Throwback Thursday: The M3A1 Grease Gun — A Desperate Gun for Desperate Times

A surplus submachine Grease Gun

A soldier’s connection to his equipment is an odd bond. As a warrior your very life might hang on the effectiveness of your gear, and you need to believe that the equipment you use is the very best your nation can produce. In no other aspect of military service is this axiom better exemplified than in the case of a soldier’s personal weapon.

By Will Dabbs

The Second World War was the most expansive conflict in human history. Never before or since have so many combatant nations tried to resolve their differences on the battlefield. At a time when Total War demanded every measure of effort industrial, economic, and spiritual that a nation might muster, the United States attempted to produce a quality submachine gun that was both effective and inexpensive while remaining amenable to mass production.

The Grease Gun

A surplus submachine Grease Gun
The M3A1 was comprised of two stamped, sheet metal halves welded together. The heavy bolt rode on twin guide rods so the internal geometry of the receiver was not terribly critical.

The original M3 Grease Gun was adopted in December of 1942. In its original form, the gun was intended to be disposable so spare parts were not stockpiled. The M1A1 Thompson it replaced costs $42 at the time as opposed to $18 for the M3 and $9 for the even more utilitarian British Sten. To grant a bit of perspective, in today’s dollars this is $554, $237, and $118 respectively. By December of 1944, a number of deficiencies had been identified and corrected, and the definitive M3A1 was rolling off the lines. This variant of the gun served as personal armament for tank crews well into the 1990s.

The M3A1 was comprised of two stamped sheet metal halves welded together. The heavy bolt rode on twin guide rods so the internal geometry of the receiver was not terribly critical. The original M3 cocked by means of a ratcheting sheet steel handle that was wont to bend and break under hard use. By contrast, the M3A1 cocked by means of a simple divot in the bolt. Any handy human finger could cock the bolt easily. The pivoting dust cover incorporated a blocking device that locked the bolt either forward or back and served as a rudimentary safety. The wire stock could be removed and used as a handy magazine loader to pack 30 .45 ACP rounds into its double-column magazines that tapered to a single column for final feeding.

WWII reenactor with OD green BDUs and a Grease Gun
Many period photographs show Greasers in action with a pair of magazines taped back to back. The supply system offered rubber covers that slipped over the top of loaded magazines to keep water and crud out.

Turning Ammunition Into Noise

The Grease Gun’s rate of fire is remarkably sedate. At 450 to 500 rounds per minute, singles are easy with a delicate touch on the trigger. A full magazine dump takes a nice long time. Despite the heavy cartridge, the classic Grease Gun remains remarkably controllable.

Some GIs believed the rate of fire was too slow for proper room clearing, but a friend who carried one in action swore by the gun. Many period photographs show Greasers in action with a pair of magazines taped back to back. The supply system offered rubber covers that slipped over the top of loaded magazines to keep water and crud out.

Most GIs invariably preferred the Thompson, despite its excessive weight and bulk, but the vintage Greaser was compact and easy to carry while still throwing those heavy nearly half-inch slugs in a reliable swarm. The wire stock is neither comfortable or terribly effective, and left-handed operators were simply out of luck. However, at a time when nation states were giving their all to either fall or prevail, the Grease Gun was available in quantity on the battlefield. Handy enough to tuck into the fighting compartment of a Sherman tank or across a reserve chute for a combat jump, the M3A1 Grease Gun was a desperate tool for desperate times.


Dr. Will Dabbs was raised in Clarksdale in the heart of the Mississippi delta. He attended Ole Miss and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering while being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Regular Army. After eight years on active duty Dr. Dabbs left the Army as a Major with 1,100 flight hours piloting UH-1H, OH-58A/C, CH-47D, and AH-1S helicopters. He then attended medical school and a Family Medicine residency at the University Medical Center in Jackson. He was married in 1987 to his high school sweetheart and they have three children. Dr. Dabbs’ hobbies include tactical shooting, reading, commercial writing, woodworking, firearms design and manufacturing, and teaching the Young Married Sunday School class at First Baptist Church Oxford.

