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During the Second World War, the Third Reich fielded what have been called some of the finest firearms ever produced – including the StG44, the world's first assault rifle. While it arrived too late to make a significant difference in the outcome of the war, it influenced post-war weapon design. In addition, the Germans produced such iconic weapons as the MP-40, FG42 and MG42, all of which were quite fine firearms that also influenced subsequent small arms in the post-war years.
by Peter Suciu
During the Second World War, the Third Reich fielded what have been called some of the finest firearms ever produced – including the StG44, the world's first assault rifle. While it arrived too late to make a significant difference in the outcome of the war, it influenced post-war weapon design.
While The National Interest previously reported that the efforts to create such fine weapons actually proved problematic for Germany. The weapons were too overproduced and over engineered, and were based around unnecessarily complicated systems during wartime. Having the best machine gun such as the MG42 – a debatable point anyway – doesn't mean much if you can't produce enough of them, or if the weapons are complex to properly maintain.
However, all of the above examples were the result of the interwar evolution of German small arm's design, much of which was conducted in secret or in ways to skirt the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty limited the size of the Reichswehr (German Army) to just 100,000 men, with an additional 15,000 sailors for the navy. The treaty also banned heavy weapons, armored vehicles and any aircraft as well as new machine guns. Despite the ban, the Germans began to develop a new generation of small arms – and that included more advanced machine guns and submachine guns.
It is crucial to note that this began even before the Nazis came to power. These efforts were first launched under the "Black Reichswehr," the cadre of military and former military officers who struggled to accept the defeat in the Great War (World War I).
New Machine Guns
Despite not being allowed by treaty to develop new machine guns, the Reichswehr forged ahead anyway in the late 1920s, and produced the experimental Maschinengewehr 30 (MG30). Development of this light machine gun took place under the direction of Louis Stange at Rheinmetall's Sömmerda office – and to skirt the treaty's prohibitions, Rheinmetall acquired a majority shareholding of the Swiss manufacturer Waffenfabrik Solothurn AG so work could begin in earnest across the border.
The resulting MG30 was a simple design that offered both fully automatic and semi-automatic fire. Unlike the wartime MG08, which was based on the Maxim design, this new machine gun was air-cooled and required a team of just two to operate. However, the German Reichswehr actually rejected the design and only about 3,000 of these weapons ended up being produced. Most of those were used by Germany's Axis ally Hungary during the Second World War.
While the German military of the early 1930s wasn't impressed with what the MG-30 had to offer, it opted instead for another light machine gun, the Maschinengewehr 13 (MG13). It was actually a complete conversion and redesign of the Dreyse water-cooled heavy machine gun, but as an air-cooled version. The weapon was a short-recoil operated, magazine fed, air-cooled light machine gun fired from a closed bolt, while the barrel could be withdrawn and replaced – albeit it did require a partial disassembly of the weapon, which was not exactly ideal in combat situations.
The weapon was tested by the Reichswehr and adopted as the MG13 – the model designation was a very crude attempt to represent what was really a newly developed weapon as a modification of the older design. It was briefly the core German infantry squad support weapon, and was originally issued with a 25-round curved box magazine, but later was modified to be used with a 75-round twin drum (Doppeltrommel 13) magazine.
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The Rheinmetal Company then revisited the MG30 and developed the Maschinengewehr 15 (MG15), which was developed specifically for use in German aircraft. The gun used a rotating bolt/lock-ring system to produce a firing rate of 1,000 rounds per minute, which was ideal for defending the new fleet of bombers that the German Luftwaffe also began to develop in secret.
To accommodate the high rate of fire, ammunition was fed from a twin "saddle magazine." By the middle of the 1930s, all Luftwaffe airplanes were fitted with flexible mounts to accommodate the weapon. Gunners were routinely provided with 10 spare magazines.
Despite the promise, the weapon's shortcomings became apparent – it was hard to reload, especially in flight – so the weapon was taken out of service on the aircraft and modified for use as an infantry support weapon. As its air-cooled barrels could be easily swapped out, its high rate of fire was a serious problem on the ground. As a result the MG15 was modified to become a water-cooled light machine gun. Even in that capacity, it was largely used by rear guard troops, but Germany also supplied the weapon to its Romanian allies, where it saw use in the invasion of the Soviet Union and the later fighting against Hungary at the end of World War II.
The Early Submachine Guns
Among the first weapons designed in semi-secret was an updated version of the Maschinenpistole 18/I, more commonly known as the MP18. The new MP28 – officially the Maschinenpistole 28/II – was an improvement over the World War I era submachine gun, replacing the complex Luger pistol snail magazine for a simple stick magazine. This helped better balance the submachine gun, and eased the reloading process.
The MP28/II was considered a fine weapon, but it was generally considered too heavy for front line use, yet it remained in use with German police and SS units during the Second World War. While the MP28 was a solid weapon, once the Nazis came to power an attempt was made to create something better – it took several tries to get it right.
The first was the Maschinenpistole 34 (MP34), a largely forgotten weapon – but one of the reasons was that it was a Nazi-designed submachine gun that was actually developed in Austria. It was based on the MP18, and developed in secret via the Swiss manufacturer Waffenfabrik Solothurn AG. However, Solothurn was unable to handle the production and this fell to the Austrian firm Waffenfabrik Steyr.
This weapon, with its highly crafted machine parts and finished to the highest possible standard, has led to it being described as the "Rolls Royce of submachine guns." It was also first adopted by the Austrian Army as the Steyr-Solothurn S1-100 – but following the 1938 Anschluss, which unified Austria with Germany, it was re-designated as the MP34. Production ceased in mid-1940 due to the high production costs, but the MP34 was so well built that it was favored by the Waffen SS forces in the early stages of World War II and it was later used by the German reserve units as well as police forces throughout the rest of the war.
The next attempt went in a completely different direction and is the rare example of a less-refined German small arm of the early Nazi era. It was the Erma Maschinenpistole (EMP), which was also developed in secret by German arms-designer Heinrich Vollmer, originally as the VMP1935. It was based on the MP18/28, and featured a 32-round box magazine.
Perhaps because the EMP was cruder in design, it was marketed for export and in the late 1930s sold to various "friendly" nations that included Bulgaria, Spain and Yugoslavia. Ironically many of those sold to Yugoslavia were used against German soldiers during the Nazi invasion in 1941! And in the case of those sold to Spain, the EMP was used by Nationalist and Republican forces alike. After the Nationalist victory, the weapon was produced by Fascist Spain under license at the arsenal of A Coruña under the designation M41/44.
During World War II, the EMP was widely issued to SS units, and some were reportedly still in use by the SS Charlemagne Division, which was made up of French volunteers and was among the final SS units to surrender at the end of the war.
The final and largely forgotten German weapon is also one of the most distinctive – the Maschinenpistole 35 (MP35), simply because it is the only submachine gun of the era that featured a magazine that inserted from the right-hand side of the weapon. Why its designer Emil Bergmann opted for this positioning remains unknown as he left no record for making this choice. However, it has been suggested that this configuration was chosen to standardize the manual of arms with the K98k style bolt handle. As a result, it has been favored by left handed shooters.
The MP35 was developed with proprietary magazines, but when production was ramped up it was modified to utilize MP28-compatible magazines. It had a 540 rpm rate of fire. While never adopted by the Germany Army it was used by the SS and German police units, and exported to numerous countries.
-- This Story First Appeared in The National Interest --
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear includingA Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.