“Carbine” Williams Exhibit
Today young Boudreaux and I had a few idle minutes, so we cruised into downtown Raleigh to stop by the North Carolina Museum of History. I had been itching to visit for some time, because they have on exhibit the workshop of David “Carbine” Williams.
Williams, a North Carolina native, was a prolific inventor and firearms designer; during his lifetime he would be awarded forty patents for firearms-related inventions. The exhibit highlights two of his inventions that were adopted by the US Military in the years leading up to World War II—inventions that he conceived, designed, and prototyped while in prison for murder.
Williams was born in Godwin, NC. After a year in the Navy (from which he was discharged for being underage), a year at Virginia’s Blackstone Military Academy, and a short stint working for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, Williams began making moonshine in 1919: the year the 18th Amendment was ratified, kicking off that noble experiment we call Prohibition. In 1921, a sherrif’s deputy was killed during a raid on Williams’s still, and Williams was charged with murder. His first trial ended in a hung jury, but in November of 1921, he plead guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to thirty years in prison.
Williams had worked in a blacksmith’s shop as a youth, and had an interest in firearms. He was put to work in the prison’s machine shop repairing the guards’ weapons. He also began working on his own firearms designs in secret. Here, between 1923 and 1928, he built four rifles which incorporated his two most famous inventions. His first rifle he built from “scrap iron and a walnut fence post.” Another was made from a tractor axle and the drive shaft from a Model T.
Of course, his activity didn’t stay secret forever. By 1928, his inventions began to be noticed by the press and by Colt Firearms company. In 1929, thanks in part to efforts by the widow of the man he was accused of killing, the governor granted him a pardon, and he returned to his family farm, where he kept working on his inventions.
William’s first prison-built rifle used a floating chamber design that later became the basis for several designs that allow firearms to fire a sub-caliber round. For example, Colt’s .22-.45 conversion kit, which allows a Government Model 1911 to fire .22 Long Rifle ammunition, was based on a floating chamber. The US Military adopted several conversion designs for firing .22 ammunition in several different firearms, including the .30-caliber Browning Machine Gun. Because .22 ammunition is about as cheap as it gets, using it during training seemed like a great economy measure during the Depression. Williams received a patent for the floating chamber in 1936.
However, the invention that earned him his nickname was the short-stroke piston gas system that was used in the M1 Carbine. Williams had invented the short-stroke system while in prison. In 1941 he went to work with Winchester on the carbine project. He received a patent for the short-stroke piston in 1944.
He spent the post-war years back in Godwin, working on several projects, civilian and military alike. In 1951, a police captain who knew Williams from his prison days wrote an article about Williams that was published in Reader’s Digest. This became the inspiration for a Williams bio-pic starring Jimmy Stewart.
The museum exhibit itself is fairly small. Besides Williams’s workshop, there are three displays of note. The first focuses on his two major inventions, with mechanical drawings and physical examples of the short-stroke piston and the floating chamber. I was a little underwhelmed by the technical explanation of these devices; the phrase “amplifies energy” offends my engineering sensibilities. The display also has an M1 Carbine as well as those other two workhorses of WWII, the 1911 pistol and the M1 Garand.
The second display is a time line of Williams’s life, outlining the major events from his birth in 1900 to his death in 1975. Finally, there is a display of his work from prison, including the four rifles and mechanical drawing of the floating chamber that Williams made on a piece of scrap cardboard.
Most impressive is the reproduction of Williams’s workshop from his farm in Godwin. This exhibit contains 3,000 artifacts, including a mill and lathe Williams got from Winchester. Unfortunately, this part of the exhibit is enclosed, and it’s difficult to get a good look at things through the viewing windows.
In summary, if you’re ever in beautiful downtown Raleigh, and you have a few minutes to spend, it’s worth it to drop by. Admission is free (donations are welcome), and the museum has lots of other great exhibits. And give me a holler, too; maybe we can go to the range together, in honor of Carbine Williams!