We Pick a Pair of M1 Carbines: Fulton Or Surplus Winchester
Cherished by many, despised by others, the M1 Carbine has been with us for more than 60 years now, and with new units being built, they will be with us a long time. Do you need one?
For whatever reason, lots of shooters like the M1 Carbine. Can you still get one today? Sure, no problem. Is that one better than this one? Well, maybe, and we’ll look at a few here, but first, let’s look at a bit of the history of these little rifles.
Based on a design by David “Carbine” Williams, the M1 Carbine was developed by Winchester around 1940. It was a gas-operated weapon that used a short-stroke piston. In a series of tests involving several manufacturers’ carbine designs, the Winchester version won out, and was adopted by the Army in 1941 as the U.S. Carbine, Caliber .30, M1. It was supposed to take the place of a pistol, i.e., be a better overall weapon than a handgun, for company and non-commissioned officers, communications personnel, some tank and artillery units, truck drivers, and support troops. Army brass apparently thought a short, light carbine would be a good substitute for a sidearm in that it would be able to reach farther and of course be easier to hit with than the .45 Auto. It was also felt that many servicemen who were commonly in cramped quarters couldn’t conveniently use the only other service weapon available, the over-9-pound M1 Garand, so a carbine made a lot of sense.
The carbine was not only accepted, but was built in enormous numbers, and served very well in its capacity. (There was nothing to prevent a carbine-equipped soldier from also packing a .45 Auto, and thus always have a weapon on his person.) About 6.5 million carbines were produced by the end of WWII. Among them were also the M1A1 (folding metal stock for paratrooper use), M2 (selective fire), and T3 (receiver grooved for big sniper scope) versions, but they came later. The initial version was semiautomatic only.
Various manufacturers made M1 Carbines, all to stringent mil-spec standards. The receivers and bolts were forged and machined of WD 4140 Special steel (WD, for War Department, was the fixed, mil-spec requirement on what was also known as SAE 4140 steel), and the barrels made of WD 1350 Special, all with lengthy heat-treat sequences to give specific tensile strengths (110,000 psi for the barrels) and hardnesses. In short, original GI M1 carbines were very well made.
The cartridge itself was an offshoot of Winchester’s .32 self-loading round, absent the latter’s slight rim. The .30 Carbine round used a 110-grain FMJ bullet driven to just under 2,000 fps, and was powered by flake or ball powder. Today we can get soft-nose versions as well as FMJ, all of it having about the same ballistics as original ball.
We acquired four versions of the carbine. One was an early Winchester, which had been slightly worked over by its previous owner (about $550). Another came from Fulton Armory, a fully reconditioned beauty looking just like it did when carbines were new and the world was young ($1,000). Finally, we tested two versions of the carbine by IAI American Legend, Inc., one in the normal .30 caliber ($538 with walnut stock and metal guard; wood-guard version $552), and the other in 5.7mm Johnson Spitfire, which is the .30 Carbine case necked to .22 caliber, loaded with a 40-grain jacketed soft-nose bullet ($519 with birch stock). Here’s what we found.
Early Winchester M1, about $550
This carbine had the best-looking wood finish, and also had the finest trigger pull of the quartet. The previous owner had worked the gun over and the final result was attractive, though so much wood had been removed that in some areas the metal was higher than the wood. The stock had apparently been sanded to eliminate various severe dings, some of which were still visible. A small inlay covered a hole in the stock’s wrist. The pores had been filled, and an oil finish was rubbed into the wood. This gave the carbine a slicker appearance than mil-spec, but we liked it. The rifle came with an authentic sling, oil bottle, bayonet, and numerous original 15-round magazines. Affixed to the butt stock was a two-magazine pouch made of webbing material. We thought this thoroughly authentic addition to the rifle was a worthy one. With two mags on the stock and one in the action, a total of 45 rounds could be carried with the rifle, in one handy package. With an original 30-round M2 magazine in the action, the total would be 60 rounds.
