In John Ford’s classic western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the character Maxwell Scott describes one way of sorting facts and myth. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
That could be one way of explaining the most enduring story about one of America’s most significant battlefield weapons, the M-1 Garand.
Military historians — both from the civilian world and scholars with military backgrounds — and some veterans of World War II and the Korean War describe what is often called the “M-1 ping.”
The story goes like this.
America’s most formidable battle rifle, a weapon praised for its reliability and hard-hitting semi-automatic fire, had a significant weakness. The rifle ejects its empty sheet metal en bloc clip with a loud “ping!” that announces to the world — including your enemy — that you just ran out of ammo.
Respected military historians such as Chris McNab, who pens the “Weapons Check” column for Military History Quarterly, embrace the story. “The sound of the clip ejecting could be a useful auditory alert for an enemy that his opponent’s gun was empty,” McNab wrote in A History of the World in 100 Weapons.
So does William Atwater, former director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Training and Heritage Center and a Marine combat veteran. During a Military Channel documentary detailing the characteristics of the M-1, Atwater said American soldiers even carried empty clips to throw on the ground in an effort to lure their German and Japanese enemies out into the open.
And if family history means anything, my father and an uncle — one a veteran of the U.S. Army during World War II, the other a veteran of the Marine Corps during the same war and the Korean War — both told me the same stories.
The M-1 was an amazing rifle, they said, but that ping could get you in trouble.
Some readers of a recent War Is Boring story about the M-1 saw things differently. “The M-1 ping is a myth,” one reader wrote in the comments. “You can’t hear anything in a firefight, much less that little ping noise.”
“The idea of enemy troops waiting for it (the ping) to charge is ludicrous because the entire squad of American riflemen is going to be constantly pinging, shooting, and reloading,” wrote another. “It’s just some theory-crafting and armchair tactics that morphed into an urban legend. And the military NEVER lets go of an urban legend once it has taken hold.”
So, what’s the truth?
The M-1 clip does make a loud pinging sound when it ejects. The question really is, does the ping get drowned out in the din of the battlefield?
Short of a test by the Mythbusters, it all comes down to who you are willing to believe. But one neutral observer offered an answer that acknowledges both battlefield realities and the stories soldiers tell.
For one, combat is extremely loud and stressful, according to John C. Nystrom, a veteran of the Marine Corps, Army Special Operations Command and the Indiana State Police.
“Do a dozen 100-yard wind sprints carrying 80 pounds of weight (a light load) and jump into shooting position,” Nystrom added. “Take your hearing protection off at the range, have a 12-gauge muzzle a foot from each ear and have the two shooters empty magazines rapidly. Immediately behind you the loudest heavy metal band on the planet then strikes up their fans’ favorite at max volume.”
“Then and only then you have to start shooting accurately and precisely,” he continued. “This doesn’t even come close to the physiological stress of combat. Now tell me about how you are going to be able to take advantage of hearing the M-1 ping?”
That said, Nystrom doesn’t believe the tales of the M-1 ping are lies. He chalks up the story to the power of myths and legends soldiers tell in order to give meaning to their experiences.
“The M-1 ping, in my opinion, takes a perceived weakness of the M-1 Garand, the en bloc clip as opposed to box magazines now in use, gives the soldier advice on how the enemy tries to kill you, and gives a powerful talisman to counteract the juju of that mysterious and hated enemy,” he said.
His take on the M-1 ping and the habit of carrying empty clips to fool the enemy — it’s a myth, but a powerful myth beloved of old soldiers and recorded faithfully by historians.
“This one is one of the pieces of wisdom that old men, who survived combat as young men, who survived an unbelievable Hell on earth that took so many of their friends, use to explain their survival,” Nystrom said.
Which is one way that a legend becomes a fact … at least in the eyes of many scholars and old soldiers.