At the start of the World War II, the German Army (Wehrmacht) equipped their infantry with a mix of bolt action rifles and machine guns. They would find that mass production required a different weapon and a new machinegun, the MG42 was developed.
Between the wars, they had developed the revolutionary Maschinengewehr 34, or MG 34. This air cooled, belt fed machine gun fired the standard 7.92 x 57mm Mauser rifle cartridge on reloadable non-disintegrating links.
What made it so special? Unlike its World War One predecessors, it didn’t require a tripod and could be carried across the objective in an attack. Moving with the infantry squad it can be shot from a bipod with a 50-round drum magazine. It was designed primarily by Heinrich Vollmer from the Mauser Werke in Oberndorf Germany.
The Nazis were crazy for this gun. They, literally, couldn’t get enough of them and even passed them out to the Navy and Air Force. In a theme which repeats itself through the war, the search was on for a true war time general purpose machinegun that could be made in sufficient numbers.
One contender was the Großfuß company They had no experience with guns, they made sheet metal lanterns. Their lead engineer, Ernst Grunow, didn’t know squat about guns but he was an expert in mass production. Grunow went to a Wehrmacht machine gunner’s course and in bizarre departure from conventional engineering practices, actually talked to soldiers. He designed a gun which used the MG34 recoil-operated roller locking mechanism, but was made of cheap sheet metal parts.
The MG34’s ugly sister was officially accepted as the MG42 and manufacturing began in 1942. Through the war, various companies made over 400,000 guns. More rugged and less prone to jamming, the MG42 required considerably less tooling and was much simpler to build. A new MG42 rolled off the line with 75 man hours of work, as opposed to 150 man hours for the MG 34. Even using slave labor, that puts a lot more guns in the field.
In the pre-war years, German engineers had developed a new proces for making barrells, cold-hammer forging. This process work hardens steel around a rifled mandrel. The MG42 used polygonal rifling where the traditional lands and grooves are replaced by “hills and valleys” in a rounded polygonal pattern. This produced lighter and more durable machine gun barrels in less time than those produced with traditional methods. The MG-42’s heated quickly, but could be replaced in seconds by an experienced crew.
With the kick ass new belt feds being mass produced, the German infantry squads were organized around the machine gun. German units carried more belted ammunition for their machine guns than rifle ammo (they both fired the same round which could be linked or unlinked, but this took time). This allowed them to maintain higher rates of fire, and relegated the rifleman to pulling security for the machinegun, which did the real killing.
The MG42 has one of the highest average rates of fire of any man-portable machine gun. It shoots between 1,200 and 1,500 rpm. They even added a recoil booster to make it shoot faster. The Nazi logic was that since a soldier only has a short period of time to engage a moving enemy, he needed to shoot the highest number of bullets possible to increase hit probability.
The guy who came up with this theory never carried belted ammo on his back across Russia.
Predictably, the MG42 required vast amounts of ammunition and quickly overheated its barrel. Even with the clever quick change barrel, sustained fire is tricky. While the high rate of fire made machine gunners smile constantly, the most commonly heard phrase in the German army quickly became “I need more ammo!”
Never an organization to condone too much fun, the German Army forbade the firing of more than 250 rounds in a single burst and indicated a sustained rate of no more than 300–350 rounds per minute to minimize barrel wear and overheating. The Allies did not always cooperate by attacking in units which could be engaged with 250 rounds.
Shooting that fast, the human ear can’t hear individual bullets. American Army intelligence officers thought that “Hitler’s zipper” would be upsetting to soldiers so US Army made a special training film to prepare new recruits for the terrible sound. When they got to Europe, American GIs responded to the sound by launching large volumes of small arms fire and high explosives at the noise until it, inevitably, stopped. The recommend tactic was to rush the gun as the crew changed barrels.
With the new machinegun centric squad and the transition to mechanized and armored forces, they simply couldn’t fit their old fashioned Mauser rifles inside those cramped armored vehicles. MP 38, and MP 40 submachine guns were given to some units, but these guns couldn’t engage beyond 100 yards and had limited terminal ballistic effect.
Read Next: The MG34 and MG42 – How The General Purpose Machine Gun Was Born
When they invaded the Soviet Union, one of the nasty surprises the Germans encountered was semi-automatic rifles such as Tokarev SVT-38 and SVT-40s and infantry companies carrying nothing but PPSh-41 submachine guns. This ugly experience with modern light automatic weapons forced German commanders to rethink their ideas about guns.
The Tokarev used a simple gas-operated system, which was copyed by Walther to design the G-43 rifle. The G-43 was light, easy to mass produce, and reliable. The Gewehr 43 was put into production in October 1943, and 402,713, including at least 53,435 sniper rifles, were issued during the war. It used 10-round magazines that were loaded using two of the same stripper clips as the Karabiner 98k, utilizing the same German-standard 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds.
Because of Nazi politics, the German Air Force had its own Army, their paratroopers. In 1942, these cats had a working select fire rifle chambered in 7.92 x 57. The FG 42 (Fallschirmjägergewehr42 or “paratrooper rifle 42”) put a machinegun in a lightweight package no larger than the standard Kar 98k Mauser bolt-action rifle. Not suited for mass production, it required scarce high carbon steel. It also had a few quirks like the awkward 20 round side fed magazine.
