David ‘Carbine’ Williams: From Prison to Hollywood

There are quite a few stories of criminals, whose exceptional intelligence gets them out of prison. We are talking here about characters such as, for example, Frank Abagnale, whose life story is probably best known from the 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can. However, today, on the 114th anniversary of his birth, we recall the story of David Marshall Williams, the inventor of the short-stroke piston, used in the M1 Carbine, and the ‘floating chamber’ operating system for firearms.

He was born on the 13th of November 1900 in North Carolina. His early life was not very special at all. Raised on a farm, he left school after eighth grade and started an apprenticeship at a blacksmith’s.  Then for a short period of time, until he was found out to be still underage, he worked as a U.S. Navy sailor. In 1917 he entered the Blackstone Military Academy, but was soon expelled for the theft of several rifles and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. In 1918 he married Margaret Cooke and got a job as a railroad labourer. This pretty ordinary life changed drastically in 1921 when Williams’ moonshining hobby came to light. On the 22nd of July 1921 his illegal distillery was raided by the police, and by a terrible misfortune Williams shot and killed the deputy sheriff. This incident got him a sentence of 20 to 30 years in prison.

Williams spent part of his sentence at the Caledonia State Prison Farm, where spotted for his mechanical knack by a prison warden, H. T. Peoples, he was allowed to access the prison’s machine shop. There he spent his time fashioning replacement parts for the warden’s firearms using scraps of metal and discarded automobile parts. This led him to draw designs for all kinds of firearms and eventually come up with a new model of a lightweight, short-barreled rifle with a function that had never been applied before.

“Peoples, in an extraordinary gesture of trust, arranged for Williams to test fire the weapon with live ammunition in the prison yard and invited a representative of the Remington small arms company to watch.” (A. Bowdoin Van Riper, A Biographical Encyclopedia of Scientists and Inventors in American Film and TV since 1930). This was a great gesture indeed, considering Williams’ status and the fact that he was still in prison. During his prison years he was continuously supported by his mother who sent him technical data on firearms and arranged contacts with patent attorneys. Eventually Williams came up with an idea of self-loading firearms. This got him two patents, one for the ‘floating chamber’ and the other one for short-stroke piston. His family, supported by the widow of the sheriff he had killed, started a campaign to reduce his sentence. After his release in 1931 Williams perfected his designs and his ‘floating chamber’ was adopted by the War Department. At this point, fortune smiled on Williams. He was hired by the Winchester Company, who incorporated his short-piston into the action of its M1. During WWII over eight million of M1s were manufactured.

To top it all up, the story of Williams’ life was soon to be claimed by Hollywood. From a petty thief and a murderer Williams was being promoted into an American hero. However, Carbine Williams, the movie starring James Stewart, failed to fulfil its initial intention. “The central story in Carbine Williams (1952) is Williams’ rehabilitation by the warden, who channels the innate stubbornness he had been using to resist authority toward a more productive end. Building a better rifle is that end, and the film turns its construction into a kind of penance for Williams. … [He] emerges at the end of the film as an amalgam of two classic Hollywood archetypes. He is the untutored mechanical genius with an intuitive feel for machines, but he is also the inventor who stubbornly pushes on when lesser men would have given up.” (Van Riper). The movie confuses the notion of heroism and reduces it to simply serving a purpose to the country. This makes one question the true motives behind its production, for it is hard to accept that a murderer and an inventor of weapon should be set as an example. Carbine Williams, was a movie so awkward that even James Stewart was not able to save it. Some say that it is in fact “Stewart’s most negligible film of the fifties – the only serious career mistake he made amid a stream of remarkable fine pictures – Carbine Williams doesn’t fit Stewart’s image or personality at all.”(John Reid, These Movies Won No Hollywood Awards