The Johnson is already one of the 20th century’s most interesting military rifles, in terms of both design and history, and this rifle, serial number R-14, is perhaps even more interesting. Johnson’s military rifles were initially designated the Type R – for rotary magazine, it was the ‘R’ serialised rifles which were used during US military testing in 1938-40. We are most familiar with the classic handguard-less appearance of what became known as the Johnson M1941. Few examples of a Johnson with a handguard survive.
The rifle was developed by Melvin Johnson, a USMC Reserve Captain, in the mid-1930s, Johnson began work on the rifle just as the M1 Garand was adopted. Johnson was granted his first patent protecting his rifle in September 1937. His rifle was tested in 1938-39 by US Army Ordnance but advanced no further than testing. Johnson lobbied politicians leading to a bill being introduced in an effort to have Johnson’s rifle adopted. On May 29th, 1940 the US Senate’s Military Affairs Committee met with Johnson and military representatives to discuss the rifle and the Bill which had been proposed, S.3983, to ‘Provide for the Adoption of the Johnson Semiautomatic Rifle as a Standard Arm of the Military’. The bill, however, led nowhere and the M1 Garand’s introduction continued.
The handguard fitted to R-14 was actually an optional extra offered by Johnson Automatics. It appears to have been an attempt to address one of the main concerns raised by the US military – the Johnson’s unsuitability for bayonet fighting. As the rifle uses a short-recoil operated action the barrel recoils about ½ inch on firing, this means that the weapon’s barrel isn’t actually fixed in place meaning when the bayonet was used the barrel moves backwards ½ inch when it contacted something or someone with enough force.
From the Senate Committee hearing we know that there were real concerns about the rifle’s bayonet fighting characteristics. With US Army Ordnance noting that “this rifle is very poorly suited to bayonet fighting.” Noting that the exposed barrel was too narrow to grasp properly and was also un-insulated if the barrel was hot from firing. The non-fixed, recoiling barrel was also highlighted as another ‘deficiency’. Major Grant Schlieker, the Infantry Liaison Officer at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, shared similar concerns. In addition to concerns about the lack of handguard to grasp when bayonet fighting he noted in his statement that during their testing the Johnson has struggled to cycle properly when fired at a depressed angle with a bayonet fixed and that striking something with the bayonet hard enough lead the rifle to extract and eject a chambered round.
Johnson refuted these concerns by stating that the barrel was exposed with good reason so that it could cool rapidly, suggesting that enclosed barrels like the Garand’s became too hot to grasp after sustained firing thus also making bayonet fighting difficult. Johnson also noted that a ‘Johnson Sword Bayonet’, which extended forward under the barrel from the Johnson’s normal forend had been developed to address the problem but the ergonomics and usefulness of this terrifyingly long bayonet are unclear.
You would imagine that a fixed, full-length stock with the barrel recoiling inside would have been a more elegant solution allowing the bayonet to be fixed to a nosecap rather than the barrel. But it would seem that Johnson was passionate about having the exposed barrel to allow cooling.
It is worth noting that the bayonet issued with the M1941 was the lightweight spike-type, developed in order to elevate potential issues with cycling while the bayonet was fixed.
A proponent of the rifle, USMC Captain, George Van Orden (who commanded the Rifle Range at the Marine Corps Barracks at Quantico) went so far as to claim that the recoiling barrel had a positive impact on bayonet fighting “a recoiling barrel can provide extra thrust in bayonet fighting, as in the case of a boxer who in striking a blow, at the moment of contact… straightens his elbow smartly.” The Johnson Automatics manual for the rifle even claimed that testing against pine board showed that “the short recoil of the barrel actually tends to increase the penetration of the bayonet.”
From the May 1940 Senate hearing records we know that the R-14 wasn’t always fitted with the barrel with the enclosed handguard. It was one of several rifles used by Captain Van Orden to test the rifle’s accuracy and there is not mention in his account of the rifle’s barrel being shrouded with a handguard. This isn’t too surprising as the Johnson’s barrel can be removed easily and readily swapped out.
The bayonet lug appears to be designed to mount a US Army M1905 bayonet, the sword bayonet issued with the M1903 Springfield. The assembly also has a sling swivel. R-14’s barrel is 23.75 inches long – this is a little longer than the standard 22 inch barrel, but 24 inch barrels were an option offered by Johnson Automatics. The round wooden grips panels are held in place by three pairs of slips and the nosecap and the guide collar.
Other than the forend this rifle also has a slightly different style of rear sight compared to the M1941 production rifles. The receiver markings are also simpler with calibre, patents and a plain maker’s mark, with serial number at the bottom.
The addition of the handguard certainly does allow a greater area for the forward hand to grip the rifle. But what is less clear is the effect the added mass of the handguard, nosecap and bayonet (when mounted) had on the cycling of the gun. Logic would suggest that any weight added to the barrel would slow the its travel and potentially cause reliability issues. The handguard and bayonet would have added at least 2lbs. Sadly, I’ve been unable to find any documentary evidence to tell us how the rifle functioned with the forend. No mention of the handguard is made during the Senate committee hearing but a ‘fixed-type’ bayonet is mentioned which is described as “not in any way interfering with the recoil of the barrel.” This was presumably referring to the long Johnson Sword Bayonet. Despite them being offered as an official option it is fair to presume that the rifle would have struggled to operate properly when fitted with the handguard.
When the Johnson finally entered production it was with an exposed barrel as he intended and R-14 remains one of the few examples to have the Johnson’s optional handguard.
Many thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum for allowing us to examine and film the rifle and take a look at a rare example of the Johnson Automatics optional extra handguard.
Military Handbook of the Johnson Semi-Automatic Rifle (1939)
The Johnson Semiautomatic Rifle: Hearing Before the Committee on Military Affairs, United States Senate, Seventy-sixth Congress, Third Session, on S. 3983, a Bill to Provide for the Adoption of the Johnson Semiautomatic Rifle as a Standard Arm of the Military and Naval Forces, May 29, 1940 (source)
Johnson Rifles and Machine Guns: The Story of Melvin M. Johnson, Jr. and His Guns, B. Canfield (2002)
The Model of 1941 Johnson Rifle in Marine Service, B. Canfield, American Rifleman, (source)
Johnson R-14, Cody Firearms Museum, (source)