World War II changed how wars were fought as it was a fast-moving war involving modern tactics. As a result, World War II saw the advent of several different weapons. These include the first assault rifle, a Wonder 9 pistol, light support weapons, and even the first general-purpose machine gun. However, even in the face of all of these new and innovative weapons, the submachine (SMG) stood out. Every country fielded one or multiple SMGs.


Why SMGs Became the Ultimate World War II Weapons

Lots of World War II weapons were important, but it’s interesting to see how dominant SMGs were. In World War I, we saw the introduction of SMGs and their value. But the Great War was different from World War II. It was primarily fought in the trenches and fields. Urban warfare wasn’t as prominent in 1914 as it was in 1939.

World War II was characterized by fast maneuvers. Squad-level maneuver-warfare tactics required squad-level fire support weapons. Most World War II weapons were bolt-action rifles, and bolt-action rifles didn’t lay down suppressive fire very well. We had automatic rifles like the BAR, Bren, and the DP-27, but they were big, heavy, and to provide accurate fire, they needed to be set into a supported position.

Look at the size of this thing! (Wikimedia Commons)

However, submachine guns introduced a generation of World War II weapons that were man-portable, capable of being fired without a bipod, and provided automatic fire that could suppress targets. Soldiers and Marines with SMGs could lay down a ton of fire and keep heads down as troops moved to close with and destroy the enemy.

Submachine guns were also the most capable of World War II weapons for urban and jungle environments. Their small size made them handy when clearing rooms or navigating through dense jungle. The Russians, in particular, laid the hate down on the Nazis in the urban environments of the Motherland. Marines in the jungles did the same with SMGs and shotguns.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The Average WWII SMG

World War II weapons varied quite a bit between countries. That being said, the average SMG wasn’t that much different at its core. The average SMG utilized common pistol calibers ranging from 45 ACP, 9mm, and the hot 7.62 Tokarev. These guns were almost exclusively blowback-operated guns that were very simple but very reliable.

The vast majority were also open submachine guns. This means the bolt locks to the rear and the trigger releases the bolt, which slams forwards and causes the gun to fire. When the trigger is released, the bolt stays locked to the rear. The benefit of this system in an SMG is simplicity. Further, it makes the weapon cheaper and easier to build.

French resistance SMG World War II Weapons
A French resistance fighter wielding a submachine gun. (Wikimedia Commons)

An open bolt also allows the chamber to cool and keeps a cartridge from sitting in a hot chamber. This can prevent cook-offs when a gun is rocking and rolling for an extended period of time.

These guns mostly used box magazines that held between 20 and 32 rounds on average. The Russians preferred the drum on the PPSH 41, which held 71 rounds of 7.62 Tokarev. Rapid reloads allowed submachine gunners to keep their fire rates up.


Which SMGs Proved the Most Capable?

Obviously, we can’t leave without listing the most influential submachine guns of WWII.


The M1 Thompson

Over 1.5 million Thomspon SMGs made their way into WWII. The M1 Thomspon sat in the hands of Americans and British  —even the Russians had some Tommy guns. This 45 ACP SMG was a bullet hose with a rate of fire of 700 rounds per minute.

Churchill Tommy Gun
Churchill in his mobster outfit. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Thomspon could feed from a stick mag or drum; American forces clung to the stick mags for simplicity. Some British used drums, but they were both complicated and expensive, and the stick mag tended to work a bit better. As far as World War II weapons go, the Thomspon is easily the coolest.

The M1 Thompson was a beefy guy with a weight of over 10 pounds, but it proved itself well. While I think the M3 was a better SMG, it wasn’t fielded nearly as much as the old Tommy gun.


The PPSH 41

Russian small arms design and Russian World War II weapons were particularly interesting. The PPSH 41 is an absolutely fascinating design. The PPSH 41 was built to be cheap but effective, and it achieved that to a T. The gun chambered the hard-hitting and fast-flying 7.62 Tokarev round that offered the PPSH-41 a little more range and penetration than other SMGs on the field.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The aforementioned 71-round drum also kept the gun’s rate of fire high and allowed it to pour lead into enemy positions at 900 rounds per minute. While drums were common, the PPSH-41 could also utilize stick magazines, if necessary.

I imagine carrying stick mags was easier than carrying spare drums. However, the drums had to be paired with the PPSH-41 as they were specifically made for it. Poor tolerances made the drums non-interchangeable.


The MP 40

Those pesky Nazis could produce a well-made automatic weapon, and as such, the MP 40 was one helluva submachine gun. Like most German-made products, it was of the highest quality, extremely dependable, and robust. The MP 40 was a 9mm SMG with an under-folding stock. It fed from stick magazines.

MP 40 German World War II Weapons
German soldiers using the MP 40. (Wikimedia Commons)

The MP 40 used a relatively low 500 rounds per minute fire rate, which made it very controllable for the average Wehrmacht soldier. The gun’s robust design and compact nature made it well suited for a variety of infantry and armored operations. This made it quite handy as World War II weapons go.

Germany produced over a million of these guns, and they saw conflict across Europe.



World War II was unique in terms of the weaponry used. While the Korean War was an epilogue to World War II and saw the use of similar technology, these were really the final wars in which SMGs would dominate. This makes their widespread use so interesting, and they really did help change small unit tactics.

What say you? What do you think of World War II weapons and SMGs? What’s your favorite SMG of World War II?