Small Arms Influence on Warfare

I’m giving a lecture on the history of firearms technology for a class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in a couple weeks, and the course instructor asked me to include some discussion of how changes to small arms have changed warfare. On top of that, I’m getting ready to shoot the 2-Gun Action Challenge Match this weekend with an M1 Garand (and competing against a friend shooting an SMG Guns FG-42). So I’m fiddling with some 8-round clips of .30-06 and I’m thinking to myself, does it really make a difference? Would American campaigns in World War II have been much different if the GIs were all armed with 1903A3 Springfields instead of Garands?

It seems to me that while the difference between a bolt action and a selfloader would be fairly significant to the individual soldier, it wouldn’t make much difference on a larger scale. I have not been in a real firefight myself, but everything I’ve read suggests to me that outside of some exceptional circumstances, battles are won by logistics and fire support, not by the individual small arms carried by the grunts of doughboys or tommies. When small arms do come to light, it’s in the context of small-unit tactics which are (or should be) designed to exploit the strengths of a unit’s weapons and avoid their weaknesses. So the US advantage from the fast-firing M1 was countered by German tactics which emphasized the MG42 as a primary combat element and used Mauser-armed infantry as a protective screen where their lower rate of fire was mitigated.

Soldiers in Afghanistan and Iwo Jima

To think about it another way, consider taking a well-trained US platoon or company out of Afghanistan and rearming them with all World War II era arms – Garands instead of M4s, 1911s instead of Berettas, BARs instead of M249s, and 1919s instead of M240s. Assuming they have the same level of training with those weapons that they have with today’s gear, how much of a disadvantage would they be at? I would contend that the disadvantage would be minimal (and I would love to hear from anyone in active service who has the direct experience to give a more informed answer to the question). The details of various tactics would change to accommodate the particular guns, but I don’t think combat effectiveness would be reduced (if it was, it would be primarily because of the lack of optical sights rather than the guns themselves).

On the other hand, if you were to take a modern squad and replace their support and logistics infrastructure with 1940s equivalents I think the results would be much more significant. The improvements in communications technology, air support, and artillery fire control would have a fairly significant impact on the effectiveness of the unit. Or at least, I think it would. What do you guys with combat experience think?