The Most Expensive Underpowered Cartridge Ever Produced?

The Second World War is a conflict utterly foreign to us today. It was a global conflict with millions of combatants and millions of deaths—most of them civilian. Those who fought the conflict began their service as half-starved survivors of the Great Depression. Those who made it out emerged to build their respective nations back to a level of prosperity. Small wonder that the small arms they carried have taken on the aura of nostalgia, especially when some aspect of that equipment remains relevant in some way today.

Take the Colt Model 1911 as an example. Americans love the 1911 because our servicemen carried them for over seventy-five years including through both World Wars. It fires the hard-hitting 45 ACP cartridge. But there is still a practical element to it. The platform lends itself well to competition shooting and if you want a 45 that is easy to carry, the single-stack 1911 continues to make a compelling case. The same is not necessarily so for the .30 Carbine. Over the years, the round and the carbines that fire it have gained a reputation for being woefully underpowered and unreliable at a high price point.

Paratrooper with an M1A1 carbine.

The .30 Carbine: A Brief History

Not all rounds used in the Second World War are sacrosanct. Some rounds like the 30-06 were popular before the war and exploded in popularity afterward. Other rounds were new to battle. Some, like the British .38/200 revolver cartridge, were the answer to a question nobody really asked. The .30 Carbine was the answer to a persistent question that dogged Army leadership while the United States sat at the sidelines between the outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1939 and the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

That question was: How do we better equip non-combat troops? While this question may seem puzzling, given the context of the time it made sense. In any modern army, there are comparatively few soldiers in direct combat roles compared to those in support of them—cooks, transportation drivers, medical personnel, and the number of ever-changing laborers that can keep combat troops sustained in the field.

When the Wehrmacht stormed into Western Europe in May 1940, their tank formations broke through the operational depths of the Belgian and French defenses, bypassing large numbers of front-line combat troops. In the breech, rear-line and support troops normally armed with pistols and obsolete rifles had to toe-to-toe with German ground forces, all the while being harried from the air by the Luftwaffe.

Auto Ordnance M1 Carbine magazine
The .30 Carbine looks like an elongated pistol round. That is one way to think of it. (Photo: Jim Davis)

The .30 Carbine paired with the M1 Carbine was adopted by the US Army in 1942 as a means of arming support personnel with a firearm that had greater firepower and range than the usual .45 caliber Colt 1911 service pistol. The .30 Carbine uses a full-metal-jacket round-nosed bullet that is .308-inch in diameter. Out of the eighteen-inch barreled M1 Carbine, the 110-grain round of the .30 Carbine travels from the muzzle at about 1900 feet per second and nominal muzzle energy of 882-foot pounds of energy. The 230-grain 45 ACP load then used in Colt Government pistols ran out of the muzzle at about 850 feet per second. The .30 Carbine is much faster and has more energy than the 45 up close. That added velocity also translates into a flatter trajectory downrange. Later-war M1 Carbines came with an aperture rear-sight adjustable out to 300 yards.

All of this translates to a platform intended as a needed upgrade from the pistol. But when compared to rifle rounds of the day, the .30 Carbine was light. The M1 Carbine’s older brother, the M1 Garand, used the 30-06 rifle round. Although the Garand shoots a projectile of the same diameter, the ’06 was available anywhere from 150-174 grain for the GI and came out of the muzzle at about 2900 feet per second. The .30 Carbine is no full-bore rifle round, but we have to bear in mind that it was never intended to be. That bit of context was lost almost immediately when the M1 Carbine went into combat.

The Fall from Grace

The M1 Garand was a war winner, but at nearly 10 lbs., it was a bear to lug around. That was especially so when your particular job involves equipment. That is where the 5.2 lb. M1 Carbine came into play. John McManus, in his work, “The Deadly Brotherhood: The American Combat Soldier in World War II,” describes near-universal praise for the carbine as both easy to carry and easy to shoot according to those who used them. On the other hand, McManus’s work also follows the scholarship of SLA Marshall. In “Men Against Fire,” Marshall claimed that only 15-25% of American GIs actually fired their guns in combat, and many of those that did intentionally missed.

But among those who did fire and hit targets, the .30 Carbine round had mixed success. McManus’s work is just one of several with anecdotes of the round’s effectiveness. Some praised the portability and firepower of the M1 Carbine, with its fifteen and thirty-round magazines, but others—especially those in daily combat—found the round wanting ballistically. Some Marines in the Pacific told of having to shoot enemies several times to bring them down. World War II paratrooper Donald Burgett in “Seven Roads to Hell,” recalled a number of failures when used against German troops during the Battle of the Bulge.

The mixed reputation of the M1 Carbine and the round it fired followed it through the Korean War. When surplus and new-manufactured M1 Carbines made it to the civilian market, the shortcomings of the .30 Carbine continued to come up. It was, for all intents and purposes, a souped-up pistol round. Some makers who kept that in mind started producing handguns chambered for the .30 Carbine. The Ruger Blackhawk is, by far, the most successful of these and remains in production. But compared to other models in conventional revolver cartridges like 357 Magnum and 45 Colt, the .30 Carbine Blackhawk can best be considered a mild success.

