In the first test of congressional sentiment on the issue, a House subcommittee yesterday voted to require 18-year-olds to register with draft boards but shield away from actually drafting any of them.

The House Armed Services military personnel subcommitted seemed to be trying to minimize the political damage by voting to make draft registration effective after the 1980 election.

Eighteen-year-old men, under the proposal approved by voice vote, would have to register after Dec. 31, 1980. The election is in November 1980.

The registration requirement must still survive several votes in both the House and Senate before going to the president to be signed into law or vetoed.

So far, President Carter has managed to keep his distance from the politically risky draft issue. He has not called for either registration or resuming the draft calls suspended in 1973.

But the House subcommittee would pull Carter into the process by requiring him to recommend to Congress how registration should be handled and whether women as well as men should have to sign up.

Defense Secretary Harold Brown went on record before the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year as believing that any limited draft should apply to women as well as men.

Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.) championed a bill to draft up to 200,000 men a year to fill vacancies in the reserve forces. This was the proposal the subcommittee rejected yesterday on a 5-to-4 vote.

"People are just going to say we're silly," said Rep. Marjorie Holt (R-Md.) in voting against the Montgomery proposal. "We're trying to bring back a peacetime draft when we don't need it."

Rep. Lucien Nedzi (D-Mich.) said he did not see the limited draft "as much of a political reality, so I think it would be futile to vote for it."

"The fact of the matter is that I think the volunteer force is in trouble, and I do believe down the road there is going to be a need for a draft. But I'm prepared to wait a while."

Neither Carter not Defense Secretary Brown has subsribed to the contention by some members of Congress that the all-volunteer military experiment instituted after the Vietnam War has failed.

Army Secretary Clifford L. Alexander has hailed the all-volunteer concept as a success, declaring no draft is needed, while Gen. Bernard W. Rogers, Army chief of staff, has endorsed drafting men to fill vacancies in the Army reserve.

As the subcommittee voted, oponents of bringing back the draft staged a rally on the steps of the Capitol. The antidraft rally was planned by the Committee Against Registration and the Draft, a coalition of 20 suborganizations, before the subcommittee votes were scheduled. Details on Page C2 $.)

The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering several bills to bring back the draft, but has not acted on them.

Besides Holt and Nedzi, House subcommittee members who voted against a limited draft yesterday were Reps. Richard White (D-Tex.); Abraham Kazen (D-tex.) and Bill Nichols (D-Ala.). Voting for the limited draft beside Montgomery, its sponsor, were Reps. Elwood Hillis (R-Ind.), David Treen R-La.) and Antonio Borja Won Pat (R-Guam).