The Myth of David Marshall “Carbine” Williams and the M1 Carbine

As it often happens, the exploits of a team of talented individuals is often attributed to that of one person. In a good example, many think of Eugene Stoner as the inventor of the AR-15, which is largely true (though some would argue that Jim Sullivan and the team had a significant amount of input). On the opposite side, its not the case with David Marshall “Carbine” Williams who is attributed design credit on the M1 carbine. Turns out that he was quite distant from the project.

NRA Publications’ American Rifleman recently posted up a great spread on “Carbine” Williams and his true involvement with the famous carbine. While he did invent the now well-used short-stroke piston, the rest of the gun is largely the work of the Winchester company, not the work of Carbine Williams himself.

For those not familiar with Mr. Williams, he has a storied past. Convicted of murder after a law enforcement raid on his illegal still (back in the days of Prohibition), Willaims’ design experience came from working in the prison machine shop, where he worked most of the day on various designs. With the sentence at 20 to 30 years, he was paroled early and released from prison in 1931 with two novel designs: the “floating chamber” and the short-stroke piston.

The rest, from there, is history. For a full run-down on the character (and that he was), check out American Rifleman’s piece on their website here. 

*Note – Title image from the NRA’s article.

Nathan S

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


  • Eugene Stoner did not design the AR-15, that task fell to Jim Sullivan and the oft-forgotten Robert Fremont; far from “arguably” responsible, it is very well documented!

    Stoner did, however, design the .223 Remington caliber and the 55gr “Sierra” projectile.

    • Zachary marrs

      I thought he just scaled it down?

      • The AR-15 isn’t really a scaled down AR-10; they tried that and it didn’t work.

        It uses the same mechanisms, but a lot of original engineering went into that. And, as os mentions, Jim Sullivan was also involved in perfecting the AR-10, as well.

    • ostiariusalpha

      Ah, beat me to it. Sullivan was also responsible for the AR-10/AR-15 having a gas key mounted on top of the bolt carrier, the Hollywood AR-10 had no key and the gas fed in from the side of the carrier opposite the ejection port.

      • noob

        Interesting – would that mean there would be no charging handle channel to trap a round in the infamous round over bolt malfunction?

        • ostiariusalpha

          Nope, the top mounted charging handle gave it the same channel, so the same potential for a brass over bolt malfunction. In addition the side gas tube was exposed when it exited the handguard and vulnerable to damage, which is why Sullivan moved it.

    • CavScout

      That’s alright, I highly doubt Mr. Kalashnikov had much of anything to do with the AK. He made a gauge for a tank, once. Now all of a sudden they capture a bunch of German scientists and engineers, and suddenly Mr K designs a gun not terrible different from the STG44…

  • ostiariusalpha

    The American Rifleman article neglected to mention that the Winchester executive, Edwin Pugsley, was somewhat sympathetic to Williams because he himself was such a rascal that his friend, Charles Addams, created a character from him for the Addams’ Family comic strip.

    • Pugsley seemed to be the only person who could calm Williams and get him to be productive. He was a very interesting character, indeed.

      • Don’t forget Harry Sefried’s efforts serving as the buffer between Williams and the rest of the design staff.

        • I would never! 😉

        • SlowJoeCrow

          So that was what Harry Sefried did before Ruger? That would partially explain why the 44 and 10/22 look so much like an M1 carbine. I think the rest was Bill Ruger reading the market.

          • Harry Sefried also worked for High Standard for several years in between his service at Winchester and Ruger. Charles Petty interviewed Sefried and other High Standard alumni while writing his book on the company. Petty turned the interview into an article for the March/April 1983 issue of American Handgunner.


  • Don Ward

    And a further read should always include that of TFB’s own Nathaniel F. and his work on the Short (Stroke) History of the Tappet.

  • When working on a complex mechanism in a corporate environment, usually no one person is responsible for designing ever aspect of the mechanism but the under lying principles and concepts are what I would give credit as to the design of the mechanism. Just like Stoner was not even working for Armalite when the AR-18 was manufactured, he is still credited with it since it was based on the AR-16, just scaled down (sound familiar?). This is the reason Stoner is credited to many designs he really did not work on. Jim Sullivan is a fantastic designer in his own right and has independent many designs.

    So is it fair to say Stoner designed the M-16, AR-18, Stoner 63? I think it is.

    • I think that’s ignorant of how “design” actually works. Most people like to think of design as creatively brainstorming novel mechanisms to produce something totally original, but actually most design is solving small problems that arise on the journey from concept to production.

