The Rise And Fall Of The Light Rifle, Part I: Prologue

Top to bottom: The .30 caliber M1903 Springfield repeating rifle, the .276 caliber T3E1 Garand semiautomatic rifle, the .276 caliber Pedersen semiautomatic rifle, this particular example most likely having been designated T2E1.

Top to bottom: The .30 caliber M1903 Springfield repeating rifle, the .276 caliber T3E1 Garand semiautomatic rifle, the .276 caliber Pedersen semiautomatic rifle, this particular example most likely having been designated T2E1.

This is the first part of a series of posts seeking to describe and analyze the 7.62mm Light Rifle concept promoted by the Americans, and subsequently adopted by NATO in various forms. This series will cover development from before World War II to the present day, but will focus primarily on the period from 1944-1970, which constitutes the span of time from the Light Rifle’s conception until its end in the United States with the standardization of the M16.

You can read the other parts of the series by following the links below:

The history of the “Light Rifle” concept is just one segment of a broader history of the Ordnance branch of the US Army, and of the Springfield Armory, to both of which the concept’s fate was closely bound. One would be mistaken in thinking the story of the Light Rifle holds little relevance today, as it not only is closely related to the origin of the current structure for research, development, and procurement, but also gives many lessons on problems that structure has and could have in the future. If a better system of arms procurement is to be realized, the story of the Light Rifle is one that must be understood.

What, though, is a “light rifle”, and in what way was it meant to be used? Who conceived of it, and who insisted upon it so intently that an entire multinational organization adopted it? What were its limitations, and what were its strengths? What was the broader context into which it was conceived? Finally, why did it, despite its initial success, fall out of favor so quickly in its country of origin?

It’s my aim to answer all these questions, and more, as best I can in this series. While I hope for this series to be a distilled, readily digestible version of the story, the content within it is derived from that of a number of books written by experts on their respective topics, the most relevant of which will be listed in this series’ bibliography at the end. I would encourage my readers to take a look at the books listed there, as they provide a much more thorough understanding of the topic.

To begin, we’ll cover what exactly a light rifle is, why it has such a seemingly ill-fitting name, and some of the context in which the design was first imagined. First, it will help to re-tread briefly the earlier history of military rifles.

Shortly after the development of the repeating rifle, it became obvious that the next great step in small arms evolution would be a rifle that operated its own action, without the aid of the user. Such a rifle would not only significantly augment the rate of fire of the rifleman, but would also greatly improve his accuracy when making follow up shots (indeed it was this latter characteristic that was generally deemed most desirable). These benefits were recognized in the first decade of the 20th Century by the US Chief of Ordnance, William Crozier, who first undertook the effort of providing US troops with a “self-loading” rifle a year before the repeating M1903 was authorized for manufacture. This project, for better or worse, was throughout its life characterized by the great conservatism of the Army Ordnance Department. The earliest requirements set by the Army for selfloaders were bound within the confines of the bolt-action rifle: Not only did the Army require prospective designs to be operable both as a bolt action and as a single-shot rifle, but they even placed special emphasis on the ability to convert existing Model 1903 rifles to the new selfloading type; this last, of course, being simply too optimistic to be practical.

After the First World War, US requirements relaxed somewhat. In 1923, John D. Pedersen, a renowned firearms designer – one of the few “superstars” to ever exist in the profession – addressed the Ordnance Department with his proposal to design and build for them a .27 caliber selfloading rifle. Pedersen correctly cited that the difficulties that had been encountered in designing a successful selfloading rifle could be substantially alleviated – not to mention benefits in ammunition weight and recoil realized – if the chambering of the rifle was reduced in size from the standard .30 caliber then in service. Pedersen, who was by all accounts just as good a salesman as he was a firearms designer, was one of the few people who could successfully convince US Ordnance of a dramatic measure like this. The US Army’s selfloading rifle program would for the next decade center on Pedersen’s .276 caliber round.

It wasn’t to be, however. Pedersen, too sure of his ability to out-design his competition, would neglect his rifle during its most critical time at the very end of 1929. That year, during one of the last trials of his rifle, he left the United States and the trials behind, and traveled to the United Kingdon to sell his design to the British (who, even so early as the late 1920s, fervently wished not only for a replacement for their aging Lee-Enfield rifles, but also to adopt a common weapon with the United States). As a result, a competing design by one John Cantius Garand won the favor of the US Ordnance Department. Pedersen’s hubris was twofold: He had not only neglected to be present during this trial, which chafed the egos of Army personnel, but by his demand the contract with the Ordnance Department stipulated that he receive royalties for his design should it be produced. The Army had a great incentive to choose Garand’s design over Pedersen’s if the former were found suitable for service.

