D-Day at 75: The Guns They Carried in Normandy

06/5/19 6:30 AM | by

These soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division are embarking in England in June 1944. Destination: Omaha Beach (Photo: National Archives)

D-Day at 75 The Guns They Carried in Normandy

These soldiers of the U.S. Army’s “Big Red One” 1st Infantry Division are embarking in England in June 1944. Destination: Omaha Beach. Note the M1 Garands (Photo: National Archives)

On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord on the French coast of Normandy to liberate Europe from German occupation. These are the guns they carried.

About half of the 160,000 troops that went into battle on D-Day were American, with nearly 50,000 U.S. soldiers tasked with taking two of the five invasion beachheads — designated Omaha Beach and Utah Beach. Those headed across the rough seas of the English Channel from British embarkation ports largely did so in small landing craft, with the first waves largely going into combat with just the equipment on their backs and the rifles in their hands.

U.S. troops land on Utah Beach from USS LCT-475, 7 June 1944. US Army Photo National Archives SC 190405

The way many American troops got to France, first landing on the beaches of Normandy. The 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions landed on Omaha, while the 4th and 90th Divisions took Utah Beach. (Photo: National Archives)

The primary U.S. Army rifle of World War II was the M1 Garand. Designed by Canadian-born Springfield Armory engineer Jean Cantius Garand, the .30-06 caliber semi-automatic was fed with an eight-round en bloc clip through the top of the receiver. Adopted in 1937, some 5.4 million of the rifles were produced during the conflict by Springfield and Winchester.

The 9.5-pound Garand, officially " U.S. rifle, caliber .30, M1" had a 24-inch barrel and wooden furniture. They cost the Army about $85 to produce during WWII and remained the standard American military rifle until the select-fire M14 came along in 1957. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

The 9.5-pound Garand, officially, “U.S. rifle, caliber .30, M1,” had a 24-inch barrel and wooden furniture. They cost the Army about $85 to produce during WWII and remained the standard American military rifle until the select-fire M14 came along in 1957. (Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Troops crouch inside a LCVP landing craft, just before landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. guns wrapped National Archives 26-G-2340

Troops crouch inside a landing craft, just before landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Note many of the rifles are wrapped in bags made of Pilofilm, a rubber-based product developed by Goodyear in the 1930s, which predated modern plastics. (Photo: National Archives)

Also there, in the hands of support troops such as engineers — or when equipped with a Weaver scope given to infantry snipers — was the M1903 Springfield. A bolt-action Mauser-style rifle, the M1903 had been adopted by the U.S. military back during the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, had officially been replaced by the Garand but was modified and put back into production in 1941 by Remington and the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company.

Springfield Armory 1903

The 8.7-pound M1903 was a bolt-action .30-06 fed by a 5-round stripper clip. It cost about $55 to make. Used by support units as well as for use as a sniper rifle and rifle grenade launcher, the ’03 landed at D-Day and some remain in service with the military today as line throwers and drill rifles.

Troops wade ashore from a LCVP landing craft, off Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944 DUKWs and half-tracks at the water lineM1903 and M1 rifles carried by some of the troops leaving the landing craft SC 320902

Troops from follow-on waves wade ashore from a landing craft, off Omaha Beach, 6 June 1944. Note the M1903 rifles (Photo: National Archives)

A more pint-sized weapon, the M1 Carbine, was a “war baby” of sorts, as it only reached production in 1942 as a compact rifle for use by support troops such as mortar crews, radiomen and truck drivers. Weighing in at just 5-pounds, the semi-auto used a detachable 15-round magazine and fired the 7.62x33mm .30 Carbine cartridge. In all, more than 5 million M1 Carbines were produced by companies as varied as Winchester, General Motor’s Inland Division, typewriter companies IBM and Underwood, National Postal Meter (guess what they made), and jukebox maker Rock-Ola.

U.S. Army Rangers resting in the vicinity of Pointe du Hoc, which they assaulted in support of Omaha Beach landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944. M1 Carbine 80-G-45715

U.S. Army Rangers resting in the vicinity of Pointe du Hoc, which they assaulted in support of Omaha Beach landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944. Note the M1 Carbine. Some 225 Rangers hit Omaha and the cliff overlooking it. After two days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms. (Photo: National Archives)

The M1 Carbine cost Uncle Sam $45 a pop to make during WWII, meaning about two of these compact light rifles could be bought for the price of each Garand. Today’s prices are a little bit higher.

