Even when prowling the courtrooms of Boston during the late 1930s, Marine Corps Reserve officer Melvin Johnson Jr. had an idea to create a rifle that was easy to manufacture, but more importantly accurate and deadly in the hands of a Marine rifleman.
Johnson scrapped together pieces of other firearms to create the first prototypes of the Johnson rifle system. In a day when a rifle was purpose built, Johnson cobbled together a patented idea that created not only a semi-automatic rifle but a light machine gun.
Unlike other rifles of the day, Johnson created a system that did not rely on gas to operate the action. The Johnson rifle had a barrel that recoiled slightly, releasing the eight lugged bolt from the barrel extension when propellant gas pressures reduced just enough. The bolt carrier then recoiled back, ejecting the round and cycling forward (via a recoil buffer spring much like a M-16) a whole new round of .30-06 ammunition.
Johnson quickly refined the design and in trials pitted his Boston made weapon against the rifle that would become the M1 Garand. The Army passed on the Johnson after testing, but undeterred Melvin Johnson submitted his rifle for Marine Corps consideration.
The Corps liked the rifle, its accuracy a bit better than the gas operated M1 Garand and less felt recoil, but as did the Army the USMC would pass on the Johnson design. With grit and determination, Johnson opened up a manufacturing operation and called the rifle the M1941.
Yet sometimes, great rifle designs are not recognized until many years after their glory has passed. Two facets of the Johnson are worth noting as innovative and unusual for the time- the magazine and barrel system.
Competition winner Garand was loaded by an eight-round block clip, which when the last round was fired the rifle would eject the clip with a distinctive 'clang.'
The Johnson however was fed by an internal rotary magazine resulted in a bulge like drum under the receiver. Via five round stripper clips, the Johnson's internal magazine could be loaded with a total of ten rounds of ammunition. Also different than the Garand, the Johnson could be loaded with rounds individually, a feature which intrigued the Corps.
The basic and simple delayed recoil of the Johnson made it easily adaptable for a light machine gun role. The standard Johnson rifle was the basis of the Johnson LMG which featured a different magazine system. Unlike the internal rotary magazine of the rifle, the LMG was fed by a left-side mounted 20 round, single stack box magazine. And like the standard rifle, rounds could be fed into the breech individually or via stripper clips.
However, while not a sexy feature, the most valuable engineering attribute of the Johnson rifle system was the ability to simply remove the barrel. It was this feature that caught the interest of the Marine Paratroopers who wanted a full-power rifle to jump into combat with but not the bulk of a full sized M1 Garand.
Due to the method of operation, the Johnson rifle's barrel could easily be removed from the receiver. On the rifle's forearm a small hole contained the barrel locking pin. With a push, the pin released the locking mechanism, the bolt could be locked back and the barrel pulled straight out of the receiver.
This easily removable barrel feature met with the approval of the Marine Paratroopers who could break the rifle down into two components during a jump and quickly reassemble when on the ground. The quick remove barrel made the entire rifle easier to clean as well.
While the Army and USMC passed on the rifle, the Dutch government in exile ordered 70,000 but when Japanese forces overran Dutch East Indies territories. Marine Paratroopers had a small number of Johnson rifles when they conducted a combat jump on the Solomon Islands.
One of the elite Allied units of World War II, the First Special Service Force aka The Devil's Brigade, took an interest in the Marine Corps Johnson LMG stocks appreciating its rifle like weight with automatic rates of fire.
And in the final chapter of the Johnson rifle's life a small number of weapons were issued to Brigade 2506, the CIA sponsored guerrilla unit charged with overthrowing the Castro government during the infamous Bay of Pigs operation.