Pedersen’s vision for a .276 caliber selfloader died shortly after his rifle was rejected; without the influence of the rockstar gun designer, the keystone of the .276 concept had been removed. In a characteristically canny move, Garand had designed his rifle in both .276 and .30 caliber, and because of this the rationale for the smaller round was weakening. Though some holdouts insisted the .30 caliber was superior, many acknowledged the improvement the .276 represented; it simply wasn’t enough to justify such a logistical undertaking, and there were fears of having multiple calibers in service. In the end, conservatism won the day, and Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur’s rejection of the .276 caliber in 1932 was merely a formalization of a decision that had already been made by the Ordnance Department: The next US rifle would be in the existing .30 caliber.

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Ammunition from the author’s collection. Atop the circa 1929 .276 caliber box are from left to right: .30-06 Springfield M2 Ball, .276 Pedersen PD-42, 7.62x39mm M67, 7.62x51mm NATO DM111, 5.56x45mm M193, and a pulled .276 Pedersen PD-42 bullet, weighing 127 grains. The .276 Pedersen was the would-be replacement of the .30-06, but was aborted officially by declaration of the Army Chief of Staff in 1932. The .30-06 would later be replaced by the 7.62 NATO in 1957, which besides an overall length difference of half an inch was not a meaningful improvement. As a US rifle caliber, the 7.62 NATO was short-lived; it would be replaced in that role beginning in 1963 by the 5.56mm cartridge, and the 7.62mm M14 rifle would be finally relegated to secondary duty in 1970. After World War II, it became obvious that full power rifle cartridges were much more than what was needed, and the intermediate round – here represented by the 7.62×39 and 5.56×45 – became state of the art.

 

The United States adopted in 1933 the US rifle, caliber .30, M1, thus making it – for the first time in the nation’s history – the first general adopter of a totally new pattern of infantry weapon. This success would however be short-lived, as already felt in the then-fast-moving small arms world were the undercurrents of further change; the realization of the lightweight fully automatic infantry rifle was just over the horizon.

World War II would cement the future of infantry small arms; against its fast-paced, mobile warfare – at once the baptism of mechanized infantry, strategic bombing, modern combined arms, the atomic bomb, and a whole host of new war-winning technologies and methods – the bolt-action armed marksman seems almost quaint. This 19th Century weapon was by that time already being supplemented in large numbers by far cheaper automatic submachine guns firing pistol calibers, and the mass production of the German MP-44 intermediate caliber automatic rifle further doomed the bolt action as a standard weapon. The new German weapon was clearly a model for the weapon of the future. and the other destined to be made a relic of the past, as soon as the combatants found room to breathe.

In the face of this, the Light Rifle was a bold rejection of the budding assault rifle concept; at once a hyper-conservative yet extremely ambitious idea to provide the infantry with rifles which would sacrifice nothing from the full-power semiautomatic rifle, while attaining all the advantages of a lighter, fully automatic weapon engineered for the Atomic Era. It was conceived in the shadow of World War II, but seemed more a product of the 1930s than anything else. “Give us the same, but lighter and with more firepower” was the call it answered.

It’s perhaps forgivable that the nation that entered the war with the best standard-issue rifle would, once the fighting was done, desire nothing more than a somewhat improved version of it, but it still begs the question: surely there were major lessons to be learned from such an extensive and hard-fought war? At the very least, common sense would dictate that the .276 caliber – which faced weak objections except for the obstacle of convenience in the 1930s – would be for even the most conservatively minded Ordnance official a good starting point the next rifle cartridge. Against this, the Ordnance Department’s rejection of any reduced caliber round that could provide a substantial improvement over the existing .30 caliber, proves that individual common sense cannot win out over the will of an entrenched organization. Ordnance, and Springfield Armory, were most concerned with what would be easiest to produce; the natural result of this well-intentioned but hyper-conservative attitude was the Light Rifle program and its eventual progeny, the 7.62mm M14 rifle. What was good enough for GIs fighting in France and Iwo Jima was good enough for any future war, even if the fundamental requirements on which that weapon was based were nearing the half century mark in age.