The Winchester version of the carbine is probably the most desirable. The metalwork on this one had not been refinished. The finish was worn, but all the metal was in excellent condition. The original metal polish had apparently been well done. The barrel looked new inside. One possible problem was the loose hand guard, or wood forend top, which rattled and probably didn’t help accuracy. The Fulton and IAI hand guards were tight. If we owned this carbine we’d find a way to tighten the part. We vastly preferred the look and feel of the wood guards on the Winchester and Fulton to the perforated metal of the IAI carbines.
The trigger pull was very good. It broke cleanly at 5.2 pounds. All the mechanisms and operations of the rifle were smooth, the result of years of careful use. The other three rifles were new, and all were a whole lot rougher in operation than this slick Winchester — though all three had become smoother by the end of our tests. After our accuracy testing we tried a series of offhand-firing evaluations, seeing how fast we could hit a short-range target, starting with a lowered gun. The fine trigger pull of this Winchester made it the miles-ahead fastest gun to get good hits, which told us that if we owned any of the other three, and anticipated any kind of serious need for the carbine, we’d immediately put a good trigger job into it.
In spite of some (mostly hidden) efforts to glass bed the Winchester, it didn’t shoot any better than the other three rifles. In fact, all three .30s had about the same accuracy, shot from a machine rest at 50 yards with iron sights.
The Winchester, as did the other three carbines, had the late-issue rear aperture sight that slid fore and aft on a milled ramp with detents for 100, 200, 250, and 300 yards. This sight had only one aperture. Earlier sights had two, but arsenal upgrading of many carbines has given many if not most of them this so-called T-21 rear sight, actually designed by John Garand. We shot the carbines with the sights as low as they’d go, and the Winchester struck a trifle higher than the other carbines. A slightly higher front sight would be in order if the owner wanted to zero this gun at 50 yards. Original carbine equipment, we’re told, included several front-sight height variations, so armorers could overcome slight manufacturing differences and center the weapon properly. We’ve also read that some sights were issued high, for filing to final zero. Changing the front sight was not really necessary with the Winchester. The front sight (forged and milled) was protected by two wings, and gave a vertical-post profile as seen through the aperture. Windage adjustment was by a click-stopped thumb knob on the right side of the receiver-mounted sight. The Winchester, and all three others, had enough windage to center the point of impact with room to spare. However, the Winchester’s windage adjustment was the stiffest of the four rifles, and once set it would not easily be moved out of adjustment.
The M1 Carbine has a charging lever on the right side of the action, looking not unlike that of the M1 Garand. The bolt does not stay open following the last round, unless you happen to have a magazine with a square-back follower, which will stop the bolt after the last round is fired. The Fulton rifle had this feature on its 10-round magazine. The Winchester and the IAI carbines did not. The bolt can be made to stay rearward by depressing a button on top of the activating rod as the bolt is drawn rearward. This button catches into a notch on the receiver rail, and this serves — well enough, if not perfectly — as a hold-open device.
The carbine seems to be more of a right-hander’s weapon. The magazine release is a button forward of the trigger guard on the right side of the gun, and the safety is a rotating lever just behind that, at the front of the trigger guard. (Early versions of the carbine had a button safety.) The safe position is with the lever pointing downward. A tug on the safety with the right-hand trigger finger gets the little rifle ready to fire, but if there’s significant resistance to moving the safety, the trigger finger can slip off the safety and bump the trigger, perhaps firing the rifle unintentionally. We bumped the trigger a couple of times, but the gun didn’t fire.
Inserting magazines and removing them were easy operations on all four samples. We found that loading a 15-round mag was a lot easier than loading the recently made 10-rounders supplied with the Fulton and IAI carbines.
