Firepower From the Third Reich: German Small Arms of World War II
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) was in a transition phase. The German Army actually had more horses (about 650,000 accompanied the German assault on the USSR) as part of its invasion force than Napoleon had used when he invaded Russia in 1812, and while movies and TV shows may suggest the Germans were all outfitted with the latest and greatest in submachine guns, the truth is that bolt action rifles and other older weapons were still very much the mainstays of the German arsenal.
That said, the Germans did work hard on small arms innovation, and by the end of the war produced some of the most influential firearms the world has ever seen. Were it not for the Germans the world would probably not know the term “assault rifle.”
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Here is a look at the small arms of the German military of World War II.
Karabiner 98 Kurz (K98)
This bolt action rifle was essentially the final developments in the long line of Mauser military rifles, going back to 1898. It entered production in 1935 replacing the earlier MauserStandardmodell and Karbiner 98b, as well as the Gewehr 98. The K98 was shorter than the standard Mauser rifle used a generation earlier and thus earned the designation Karbiner 98 Kurz, meaning “Carbine 98 Short.” That fact had led to some confusion that the K98 was in fact a “carbine” in the traditional sense, which it was not.
In fact there was a shortened version of the K98 that was designed for paratroopers, but these were produced in very limited numbers and thus should be considered extremely rare.
The K98 remained the standard German rifle throughout the war, and nearly 15 million were produced 1935 to 1945. The rifle’s biggest shortcoming was that it could only be loaded with five rounds into the internal magazine, thus limiting the firepower for those troops carrying it.
Despite this fact the rifle was so accurate and so reliable that surplus models saw service for decades after the end of World War II. It was, ironically, the main battle rifle used by the fledgling Israeli Defense Forces in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was used in conflicts ranging from the Chinese Civil War to the Iran-Iraq War and is still used today in regional conflicts.
While the K98 was the main rifle in use at the outset of World War II, the German military realized that a more modern rifle was needed, and thus developed the Gewehr 41, a semi-automatic rifle that offered a higher rate of fire. The gun was a step forward, but an improved gas system based on the Soviet Tokarev SVT40 was introduced in 1943 and this became known as the Gewehr 43 or Karabiner 43 – thus it is sometimes called the G43 or K43, although the former is usually the more common designation.
The weapon fired the same 7.92x57mm Mauser round from a 10-round detachable magazine. The G-43 was used as a sniper rifle on the Russian Front, and the vast majority of rifles are equipped with a telescopic sight mounting rail. Just over 400,000 G43s – and fewer than 10,000 G41s – were produced during World War II.
Among the lesser known machine pistols of World War II, the MP-28 was in fact designed by Hugo Schmeisser – a point that is important to note. This was the first German designed post-World War I submachine gun, and was essentially an updated version of the MP-18, which was arguably the first submachine gun.
Designated a “machine pistol,” this simple small arm was selective fire blowback operated, meaning it could fire in both semi-automatic and fully automatic capability. The magazine was inserted from the left side – and there are suggestions this influenced the design of the British Sten Gun. The truth is that for right-handed soldiers this would be the only practical method of a side mounted magazine. Ironically, the British Lanchester Machinegun is a direct copy of the MP-28.
The MP-28 saw limited use with armed police (Polizei) and naval personnel during World War II. It was used in an anti-partisan role, but was essentially obsolete by the time war broke out.
The most iconic German small arm of World War II, the MP-38 and the updated MP-40 surprisingly earned the nickname “Schmeisser” — the truth is that Hugo Schmeisser did not design the gun, but merely managed the plant were the small arm was developed. Additionally Schmiesser did hold the patent on the magazine, as it had been designed for the MP-28. Schmiesser did design the updated MP-41, which was basically an updated version of the MP-40 with the wooden stock of the MP-28.
It was in fact Heinrich Vollmer who can be credited with the design of the MP-38/40, a simple yet effective blow-back operated machine pistol. The original version, the MP-38, was deemed to be too slow and too expensive to manufacture due to the high grade steel receiver, and aluminum grip frame. Both of these were replaced by stamped sheet metal rather than machined parts, with brazing and spot welding also employed. This reduced the costs and the time to create each weapon.
And while movies and video games might suggest that the MP-40 was carried by every soldier, in fact the weapon was only generally issued to paratroopers, as well as platoon and squad leaders. Following the Battle of Stalingrad (Aug 1942-Feb 1943) where Germans encountered entire Soviet units armed with the PPSh-41 submachine guns, the German doctrine did change as the war progressed. At the end of the war the MP-40 was employed by entire assault platoons, but on an extremely limited basis.
While only produced from 1940 until 1945 approximately 1 million MP40s were produced, and the gun was used in a variety of conflicts following World War II. It remains a highly iconic small arm to this day.
MP 3008 and Gerät Potsdam
This “last ditch” submachine gun was introduced at the end of World War II, and is often called the Volksmaschinenpistole (“people’s submachine gun”). It was based on the StenMkII, but featured a vertical magazine. It was crudely manufactured and fired from an open bolt. About 10,000 of these “people’s” guns were made, and very few are known to have survived the war.