The constraints initially placed on the light rifle were impossible to achieve simultaneously: A 7lb (unloaded) weapon, at once suitable for fully automatic and semi-automatic fire, firing a full-power .30 caliber round with performance not one whit lower than the M2 .30 caliber Ball round it was to replace – a rifle that while meeting that requirement would take the place of all four squad-level infantry weapons: The infantry rifle, the automatic rifle, the carbine, and the submachine gun. Simple physics and physiology would preclude the true realization of Ordnance’s “Light Rifle”, and result in a finished product that was not so light or so capable at all; in this way tremendous ambition was shackled by an orthodox view of the rifleman which had been obsolete since 1917. Until this view could be broken, the United States, or indeed NATO at large, would not have a modern, lightweight automatic infantry weapon truly suitable for the Atomic Age.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • BryanP1968

    Excellent article.

    • Thank you for the compliment! It should be better now, since I made some edits. 😉

  • Hokum

    This is exactly why I’m reading TFB. Keep up the good work!

  • Pete Sheppard

    Good article; I’m looking forward to more!
    This is the first I’ve seen ‘Light Rifles’ described as a class, even though there has always been the desire for lighter, more compact rifles as cartridge tech matured.

    • I am taking a small amount of liberty in applying it as broadly as I am, but I want to make a clear connection between what we consider today to be Cold War “battle rifles” and the American Light Rifle program, as one would not exist without the other.

  • MPWS

    Article by itself, as much as is well written, is trying to be apologetic for something which is hard to apologize for – straight technical incompetence of appropriate Army office in outset of WWII. The juggling of calibers could have been, as outcome of WWI be sorted in lot more expeditious manner (the jump from M2 Ball to PD42 is indicative of that thinking, just too extreme to swallow at the time).

    In my view and consistent with what Germans did later on, the staple .30-06 could have been reduced to form of current 7.62×51 already then. After the war the next logical step would be to go even further, to something like 7.62×40 to 42. I know, easy to be general after the war is over. Well, now you have lovely .300BLK, but again that is not suitable as universal application including MG use.
    So, one more step and you are (almost) there.

    • MPWS

      Perhaps saying “apologetic” is not the best form. It is rather trying to lay out interpretation of what happened; if that sounds better. In any case, the quality and level of knowledge is oozing out.

      • I should hope I’d be the last person anyone would accuse of apologizing for US Army Ordnance. 😉

    • One things folks tend to gloss over is that it wasn’t just a matter of convincing Ordnance; you also had to convince the user branches to accept any new tech. Frankly, a lot of the contradictory goals of the post-war Light Rifle program fail directly on the heads of the Ground Forces/Field Forces equipment boards.

      • MPWS

        That is understandable. Plus another thing which momentarily escaped to me was that there were other systems in place, in same caliber such as 1919 MG and BAR. I know, this all to be incorporated was probably unsurmountable task at the time.

        • UnrepentantLib

          It seems to me that they could have used the .276 in the rifle and a redesigned, lighter, handier BAR. Then the Cal. .30 M1 cartridge could have been retained for use in the MK1917 and M1919 Brownings.

          • I think in retrospect the .276 would have been perfectly well suited to the machine guns as well.

            The only concern they had that proved wise was that of the logistical undertaking of changing ammunition types.

      • I’m hoping to get into what an obstacle the user branches were in fielding modern weapons. It’s a very thorny problem.

      • gunsandrockets

        Contradictory is right. Like the overheating M15 being replaced with a vented handguard M14, and then the vented handguard being rejected as too fragile for bayonet use!

    • DetroitMan

      The Great Depression and isolationism among the general public before Pearl Harbor hindered American arms development. The Army was on a shoestring budget for most of the 1930’s. The government had cut deeply after WWI, including personnel. The American public felt it was in the best interest of the country to stay out of foreign wars, and couldn’t imagine a war at home. Taken together it was a toxic brew for American weapons development. Advocating more money for weapons development was nearly political suicide in the decades between the World Wars. If you look at all of the obsolete or inferior weapons we entered WWII with, you can see the effects. These things were certainly on MacArthur’s mind when he nixed the .276. There was bias against smaller calibers, but the very real budget crisis the military faced throughout the 30’s was a major contributor to the cautious pace of development. We were lucky that we got the M1 in .30-06.

  • Martin Grønsdal

    did that Garand, the T3, have an ammo counter at the left side?

    • Yes, it did!

      • Martin Grønsdal

        Did the bolt make the counter register number of shots?

  • Alex Nicolin

    I wonder what would have happened if the US Army adopted a .22-.25″ high velocity rifle cartridge 25 years earlier, in a smaller rifle, instead of adopting the the .30 carbine.

    • Realistically, the US was not going to adopt a round smaller than .25 caliber until the publication of the Hall Report in 1950; but I’ll get into “what ifs” later in the series.

