Today’s Marine Corps may be on the bleeding edge of military rifles, optics, and sound suppression devices, but in the Pacific theater of World War II, many Marines were forced to rely on dated or unique weapons unlike any you’d find in its sister branches.
In recent years the Corps has introduced a bevy of advanced new weapons and accessories, from the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle to the new LPVO Variable Combat Optical Gunsight. However, Uncle Sam’s favorite gun club wasn’t always first in line for new firearms and equipment. In fact, for the longest time, the Marine Corps was treated like the red-headed stepchild of the military, and this truly shows in World War 2.
While General Issue Joe stormed Normandy with an M1 Garand, the Marines in the pacific were armed with all manner of unique weapons that could meet their needs, if not as well as the standard-issue gear Soldiers received in World War II’s other theater.
Why did these unique weapons enter service at all?
In what seems to be a common theme in the wars of the first half of the 20th Century, the U.S. military just wasn’t ready for World War II when it arrived. Rifles like the M1 Garand couldn’t be produced fast enough to arm troops. This lead to the Marine Corps being armed with weapons from World War 1, as well as small batches of unique weapons that were adopted in small numbers to fill the gaps.
According to some historians, the Pacific Theather and the Marines fighting in it were a bit of an afterthought at the time, with the lion’s share of attention being paid to the fight against Nazi Germany in Europe. While that’s not a universally accepted argument, the Marine Corps’ common use of unique weapon systems produced in low numbers during the conflict seems to be evidence in its favor.
Eventually, all of these varied weapons were replaced, and the Marine Corps carried M1 Garands and Thompsons like everyone else. Early in the war, though, well, things were a bit trickier.
Related: The brutality of trench weapons in World War I
The Rifle – The M1941 Johnson Rifle
Melvin Johnson was an interesting fellow with lots of roles. He was a lawyer, a Marine Corps Officer, and a firearms designer. It seems appropriate that the M1941 Johnson Rifle became one of the unique weapons of choice for his beloved Corps. Marines wanted a fast-firing rifle that could outpace the M1903 bolt action, but M1 Garands were tough to come by at the time.
The M1941 Johnson Rifle offered a semi-automatic weapon that utilized a short recoil system in which the barrel and bolt move rearward together. It’s an odd but effective setup. It was so effective, in fact, that while the M1941 Johnson Rifle may have been a stand-in for the M1 Garand, some actually considered it to be the better rifle all around.
The weapon featured a 10 round rotary magazine that could be reloaded with 5 round M1903 stripper clips. Unlike the M1 Garand, the fixed magazine could be topped off and refilled at any time. Even when a round is chambered and loaded. However, downsides included the short recoil operation that could cause malfunctions with a mounted bayonet, as well as increased muzzle rise.
The M1941 Johnson rifle served with Raiders, ParaMarines, and in the hands of Medal of Honor recipient Robert Hugo Dunlap for his actions on Iwo Jima. The M1941 Johnson Rifle served its country well but never became a mainstream service rifle. As far as these unique weapons go, the Johnson made a big impression.
Related: M1917 Enfield: The forgotten rifle that won World War One
The SMGs – M50 and M55 Reising
With Thompson’s being tough to obtain and the Grease Gun not yet been invented, the Marines needed a submachine gun in the Pacific. The M50 and M55 Reising filled that role. The M50 had a traditional layout with a fixed wooden stock, while the M55 had a folding metal stock and pistol grip. Paramarines preferred the folding stock and lightweight design of the M55. On paper, it seems to have been equal to–or even better than–the famed Tommy gun. These unique weapons were stopgaps but often offered a variety of advantages over the general issue equipment they substituted.
The Reising was lighter than the Tommy gun by almost four pounds, and used a closed bolt design with a delayed blowback. This was a time where open bolts ruled for submachine guns, and an closed bolt gun meant reduced recoil, higher accuracy, and in theory, a more reliable design.
Issues with Resiing arose almost instantly, however. The guns had many delicate parts that were easily broken in combat. This includes the complicated delayed blowback design, a fragile firing pin, and fragile magazine feed lips. Repairing the gun was difficult since many parts were hand-fitted and not interchangeable. These unique weapons didn’t last long in service and were pulled in 1943.
Related: This LVAW is SOCOM’s overpowered answer to the SMG
The Light Machine Gun – M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun
Another creation of Melvin Johnson was the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun, which shared numerous parts with the aforementioned Johnson rifle. The Light Machine Gun variant also served with the First Special Service Force as an automatic rifle. The M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun offered a lighter, more accurate light machine gun platform than the BAR.
Paramarines and Marine Raiders were no stranger to unique weapons, and the Johnson Light Machine Gun might have been one of the best at the time. It allowed users to adjust the gas system as they desired from 200 to 600 rounds a minute.
Shooters could choose from semi-automatic and automatic configurations—closed bolt functions for semi-auto fire and open bolt for automatic fire.
The side-loading magazines are awkward but effective. The single stack magazine necessitated it due to its long overall length. If it was placed under the gun, it would be quite long–long enough to make it hard to assume a good prone position. Additionally, the side loading was easier on the magazine, and side-mounted magazines helped reduce weight and length. Although, this predictably makes the weapon a bit more unbalanced.
Related: B&T’s APC9K: The Army’s new Submachine gun is a tiny terror
While these unique weapons were used heavily during the early stages of World War 2, the military loves standardization (and often for good reason). Eventually, the Marine Corps fell in line with the standard Army forces and the equipment they carried, but many carried their appreciation or affinity for these unusual service weapons long after the fighting came to an end.
