Moonshine, Murder, and Carbine Williams

Occasionally, I run across a story related to American whiskey production that has an almost unbelievable backstory.

Moonshine, Murder, and Carbine Williams

Moonshine was the foundation for much of the whiskey industry we know today. The image of the rural still hidden in the mountaintops is a history lesson. In most cases, it was local people who were distilling liquor in such a way as to avoid paying taxes. Many of the moonshiners in America were peaceable people scratching out their pieces of the American dream. Many were not violent; however, some were. Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to read is true. No names were changed to protect the innocent.

Early American Taxation

The term illegal moonshiner came about as the United States began to tax whiskey. This taxation started shortly after the Revolutionary War and has continued almost unchanged. Moonshine arose because early distillers made liquor under the moon’s light to avoid law enforcement. Distilling at night was a way to prevent the government’s revenue agents from discovering hidden stills. Moonshining was not a hobby but a critical way of life for many rural farmers. You could hope to sell some low-value surplus corn to your neighbors or turn it into high-value liquor. It was a part-time business and a way of life for many. However, in this rare story, a moonshiner and convicted murderer helped to change the world.

Prohibition was a happy day for Moonshiners.

In 1920, the advent of prohibition made illegal moonshine one of the most profitable businesses in the land. With the country dry, people would find a way to drink alcohol, and the local moonshiner was the ideal liquor store. The production of illegal liquor was made more popular than ever by the advent of national prohibition.

Moonshine, Murder, and Carbine Williams

David M. Williams Moonshiner

David Williams was an enterprising young man. Born in the North Carolina mountain country, he worked on the family farm but found trouble in school. After being expelled, David tried to join the Navy at fifteen. The Navy rejected his service when determining his correct age. Along the way, he worked as a blacksmith and did manual labor for the railroad. Williams enrolled in a military academy only to be expelled for stealing rifle parts and ammunition. This part of his story leads to something much greater.

Now married with a child, he became a moonshiner in the Cumberland County area of North Carolina, a section known for producing quality moonshine liquor. Despite his young age of nineteen, David Williams was known for the quality of his shine. During a raid on his illegal still, a deputy sheriff was shot and killed by gunfire from the woods. David Williams ran into the area where the shooting originated and was eventually tried and convicted of the Murder. There is some question of whether Williams or one of his workers shot the deputy. There is conflicting evidence that another still worker fired the fatal shots. William’s life was soon to change dramatically.

Caledonia State Prison

Williams was sentenced to 30 years of hard labor and sent to Caledonia State Prison Farm to begin his sentence. Ironically, one of David William’s still workers was tried and acquitted of the Murder despite having testified that he fired shots at the deceased deputy. While incarcerated, Williams was noted for his mechanical aptitude and granted access to the prison machine shop. He was adept at repairing and creating tools and eventually started repairing the guard’s weapons. During his prison time, he saved pencils and papers and began designing self-loading firearms. Because of his mechanical aptitude, the warden gave him latitude to work on his projects. Williams eventually designed and built four different semi-automatic rifles while in prison. His designs were the actual basis for a short-stroke gas piston operation. Today, the North Carolina Museum of History displays his original four rifles. Interestingly, David M. Williams would eventually help win World War 2.

After Prison

The prison warden, arresting sheriff, and even the widow of the deputy killed endorsed the idea of clemency for Williams. His family began requesting a pardon, and many agreed that Williams could be an asset in helping his country. In September 1929, he was discharged from prison after being given a lesser sentence. Now, William’s legacy would become legendary.

Working on existing weaponry

Once discharged, Williams began working on filing patents for the guns he designed in prison. We worked with the Colt Manufacturing Company on various projects improving existing weapons. He received a contract from the U.S. War Department to modify weapons utilizing the floating chamber system he created. Eventually, he worked on firearms that the Remington Arms company would produce. His ability to work on and understand firearms became legendary, leading the government ordnance department to recommend that Winchester Repeating Arms hire him.

The gun of guns

Winchester tasked Williams with redesigning a Browning rifle to replace the historic M1 invented by John Garand. Williams eventually worked with different team members at Winchester to produce a prototype in time for government trials. In 1941, a couple of months before the Pearl Harbor attacks, the Winchester light rifle was accepted by the Ordnance Department. This firearm became the Carbine, Caliber .30, M1 Carbine. The M1 Carbine was cost-effective at half the cost of an M1 rifle. Manufacturers built six million M1 Carbines during World War 2. The M1 Carbine became a standard issue in three wars, including World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam.

After the war

Williams continued to work on projects for Winchester, including a semi-automatic shotgun for the sporting market. 1952, the film Carbine Williams premiered with James Stewart, who portrayed David Marshall Williams. Williams was a technical advisor to the film and traveled extensively to sign autographs at theaters showing the film. He continued to use the nickname Carbine Williams throughout his life. David Marshall Williams donated his collection and workshop to the North Carolina Museum of History. Williams passed away in his native North Carolina in 1975. I hope you enjoyed this story of moonshine, murder, and Carbine Williams.

Image of M1 Carbine