      • FWIW: A .256 caliber round was tested during the same time frame as the .276 caliber, and reportedly outperformed the latter. However, that would have been a bridge too far when traditionalists could not wrap their minds around using anything smaller than the .30-06.

        • Right; I think that sets a lower bound for speculation about how small military theorists at the time were willing to go. When they set up a cosmopolitan test of all possible calibers, the lowest they were willing to go was 6.5mm.

          Fast forward to the 1950s, and the homologous tests are going as low as .18 cal.

          • Alex Nicolin

            I did a few calculations based on a .30 Remington case shortened to 1.705″ and necked down to .24″ (actual bullet diameter .244″). The case capacity would have been 37 gn with a weight of 113 gn. Loaded with 29 gn of IMR4895 (the same powder as the .30-06) it would have worked at 55KPSI. From a 20″ barrel it would have propelled a 1.245″ long 99 gn lead & steel cored bullet at 2700 fps for 1600 ft-lbs. OAL would have been the same as the .30 Remington, 2.525″ and total cartridge weight 245 gn, about 60% of the weight of the .30-06 M2. So it would have been feasible even with 1930s technology, and pretty effective too.

          • I don’t think .24 caliber was very popular in the US at the time. The minimum caliber I would consider historically accurate would be .25″ (.2575 projectile).

          • Alex Nicolin

            It was not popular as civilian round, but the navy was using it at the turn of the 20th century as a military round, the 6 mm Lee Navy. That cartridge was doomed not because of the caliber itself, but the poor selection of bullets, and especially the bad quality propellant, which decomposed.

          • That’s true, but I don’t think it was very influential. The case head was, though.

          • Alex Nicolin

            I also did a simulation of the .276 Pedersen, based on exterior parameters. Case capacity is 46.6 gn and weight 133 gn, loaded with 35.5 gn of IMR4064. Bullet length 1.218″ and weight 135 gn, assuming a lead core. Pressure would have been 52KPSI with a muzzle velocity of 2560 fps from a 20″ barrel, for 1970 ft-lbs. OAL 2.84″ and total weight 310 gn. I don’t have quite enough data to be sure it’s accurate. Maybe someone has the actual ballistics data to correct me.

          • .276 Pedersen varied, but the PD-42 load was a 125gr bullet at 2,740 ft/s muzzle velocity.

          • Alex Nicolin

            From 24″ barrel? I don’t know if they used the same barrel length for all the guns in the tests. But it seems plausible, since the extra 4″ add about 80-90 fps compared to the 20″.

    • gunsandrockets

      I vote for early adoption of the .250 Savage cartridge as best ‘what-if?’.

      • High pressure .25 Remington with a lightweight FMJ might be a more realistic candidate. .25 cal Model 8s were actually trialed by the US Army in the ’20s, and you’d have less of a barrel wear issue.

      • Alex Nicolin

        The .250 Savage was actually closer to a full size cartridge, based on the 7×57 mm slightly shortened and necked down from .285″ to .257″ and loaded with a light bullet. It wouldn’t have worked in something small, like the M1 Carbine. The .25 Remington could have worked. In fact it’s the same case as the .30 Remington which gave birth to the 6.8 Remington SPC almost 100 years later 🙂

        • gunsandrockets

          Clearly the Army was fishing for a smaller cartridge with a similar trajectory to 30-06 when they selected the .276 Pedersen cartridge for their self-loading rifle project. The .250 Savage could do that with a cartridge already established in the commercial market at the time of the Army project.

          The .250 Savage is hardly a full-sized cartridge by any measure. It is even less powerful than the .276 Pedersen cartridge.

  • idahoguy101

    The .276 Pedersen cartridge ballistics were similar to the 7×57 Mauser first introduced in 1892. Which had no problem killed Americans and Brits in two wars.
    The Pedersen rifle required waxed cartridges to ensure case extraction. This presented an unnecessary logistics problem. The Garand rifle didn’t suffer this problem.

    • The 7x57mm Mauser was loaded with round nose projectiles at the time it was killing Brits and Americans.

    • .276 Pedersen used a 125gr streamlined FMJ bullet at 2,740 ft/s at the muzzle, while the original 7mm Mauser used a 173gr round-nosed FMJ bullet at 2,300 ft/s. They weren’t very similar ballistically speaking:

      http://i.imgur.com/ZD4B7at.png

  • Sledgecrowbar

    Excellent article. Looking forward to more of this. Makes me think about possible advantages to the AR-10-platform being the standard infantry rifle.

