World War II changed the world of small arms. The great display of infantry and armored power reformed warfighting doctrine and still affects modern warfighting. I’m not a tactics expert, but I appreciate machine guns, and World War II changed how machine guns would be used. During World War II, the Germans built their infantry tactics around the machine gun, specifically the MG34 and MG42.
The MG34 and MG42 were not only fearsome weapons but the first general-purpose machine guns (GPMG). To this day, most of the modern world has embraced the GPMG in some form or another. The Germans didn’t create the GPMG by accident either: it was a purpose-built design that pushed the world of machine guns forward.
The Birth of the MG34 and MG42
The MG34, and later the MG42, were developed around a specific set of requirements. They called it the Einheitsmaschinengewehr, which meant universal machine gun. The idea was simple, and the universal machine gun could be used in a wide variety of roles. It would be used as infantry support, anti-aircraft, or vehicle-mounted weapon, as a tank-mounted coaxial gun, a defensive weapon, and beyond.
The MG34 and MG42 could be used on bipods and were also light enough to be maneuvered by the average infantryman. At the same time, they could be easily slapped onto a tripod and put into a defensive role.
When the war began, no one else entered with such a concept in play. Most true belt-fed machine guns were still rather massive weapons that were quite heavy and not optimized for carrying by the average infantryman on the assault.
Like any good machine gun, the barrel could be easily replaced on the fly — and would have to be when fired for an extended period of time. Trained machine gun teams could rapidly swap barrels and only briefly pause the fire. The quick barrel-change design ensured the gun could sustain fire without the need for a heavy-water jacket.
The Birth of Hitler’s Buzzsaw
The MG34 came to be in 1934. It was a belt-fed, air-cooled, 7.92 x 57mm Mauser, open bolt, machine gun. The gun entered service in 1939 but was found to be expensive and complicated to produce. As a result, the simplified MG42 was created, based on the MG34, to solve these problems. However, both guns remained in use and in production during the war.
The MG34 had a firing rate of roughly 900 rounds per minute; the MG42 was faster at 1,200 rounds per minute. These fire rates are super fast for belt-fed guns. For context, the modern M240 has a firing rate of about 650 rounds per minute.
Highlighting the very fast firing rate, U.S. troops nicknamed the MG42 “Hitler’s buzzsaw” due to the sound it made when fired.
The fast firing rate was a purposeful decision. The idea was simple: A faster firing rate meant more rounds could be fired per burst, and bursts could be short but effective. A short burst meant lots of rounds on fast-moving targets like aircraft and soldiers running from cover to cover.
Ammunition belts came from a metal belt designed to be reused after it was emptied. Belts came in lengths of 50 rounds but could be connected to increase the time between reloading. Infantry soldiers utilized 50- and 75-round “drums” that would hold the belt and protect it from the environment. Soldiers in a vehicle or defensive position could utilize longer belts to lay down heavier amounts of fire.
MG34 and MG42 machine guns could be outfitted with various sighting systems, including telescopic sights and anti-aircraft sights. The most common sighting system was a V-style open sight with a simple front post.
How It Changed Warfare
The MG42 and MG34 weren’t enough to resist the free world and the Nazi forces were defeated. However, the idea was sound, and the MG34 and MG42 spawned firearms like the M60, the FN MAG/M240, the PKM, and many more. The MG42 later became the MG3, a 7.62 NATO variant of the gun, that was used by modern German forces, Greece, Turkey, and Sudan.
The general-purpose machine gun is a mainstay of modern military forces. The general design has not changed much from the MG34 and MG42. These guns are belt-fed, medium machine guns with air-cooled, quick-change barrels and can be mounted to various platforms.
Admittedly their use as an anti-aircraft gun has faded considerably, but for every other role, they still dominate. For example, in the United States, we see the M240 in the hands of infantrymen, on defensive positions deployed with tripods, mounted to MRAPs and tanks; and it serves strong in those roles.
The MG34 and MG42 might be retired these days, but their legacy lives on.
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