We could see no reason to try the M4 bayonet on a target. Seriously, the “zero” might change with the knife mounted, and because storing the knife and its scabbard on the carbine makes some sense, you might want to test-fire your carbine with the bayonet mounted, to see if the combination alters your zero. M4 bayonets are still commonly available for the carbine. Fulton sells a variety, including newly made ones. Why a bayonet? They’re good for display, or for giving the carbine a thoroughly authentic look for reenactments, or movie usage.
On the range the Winchester functioned perfectly (surprise!), with both types of ammunition tried, but its fine trigger didn’t help accuracy from the machine rest. Our best group measured 0.9 inch with American Eagle ball; the average of all groups was 2.1 inches at 50 yards. That translates to about 4 inches at 100 yards, which knowledgeable folks say is about par for an M1 Carbine.
We liked the Winchester carbine, and appreciated the setup with the handy double-magazine pouch on the butt stock. This pouch, marked “Airtress Midland 1944,” didn’t get in our way. Lefties could mount it on the other side. Original slings are still commonly available, and they’re inexpensive and worthy additions to any M1 carbine. The sling passes through that big gouge in the stock and wraps around a small oil bottle, which serves as a keeper. It’s a simple and handy setup, another endearing feature of the M1 Carbine.
Fulton Armory Service Grade M1 Carbine, $1,000
At first blush, the Fulton carbine looked like an expensive proposition. However, let’s see what you get, borrowing the description from that company’s website, www.fulton-armory.com:
“The Fulton Armory Service Grade M1 Carbines are as close to new as you can get … Because we hand-build them one at a time, they easily surpass the beauty and reliability of the mass-produced carbines of the 1940s. Sure, you can buy one elsewhere for less, but by the time you replace the awful wood, replace the worn or excessively headspaced barrel, replace the unserviceable parts and pay somebody to get it working, you will have spent far more [than ours costs].”
What does Fulton put into a carbine? How about: Original USGI receivers; all USGI parts, all checked with applicable gauges; an excellent-condition (refinished) original USGI stock and hand guard; a period sling and oiler; plus “The M1 Carbine Owner’s Guide,” a 140-page book by Ruth & Duff (autographed by Duff). This book was so filled with intensive details about the M1 Carbine that after reading portions of it, we had to rewrite portions of this report. Also in the Fulton package was one 10-round magazine. There’s a 30-day money-back guarantee, which gives you ample time to fall in love with your new purchase, or to find some good reason to reject it, which we don’t think you will.
The sample we had looked absolutely new. The metal had crisp edges everywhere, as though the parts had been machined last week and Parkerized yesterday. The metal finish was close to black, and evenly applied. The wood was good walnut, with a smooth finish that smelled like linseed oil. The wood pores were somewhat open, much as they were on original-issue carbines. The barrel was like rifled glass inside.
It had an Underwood-marked barrel, and beneath that was the date, 1-44, and beneath that was a winged-bomb ordnance mark. The receiver was by Standard Products Co. (STD.PRO.). The sling was original, as was evident from the old green corrosion on the brass snap. Unfortunately, the sling snap had slightly marred the forend wood during shipping, but this didn’t detract from the overall totally authentic look of this remanufactured carbine. We’re sure many “new” carbines had slight packing damage on their stocks as well. If anyone were offended by this, it could easily be fixed with sandpaper and linseed oil. This stock had the later “pot-bellied” forend, and you can see the difference by comparing its profile with that of the Winchester, with its flatter, earlier, stock-forend profile.
Some of the details we discovered in the “The M1 Carbine Owner’s Guide” were that Standard Products Co. was the third rarest manufacturer of carbines, producing just a few more than Rock-Ola and Irwin-Pedersen. Also, Underwood barrels were considered to be the finest of all, even better than Winchesters. So our Fulton carbine was, in many respects, a doozy. The barrel interior was one of the finest we’ve seen, including the latest, most modern match-rifle barrels that have come our way.