      Stoner did none of the latter (zip, nada, zilch) for the AR-15, AR-18, and Stoner 63, so he wasn’t their designer.

      • I have to disagree. The 1903 Springfield, whom would you credit as the designer for it? It is clearly a direct copy of the 98 Mauser action though scaled up a bit and a few tidbits added. It was so much a copy the USA had to pay Mauser royalties until we went to war with Germany. This is exactly the same situation, the design was copied in rote with just adjustments for the caliber. Minor changes to a stock hinge or a scope mount plate being the only thing different. Hell even many parts are the same between guns. The draftsmen in most cases just scaled parts down and the engineers just confirmed they would be strong enough.

        • ostiariusalpha

          There’s a bit of an ontological difference between being the responsible designer and being the inventor of systems that might be used in that design. You have to pay both people if you use their work. Hiram S. Maxim invented short recoil, but he didn’t design the 1911.

          • Actually Maxim’s patent was for gas assisted operated action not short recoil which he did not invent. Thus he claimed Browning violated it with his Potato Digger MG. The 1911 is not short recoil but tilting locked barrel and slide and the Luger is not short recoil either it is patented as a knee joint locked. The short recoil patent is held by Browning and used for the M2 & 1917 & 1919 MGs by him. He never worked on any of those guns yet we attribute them to him as the designer so are you saying that Browning did not design any of them? Browning’s first BAR design/prototype is extremely different than the final design so I guess you are saying that it is not his design either?

          • ostiariusalpha

            I’m sorry, but you are simply incorrect. The Maxim machine gun is absolutely 100% short-recoil operated only, with no gas assist whatsoever. Its patent is here:
            The potential infringement that the Colt-Browning M1895 faced was because its gas-operated lever actuated mechanism has a slight resemblance to the toggle lock mechanism, which Maxim had also invented for his machine gun. The patent Browning holds is for gas operation, not short-recoil. Both the Luger and 1911 are most definitely short-recoil operated, both Luger and Browning mention that this is so in their patents; you should feel truly dumb for even trying to deny that. Luger’s patent concerned only those improvements that he had made over the Borchardt pistol (which had lifted its toggle lock, short-recoil operation almost directly from Maxim). The M1917 is 90% Browning’s direct work, it is entirely justified that his name comes first as its designer. And he was intimately involved in the design teams for both the M1919 and M2 (which he designed the cartridge for, amongst other things).

        • Have you designed anything? I am just curious.

          • Yes, a dedicated upper receiver to convert the AR15 to 22LR before any one else did. CZ made them and they sold very well. Unfortunately they screwed me out of my royalties of over 3 million USD (thus I learned you get what you pay for in patent attorneys). My design for a light machine gun in 5.56mm was one of the 3 finalist for the Mk46 contract but the company I was working with did not have the funding to generate enough prototypes for the next stage of the competition. I also design some of the AAC suppressors and mounts currently used by the military as well as misc small arms accessories for several companies including Remington, MPA, DD Armory, as well as numerous designs in the petrochemical industry..

          • I thought maybe you had because of your icon. So, that leads to my next point. You know how you have a really cool idea, sometimes, like the .22 upper receiver for an AR-15, and then it takes a lot of hard work and time to turn that idea into an actual product?

            I would make a distinction between those two things. The invention part involves creativity and ideas, while design is all of the hard work it takes to make that more than a collection of ideas. These two things are intimately related, of course; a good example of this being the gas key on the AR-15. Sullivan was working on Stoner’s team doing draft work (one of the nitty gritty unfun bits of design), when he came up with – invented – this solution to a problem they were having. This happens all the time, and it means that designers and inventors are often the same people.

            But the distinction I am making here is that just because the Mauser pre-existed it and used the same design elements, that does not mean Springfield’s job was done in creating the M1903. In fact, most of their labor had yet to begun. Someone had to still sit down and design the 1903, even though the invention was handed to them.

          • I agree there is plenty of work after the idea or invention is generated. That work is far simpler than coming up with the original idea even if it is not for the lay men. Many inventions/products I see I think damn that is suck an easy simple solution why did I not think of it or invent it but that’s the inspiration of the inventor. Sullivan has several patents that are improvements on the AR rifles like the gas keep. Stoner came up with the original design/invention even if he did not draft it or machine it himself. His inspiration gave rise to others that would improve it like Sullivan and others but w/o the original idea none of the others would have existed. How long would the US have used the Krag had we not faced the Mauser rifles of the Spanish? The 1903 is clearly a Mauser based design and therefore he should get the credit for it even though US engineers worked to scale the design to meet the requirements of the US at the time.

