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Johnson M1941
Johnson M1941 Semi-Automatic Rifle with original spike bayonet and leather sheath. The 10-round rotary magazine could be quickly reloaded using two clips of .30 Caliber M2 Ball ammunition.
Type Semi-automatic rifle
Place of origin  United States
Service history
In service 1941–1945
Used by See Users
Production history
Designer Melvin Johnson
Designed 1939
Manufacturer Iver Johnson
Number built ~70 000
Variants VF-1 (Argentine copy)
Weight 9.5 lb (4.31 kg)
Length 45.87 in (1,165 mm)
Barrel length 22 in (560 mm)

Cartridge .30-06 Springfield
7x57mm Mauser (Chilean variant) .270 Winchester
Action Short-recoil, rotating bolt
Muzzle velocity 2,840 ft/s (866 m/s)
Feed system 10 round rotary magazine
Sights Adjustable Iron Sights

The M1941 Johnson Rifle was an American short-recoil operated semi-automatic rifle designed by Melvin Johnson prior to World War II. The M1941 competed unsuccessfully with the U.S. M1 Rifle.


Senator Morris Sheppard, left, Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee, Maj. Gen. George A. Lynch, U.S. Chief of Infantry, and Senator A.B. Chandler of Kentucky, inspect the M1941 semi-automatic rifle which competed to replace the M1 gas-operated rifle as the Army's standard shoulder weapon.

The M1941 rifle used the energy from recoil to operate the rifle. As the bullet and propellant gases moved down the barrel, they imparted a force on the bolt head that was locked to the barrel. The barrel, together with the bolt, moved a short distance rearward until the bullet left the barrel and pressure in the bore had dropped to safe levels. The barrel then stopped against a shoulder allowing the bolt carrier to continue rearward under the momentum imparted by the initial recoil stage. The rotating bolt, which had eight locking lugs, would then lock the bolt. Following, a cam arrangement then rotated and unlocked the bolt to continue the operating cycle.[1] One disadvantage of this design was its impact on the use of a bayonet, as the complex movements of the barrel would be subject to unacceptable stress when a bayonet thrust was used. The Johnson rifle utilized a unique 10-round rotary magazine and a two-piece stock, the weapon using the same 5 round stripper clips used by the M1903 Rifle.

This system had some advantages over the M1 Rifle, including less perceived recoil and greater magazine capacity. Unfortunately, the Johnson's recoiling barrel mechanism resulted in excessive vertical shot dispersion that was never fully cured during its production life, and was prone to malfunction when a bayonet was attached to the reciprocating barrel. The Johnson also employed a number of small parts that were easily lost during field stripping. Partially because of lack of development, the M1941 was less rugged and reliable than the M1, though this was a matter of degree and was not a universal opinion among those that had used both weapons in combat.

Prototype nicknames

As was Johnson's practice, he gave all of his weapons a "pet" nickname:

  • M1941 rifle Betsy
  • M1941 light machine gun Emma
  • M1947 auto carbine Daisy Mae

For example, Johnson chris­tened his semi-automatic rifle Betsy and the Light Machine Gun Emma. A massive 20 mm aircraft cannon he developed for the Navy was called Bertha. Johnson referred to the Auto-Carbine as Daisy Mae. None of Johnson's memoirs or other writings reveals his inspiration for these nicknames, although at least a couple would seem obvious.

Famed frontiersman Davy Crockett supposedly called his rifle Old Betsy, which may have led Mel­vin Johnson to give his first rifle the same moniker. The name "Emma" for the LMG was almost cer­tainly derived from the British military's use of the term Emma Gee during World War I to denote Machine Gun or "MG" (M=Emma; G=Gee). The 20 mm aircraft cannon was dubbed Bertha in a likely reference to Germany's massive howitzer of the First World War called Big Bertha (supposedly after Gustav Krupp's wife). One can speculate about the sleek, attractive Auto-Carbine's nickname of Daisy Mae, but the logical assumption is that it was inspired by the buxom girl of the same name fea­tured in the Li'l Abner comic strip popular at the time. One of the Auto-Carbine prototypes, presum­ably number S-3, had Daisy Mae the 3rd neatly stenciled on the right side of the buttstock.


Melvin Johnson campaigned heavily for the adoption of the Johnson rifle by the U.S. Army and other service branches. However, after limited testing, the U.S. Army rejected Johnson's rifle in favor of the M1 rifle developed by Springfield Armory.[2] The M1941 was ordered by the Netherlands for issue to the KNIL in the Dutch East Indies, only a few rifles were shipped to the Dutch East Indies before the Japanese invaded. At this time, the U.S. Marine Corps found itself in need of a modern fast-firing infantry rifle, and acquired some rifles from the Dutch East Indies shipment for issue to its Paramarine battalions then preparing to deploy for action in the Pacific theatre. By all accounts, the M1941 performed acceptably in combat with the Marines in the early days of the Pacific fighting.

Despite repeated requests to adopt the rifle by the Marine Corps,[3] the Johnson rifle also lacked the support of US Army Ordnance, which had already invested considerable sums in the development of the M1 and its revised gas operating system, then just going into full production. Johnson was successful in selling small quantities of the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun to the U.S. armed forces, and this weapon was later used by both Para-Marines and the Army's First Special Service Force.[4]

In late 1946, Argentina expressed an interest in Johnson's arms, and Johnson fabricated a prototype, the Model 1947 auto carbine, a semi automatic rifle variant of the light machine gun with the 10 round cylindrical magazine. While specific details are sketchy, it apparently bore little resemblance, but shared some features with the Johnson M1941 light machine gun. Argentina apparently declined to purchase any, and the M1947 auto carbine never went into production. In any event, the post-war years were not kind to the Johnson organisation. The entity filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in early 1949.

A notable example is the FMA VF-1 manufactured in Argentina.[5]

The Johnson rifle was also used in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by the anti-Castro Brigade 2506.

Because it was produced in relatively small quantities the Johnson rifle has become a highly sought-after collectible by World War II collectors looking to complete their collections.



Melvin Johnson continued to develop small arms. In 1955, he was asked to assist Fairchild/ArmaLite in (unsuccessfully) promoting Eugene Stoner's AR-10 rifle with the U.S. Department of Defense, then with ArmaLite and Colt's Manufacturing Company as an advocate for the AR-15. The AR-15 used a similar bolt design to the M1941 Johnson. One of his last postwar ventures was to promote a 5.7 mm version of the M1 carbine, aka "the Spitfire".[6]

See also


  1. U.S. Patent 2,094,156
  2. History of Johnson Automatics
  3. Weeks, John, WWII Small Arms, Galahad Books, 1980
  4. Pikula, Sam (Maj.), The Armalite AR-10, 1998
  6. Barnes, Frank C., Cartridges of the World, DBI Books, 1989

Further reading

  • Smith, Joseph E., Small Arms of the World, Stackpole Books, 1969.
  • Weeks, John, WWII Small Arms, Galahad Books, 1980.
  • Barnes, Frank C., Cartridges of the World, DBI Books, 1989
  • Pikula, Sam (Maj.), The Armalite AR-10, 1998.
  • Canfield, Bruce N., Johnson Rifles and Machine Guns, Mowbray Publishing, 2002.

See also

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