The sights were just like those on our test Winchester, and like those on the two IAI rifles. The trigger pull was creepy and broke at a consistent 6.4 pounds. At the range, the first round was reluctant to chamber. We tried it again and from then on it was all smooth sailing with never a bobble, no further malfunctions whatsoever. The Fulton struck the center of point of aim at 50 yards. It did its best with mil-surplus ball, averaging 1.2-inch groups. It didn’t like the American Eagle ball as well, and averages were over 2 inches. Caveat ammo!
We made one other test with both the Winchester and Fulton, based on a failure by the IAI carbine reviewed below. The IAI failed to fire several rounds of military ball, though we dropped the IAI hammer repeatedly on the rounds. We thought they were faulty rounds. We put these “faulty” rounds into the Winchester and Fulton rifles, and all fired perfectly. The reason, we felt, is that the Winchester and Fulton were set up exactly as originally intended, to fire ALL rounds no matter how hard the primer material happened to be.
IAI American Legend, Inc., .30 Carbine, $538
IAI American Legend, Inc., is located in Houston, Texas, and makes M1 Carbines based on investment-cast receivers of 4140 steel. The company uses a mix of investment-cast components and surplus GI parts to make a unit that looks very much like an original carbine, and onto which, they say, all surplus mil-spec parts will fit. Our test rifle came with a perforated metal hand guard in lieu of the WWII wood guard. (The wood hand-guard version costs $552.)
The nice-looking walnut of our test carbine was immediately overshadowed by the less-attractive appearance of the perforated metal hand guard, in our opinion. We’d spend the few extra bucks required to get the all-wood stock. Attached to the investment-cast receiver was a newly made barrel, and of course there were no wartime markings on them. The new parts all appeared to be of good-quality manufacture, and with a few exceptions, detailed below, worked quite well. There is little danger of an IAI carbine being mistaken for a genuine GI-receiver rifle, as the top of the receiver, beneath the rear sight, was clearly marked with the manufacturer’s name and address.
Our sample arrived as a bare carbine with one 10-round magazine. There was no sling, no manual, nothing extra, though another report mentioned that a manual came with the gun. All operations and all the details we checked were mil-spec, except of course for the manner of manufacture of the aftermarket receiver and barrel.
Workmanship was plenty good enough on all the metal and wood. However, close inspection revealed a serious and unfortunate flaw in the stock in the form of a major crack. The crack was through the left-forward portion of the stock, running about 3.5 inches along the wood-grain line, beginning from a point near the left-front corner of the action, and angling downward toward the muzzle. The crack was nearly invisible. We found it when the light hit it just right, and then verified it with a magnifying glass. In fairness to the manufacturer, this crack may have been there a long time. We thought the stock was a new-condition surplus stock because it had a cutout for an M2 selector lever. This crack was tragic because the walnut had some attractive and interesting grain on the left side. It may be possible to repair the crack and thus save this nice-looking stock. This, by the way, is a good example of why you probably want to avoid fancy stocks on mil-spec guns. What you want is the strongest, toughest plank you can find, not a wavy-grained beauty that might have internal weaknesses, as this one did.
The safety was the early push-button style, not commonly seen on M1 Carbines. The other IAI carbine had the same setup, and for most uses, we liked the push-button better than the rotating safety, for the reason given above. But it was easier to move the rotating safety silently, and with it there was only one “button” on the right side, so you’d be less likely to hit the wrong one and drop the magazine unintentionally.
During our firing tests there was some stiffness and reluctance to chamber the first few rounds, but as with the Fulton, that went away quickly. We had several failures to fire the military-surplus carbine ammo, which we obtained from the CMP. The primer was seriously dented from the first blow, but succeeding droppings of the hammer failed to fire numerous rounds. Yet those misfired rounds from the IAI all fired perfectly in both the Winchester and Fulton, as did all the surplus ammo in those two. This means the IAI carbine wouldn’t reliably fire mil-surplus ammo, and thus could not be considered a completely original M1 Carbine. This needs to be addressed by the maker. We could not detect a weak hammer spring. In fact, the hammer cocked more easily on both the Winchester and Fulton than it did on the IAI. This condition with the IAI might go away as parts wear in and internal friction diminishes, but we wouldn’t count on it. The IAI worked flawlessly with current commercial American Eagle ammunition, which presumably uses softer primer material.