Al Manrubia says
I am an old Navy seaman who comes from a Navy family from way way back,yet now I have come to appreciate what our fellow servicemen have done for our country with their weapons.NOW I Collect any and All firearms from WW2 and up for the history and the memories of all the sacrifices that has been made thru the various fire arms of the Marines , Army, and the Air corps. THANKS for your articles.
M-14s P.I. 9-11/1967(8 weeks),M1 Garands at Geiger.M16s at Pendleton. RVN 3/68 my 16 jammed in full auto w/18 round mag.
Bob Molski, served in the marines from 64/67 our boot camp platoon carried the Stoner 63 through Paris Island and out to ITR then through a training rotation with A 1/8 wholely different types of weaponsStoner assault rifle fired 223 /556 either single shot or full auto which was a really fun shoot Stoner was a system that basicly used the same barrel and receiver groups to make 6 different weapons
In my opinion the M14 is the finest full size battle rifle ever made, it needs to be updated with lighter materials and scaled down a bit to reduce weight…just needs to be scaled down to fire the 5.56/223 much like the Ruger Mini14 is constructed. The action is the same and is fool-proof in it’s reliability
Noah Praytor says
My grandfather joined the Marine Corps in November 1942. His platoon was the second to receive the new M-1 Garand Rifle at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. He survived WW2 and went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam a total of 26 years in the corps. Miss you everyday grandpa. Semper- Fi
Edward Hart says
Not to many Marines served in three wars. I served in Korea and Vietnam
Mark Tercsak says
You should do a story about the Belt Fed BAR’s also the detachable box magazine fed M1 Garands, .
Edward Hart says
I carried a BAR in Korea. Never heard of a belt fed BAR.
Mark Tercsak says
I would like to see some reproduce the Johndon M1941 Automatic Rifle, a friend of Dad’s told me about the rifle he carried one in the South Pacific , Dad was a Marine / Korean War vet, he told he qualified on the Reising , he was not impressed with it, thought it was a very hard to control weapon.
He also said what you can do with the M1 at 500 yards you can do with the 03 at 700 yards.
He also perfered the Revolver over the 1911, he felt they should have come out with a 1911 A2, were the muzzle end of the slide was redesigned , like a Browning Hi-Power , eliminate the Barrl bushing , loosing the potential of loosing the recoil spring nonsense.
Back to the 1941 Johnson rifle, my dad’s buddy always told me the bayonet with its weight being attached directly to the barrel always gave issue to operation.
I recall commenting on the subject , what they could have done, one a screw in cooling jacket that has a bayonet attachment that extends beyond the current shroud.
Or a Rail that mounts to the stock and is removable at the Muzzel end is a rounded can set back from this cap would be the Bayonet stud, and you could then make use of the regular Model 1905 Bayonets, the bayonet would attach to the rail and not the barrel , thus it would not affect operation.
Lawrence A Kassebaum says
I was in Vietnam from 65 thur 66 with 1bn9marines carried a m60 love it. Landed in Vietnam April 10 1965 with 2bn3marines and back again with 2bn5marines, 1bn1marines 1967-68
Edward Hart says
In 65/66 I was with 2/9 and 3rd Recon Ben. 67,68,69 I was with 3/9 and again 3rd Recon.
Lawrence Morris says
After I left the Marines, I went to work as a Deputy in the Sierra. The department had some old Reisings that they where going to donate to museums or collectors with their appropriate FFL. I read how the ParaMarines had a few accidental discharges with them. The old Para Marine I chatted with was not impressed with the Reisings. He stated he thought the Japanese had issued them to us. 🤣
When I entered the Corps back in 1980, we had a lot of gear that was “hand-me-downs” from the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Later in my career with the help of President Reagan that changed and we got New!
Tony L.Wills says
In the photos taken at Tarawa, it generally only shows the regular issue M-1’s , M-1 carbines, BAR’s & Thompson’s. Did any of the unique weapons you talked about in your article serve there?
I’m interested in any 2nd MARDIV. History , having served with Echo 2/2 as a fire team leader with 1st Platoon from ‘81-‘85.
Thank you .S/F.
Mike Pressley says
Checked into H&S Comm Plt. 2/2 out of boot camp in 11/79, got sent to 1/8 in April ’80 and stayed with them until EAS 7/83. Stood on the quad at Geiger and told my former platoon mates goodbye when they loaded up to head to Beirut in May of ’83 not realizing that most of them would not return. Semper Fi.
Stewart Stumpo says
Travis, can you give me an idea of when the US Marines in the Pacific received M1 Garand rifles? Did the US Army units arriving at Guadalcanal have M1 Garands?
I was watching John Ford’s Midway Documentary and it appears the Marines are carrying 1903 Springfields, but it could be stock footage. Thank you for your interesting article.
Marines didn’t far in line with the Army till 1943 he said. So any battle before 1943 (Midway being one) would of seen Marines carrying 1903 rifles.
Robert Ringstrom says
Not sure of your message, “…Marines didn’t far…?
Thomas Cagan says
Your quote”Paramarines and Marine Raiders were no stranger to unique weapons, and the Johnson Light Machine Gun might have been one of the best at the time. It allowed users to adjust the gas system as they desired from 200 to 600 rounds a minute. ”
The Johnson LMG had no gas system, it was all short recoil operated, as was the 1941 Johnson Automatic Rifle.
Estaban Blanco says
Excellent article Mr. Pike!