            I agree at some point you can’t call a derivative design to be fathered by the originator but its more like looking at a present day Ford and saying that obviously can not be called the inspiration of the cave man that first made a wheel. But, even today’s AR15 is still very close to Stoner’s original AR10. It has the basic patent principles, gas tube supplying gas to the bolt carrier that forms the piston chamber and the bolt being part of the gas piston (and no direct impingement in sight). Otherwise you have to say the AR10 / AR15 was designed by Armalite since if you are not going to give credit to the originator of the idea/design you sure can give it to the engineers and draftsmen that followed directions to implement the design.

        • Mark K.

          There are conflicting accounts of whether the USA actually paid for Mauser’s 98 design.

  • Captain Obvious

    While he didn’t have much to do with the carbine itself, William’s planted the seed which makes him the father.

  • josh

    Why does TFB always hate on Williams? I am distantly related to Williams. He is buried in the same cemetery as my Williams ancestors in Wade NC.

    • Lemdarel

      They post things like this to counter false impressions people still have about the creation of the M1 carbine. If that’s your definition of hate, I don’t think the problem lies with TFB.

      • josh

        get a grip. take a joke.

        • Jonathan Ferguson

          And how exactly were they supposed to know it was a joke?

    • Oh, you’re so very very wrong about that. Williams is one of my favorite gun designers; not the least because his story is absolutely incredible. Which makes the sob Hollywood-ized version told in Carbine Williams so disappointing; the true story is much more fun.

      • josh

        I just messing with you. nice article.

  • Harry’s Holsters

    Everyone loves a Moonshiner!

    I didn’t know he was from NC. Glad we can take some credit for the development of the M1 Carbine.

  • roguetechie

    Melvin Johnson also gets very little credit in the birth of the armalite rifle. In general

    • roguetechie

      Here’s another neat factoid. Did you know that Eugene Stoner’s infamous meeting at a range with armalite guys was also made possible by Melvin Johnson?

      The rifle they were so impressed by was a modified M1941 Johnson rifle!

      Also if you look at the Johnson LMG, it’s uncannily similar to the guts of your AR 10/15.

      finally, and most impressive but frustratingly indicative of what I call the 50 year rule is the fact that the Johnson rifle and LMG were built on the same base receiver, both had quick change barrels headspacing off the barrel extension, could swap calibers with the same cartridge base as 30 ’06 with a barrel swap alone, was designed with modular feed swap up to and including belt fed variations, had an open bolt full auto closed bolt semi fcg in LMG and auto carbine form, and finally in the m1944 configurations used direct impingement gas assist!

      5 decades later the modularity craze was ramping up to things like the MGI hydra today. This is my 50 year rule. Essentially it takes the gun buying public and militaries 5 decades to accept and implement a new concept. The same 5 decade gap exists with the hill SMG and the now accepted FN P90.

      One day I’ll write up this and more on the amazingly future focused Melvin Johnson.

  • cicso kid

    Elmer Keith also gets credit for inventing the 44 magnum which he did not. Remington Arms Engineers came up with the round at the request of Smith & Wesson. Smith & Wesson did get the idea from Elmer Keith be he had nothing to do with the design.

  • SirOliverHumperdink

    Also note that George Luger did not invent the ‘Loogie’, it was Bercham McQuay of Princton, NJ, who coined the phrase ‘hacked a loogie’

  • The_Champ

    Something that always stuck with me after watching James Burke’s brilliant TV series, “Connections” and “The Day the Universe” is that the idea of the lone genius toiling away and striking upon that eureka moment or that brilliant invention is largely a myth.

    Genius inventors and innovators exist, but nothing is created in a bubble, and almost everyone builds upon the hard work of those that came before them. This is true in firearms design as it is everywhere else.

    • That was an excellent show that I enjoyed watching too bad nothing but crap dominates TV these days.

  • smartacus

    had his still not been illegally deemed illegal he would not have been illegally raided.

    “right or wrong, he should have followed the law” is a slippery slope.

  • ISlacker

    For those interested If your ever in Raleigh NC the NC history museum has a Carbine Williams exhibit that pretty cool its essentially at recreation of his workshop as it was at the time of his death.

  • Mikial

    And the point of this article is . . . .?