GunMag History: Guns of Normandy Beach

On June 6, 1944, the D-Day invasion took place. That was the day the Allies invaded Europe in a massive operation that ended up involving not a little bit of chaos. In the end, it worked out in the Allies’ favor, but the day itself was and is a remarkable moment in history. On that day more than 195,000 naval personnel manned around 7000 ships so that approximately 156,000 could storm various locations. There was also a simultaneous aerial assault.

Today we’re going to focus on some of the firepower utilized on D-Day. These five weapons used to storm the beaches are well worth remembering for being manned by some amazingly brave men, many of whom were really boys.

M1 Garand

m1 garand on d day
The M1 Garand was used heavily during the D-Day invasion. (Photo credit:

The M1 Garand was extremely common for use during World War II and, of course, was used on D-Day. These rifles were chambered in 30-06 Springfield and had an 8-round capacity. According to historians, the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, specifically, was armed with the M1 Garand as they stormed Normandy Beach on D-Day. They weren’t the only ones, of course, but it’s an interesting detail to be aware of. Here’s a fascinating piece of commentary from Robert Smith, Fort Riley Museums Director:

One of the great drawbacks and one of the great stories in the Second World War is that the stripper clip would make a pinging noise after firing the last round. And World War Two vets, 1st ID vets, would basically say that they would carry a spare stripper clip in their pocket, fire off two rounds and then throw the stripper clip down to make that pinging noise; then wait for an enemy’s head to pop up. So, you know never, never underestimate, you know, the ingenuity of the 1st Infantry Division Soldier.

This is a rifle that saw some serious combat, and although it was a bolt-action that lacked many of the benefits of modern semi-autos, it still got the job done. If you ever have a chance to add an M1 Garand to your gun collection, do it. It’s an amazing piece of history.

Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)

BAR on D-Day
The BAR was another common firearm during the D-Day invasion. (Photo credit: USMC History)

Although the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was and is pretty hefty, it was used as a light machine gun during World War II, including on D-Day. It actually began seeing combat use toward the end of World War I, so when World War II took place, it was a given it would be used. It was another 30-06 Springfield which meant it used the same ammo as the M1 Garands and fast firing rate of up to 650 rounds per minute. Of course, the BAR didn’t always handle sustained rates of fire very well. That and it had a 20-round capacity magazine, so it didn’t last long on the fast setting. Even on slow full-auto, it emptied in seconds.

History shows around 188,000 BARs being manufactured during World War II. The soldiers carrying them in combat usually had 12 magazines, minimum, with a rifleman accompanying them frequently carrying more (in addition to what was often an M1 Garand). And while a bipod was usually issued with the BAR for the purpose of greater support during live fire, it was often left behind in favor of cutting weight. Without ammo, the BAR weighed about 15 pounds.

M1919 Browning Machine Gun

browning machine gun
The M1919 Browning Machine Gun was used during WWII, including on D-Day. (Photo credit: Sandbox)

Another machine gun that saw use in World War II was the M1919 Browning Machine Gun. Thanks to the cutouts in the barrel shroud, it was air-cooled, making it a better option than many other models of the time. It weighed 30 pounds and had a 14-pound bipod, so its empty weight was almost 45 pounds. Add ammo to that and it was a lot heavier. Even so, it was lighter and more portable than other options, meaning it took two soldiers to run it rather than three. What did it fire? Well, originally it was the 30-06 Springfield, but later on, the gun was also used with .30 caliber FMJs. There were also variants in a rather wide variety of calibers as well.

Even during the course of the war, the M1919 was improved upon for greater cooling and portability, so there were variants in use later in World War II that didn’t yet exist when the war began. Interestingly, a cloth belt was used with the M1919, meaning there was a long piece of cloth left over after firing. Metal links like we’re used to seeing today were eventually created which was a lot more battle-friendly. When the war started, the M1919A4 was being used, and when it ended, it was the M1919A6, the latter of which remained in use by the military into the 1960s. This light machine gun was considered the little brother of the .50 caliber Ma Deuce.

Colt M1911A1

colt m1911a1
The Colt M1911A1 was the standard issue handgun during WWII. (Photo credit: historic-firearms)

Yes, the M1911A1 gets a mention for its part in D-Day. This handgun was the standard issue sidearm of our service members during World War II. It was chambered in 45 ACP and had a seven-round capacity (so, eight if you chambered a round and topped off the magazine). Millions of these pistols were manufactured and used during the war and, as you likely know, the M1911A1 enjoyed three-quarters of a century of duty use.

There were numerous acts of incredible heroism that took place during World War II, but it was Sergeant Alvin York in World War I whose use of his M1911A1 might be the most famous.. One of his better-known feats involved the use of his M1903 and M1911A1 to capture an unheard-of number of Germans. The following account was given as part of a report on the event to General Pershing:

The part which Corporal York individually played in this attack is difficult to estimate. Practically unassisted, he captured 132 Germans, took about 35 machine guns and killed no less than 25 of the enemy, later to be found by others on the scene of York’s extraordinary exploit. The story has been carefully checked in every possible detail from Headquarters of this Division and is entirely substantiated. Although Corporal York’s statement tends to underestimate the desperate odds which he overcame, it has been decided to forward to higher authority the account given in his own words. The success of this assault has a far-reaching effect in relieving the enemy pressure against American forces in the Argonne Forest.

Thompson Submachine Gun

Tommy gun in world war II
Yes, the Thompson submachine gun was used in WWII. (Photo credit: Military History Now)

It might come as something of a surprise, but Tommy guns were used quite a bit during World War II. It’s not unusual for people to consider them weapons associated with the mafia, but these guns have also been used in combat. The Thompson Submachine Gun was actually meant for World War I use in trench warfare, but by the time they got everything sorted out, the war had ended. So it was World War II before it saw combat use.

The M1 Thompson used in World War II was chambered in 45 ACP and utilized box magazines rather than the drums featured so prominently in gangster movies. It was the heavier M1928A1 Thompson that used both a box and drum magazine, and while it was also used in combat, it was the M1 variant that was designed as a simpler, lighter, more streamlined weapon for the military.  Millions of Tommy guns were made for World War II.

What World War II Era gun do you think we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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