IAI claims to put a tighter chamber on their new barrels than is found on typical military rifles, and with it, they say, comes improved accuracy. Our limited testing verified this. The IAI gave overall average groups for all factory loads fired of 1.6 inches at 50 yards, which was slightly the best of the test. The Fulton got 1.7, and the old Winchester, 2.1 inches.
The trigger didn’t help at all, breaking at 7.0 pounds ugly. The trigger didn’t begin to move until 6 pounds had been put on it, and then it was a sluggish and creepy slide to a muddy stop. The addition of about a pound more pressure caused the break. This may sound workable, but in actuality it wasn’t good by any definition. We have a Garand on hand that has the world’s most beautiful trigger (done by Fulton Armory). It moves gently and smoothly rearward until you’ve applied 4 pounds, and then it hits a distinct stop. Beyond that clear-cut stop the totally predictable addition of one more pound gives a dreamy clean break. This carbine trigger was NOT that, but instead was just plain lousy.
IAI American Legend 5.7 Johnson (.22 Spitfire), $519
“Cartridges of the World,” 8th Edition, gives the designation of this cartridge as 5.7 MMJ, for Melvin M. Johnson, its designer. It’s also known as the .22 Spitfire or 5.7 Johnson. IAI American Legend, Inc., built a carbine around the cartridge that is externally identical, except for the hole in the barrel, to the .30 M1 Carbine. The cartridge will probably be of interest to many, if only for its innovation. Its field utility remains to be verified, at least in this package.
Our first attempt to fire the .22-caliber version of the IAI Carbine was unsuccessful. We loaded two rounds into the magazine, wanting to evaluate feeding from each side of the stack. When we released the bolt, the first round was driven out of the magazine and partway into the chamber, but failed to go home. We cleared the gun and tried again, but the same thing happened. After the second failure, we withdrew the bolt slightly and let the round fall loosely into the chamber. We closed the bolt too gently, the extractor didn’t close over the rim, and we had a failure to fire when the hammer fell. Closing the bolt firmly over the round got ignition, and also a noticeable ball of flame out the muzzle in the dim light of our test day. We never saw muzzle blast from the three .30 carbines.
The noise of the Johnson was about the same as the .30-caliber version, but there was less felt recoil and less muzzle climb. Not that recoil is at all significant with the .30, but it was definitely less with the .22. In our initial test, the second (left-side) round fed and fired properly. Subsequent testing gave no more problems with feeding and firing. All the comments in the report on the .30-cal IAI concerning fit and finish were equally applicable here. The .22 version used the same magazine as the .30-cal.
The stock was of birch, nicely stained to resemble walnut. Birch can be very attractive. This stock had, by far, the nicest grain of all four test rifles. This carbine had a muzzle-heavy feel because of the additional metal left in the barrel from the smaller hole. Again we didn’t like the look of the perforated metal hand guard, and again we’d go with an all-wood stock.
After our firing tests, we felt there was something missing with the .22 version. There was less kick, which gave the subjective feel of less gun, no matter that the .22 might do certain things better than the .30-cal version. It certainly would shoot flatter, but unless you scoped it, what’s the benefit? Specifically, the 40-grain soft-nose bullet went out at 2,684 fps, nearly 700 fps faster than the fastest 110-grain slugs out of the .30s. This would give flatter trajectory, and thus less guess for hold-over on distant targets. The relatively high speed would seem to indicate more reliable bullet expansion than expected from a .30 Carbine soft-nose bullet.
The maker provided a scope mount, which we chose to leave off because of our test parameters for the other weapons. The provided base mounted to the gun after drifting off the rear sight. It then gave you a short Weaver-style rail for easy scoping. If a scope were added, some work to the creepy, near-7-pound trigger would be in order, to make a more effective shooting assembly. However, in light of the dismal accuracy displayed by this firearm with its iron sights, we doubted the validity of installing a scope unless the owner had eyesight limitations, and then a scope would permit a better view of the target.