    I had to read it a few times but I’m pretty sure now that the note under the image of the ammunition should read “from left to right”.

    • Whoops! You’re right.

      One of the things I will be addressing are the two weapons that did meet the weight requirements of the Light Rifle concept: The T25 and AR-10, and why they’re awful ideas.

  • jagervw

    Can’t it be argued that the G3 and its varients fullfilled most of those roles?

    • They did not all use the same caliber, though I agree with you that the G3 is generally speaking the most attractive of its stablemates.

      • gunsandrockets

        By G3 variants, I suspect jagervw meant thinks like bipods and collapsible stocks, which is directly on point about a multipurpose ‘universal rifle’.

        • The full auto characteristics of the G3 don’t lend themselves to being used as a submachine gun or machine carbine. Same problem the others have.

          Among Cold War 7.62×51 select fire rifles, though, the G3 is my favorite.

    • gunsandrockets

      And the G-3 works even better with lighter loads.

      The Japanese Type 64 selective fire rifle was designed to use a reduced load of about 2,300 fps muzzle velocity, and on automatic fired from the open bolt at 500 rpm.

  • d_grey

    Good read, looking forward to the next part.

  • MrEllis

    Good read, thank you!

  • DetroitMan

    One of the main things that doomed Pederson’s rifle was the design itself. Its toggle action required the cartridge cases to be lubricated in order to ensure reliable extraction. The Army felt that lubricated cases would complicate manufacturing and attract dirt in the field. Garand’s design was superior because it had a rotating bolt, which did not need lubricated cases to extract reliably. I’m surprised you didn’t mention that here. Maybe Pederson could have sold the Army on it had he been there, but it would have been an uphill slog, especially after MacArthur decided he wanted to retain the .30-06.

    Also, to my knowledge, Garand did not initially design a .30 caliber version of his rifle. He was somewhat fortunate that his design was scale-able and adapted relatively easily to the more powerful .30-06. This turned out to be another advantage of the long stroke, rotating bolt design as opposed to Pederson’s delayed blowback toggle (and yes, I am oversimplifying both actions here). Garand modified his .276 design into the .30-06 prototype after the Army asked him to do so.

    • I don’t think the lubricated ammunition would have been a big disadvantage; the .276 Pedersen cartridges I own are lubricated and it was a really slick dry wax process that produced a result similar to what you see with 5.7×28 lubricated ammunition.

      The details of the competition, anyway, aren’t that important for understanding the subject of this series.

  • petru sova

    The concept of the full auto light rifle was and continues to be an abject failure. The real impetus towards this folly goes back to the Russians issuing a large amount of sub-machine guns in WWII. Russian intelligence agents were sent to spy on their own troops engaged in combat and found that the only gun that troops seem to use voraciously was the sub-machine gun because it made them feel invincible even though they seldom hit anything with them. The idea that the Russian mind was so superior that they developed a philosophy that dictated that one wounded enemy soldier tied down several other fighting soldiers is a myth. The issue of sub-machine guns was rather the idea that if you throw enough wild shots at the enemy someone will eventually get shot that takes them out of the fight even if it often is only a minor wound. The idea that soldiers are all brave fighters that keep on fighting even if seriously wounded is mostly a myth although the super aggressive squad leaders sometimes did.
    Later in WWII it was felt that both in the German and Russian Army’s that a more powerful longer range intermediate cartridge was needed. So was born the intermediate cartridge that was soon chambered in full auto rifles. The pistol grip straight stock was then developed with the idea it could better control the rifle in full auto fire. Unfortunately it did not work, not even with the Viet-Nam era 5.56 mm cartridge. Now the U.S. often limits full auto fire to a 3 round burst device because it took the U.S. decades to learn what the Europeans discovered way back in WWII i.e. that the light rifle concept was and is a failure. Full auto fire is best done with heavy enough framed weapons to control the recoil so hits can be made.
    The pistol grip straight stock full auto rifle has another draw back as well as it prevents mounting the weapon from any carry position for a quick snap shot. Soldiers in the field today are taught to carry such awkward designed stocks flat against the solider and butt down to get the weapon quickly into action. All this takes us back to the U.S. adoption of the M14 which had a standard stock as opposed to the pistol grip stock of the FN Fal as neither gun proved to be effective or controllable in full auto fire, coupled with the fact that neither had quick change barrels either as most heavy machine guns do, ditto for the AR 15 as well as its barrel is fixed as well. Such fixed barrel weapons quickly burn out in full auto fire making them about useless to carry on the fight.