M1 Carbine Review: Just History or Modern PDW & Home Defense Gun?
The lightweight M1 Carbine chambered for .30 carbine has long been a collecting favorite, but the debate about its usefulness as a tactical, self-defense, and home-defense gun continues to rage.
With a wartime career that spans World War II all the way through Korea and Vietnam, with some additional service on the side, the M1 Carbine has earned plenty of battlefield merits. But before the AR-15 platform became the cool kid in town, it was also one of the first guns Americans started looking at as a viable modern personal defense weapon in a rifle-type platform.
Folks today are all fine with it as a plinker and critter controller, but the debate about its effectiveness for self-defense almost seems odd given its history. Heck, it performed well enough in the cold snows of Korea and the jungles of the Pacific. So, why all the debate about it being a good self-defense gun?
I’ve dug deeper into the history of the M1 Carbine before, so I’ll just link that below and keep this section a bit briefer. The short story is that the M1 Carbine was one of the more innovative and practical solutions to arming a massive number of soldiers, many of whom were not meant to just serve as riflemen.
From airborne troops and tankers to officers and supply clerks, the M1 Carbine brought battlefield-ready firepower in a small and light package. It was accurate, affordable, and produced in the millions. Alongside the .30-06 M1 Garand rifle, it was one of the most prominent firearms fielded by American troops during World War II and beyond.
It did not offer the range or power of the M1 Garand but it did offer enough accurate firepower in a lightweight package to give millions of American support troops and even front-line fighters an edge in combat.
I’ll start this section by noting this isn’t the first M1 Carbine I have had the pleasure of handling and shooting. Notably, however, it is the first one I have had enough time with over several months to run into some issues and still really relish the performance of the gun.
When you get it into your hands, it almost feels like a nimble Ruger 10/22. The action even closely resembles that of the old warhorse M1 Garand with a canting semi-auto bolt. The safety, which was modified over time, is again user-friendly and located at the front of the trigger guard.
But the really interesting part is just how light and fast it feels in the hand. Based on the serial number, this gun’s birthday is someplace between September 1942 and February 1944. That makes it a mid-war production gun with a life that shows itself in scratches and marks on the stock. Personally, I love that. But I must confess, it feels almost too light and limber to be a real fighting rifle.
Specs & Features
The M1 Carbine uses a short-stroke gas-piston design. The operating slide spring and some other parts aren't exactly beefy, but neither is the .30 Carbine round as far as military cartridges go. If original, they are also very old, so remember that if anyone tells you they are having reliability issues. In addition, and again unlike standard military guns from the 1940-1950s, corrosive ammo is a no-no in this gas system.
What is unique for a battle rifle – ahem, carbine – of the time period was the use of a removable box magazine with higher capacity. There is a magazine-release button by the magazine well. Of note, it was once also accompanied by a cross-bolt safety that was located just behind it on the trigger guard. This caused some obvious errors, with troops dropping the magazine instead of readying the gun for firing. Hence, this gun hosts a lever-style safety instead.
As far as general specs go, I’ve listed a few below. Notice the generous sight radius, capacity, and lightweight in particular.
As far as World War II-era triggers go, it’s not bad. There’s less mush or take-up than many battle rifles, and it breaks with a heavy wall that is common in guns designed for combat. It honestly feels lighter than the 6.8-pound pull it actually has.
The safety is easy to use, though strange as a small lever in front of the trigger. That’s not a design that is very common anymore, but it does lend itself to effective use without adjusting your shooting hand. The bolt will lock open on the last round but removing the magazine will send it home. There is a small button on the bolt charging handle that will let you truly lock it back.
As a fan of old military-surplus firearms, I will add that the sights on the M1 Carbine – and M1 Garand – are outstanding. They are fast to adjust from 100-300 yards, and they are a rear peer style, which is my personal favorite. More to the point, they work well (more on that below).
Range Testing & Ammo
If I could sum up the critiques about the M1 Carbine as a self-defense/home-defense gun with two points, they would be these: reliability and power. As for the latter, it’s true the M1 Carbine is hardly the powerhouse that the .30-06 M1 Garand provided. The .30 Carbine is more akin to the .357 Magnum than any actual battle-rifle cartridge.
I don’t know about you, but I very rarely hear anyone saying .357 Mag is a weak cartridge unfit for self-defense. Regardless, you have to remember what the M1 Carbine was made to do – i.e. outfit troops who needed a light but effective firearm. The alternative was to give these warfighters handguns as a backup gun, a practice that proved it had issues in World War I. So, the carbine solved that, and it brought accuracy and capacity.
Off a sandbag at 50 yards, I can put holes inside of holes with the M1 Carbine. If I take it to my standing shooting position, I am still shooting effective groups to take a small squirrel at 50 yards. The gun feels incredibly light, almost moving without effort. The recoil is also very soft. The length of pull feels short for my longer arms, but the target results say it’s fine even for me. The bigger issue is reliability.
This is a topic of a great deal of debate. So, I will start by noting the gun has proven itself in war and was loved by many of the fighting men who carried it. With that said, it is old. So, first, you have to remember that the age of springs in the magazine and the parts of the gun itself may be well past the ideal life of those parts.
You should also note that the expectations of an M1 Carbine made in the early wartime 1940s was not the same as your modern, precision-machine-made AR-15. There is some debate here, and I actually think it’s fair. Taking the wartime-produced M1 Carbine in its historical context matters, and I have no personal complaints, but comparing it to a modern-manufactured AR-15 is a bit unfair. But it’s still relevant, and to those looking for a reliable and affordable option, the AR platform has a lot more options.
I did have some issues with the magazine spring, solved by simply holding the mag at the base and pushing it up to load the last rounds of a 15-round mag. I cannot say I had any issues with the carbine itself. In fact, it had a nice, predictable ejection pattern. Better yet, it was a pure joy to shoot.
With some quick practice at 50 yards, I’m confident I could shoot the eye out of a squirrel with just the stock iron sights on the M1 Carbine. The round recoils softly, the gun lines up naturally, and the sights are among the best I have ever used on a military surplus gun.
If you look at the five-shot groups I have in my pictures, you’ll see that I spread out a bit when shooting off-hand, but only a little. Off a sandbag, every bullet hole touches at 50 yards. I’m a near-sighted shooter, and I shoot better with glasses. I did these quickly with my contacts, and I only had two targets to test. The adjustments were purely of the adjustable rear sight, which is promising given the grouping at 50 yards.
The trigger is a bit stiff with slight mush, but I would put it close to the same quality I get out of a modern mil-spec AR-15 trigger. The real joy, I would argue, is getting those highly adjustable iron sights on the range. Optics are great, but good ol’ irons are just pure fun and still practically effective.
Pros & Cons
I’ll summarize my personal thoughts on the M1 Carbine below:
Easy to reload & shoot
Extremely fun to shoot
Original and new M1 Carbines are a bit pricey
Reliability is a concern with certain magazines
Is it better than an Ar-15 for home defense? Maybe?
Ammo is expensive and harder to find
To answer the question about whether or not an M1 Carbine would be good for self-defense or as a modern PDW, I would say, “maybe,” and with some serious side notes.
It can and has served in war, and it can and has helped America’s warfighters defeat their enemies. But before I would ever add this to my self-defense list, I would need to first test a specific M1 Carbine and its magazines for reliability. I think there are better and cheaper options now, but I haven’t found one that is as historically cool or fun to shoot.
The real issue is that the gun is, well, frankly just old. The magazines have some issues, perhaps solvable, yet they are still something to consider. But I cannot deny that this carbine feels and shoots great for me. I would be happy to have it in my collection.