The US trials that led to the adoption of the first standard issue military selfloading rifle are together one of my favorite parts of small arms history. Recently, Forgotten Weapons’ van Dyked and ponytailed founder and host Ian McCollum got a chance to handle one of my personal “holy grail” firearms, a T3E2 .276 caliber Garand rifle. His excellent video overview (including disassembly) is embedded below, and some further discussion on my part follows that:
Ian cover’s the history of the T3E2 very well, I think, but for those who cannot watch the video, I’ve quoted below the relevant segment from the first of my articles on the post-war Lightweight Rifle program, covering the development of the M1 and the creation, and rejection of the Pedersen rifle and the .276 caliber:
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.
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.
For those who’d rather an audio-only version of this history, you can also listen to a podcast I did for the Firearms Radio Network with Ryan Michad on the same subject, here. Another writeup of the history is given in the show notes for that episode, as well.
Besides Ian’s excellent historical overview, there are a few other things I can add. The first regards the change from the gas trap system to the gas port arrangement. It’s certainly true that the cooler flowing gas in the bigger volume of a gas trap system tends to create more fouling that builds up and eventually stops a rifle from working, but there was also another consideration that, while not directly indicated, is hinted at in secondary sources. This is that the gas trap mechanism made a poor mount for the infantryman’s bayonet, and that it was found that repeated thrusts with the rifle, such as was common in training, would deform the trap and prevent the gun from working properly. The gas port type system supported the bayonet directly with the metal of the barrel, and therefore would not have this problem to the degree that the gas port rifle would. This isn’t so much a counter-narrative as it is maybe another stone that was uncovered during testing; even as early as the late 1930s there are primary source documents that tell of the gas trap rifles fouling under extended firing, so both, or either, may be true.
A very minor second quibble is that, so far as I can guess, the .276 Pedersen cartridge used in the T3E2 did not have a substantially lower peak chamber pressure than the standard .30 M2 caliber round. The idea that it was lower pressure appears to be based on British testing documents which quote a pressure of 19 tons, or about 43,000 PSI (.30-06 M2 Ball has a maximum peak pressure of about 50,000 PSI). However, the British testing method that was probably used differed significantly from the American one, utilizing the parent firearm itself instead of a standard test rig, and tends to give lower pressure readings as a result. There’s a more in-depth discussion of this subject over at the IAA Forum, linked here.
The third is the idea that the .276 Pedersen, if it had been adopted, would have prevented the adoption of the .223 Remington/5.56x45mm round. I’m venturing deep into speculative territory by saying this, but I have to protest otherwise. The program that led to the .223/5.56 cartridge was essentially a rogue effort, and was primarily concerned with weight reduction. I don’t see how the .276 caliber – which weighs much closer to .30-06 than it does .223 – could have delayed or threatened this program any differently than the post-war .30 Light Rifle (later 7.62 NATO) did. It’s true, certainly, that the AR-15 and its small-caliber, high-velocity round were adopted through a pretty narrow set of circumstances, but I don’t think the adoption of the .276 would have changed them very much.
One additional fact supporting this is that the .276 caliber round that the T3E2 used, and the .276 caliber that would have eventually been adopted had MacArthur’s edict never happened, were not the same! The round used in the T3E2 Garand rifle was a well-tapered cartridge with a .447″ cartridge base, thinner than the .473″ base of the .30-06 Springfield round. However, this round did not meet the performance specifications desired by the US Army when loaded with every kind of propellant the Army wanted available, and as a result the specification was changed to the larger .276 T2 cartridge, which utilized a modified version of the .30-06’s .473″ case head, with about the same overall length as the previous .276 cartridge (2.85″). This cartridge was about the same size and weight as the more modern 7mm-08 Remington round based on the .308 Winchester (the civilian offshoot of the .30 Light Rifle, which became 7.62 NATO), and it was this larger T2 round that would have been adopted as the .276 caliber, had that come to pass. In other words, had the .30 caliber not won the day, the US would have adopted a round very similar in size, weight, and capability to the later 7.62 NATO. It seems likely to me that had the .276’s adoption gone through, it would have precluded the .30 Light Rifle cartridge program, rather than the .223 caliber project. In this alternate timeline, maybe today the US Army would be using 5.56mm NATO in conjunction with a venerable, well-tapered “7mm NATO” based on the .276 T2!
My personal feeling is that MacArthur and the US Army made the right decision in choosing the .30-06 caliber: The .30-06 M1 was a less effective weapon than the .276 caliber T3E2, certainly, but not by very much – especially once the .276 T2 cartridge had been implemented, as that presumably would have decreased the T3 rifle’s capacity to 8 just like the actual .30-06 M1. Still, I regret that the T3E2 was not adopted; the .276 Garands are all extremely handy, nice rifles that make the .30-06 versions feel ungainly and clunky. I can’t help but feel just a little pang when I think of how if things had been different, how maybe today we’d be buying excellent, soft-shooting little 7mm rifles from the Civilian Marksmanship Program instead!
The T3E2 rifle that Ian took a look at in the video is up for auction through Rock Island Auction Company. If you want to bid on it, or just look at the excellent photos of it, you can visit the auction page here.