Generally reserved for use by sergeants, field-grade officers and specialist troops, the simplified wartime variant of the Auto-Ordnance Thompson–confusingly designated the M1, a label shared by both the Garand and Carbine– was heavy at 10-pounds but could spit out .45ACP rounds at 700 rounds-per-minute. Although the original Colt-produced M1921 “Tommy Gun” of Prohibition bootlegger fame retailed at around $225 at the time, its WWII descendant, with a more basic layout, came in at $70.

Paratrooper applies war paint National Archives 111-SC-193551

Paratroopers of the 101st Airborne’s famous “Filthy Thirteen” demolition section put on their warpaint on June 5, 1944, on the eve of their drop into Normandy. Note the M1 Thompson (Photo: National Archives)

The Thompson, in both M1928 and M1/M1A1 variants, was common in Normandy in 1944. However, they were already headed out of production in favor of the smaller, and much cheaper, M3 Grease Gun.

Bridging the gap between rifles and crew-served machine guns such as the M1919 was John Browning’s M1918 BAR Capable of spitting out .30-06 rounds at 500-600 rounds per minute, the BAR could empty a 20-round detachable box magazine in just two seconds when wide open. Invented to help end the stalemate in the trenches in World War I, the hefty 23-pound automatic rifle was often hated by those on both sides of the muzzle.

Speaking of John Browning, while a few revolvers such as the M1917 and Victory-series .38s were carried, the standard handgun of the U.S. military on D-Day and for decades both before and after was the M1911. Designed by Browning for Colt on the eve of WWI, the classic 7+1 .45ACP Government Issue longslide is iconic.

M1911A1 U.S. Army issue

Some 1.9 million of these handguns were produced during the war by not only Colt but also Ithaca, Remington Rand, Union Switch & Signal and Singer at an average cost of $15. They were only replaced by the M9, a modified Beretta 92, in 1986.(Photo: Chris Eger/Guns.com)

Besides the troops hitting the beach, some 20,000 paratroopers and glider-borne infantry of the 82nd and 101st Airborne found themselves saddled with upwards of 100-pounds of gear per man. This ranged from basic kit such as rations, spare clothing and an entrenching tool to personal weapons, fragmentation grenades, Hawkins mines, and Gammon plastic explosive bombs.

101st Abn M1 Thompsons Gen Dwight D Eisenhower gives the order of the Day. Full victory - nothing else to paratroopers in England

101st Airborne troops fixing to leave for Normandy. Note the M1 Thompsons, assorted gear, and drop bags. The officer to the left has an M1911 on his belt and a fighting knife strapped to his boot. (Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Between the gear they landed with and the often-unrecoverable parachute packs dropped by their accompanying cargo aircraft, they had to make do against German counter-attacks of all forms until reinforcements arrived from the beachhead. Worse, paratroopers often had to land with their M1 Garands partially disassembled in a padded Griswold jump bag.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in Europe, meets with 101st Airborne Div paratroopers on the eve of D-Day. Note the M1911 holster on the man to the far left. The paratrooper to the far right has an M1 disassembled in a Gibbons bag while a Hawkins mine strapped to his lower leg. (Photo: National Archives Identifier 12003938)

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in Europe, meets with 101st Airborne Div paratroopers on the eve of D-Day. Note the M1911 holster on the man to the far left. The paratrooper to the far right has an M1 disassembled in a Griswold bag while the rifle’s bayonet is on his belt. A 2.2-pound British-designed Hawkins mine is strapped to his lower leg. (Photo: National Archives Identifier)

To balance this out, many of these “sky soldiers” had M1A1 Carbines with folding stocks and late model Thompson submachine guns as well as a few M3 Grease Guns– the first real combat use of the weapon.

More on that in the below from the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History.

For a more detailed look at the men, firepower and planning on Overlord, check out the (free) 562-page U.S. Army history of the landings “Cross Channel Attack” as well as the vast records on D-Day available through the National Archives.

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