• U.S.

National Defense: More Guns

3 minute read

Across a red brick factory near Providence, R.I. a huge sign sprawls: UNIVERSAL WINDING co., WORLD’S LARGEST MANUFACTURER OF TEXTILE WINDING MACHINES.

Behind that peaceful boast, a miracle in production-for-war was being worked last week. Nine months from scratch—in just half the time normally necessary for production preliminaries—Universal assembled the first service models of a new military rifle.

The rifle: Captain (Marine Corps Reserve) Melvin Maynard Johnson’s famed semiautomatic. Up to last week this gun had existed only in a few experimental models. On a subcontract let by Inventor Johnson last November, Universal had manufactured these first Johnsons for The Netherlands East Indies’ 150,000 troops (including its Home Guard Army), which may soon need all the modern weapons they can get to use against the ambitious Japanese. Close behind an initial production block of 100 rifles come 500 more this week, with still larger outputs of 1,000 to 2,000 to come. Also in parts production at Universal, soon due for the first assembly: Inventor Johnson’s light (12½ Ib.), shoulder-fired machine gun, which The Netherlands East Indies has also ordered in quantity.

Armament production to protect East India rubber, tin, oil, is of immediate defense concern to the U.S. So is the fact that Universal’s new, rapidly expanding rifle and machine-gun capacity could, in case of need, be turned to making guns for U.S. defense. Equally important,providing many a valuable lesson for other emergency producers, is the way Universal sped into production.

Spark plug of this achievement was Universal’s pudgy, tireless Works Manager William A. Ruhl (who used to make Nash automobiles). When Universal contracted to manufacture Johnson parts last year, Bill Ruhl lacked tools and materials, had no priority status whatsoever to help get them. By airplane, train, telephone he ransacked the already overburdened machine-tool market, just as many another tool-hungry competitor was doing.

But Bill Ruhl did more: he found ways to turn scores of his textile tools to the production of gun parts. Throughout Universal’s great shops, identical machines standing side by side turned out parts for textile winders, parts for Johnsons. Example: the same tools last week were spitting out pulleys for the winders, cams for the rifles.

Manager Ruhl had never made a gun or a gun part. Nor, so far as he knew, had any of his workmen. The specialized knowledge had to come from Inventor Johnson himself and from the boss of his barrel shop, an acidulous, gun-goofy Swede named Carl Ekdahl. By their joint ingenuity Johnson, Ekdahl, Ruhl & Co. had by last week piled up 5,300 finished barrels, 11,000 more barrels in process, 10,000 breech bolts, hundreds and thousands of other parts, before a gun was assembled.

Lean, spade-chinned Captain Johnson had good reason to look happy, and did. Rifles put together at random from the hodgepodge of Universal parts worked well, showed an accuracy worthy of precision target guns.* After putting six years of intensive effort, $140,000 of his family’s and investors’ money into his inventions, he had at last hit the jackpot with $4,600,000 of orders on his books. This neat backlog consisted mostly of East Indian orders for rifles, machine guns and parts for several foreign makes, plus a small but promising Latin-American army order for Johnson rifles.

— Last week, on the Rhode Island State Guard Range near Rumford, with a National Rifle Association observer looking on, a new Johnson scored eight bull’s-eyes out of ten shots at rapid fire (ten rounds per 15 seconds at 600 yards).

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com