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Comments (56)

  1. USMC and I served in tanks M48 & M60, from 74-77. Both in the 1st & 3rd Marine Divisions. We were issued .45 side arms and the tank carried an M16 only. Never once say a M3 grease gun, in a tank nor in the armory.
    The M16 was a bit long/length when trying to store it inside the tank and cumbersome to get the rifle out of the hatch to use it quick.

    1. Grunts love tankers. Carried the M-14 through my first two of four trips into Nam. I called her “Sheri.” I now have “Sheri II” Put battle-sight zero from Nam on my “Sheri II” I only had to move 1 click elev and 1 click Left wind to come on target. Springfield is consistent in their mfg.

  2. 45 Cal grease guns were all over The Nam in early years, 63-68, and were handed out to some Viet Officers and their body guards. In Dom Rep manywre confiscated and sent tovBragg that never made it to armorer, as pilots; Fly Blows, Airdals and choper pilots glommed onto them. I seen a few slung on back of chopper piots and co-pilots seats n Namf both troop slicks andbred ross choppers
    Used to have pics of retired tankerInstructor and at his retirement his pic showed him holding the grease gu he had been issued someb20+ years before( 1969) inGermany.
    We used to be able to uythe tin flats punhed and unpunched fo $15 and rest of partswere no prob. Sloppy but the damnthings did the proverbale took a licking but kept on tickin kcing ass..
    We atched as one chopper pilot dropped hs outof chopperfrom 100-80 ft. Dentex we went to Aircraft repair at AirForce CampLBJ. Disassembled peened out dents weput the fly blows running out of hooched andem clubs when we fired it.
    Got drunker than skunks on pillots money. For straffing we turned weapon on its side spray and pray by letting recoil take weapon horizontal.
    Bouncing hot 45 casings.

  3. My Dad served in Korea and was issued a M-1 Carbine. After his first combat experience, he swapped the Carbine for the M-3 and never had a failure to function or take out a Chinese or North Korean soldier.

    He loved the old grease gun, and I got the chance to fire one at a range I worked at as gunsmith. It is the most basic of Class III weaponry, but it works consistently and is very easy to maintain. It may have been a quick and dirty solution to a problem, but it worked and served well for a long time.

  4. I qualified expert with the grease gun as a tanker in the Idaho National Guard in the late 70’s. It’s an easy gun to shoot well.

  5. Back in the early 70’s we were issued 1911’s and “Grease Guns” as armor crewmen. There wasn’t much point in trying to “aim” those things, they jumped around pretty good when you pulled the trigger! (Back then we “pulled” not “pressed” the trigger!) But you sure could pop out of the hatch and be ready to go to work with one! You sure couldn’t do that with those long old “Mattel” rifles!

    1. I was Eighth Infantry, Fifth Battalion, Sixty-Eighth Armored Division. Sullivan Barracks, Mannheim Germany 72-75

  6. I flew as a scout pilot in Vietnam. We used the m3 to sink VC sanpams. Worked much better than a 5.56 round. It fired from an open bolt so accuracy was not in the first round but, in a spray and prey situation, it work great and was a great back-up weapon as it didn’t take up much room and .45 ammo was plentiful. Oh-6A cockpits didn’t have much room. We had two Thompsons and two Greaseguns. I prefered the greasegun as there was much less to go wrong.

  7. I had an M3 grease gun issued to me when I was on an M88 crew in the Gulf War. At the time, my perception was that it was a clunky piece of junk compared to my M16A2. But I later fell in love with it at the range. There was no qualifying. They just called it “orientation” as I got to spray some 45 ACP in full auto to get the feel of how it handled. Later when I was no longer assigned to the armored M88, I had to turn that baby back in and go back to the pea shooter. Hard as I tried, I could not convince my superiors to let me keep the grease gun. It’s just for the tankers, I was told. Too bad. Would have been great to have it in the Humvee too.