In terms of civilian usage, think of the M1 Carbine as the AR-15 of today. It was a semi-auto rifle that held plenty of ammo and was chambered for a moderate round. Over six million were made during World War II and millions more were produced over the years by firms like Auto Ordinance and Fulton Armory. Although it was the tactical carbine of its time, some hunters have made use of it on the smaller end of medium game like jackrabbits and coyotes. Some have cautioned against using the .30 Carbine cartridge on larger whitetail deer. In my own past experience, I found this to be sound. My godfather hunted with the .30 Carbine for a time and for every dropped deer, there was another that ran for far too long when a 30-30 or 30-06 through the same wound would have been immediately fatal.

When I started researching for a suitable replacement for my 30-30 Winchester rifle, part of my buying equation went toward the price of ammunition. Compared to such rounds as the 270 Winchester and 30-06, the 30-30 is cheap. 30 Carbine was fairly competitive in price, but all the ammunition I ever saw was military-grade full-metal jacket rounds. The round was not really worth it for serious hunting use, but I kept my eye on it. In the 1990s, there were more M1 Carbines out there and a larger quantity of surplus ammunition. Now, we have more ammunition selection but fewer guns and ammunition overall and what could be had is more expensive than most rounds you are apt to find on a gun store shelf.

The author aims an M1 Carbine.
I am a fan of the M1 Carbine.

The Truth

Although we live in the age of the affordable AR-15 and effective intermediate rounds in the 5.56mm NATO, 300 Blackout, ect., there is still love for the .30 Carbine. You are more likely to see an M1 Carbine at a vintage rifle match or in the back of a safe, but there are plenty of folks who still own them. There is also an undercurrent of people who are interested in World War II history or need something different. The .30 Carbine will have a market share, though it is fractional over what it once was. For those who want or have one, is the .30 Carbine best shot at paper targets alone, given how underpowered and expensive it is?

I don’t think so, because both historical and modern contexts matter. The .30 Carbine is light by today’s standards. It was even light by 1940s standards. Infantryman used to a battle-rifle cartridge and civilians used to conventional bottle-necked hunting cartridges are going to look poorly on the .30 Carbine. But the round was never intended to fill the same role. The round and the platform it came in were far more flexible and easy to learn on—and much more powerful—than the 38 Special and 45 ACP pistol cartridges then in widespread service.  As I read through the accounts of the various failings of the .30 Carbine over the years, I came to the conclusion that part of the round’s reputation comes from that lack of context, a lack of recruit training, and limited ammunition variety.

Troops that needed the M1 Carbine were certainly better off with it than with a pistol. The trouble began when trying to use the carbine to do a rifle’s job. Although rated for 300 yards, the .30 Carbine drops significantly after 200 yards. In the jungles of east Asia, this is inconsequential. The longer shots of the Normandy hedgerows, and worse, on the Korean hillsides five years later, gave the troops an ample range to fire from. At longer distances with the enemy in sight it can be tempting to fire even when they are out of range.

Even at close ranges, the M1 Carbine might be a liability, if we consider the makeup of the troops it was issued to. While a fair share of paratroopers and other fighters got their hands on them, the Carbine was issued to men who spent most of their time operating equipment. The Carbine was an afterthought that they had to qualify on every so often.  Would these same men be able to use their firearm effectively if surprised? They probably could, but it would not be optimal. Missing and making bad shots is possible, even in the best of circumstances. But given that anecdotes are anecdotes, and they are often accounted for years after the fact, we will never really know the exact circumstances of every event.

A recovered .30 Carbine Hornady Critical Defense round. It mikes out to .525-inch in diameter.

What can be more easily disputed is the general lack of ammunition variety. Remington and Winchester, among several others, still produce .30 Carbine ammunition. Almost all of it is 110-grain full-metal-jacket. That was the original military configuration and it is lousy for immediate terminal performance. In my own ballistic gel testing, 110-grain ball rounds will go through three feet of denim-backed gelatin, leaving behind ice-pick rounds. Some GIs complained about the M1 Carbine’s round being unable to penetrate quilted cotton coats on Chinese fighters in the Korean War. The more correct statement would be that the rounds hit them and went completely through. But safe for a shot through the central nervous system, this round operates like a pistol round would—through blood loss. For the everyday hunter or self-defender, this round is suboptimal.

There are a few 110-grain soft-point loadings available today that have the potential to be a solid hunting round, similar to comparable .357 Magnum carbine loads. I also tested Hornady’s Critical Defense .30 Carbine. This load uses a 110-grain FTX projectile and is marketed as a personal defense load. In 10% Clear Ballistics gelatin backed by four layers of denim, this load will reliably penetrate eighteen inches and expand to over one-half inch in diameter.  This round is a cut above and among the latest developments that show that the 30 Carbine, despite being underpowered and expensive for a rifle round, can be very effective.