Audie Murphy's Rifle and the Power of Databases

Quote of the Day

The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers.

Max De Pree, businessman and writer

Figure 1: Audie Murphy, the most decorated US Soldier of WW2. (Source)

Figure 1: Audie Murphy, the most
decorated US Soldier of WW2.

When I was a boy, I read the memoir To Hell and Back by Audie Murphy and was very impressed with his accomplishments as an infantry soldier during WW2 (Figure 1). It is a very American tale – a dirt poor teenager from family with a dead mother and missing father accomplishes amazing feats through sheer determination and force of will. He later starred in a movie version of his book that is well worth watching. I should mention that the book tells a better tale than the movie.

I recently read that the US Army had recovered his favorite rifle, which was an M1 carbine. The M1 carbine was shorter and much lighter than the infantry's standard issue M1 Garand. The carbine was usually carried by troops who had limited space available (e.g. tankers) or who had to carry other things (e.g. radiomen, paratroopers). For example, my father was a radioman and he carried an M1 carbine. In Murphy's case, he carried many different weapons, but appeared to prefer the M1 carbine. The story of its recovery is a testament to the power of modern database technology. The key to recovering the rifle was an interview with Murphy that provided a key piece of information – the serial number of the rifle.

Figure 2: Serial Number on Audie Murphy's M1 Carbine.

Figure 2: Murphy's M1
Carbine Serial Number.

When Murphy had the rifle, it certainly had certainly seen better days. The explosion of a nearby mortar round had damaged it, and Murphy did a field‑expedient repair on it using a wire. He continued to use the rifle, which he referred to as his "wounded carbine". I have read that at various times Murphy had used a Thompson sub-machine gun, an M1 Garand, and the M1 carbine. He must of have really like this rifle because during a 1967 interview, Murphy mentioned its serial number, 110878 (Figure 2). Over six million of these rifles were produced during WW2, but that serial number provided a means for uniquely identifying that rifle.

Figure 1: Warehouse in Movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Source)

Figure 3: Warehouse in the
movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The exact story of how the rifle left Murphy's possession is unclear. It appears that Murphy was wounded by a sniper on 25-Oct-44. Thinking that the wound may send him home, Murphy gave his rifle to a sergeant who hoped that the carbine would bring that him luck. Unfortunately, most of that sergeant's platoon was wiped out the following day. It is believed the rifle was recovered from the battlefield by the US Army, properly repaired, and put into storage. When you think of US government storage, think of a warehouse like what was shown at the end of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark (Figure 3). It seems like a miracle that this specific rifle could be pulled out of a warehouse like this, but it really happened. A person at the Center of Military History Clearinghouse at the Anniston Army Depot did a database search for that serial number, got a hit, and the rifle was found (Source).

Figure 4 shows the rifle in its museum display today. I should mention that another movie,  Carbine Williams, was made that involved the M1 carbine. It is the story of a convict, Marsh Williams , who created the basic operating mechanism of the gun while serving time in a North Carolina prison. If you are curious about the four rifles he designed while in prison, see this Wikipedia paragraph.

Figure 4: Museum Display of Audie Murphy's Rifle, Gear, and Medals from WW2.

Figure 4: Audie Murphy's M1 Carbine in Museum Display. (Source)

I do have my own tale of trying to recover something from government storage, but it is much less interesting. Back in the early 1990s, I worked on the development of a very small sonar system that used low-voltage ceramic transducers. The US Navy paid $30 million for the development of this technology, which worked but the Cold War was ending and they decided not to pursue the technology any further. We sent the sonar system to the US Navy for storage. A few years ago, I got a call from a contractor who was wondering if I knew how to find the sonar system because the US Navy wanted to resurrect the project. I told him the name of the government employee that was sent the unit – I was concerned that he may have retired. The contractor called me back two weeks later and said that the government employee was still working, and he had the sonar system in his office! It never went into storage because it looked so cool that he had decided to use it as a doorstop. The $30 million doorstop was returned to the contractor, who found that it still worked, and he used it to pursue further development of the technology. I chuckle just writing that – $30 million doorstop.

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4 Responses to Audie Murphy's Rifle and the Power of Databases

  1. Ken Connor says:

    Thanks for the fun story mentioning two of my favorite films from my youth. It must prove that I really am an engineer that I enjoy stories about people who made things happen, even though I no longer am a fan of guns at all.

    • mathscinotes says:

      Hi Ken,

      I also love biographies of people who make things happen. The biography of Carbine Williams is particularly incredible. Think about it – he was building rifles while in prison and the prison administration is encouraging it. That could never happen today! After seeing his biography on television as a boy, I spent a fair amount of time doing additional reading about Williams. Many of his gun mechanisms were made out of worn out auto parts that he ground down manually using files. Talk about a driven person.

      Funny you mention the gun part. I have many posts about ballistics, but I do not own a gun and never will. I learned ballistics when I worked at Orbital ATK (then Honeywell Defense). People would ask me questions about bullets, and I just answered using the techniques that I had learned at work. Some people have asked what kind of gun that I own; I jokingly told them that I have never fired anything smaller than 155 mm (i.e. 6 inch artillery shell). I smile when I think about the doorstop we had at Orbital ATK – an inert 155 mm artillery shell. The last "artillery" round I worked on was the ATACMS missile.


  2. Carrell R Killebrew says:

    Which weapon you carried wasn't solely a space available issue - it also had to do with physical size & stature.

    Audie was relatively short (5' 5") and slight in stature (~115lbs) during WWII, so carrying the M1 Garand (9.5 lbs, not including relatively heavy ammunition) would have been a significant burden. The Army made provision for smaller and lighter soldiers, where ever possible to carry the M1 .30 cal carbine (5.2 lbs, with much lighter weight ammunition). My uncle, a Bronze Star winner, almost exactly the same stature as Audie, also carried the M1 .30 cal carbine as a a front-line infantryman in Europe. He's 93 and still won't give up his carbine (but I don't know how he managed to smuggle it back Stateside post-war).

    And when the Army shipped arms to Philippine guerrillas, understanding their smaller stature, it shipped them M1 .30 cal carbines instead of the heavier and bulkier M1 Garands.

    • mathscinotes says:

      In addition to WW2 veterans, I have also encountered a number of Korean War and early Vietnam War veterans who carried a variant of the M1 carbine called the M2. So the M1 carbine and its progeny served for many years and in many places.

      Thanks for your comment.



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