Wehrmacht studies indicated that most combat engagements occurred at less than 300 m, with the majority within 200m. The brilliant new Nazi solution was to use an intermediate round, between that of their 7.92 rifle cartridge and 9mm pistol ammunition. There were experiments before the war, but none of them satisfied the Wehrmact.
In 1941 the Polte 8x33mm Kurzpatrone(“short cartridge”) was selected. Later, this was changed to minimize logistical problems. The Mauser 7.92 mm rifle cartridge was used as the basis for the final 7.92x33mm Kurtz cartridge, which utilized an aerodynamically efficient rifle bullet design. It was a shorter version of the German standard round, with a slower moving bullet. It provided controllable burst fire for in close and rifle accuracy out to 300 meters for those hard to reach spots.
By 1943, Russian hordes were over-heating the MG42s, re-introducing the human wave to 20th century warfare. The Nazi’s needed a wonder weapon to help fewer Germans kill more Russians faster. While lacking an intact industrial base and a steady flow of raw materials, Germany had enough engineers to design a new rifle in defiance of Hitler’s direct orders. This potentially suicidal move shows just how bad the Wehrmacht wanted this gun. Unlike their tanks and planes, this weapon was made of stamped sheet metal and designed for mass production like the MG42.
A new rifle was designed to take advantage of the 7.92Kurtz cartridge. The development of this gun was disguised as a submachine gun project to evade the prohibition on new rifle development. Originally designated as a submachine gun it was alternately called the MP 43 then MP 44 (Maschinenpistole 43 and 44).
It has a gas operated system using a long-stroke piston. It fires from the closed bolt with the bolt tipping down to lock into the receiver. The receiver and trigger housing and pistol grip are all made from steel stampings, with machined steel inserts. The safety lever is on left side of the pistol gripand a separate cross-bolt type of fire selector toggles between single-shot and auto fire.
Hitler found out about the MP44 when the Generals from the Eastern front asked him for more of the new rifles. Hitler liked the gun, so instead of killing everyone involved, he named it the Sturmgewehr 44 (Assault Rifle). His propaganda term has been adopted by modern national socialists to inaccurately describe civilian semi-automatic rifles. Hitler had a way with words; the term still conveys aggression almost 70 years later even in another language.
The Stg.44 could be fitted a scope or the “Vampir” (vampire) an amazing science fiction active infrared night vision system. Thank God the strategic bombing campaign kept Germany from making too many of them.
One of the strangest developments of the war was the Krummlauf. This variant of had a curved barrel and used a mirror sight to shoot around the corner or from inside a tank without exposing the shooter to the enemy fire. The friction slowed the bullet tremendously and caused increased barrel wear, but it made quite a fashion statement in built up areas. I am not sure how well it worked anywhere else.
The Russians noticed they were being killed with a new Teutonic flair and efficiency requiring even more hordes to be mobilized to the front. They liked the gun so much, they stole the idea and made a better simpler stamped sheet metal gun, the AK47, but that is a story for another day. The West would end up copying another German design.
The StG44 was made of stamped and welded steel. Difficulties with manufacture use available non-priority steels and the friction of war resulted in an unnecessarily heavy receiver for the intermediate cartridge which it fired. By the end of the war, 425,977 StG44s had been produced.
In 1943 Wilhelm Stähle and Ludwig Vorgrimler at Mauser designed another rifle chambered in 7.92 mm Kurz. It featured rigid roller locking derived from MG42 but used a fixed barrel and gas-actuated piston rod. This failed experimental weapon, known as Gerät 06 (Device 06), proved too complicated even for the Nazis but it inspired another design which did work.
Too late to win the war, this concept planted a seed which would later bloom for Mauser’s love child, the H&K company. Some geek running the analytical department at Mauser, deep in the basement in Oberndorf devised a version of the retarded blowback system (this was retranslated later as delayed blowback by the H&K marketing department). He realized that with the proper mechanical ratios, the entire gas system could be omitted. What genius, there is NO gas system, NO piston and NO rigid locking.
It was called the Sturmgeweher 45. Elegant and simple, rollers are used to retard the bolt until the chamber pressure dropped down to safe levels. When Allied forces captured Oberndorf, no more than 30 of these rifles existed. There was no springtime for Hitler, but this idea was too good to remain in the rubble of Mauser Werk.
We all know how the story ends, the team with the prettiest uniforms lost, due in no small part to their sophisticated weapons which they could not mass produce. In 1949 H&K was founded by engineers Edmund Heckler, Theodor Koch, and Alex Seidel, formerly of the Mauser rifle company. I never could find out why Seidel didn’t get his name on the sign. H&K made machine tools, sewing machine parts, and gauges and dreamed of the day they would again make guns.
In a few short years, a new Germany, again facing hostile Russian hordes, would field a new sturmgewehr, called the G3, and a new MG42, designated the MG3, both chambered in 7.62 NATO. These enduring designs would be proven in combat around the world many times over.
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