In World War Two the United States Military saw the benefit for a carbine in its ranks to better suit the needs of troops. This led to the adoption of the M1 Carbine that was produced in part by the Saginaw Steering and Gear Division Plant of General Motors in addition to other companies. The production of the carbine by Saginaw more efficiently armed a large number of US soldiers during World War II while simultaneously providing a more effective small arm for those soldiers to do their respective duties.
A New Light Rifle
Beginning in 1940 the military had been developing a lightweight rifle to issue to troops who were already encumbered by other equipment or were second line troops that were not supposed to be in front line combat. At that time the current small arms issued were either too heavy and bulky or, in the case of the M1911 pistol, limited in range. This led to the pursuit of a carbine using a new .30 caliber round that was lighter than the M1 Garand’s .30-06 round and had more range than the .45 ACP that were in current use. After the completion of development by Winchester and adoption of the M1 Carbine in September 1941, the government began to contract production runs of the carbine to various private firms. A short time after its introduction Chief of Ordnance, Major General L. H. Campbell Jr., wrote “Reports coming in from all jungle theaters indicate that the carbine is going to be a most useful weapon due to its light weight, small overall length, and the light weight ammunition. All the above indicates that we must assert the greatest of pressure to get carbines and ammunitions in the minimum of time.” (2, p. 3). This is what preceded Saginaw’s contract.
After it’s success with producing the M1919A4 machine gun that began in 1940, Plant #2 obtained a contract for 365,500 M1 Carbines on February 13, 1943(5, p. 156). While the plant continued to produce machine guns, the facility took on a series of contracts for M1 Carbines. The Saginaw #2 Plant would produce 293,592 carbines between 1943 and 1944 when the contracts were cancelled.
While the Saginaw plant was going forward with its contract, the Ordnance Department requested that Saginaw simultaneously take over the floundering Irwin-Pedersen plant in Grand Rapids MI (5, p. 143). The plant had been established in 1942 for the expressed purpose of building M1 Carbines by Robert W. Irwin, a furniture manufacturer, and John D. Pedersen a commercial firearms designer (5, p. 141-143). Though on the surface this seemed to be a good balanced partnership that would produce carbines, in a year they had produced less than 3,000 units and none of them had passed inspection with the Ordnance Department. These guns had many parts out of specification and outright catastrophic failure of their receivers (5, p. 148). After some deliberation the Irwin’s cancelled their contract and Saginaw took over the factory on April 1st, 1943 (5, p. 160). With some men from the Saginaw plant then led most of the original work force in completely re-configuring the Grand Rapids Plant (1, p. 41). After the plant was taken over the facility had produced 8,000 more carbines than the contract called for and were delivered to the Government in 33 days (1, p. 41). Under the leadership Saginaw Division the Grand Rapids plant produced 223,620 carbines in 1943 (6, p. 202). With the termination of carbine production the Grand Rapids plant was transitioned to the G.M.C. diesel program after January 1st, 1944 (5, p. 411).
Throughout the course of production for the M1 Carbine, the parts to complete guns as needed were subcontracted to over 50 different to facilities and businesses that didn’t usually have any prior experience in firearms manufacturing (5). Additional to subcontracting, in order to fulfill contracts on time lots parts were exchanged between the various main assembly contractors as well. In the case of Saginaw Steering Gear the gun stocks came from Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corp. and Trimble Nursery & Furniture Co. As a result the Saginaw plant never actually made its own stock and avoided setting up that portion of production (6). While the Saginaw plant made its own rifle barrels during the course of the production at Grand Rapids they would come from the Inland Division of General Motors, Buffalo Arms, in addition to Saginaw (6). Many other of the small parts were both sent out to the nine other makers of carbines at different points as was needed to keep production going ranging in amounts in the hundreds to thousands. Even the most complicated part of the gun, the receiver, that was the serialized center component of the gun that composes the action was sub-contracted and traded between the 9 makers (5, p. 155).
The Consequences of the M1 Carbine
The M1 Carbine produced at Saginaw made a significant contribution to the war effort by freeing up resources for other needs by supplanting the use of the M1 Thompson submachine gun and M1 Garand rifle. In addition to this the carbine was a better weapon for the troops. The carbine was issued to those in combat, who where supposed to be doing other tasks than engaging the enemy with their small arms fire such as commanders, radiomen, mortar men, rangers, machine gun crewmen, tankers, artillerymen, forward observers, signals troops, engineers and headquarters staff. In one instance PFC Eugene B. Sledge, a motarman in the 5th Marine regiment at the Battle of Peleliu, encountered a group of Japanese soldiers running across a reef several hundred yards away and let the rest of the company with full size rifles engage them to great effect while he simply watched (4, p. 65-66). Other rear echelon troops far from the action such as Military Police were also issued the gun allowing more front-line infantryman to use Garands and Thompsons. These troops got a weapon with more range than a sub-machine gun, and less weight than both the SMG and M1 Rifle, while only giving up range at distance and some stopping power at close range.
In addition to freeing the troops from pounds of weight it saved the military a large sum of money. All available alternatives to the carbine cost more per unit with the Thompson at its cheapest was $45 per unit, while the Garand was $44 during their peaks of production (9, p. 8). The Winchester Repeating Company that produced Garand is used to compare here as Springfield Armory is a bad comparison in being a large government arsenal that doesn’t compare well to the private firms scale and the fact that Springfield had several years before the war to develop efficient production. At the peak of Saginaw’s contract their cost per unit got down to $32.22 at which point the Ordnance Department had determined that they had enough other companies producing carbines for the remainder of the war and didn’t add any more contracts (5). Other larger plants did lower the price per unit further due to the increased length and size of their contracts (5). The carbine cost less than both of the available replacements at the time and it also physically needed less material to produce and operate than the heavier Thompson and Garand with their larger rounds.
Although Saginaw Steering and Gear only produced 8.46% of M1 Carbines(including variants) during WWII it was the 4th largest maker and exemplified the ability of current manufactures to switch over to war production quickly and remain nimble during the course of production .
1. GM. Saginaw Steering Gear Division. Out of the Valley to Victory. Saginaw: Semann & Peters, 1943.
2. Saginaw. Your Plant and Its Product. Grand Rapids, Mich. Division, the, the Plant, C. 1940-1945
4. Sledge, E. B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Presidio, 2010.
5. Ruth, Larry L., and R. Blake. Stevens. War Baby!: The U.S. Caliber .30 Carbine. Toronto, Canada: Collector Grade Publications, 1992.
6. Riesch, Craig. The U.S. M1 Carbines, Wartime Production. 6th ed. Tustin, CA: North Cape Publications, 1994. Print.
7. Rogers, Dave. “Why Did U.S. Win WW II? Saginaw Gun Plant Personified Patriotic Production.” 2012
8. Duff, Scott A., and David C. Clark. The M1 Garand, World War II: History of Development and Production, 1900 through 2 September 1945. 2nd ed. Export, PA: S.A. Duff, 1996.
9. “Thompson Submachine Gun.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation