they had standard issue, but it also meant that they couldn’t benefit from the standard supply chain either.

  6. Capital Ordnance,
    Mandall’s ,was a good gun shop to go to.When I worked for the Scottsdale Unified School District,me and some of my coworkers would spend our lunch break at the basement range and go to the pizza place that was next door to Mandall’s when we were done.

    • Melvin Johnson may have been one of the last of the old-style “gentleman lawyers” who had a keen interest in the world about him, and in many facets of life outside his practice ; more importantly, he also participated in activities associated with those other facets. At the cost of sounding biased, it is just too bad that the majority ( but not all, I want to stress ) of today’s lawyers are simply not cut from the same cloth and don’t have a similar curiosity about life. Perhaps the way the world and its ways have changed our outlook in this day and age are partly to blame, since the same malaise seems to affect other walks of life. We seem to be living in a contradictory age, where communications and global awareness are at an unprecedented level of advancement, yet we are more confined in our outlook and ability to act than previously. Much hope does lie with the younger generation, who are demonstrating a lot of initiative and courage in the face of today’s socio-economic odds in spite of the fact that we often see them as comparatively spoiled or privileged.

      • I aggree; Mr.Johnson was either special kind (more likely) or we have developed partly negative view of legal profession because of, as you say “socio-economic odds.”

        He could have call himself ‘engineer’ in full right of the word (and I am sure he would back it legally too). This one was for sure one honest lawyer, although perhaps on sideline!

          • Good call on William Armstrong, Keith. The naval breechloaders derived from Armstrong’s designs and manufactured by Elswick Ordnance Company played a very significant role in Brittania’s domination of the high seas for many decades, and influenced naval gun design for a long time. In addition, his hydraulic accumulator saw service not only across a wide spectrum of mechanical and civil engineering applications, but was also the foundation stone for the hydraulic shell hoist installed in capital ships of the period. The hoist not only made re-loading of big guns a lot easier and less strenuous, it also significantly increased the effective rate of fire.

            There is an excellent book on the evolution and development of the modern battleship entitled “The Complete Encyclopedia Of BATTLESHIPS — A Technical Directory Of Capital Ships From 1860 To The Present Day” by Tony Gibbons ( Crescent Books, 1983 ) that contains a fair amount of history on the Armstrong design and its service in various navies.

  7. I’d like to point out another handy feature that the Johnson light MG shares with the Johnson 1941 rifle. In combat the MG like the rifle mag can be “topped up” using the standard 5 round or loose rounds through the action without having to remove the magazine.

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