  8. I was a space shuttle door gunner in Vietnam, and during our secret dismounted operations and rendezvous’ with VC tax collectors, I enjoyed carrying an M3. It was easier to obtain .45 ammo than 9mm (which tended to tumble in the M3 bore, making those 800 meter shots more difficult), tho the 9mm was easier to obtain than depleted uranium .17 HMR rounds–particularly since they hadn’t been invented yet.

    1. You were what in what where lol wo some experience there troop lol.? I was deployed into Op Desert Storm attached to the 3rd acr in a bradley from ft hood tx I personally saw no M3 grease guns in that op . We faced off with Repulican guard units and the occasional loyal insurgent groups. the conscripts gave right up the RG did not . Not saying is not true or did not happen my man David R. i never saw 1 we were not issued any .45 acp ordinance shipments in fact . 9mm nato ,5.56 ,7.62 nato .50 browning yes . Not that those Haji’s may not have had a few who knows lot of old WW2 weaponry small arms as well were left in post WW2 iraq and desert theatres of arabia . would not bet against the muji’s in soviet invasion did not have a few for some for sure or well made copies at least made in one of the paki , indian ,egyptian arabian area gun makers shops they had enfields, mausers ,turk mausers,etc, and many other WW2 arms used against the soviets . and possibly us in operation iraqi freedom, in the insurgency after major ops and in afghan theatre with the taliban. But in OP Desert Storm not that i saw wish i had would have like to see a real one from ordinance ready to go .We had M4 carbines in the Bradleys with us .

    2. Damian, I read your reply to Steve, but it seems you meant your reply for me.

      To answer your question: I served in the Army years ’89-’92, stationed at Ft Stewart, GA in the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), 3rd Engineer Battalion (combat engineers), A Company. My MOS was 63Y (tracked vehicle mechanic). An M88 is an armored recovery vehicle, basically a tow truck for armored vehicles with a 4-man crew of mechanics.

      I was issued the M3 grease gun when I was on the M88 crew. That is a fact. Believe it, or not. I matters not to me. But I would point out that the blog article above does state the M3 “served as personal armament for tank crews well into the 1990s.”

    3. @ DavidR -Like i said I NEVER SAW 1,did not say ,i repeat , i did NOT say it never happened .I never saw any m3 grease guns in op des storm personally was my quote sir. And i did not see a single 1 nor did we get any .45 acp issued to us to use in one . That does not mean you did not maybe you did .ME NEVER.And it was armoured cavalry troop.No M3′;s with us .

    4. There are more holes in your story than in a wheel of Jarlsberg.
      Drop a 9mm round in the chamber of a .45 ACP barrel and it will drop through without stopping. You might want to take that into consideration.

      If you are going to post ludicrous comments, try a bit harder to make them reality based or at least plausible.

      Your comment isn’t cute or humorous, and it isn’t relevant or insightful.

    5. @sfc ?????????when did i mention the dropping of a 9mm nato round into a .45 acp chamber?My reply was simply i never saw any M3 grease guns in desert storm op theatre nor were we ever issued ANY .45 ACP ammo to even use we had nothing with us as army cavalry fired the 45 acp round . We carried 9mm nato ,5.56 .7.62 nato and .50 browning only with us . The Marines in 2nd marines hooking along side of us may have had .45 acp we in 7th corp advance hook move had no 45 acp ammo or any weapons platform that fired that round in op desert storm not with us we didnt. no holes in my story lol. And i never meant to go off topic just . I ? that post is all .still do .JMHO.

  9. The grease gun was a fav of mine that I carried in RVN, “bought” not issued. Plenty of those and Thompsons that I also carried sold openly amongst troops. And .45 rounds were easy to come by in bulk.
    Sold them off to a “newbie” when I left country.

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