Another variation of the Sten, the Gerät Potsdam, was also produced at the end of the war but was likely developed for clandestine operations.
The Germans were arguably the first to consider specialized weapons for different troops, and one group that received special treatment was the Fallschirmjägers (paratroopers), who were issued with the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 or “paratrooper rifle 42.” This is ironic in a way because the gun was developed only after major German paratrooper drops of World War II. After the Invasion of Crete in 1941 the German paratroopers were used as elite infantry, but yet were still accorded with this unique weapon.
The FG-42 was a light machinegun that had the characteristics of an assault rifle. It fired the same 7.92x57mm round as the K98, but featured selective fire from a 20-round side-mounted magazine. Two versions of the FG-42 were produced, the early FG-42/I and the later FG-42/II. While the later version featured operational refinements, visually the two versions are distinctive, notably by the angle of the handgrip and the placement of the attached bipod.
While considered highly advanced for its day, the truth is that the FG-42 was too complex to manufacture and did not have enough to offer compared with other new innovative small arms coming into production.
The Sturmgewehr 44 was arguably the gun that changed everything. A passing glace might mistake it for an AK-47, a gun it also arguably influenced (more on that in a minute). Most historians agree that the StG44 was the first modern assault rifle. Its development is also shrouded in myth.This weapon is sometimes called the MP-43, the MP-44 or simply the StG44. The latter is from Sturmgewehr, which means “storm rifle” as in “assault rifle.” The name was chosen for propaganda reasons, but it was known as the MP-43/44 because it was reported that Adolf Hitler didn’t think a new rifle was needed.
What is true is that German military thinkers noted that combat engagements took place at distances less than 300 meters, with many taking place even closer. The standard 7.92x57mm round was excessive, yet it was determined that the 9mm of the MP-40 was not effective at that range. Thus an intermediate 7.92×33 Kurz cartridge, also known as 8mm Kurz was developed, and with it this new rifle.The StG44 offered selective fire, and featured a 30 rounded double row feed magazine. All this made for a fairly heavy firearm, but one that was considered quite effective.
It is also worth noting that Hugo Schmeisser was the lead designer of the StG44, and after the war Schmeisser was “detained” by the Soviets, where he was instrumental in the Red Army’s weapon design. For years Mikhail Kalashnikov stated that the StG44 had nothing to do with his design for the AK-47; however, in 2009 he admitted that Schmeisser had “helped” with the latter’s design!
Maschinengewehr 34 is a small arm that more people have probably seen than they’d ever admit; this highly iconic looking machinegun was used in the Star Wars films as a heavy weapon for Darth Vader’s Storm Troopers. This should be a testament to its design and durability. The gun was first issue in 1935, and was officially in production until the end of World War II.
The Germans followed the standard doctrine to have their main machinegun fire the same cartridge of the standard infantry rifle – thus the MG-34 fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser round. What set the MG-34 apart was that the gun could be employed in a number of roles. With its attached bipod it could be used as a light machinegun and fired from a 50-round assault magazine, or it could be used as a medium support infantry weapon when belt-fed.
The MG-34 had a rate of fire of 800-900 rounds per minute. It was air cooled and thus featured a swappable barrel – to keep the gun from overheating. The MG-34 was unique for machineguns of its era (and for that matter even for later small arms) in that it featured a double trigger, which allowed the gun to be fired in semi-automatic by pressing the top trigger, while holding the lower segment of the trigger produced fully automatic fire.
The MG-34 was a versatile machinegun, and was used as an anti-aircraft gun, on a tripod mount as a heavy machinegun and even mounted in tanks as the primary machinegun. The gun was used in the Chinese Civil War, Korean War and Vietnam War by Communist forces – with the Soviets supplying captured models to its allies and insurgents.
The “buzzsaw” as it was called; the Maschinengewehr 42 was intended to replace the MG-34, although both were produced until the end of the war. The MG-42 was introduced to address the biggest issue with the MG-34, namely that the earlier machinegun was simply too complex and expensive to produce. The MG-42 was considered ugly, and its stamped steel hardware and almost crude design lacked the refinement of the MG-34, but it made up for it in reliability and firepower.
The MG-42, which fired the same 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge, was capable of reaching a rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute! Hence it isn’t hard to see why it earned the name “Hitler’s Buzz Saw!” It also employed an easier to swap barrel system and as with its predecessor could be used in a variety of roles. The Allies tried to downplay these facts, but that was likely of little comfort to any soldier who had to go against one!
The MG-42 lives on to this day. The original versions remained in production until nearly the end of the war. It is worth mentioning that a variation was produced, which used a different operation mechanism and thus the MG-45 is a different gun, but this was essentially a last ditch firearm.
Instead, the principle of the MG-42 lived on with the M53, a version built under license by the Yugoslavian Military, as well as the German-made and designed MG3. In fact, the American M60 copied the basic feed design of the MG3, thus could be seen as a descendent of the MG-42. Finally, in the 1980s the Austrian military developed a final variation known as the MG 74.
Peter Suciu is executive editor of FirearmsTruth.com, a website that tracks and monitors media bias against guns and our Second Amendment rights.