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David “Carbine” Williams: From Bad Guy to Good Guy

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

David "Carbine" Williams in about 1970

David "Carbine" Williams in about 1970

What Type of Firearm Was Developed by David Williams?

Very few people make the transition from convicted murderer to respected businessman. Usually, the trajectory is in the other direction.

David Marshall Williams (1900-1975) was from North Carolina, and the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography notes that “Even as a child ‘Marsh’ Williams had shown a talent for fashioning objects with his hands, and as an adolescent he took a special interest in guns. When he was only ten he had made a workable pistol from a hollow reed and pieces of juniper wood . . . ”

A Shaky Start in Life

The first few years of David Williams’s life suggest a man who was destined to foul up. He dropped out of school after just eight grades. Then, he went from job to job, blacksmithing, the navy (he was chucked out for being underage), and a short spell in a military college before expulsion (he was found to be in possession of thousands of rounds of college ammunition and several rifles), and then brief employment with a railroad.

He married Margaret Isobel Cook at the age of 18, and they had one child. So what’s a teenager with a growing rap sheet and an income that doesn't cover expenses supposed to do? Go into the moonshine business, of course.

"Carbine" Williams outside his workshop

"Carbine" Williams outside his workshop

The Death of Sheriff Pate

Williams loved to tinker, so it was easy for him to build whiskey stills. The law soon discovered his moonshine operation and moved in to shut it down in July 1921.

The workers fled, and Deputy Sheriff Al Pate and five colleagues dismantled the still and loaded the evidence into a police car. Sheriff Pate rode on the police car’s sideboard as the team headed back to headquarters. Then, they came under gunfire from the surrounding woods. Sheriff Pate was hit by two bullets and died at the scene.

David Williams was arrested and charged with first-degree murder; if convicted, he faced the death penalty. The trial ended in a hung jury. Rather than face another trial and the possibility of a guilty verdict, Williams agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder, although he always claimed he was innocent. He said he did not fire the fatal shots, but, as leader of the moonshiner's gang, he took responsibility.

He was given a 20-to-30-year sentence.

Williams at work

Williams at work

Doing Time

David Williams was shipped off to Raleigh, North Carolina, to do his stretch, but things didn’t go well. He was transferred to another prison whose superintendent, H.T. Peoples, recognized a man with a certain genius.

Williams was assigned to the prison’s machine shop. If he needed a tool the shop didn’t have, he made one, and he serviced the firearms used by the prison guards.

He worked on his designs for semi-automatic weapons. Then, Superintendent Peoples did what no one in the corrections trade has probably ever done; he allowed Williams to make complete weapons and hide them in the walls of the shop.

He built four semi-automatic firearms that used a short-stroke piston to reload the bolt and put another cartridge in the breech. The piston was operated by high-pressure gas in the rifle chamber as a round was fired. This was an innovation for which Williams has been given credit.

A campaign was started to have Williams’ sentence reduced. This was successful, and he was released in September 1929 on parole.

The weapons "Carbine" Williams made while incarcerated

The weapons "Carbine" Williams made while incarcerated

Arms Manufacturers Come Calling

As a free man, Williams started filing patents for his innovative weapons, and soon the Colt Company wanted to talk to him. Then, it was the War Department and Remington. Then, in July 1939, he was hired by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

But, Williams did not fit well into the corporate world. He worked with a team of designers, and they weren’t always a happy bunch. At one point, Williams threatened to shoot one of his colleagues over some real or imagined slight.

Edwin Pugsley, the CEO of Winchester, later wrote that “During the building of both the experimental model and the final model [of the M1] that was tested, Williams went out of his way to insult and estrange practically every man he was supposed to work with, and from that standpoint was probably the most unpopular man in the section.”

He worked on the designs of various firearms, but it was the M1 carbine “that brought him his greatest fame and his nickname, Carbine” (NCPedia). He was happy to adopt the moniker and always referred to himself as “Carbine” Williams thereafter.

However, Bruce Canfield, writing in The American Rifleman, makes the claim that Williams’ contribution to the design of the M1 was quite minimal and that he does not deserve the amount of credit he is accorded. Canfield softens his criticism by writing, “This is not to denigrate Williams’ abilities in any way, as he was clearly a man with an unquestioned innate talent for firearm design.”

Winchester and other companies went into production with the M1, and they cranked out eight million M1 carbines, mostly for the U.S. military. General Douglas MacArthur called the weapon “one of the strongest contributing factors in our victory in the Pacific.” Even J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI heaped praise upon the weapon and its inventor.

Williams became a wealthy man and left Winchester in 1949. The company was probably quite happy to no longer employ this brilliant but difficult man. He died in 1975 at the age of 74.

Bonus Factoids

  • During his lifetime, David “Carbine” Williams filed more than 50 patents.
  • The M1 carbine was the U.S. military’s standard service weapon until 1973, when it was replaced by the M16.
  • In April 1952, MGM released the movie Carbine Williams with Jimmy Stewart playing the title role. The real “Carbine” Williams toured the country for showings of the movie, where he signed autographs. The Internet Movie Database gives the film a rating of seven out of 10.


  • “Williams, David Marshall (Carbine).” H.G. Jones, NCPedia, 1996.
  • “ ‘Carbine’ Williams, Inventor and Inmate.” North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, undated.
  • “Carbine” Williams Myth & Reality.” Bruce Canfield, American Rifleman, April 7, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 12, 2018:

Paula - don't expect too much from the movie. I've seen a few clips and it doesn't travel well through time. But, that's just my opinion.

Suzie from Carson City on February 12, 2018:

Rupert.....You have great talent for bringing us rare information that the majority would simply not know. Mr. Williams was certainly a fascinating & fairly genius man I'd never heard of. I might even check for the movie with Jimmy Stewart at my local library. Sounds like an interesting story. Thanks, as always, Rupert, for the mini-education! (I wonder if he really did shoot the Sheriff?)

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 12, 2018:

I've never heard of him before, but what an interesting and colourful life he lead!