Black and white photo of men in a fox hole with a garand

East Versus West: Cold War Small Arms, Installment 1

This is the first in a series of installments focused on the history of the roller-delayed platform.

Following World War II, there was one clear superpower, the United States. In short order, the Soviet Union would rise to superpower status mostly as a result of pillaging occupied Eastern Europe to rebuild its devastated infrastructure, and its successful testing of an atomic bomb. The United States embraced its nuclear power in the post war world, initially thinking that its unique ability (for a few short years) to wield devastating nuclear power, and war weariness in general guaranteed its dominance and security. However, by 1950 the Korean War, and colonial wars across the planet once again demonstrated the persistence, if not the utility of limited wars, and proxy wars for the superpowers.

In an environment initially obsessed with ultra-high technology such as intercontinental bombers and increasingly powerful nuclear weapons, the United States placed generally low priority on small arms development. Although the U.S. Army had been interested in the possibility of a high velocity .22 caliber infantry rifle during World War II, and the M1 Garand had been modified with a box style magazine during the war for experimental purposes, the Garand soldiered on to be produced by H&R and International Harvester in the years following World War II. While the production methods did improve, and the Garands produced in the 1950s are regarded as slightly better in quality, they were otherwise the same standard rifle issued during World War II.

The diminutive M1 Carbine did however get a significant update toward the very end of World War II, becoming the select fire M2 Carbine. Other than the select fire modification, and the addition of a bayonet lug, an extended 30 round magazine of often questionable reliability, and some superfluous muzzle attachments, the M2 was the M1 Carbine which hurled an often very ineffective cartridge at a much higher rate of fire. The M1 Carbine in the guise of the M3 was, however, the first effective night vision equipped weapon in U.S. service.

The BAR, the 1919, and the M2 HMG also remained in service. Even the 1917 stayed in service in some capacity. While the tripod mounted 1919 and M2 were still very effective, the BAR and the 1917 were by Korea beginning to show their age. Even the 1919 was looking long in the tooth compared to the MG34 and MG42 against which it competed during World War II. Other than the 1919A6 which was about as ergonomic as a steel shelled life preserver filled with lead shot, the US had produced little to compete with the impressive German GPMGs by the mid 1950s.

In the handgun arena, the 1911A1 and Model 10, mostly in the guise of the Victory Model soldiered on. The Thompson was still in inventory, but the M3 Grease Gun began to predominate. In short, the United States began to fall behind in a category in which it should have done well. Further, it held back its allies as well. Innovative designs such as the EM2 were completely shelved, and the FN FAL which was supposed to be chambered in an intermediate cartridge was stretched and pushed to its limit as the US finally adopted the box magazine fed M14 in 7.62 NATO and forced an innovative and aggressive small arms industry to conform to its whims, at least for a while.

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