Tuesday, September 3, 2013

NC Historical Marker -- "Carbine" Williams

If you've biked on North Carolina highways and byways, you've probably noticed the historical markers that enlighten us about the events on that stretch of road or the notable people that once lived nearby. For instance, Highway 82, which is part of our 600K route, cuts through the Averasboro Civil War battlefield, and several markers detail the fierce battle that once waged there.

You can't really read the historical markers if you're passing by at car speed, but you can at the typical bike pace. Saturday and Sunday, I rode Dean's Looking Out My Back Door, which passes through Godwin, a town that's now off the beaten path, thanks to nearby I-95. I was intrigued by a marker honoring David M. "Carbine" Williams. Here's what it says:

"Carbine" Williams, designer of short stroke piston, which made possible M-1 carbine rifle, widely used in WWII. Lived 2 mi. S.

Developing that gun seems like a pretty big deal, so I looked Williams up when I got home. The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources has essays about each highway marker, so it was easy to find the background on Mr. Williams. The sign does not even hint at the colorful life this guy lived -- a moonshiner with a penchant for Stetson hats and cigars who helped develop the carbine rifle while in prison for murder.  Wow. They even made a movie about the guy. The full essay from the NC historical marker site is below. Enjoy!

Over 8 million Allied soldiers carried the M-1 carbine, a light, semiautomatic rifle, in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur described the weapon as “one of the strongest contributing factors to our victory in the Pacific.” J. Edgar Hoover and others had similar praise for “Carbine” Williams, the weapon’s designer. His life was the subject of the 1952 MGM film, “Carbine Williams,” that starred Jimmy Stewart in the title role. 
In 1921 David Marshall Williams operated illegal distilleries. Law enforcement officers raided one operation and, in the ensuing gunfight, Deputy Al Pate was shot to death. Williams denied that he fired the fatal shot but pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced by Judge John H. Kerr to thirty years. As a trusty in the blacksmith shop at Caledonia prison camp, Williams was permitted by superintendent H. T. Peoples to pursue gunsmithing with crude available equipment. His designs, particularly the short stroke piston and the floating chamber, drew the attention of Colt Firearms, whose representatives visited him in prison. Governor Angus McLean commuted his sentence and in 1929 he was freed. In 1940, working with a team at Winchester, Williams created the .30 caliber M-1 carbine, noted for its accuracy and light recoil. Williams, a colorful character with his long sideburns, Stetson hat, and cigar, became wealthy and patented over fifty inventions. 
With the release of the film in 1952, Fayetteville celebrated “Carbine” Williams Day. His shop in Godwin was a regular stop for politicians and reporters. Governor Terry Sanford in 1962 appointed a committee to study the establishment of a museum dedicated to his work. In 1968 Williams was appointed an honorary deputy U.S. marshal, one among many such distinctions. In 1971 the North Carolina Museum of History acquired his shop and moved it to Raleigh as the centerpiece of a firearms exhibition. Governor Robert W. Scott at the opening said Williams had “brought fame to himself and honor to our state.” That year a legislative resolution honored him for “overcoming misfortunes which might have broken weaker men.” Williams died in Dorothea Dix Hospital in 1975. Relatives of the slain deputy, as recently as 1997, have objected publicly to honors brought to Williams. 

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