The only visual exterior indication that this was a .22, other than the small hole in the barrel, was the designation on top of the receiver, which read “ U.S. CARBINE CAL 22 ML” Yes, that’s ML, not M1. Both IAI receivers had distinct ML’s, not the M1’s of the Winchester and Fulton original GI receivers. The lettering was incorrect, and the little things count. Also, there is no cartridge designation known as the .22 M1 Carbine. The ammunition that we had, made by C Square Munitions Corp., Friendswood, TX, (phone: 281-797-2669), and tested in IAI arms, was labeled 5.7 mm Johnson Spitfire. This label should keep it distinct from .22 LR Spitfire ammunition. Our best group was 1.3 inches, but the worst was 4.0, all at 50 yards using a machine rest. The overall average of all groups was 2.4 inches.
Gun Tests Recommends
Early Winchester M1 Carbine, about $550. Buy It. If you can find a good original Winchester-made M1 carbine, expect to pay a premium for the name, or around $500 to 600. Other brands probably won’t be quite so costly. You may have to mess with a surplus carbine a little to get it up to snuff. You may want to refinish the stock, as was done to our test carbine. Be aware that some M1 Carbines have significant collector’s value, and any alterations will hurt or destroy that value. If anything serious is wrong with your new carbine, the cost of setting it right could make it so you won’t save much, if any, money over the new-like Fulton Armory version, on which everything has already been checked and made absolutely right. Things to avoid are bad barrels and really bad stocks, both of which can be expensive to refit. Try to check headspace, and shoot before you buy, if at all possible. An original carbine will probably never look as good as the Fulton version, but it may serve you well enough. We’d grab this particular worked-over Winchester in a heartbeat.
Fulton Armory Service Grade M1 Carbine, $1,000. Our Pick. If we had a desire to own an M1 Carbine that was as close to what GIs were issued during WWII or Korea, we would not hesitate. We’d choose the Fulton remanufactured version and be glad a company cared enough about this country’s history to provide one of the more compelling bits of firearm technology in exactly the form it was originally intended, with no investment-cast compromises, no matter how good the castings might be. We liked this original looking one a whole lot, and think you will, too. No other M1 Carbine we’ve seen had the authentic look and feel of this one by the folks at Fulton Armory. Their care in building it was reflected in its performance and handling qualities. We felt the overall high quality of the package thoroughly justified its price.
IAI American Legend, Inc., .30 Carbine, $538. Conditional Buy. Although the stock was cracked, we could not reject the gun for that. We’re sure the manufacturer would make it right. Neither could we fault the maker for using investment castings. At some point, all USGI parts will run out, and any new carbines will have to be made by new methods, of which investment casting is one of the more efficient. But we seriously faulted the rifle for not working perfectly with the ammunition around which it ought to have been built. It could be the tighter chamber was a contributing factor to misfires, and if that turned out to be the case, we’d reject this gun. There are few reasons to try to make a “target” rifle out of the carbine by giving it a chamber that needs to be pampered. After all, the Fulton, with its mil-spec chamber, essentially equaled this IAI’s accuracy. However, if you want a tighter chamber, this one’s for you.
IAI American Legend, Inc., 5.7 Johnson Spitfire, $519. Conditional Buy. Because of the .22 carbine’s poor accuracy showing and bad trigger, we had lots of questions about the overall concept of this package. But hey, if it lights your light, go for it. We think most buyers of M1 Carbines are going to opt for the original .30-caliber version, but we applaud the IAI people for offering something a little different. If this were a tack-driver with a good trigger and good scope, the .22-caliber M1 Carbine could become very popular. As we found it, it had none of those attributes. However, we realize some folks will look forward to working with a .22 version, and will love to have one of these.