Why did the U.S. Army adopt semi-automatic weapons?

5/31/2012 • Ask Mr. History

Mr. History,

Why did the US Army adopt the semi automatic rifle during the interwar years, when no other premier army did the same?



Michael Maxwell
CDR, HHT, 2-183 CAV
Training Officer, G3


Dear Captain Maxwell,

Semi-automatic rifles have apparently existed since German-born Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher introduced his Model 85 rifle in 1885, yet armies have been remarkably slow in adapting such weapons. France’s was the first, with the Fusil Automatique Modèle 1917, but it was regarded as too long to be practical in trench warfare and had problems with the magazine. An improved Berthier magazine and a shorter length made the Modèle 1918 practical and quite effective during the Rif wars of the early ’20s, yet it still did not displace the bolt-action Lebel throughout the French army. Britain was working on a semi-automatic replacement for the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield in the interwar years, but it dropped the idea as a new war seemed imminent and stuck with the SMLE, which did feature arguably the smoothest and fastest bolt action on a rifle (I speak from experience in having operated one). Considerations of interrupting the production of proven infantry long arms also seems to have prevented the Soviet SVT-38 and SVT-40, and the German Gewehr 43 from completely eclipsing their bolt action weapons—on top of which, the Germans had reoriented their infantry squad philosophy around the MG 34 and MG 42 machine guns, with those providing the main firepower while the Mauser-equipped infantry supported the machine gun team with flanking fire and by carrying extra ammo for it. The United States’ relatively late entry into World War II gave the U.S. Army time to perfect and mass-produce the M1 Garand rifle to the point where it could completely replace the M1903 by 1942 (although Marines were slower in accepting the Garands). Given the relatively limited advantages offered by the Browning automatic rifle in squad support, the U.S. Army squad relied more on each GI’s semi-automatic M1 Garand for overall firepower, rather than the squad machine gun, as did its German counterpart.

Ironically, the Soviet Union did produce a really good semi-automatic rifle in 1945, the Simonov SKS, only for it to be relegated to secondary importance by the emergence of the AK-47 assault rifle. Even so, the SKS offered a less ammo-hungry alternative to the AK, saw plenty of use alongside that weapon in Vietnam, and is still in wide use today.




Jon Guttman
Research Director
World History Group
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