By the end of the First World War, rifle caliber machine gun could be defined in two categories. One was the tripod mounted water-cooled Maxim/Vickers series, of German and British origin whose effectiveness was best used in static or fixed positions along with plenty of support. The other was the relative newcomer, the air cooled light machine gun like the superb Lewis gun from America a pan fed design and the quite dreadful and unreliable magazine fed contraption called the Chaut Chaut from France. These weapons represented some of the most well-known types at the time, and suggested that the evolution of the machine gun would continue as two established kinds useful for different roles.
This evolution reached an important milestone when Germany began rebuilding and rearming its armed forces in the early 1930’s. Small arms designers were requested to create a new weapon that combined the best attributes of the two categories into a single effective system that permitted little trade-offs and would answer the needs of all fire support. Known as the Einheits MaschinenGewehr, (Universal Machine Gun), the development spawned several ideas, and prototypes were submitted for testing.
Of all the different variants though, the one that made it into production was the MaschinenGewehr (Machine Gun) 34, a design by Heinrich Vollmer of Mauser Werke. Once it began distribution to the army, its reputation quickly grew among those assigned to it. To them it was something truly unique.
Featuring a long, skinny perforated cooling jacket, a milled receiver and wooden stock, the MG 34 was every machine gunner’s dream. It was maneuverable, accurate, and important to the operator, clocked in at a relatively light weight 26.6 pounds which was easy on the shoulders when carrying it.
It was short recoil operated, and spewed 7.92 mm x 57 mm (8mm Mauser) bullets at a cyclic rate of 800 – 900 rounds per minute. It featured a double crescent trigger, which allowed semi or full auto by manipulating the finger. It could be fed by a 75 round drum or more commonly, non-disintegrating cloth or metallic belts which came in 250 round ammunition boxes. The belts could also be delinked to provide a shorter train of rounds for easier employment and were called teaser or starter belts in order to fire initial rounds to keep enemies head down as the gunner established his position and more rounds were linked.
Another novel feature was its quick change barrel. In a time when machine gun barrels most often had to be unscrewed with tools that not only proved time-consuming but dangerous under fire, the MG 34’s operator simply depressed latch and swung the receiver to the side allowing the barrel to pop out. He could have another barrel in and be firing in 10 seconds or less. These qualities convinced the Germans they had a winner on their hands to the point they equipped each 10 man squad with an MG34. Placing a belt fed automatic weapon at squad level was unheard of at the time and soon proved its validity when the Nazi’s assisted Spain during its civil war in 1937 and started World War II in 1939.
Despite its cheaper construction of stamped steel and looser tolerances between moving parts, at only 250 Reichsmarks cost, the gun was nothing short of a magnificent improvement over its predecessor. It took only 75 hours to make, utilized a new roller delayed blowback operating system, and a simpler barrel change which allowed experienced users to pop barrels out the right side and replace in under 7 seconds. It needed the feature, for it had a prodigious cyclic rate of up to 1200 rounds per minute. Such was the speed that the explosion of each cartridge in the chamber became indiscernible and melded into one gigantic roar.
The first units were shipped to Russia for field testing in early 1942, and it was clear that a new master of infantry firepower had arrived.For all the MG34’s accolades however, there were issues. Less than two years into the war concerns began to be raised about the MG 34’s future due to production costs and more importantly reliability in combat. On the production front, the gun was expensive at 327 Reichsmarks and time-consuming at 150 man hours to make. There were calls even before the war for something cheaper, easier to machine and from a field standpoint, something less sensitive to jamming in extreme conditions.
Once again , prototypes were submitted for testing and one of these made by Grossfus, AG., a company ironically, that made lanterns with no experience in firearms manufacturing, saw their design finish first and become designated the MG39/41 then with modifications, MG 42.
The MG 42 began stacking bodies by the masses on the Eastern Front and got into action just as soon in the deserts of North Africa against the British and Americans. Witnesses who heard it described it as sounding like canvas being ripped. Soon nicknames for it began to appear such as ‘Hitler’s Zipper’ or ‘Hitler’s Buzz Saw.’ Whenever one of the guns barked it sent fear into the hearts of green soldiers who sometimes had a hard time advancing when called to outflank it. And it was not a minor problem either. Such was the fear of it that the United States Army produced a training film trying to ease the nervousness of new infantrymen. It played on the fact that its high rate of fire didn’t necessarily mean effectiveness and that the American machine guns, though firing at a cyclic rate of up to one third less, were just as good. The gun’s “bark was worse than its bite,” they were told. That is until they got into combat and realized its bark drew far more blood than they imagined.
Perhaps nowhere else was this proven more than in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 on a 4 1/2 a half mile stretch of beach codenamed ‘Omaha.’
Situated on the bluffs protecting four draws that allowed exits from the beach, there were 85 machine gun positions of which the overwhelming majority was MG 42’s. These nests were arranged so they could provide the most effective way to inflict heavy casualties. A crossfire pattern. From the moment the first ramps of landing craft dropped the air roared with the distinctiveness ripping sound cutting through ranks of brave soldiers, many of them wading waist high through the water only to be cut down before they could ever reach the sand.
And those that did make it across were treated with the sight of hundreds of bodies with multiple holes stretching the beach. It was a preview of the carnage that would echo daily amid the hedgerows and fields of the Normandy campaign for over nearly two months before the allies broke out and drove the battered German army back into its homeland. And with the exception of the German offensives like the Battle of the Bulge and operation ‘ NordWind’ at last the MG 42, was corralled and relegated to defending ever decreasing bits of territory until the last belt was fed and one of the world’s worst regimes was no more.
Still, the gun lived on.
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In the postwar reconstruction of Germany. Most wartime weapons as well as their design plans were scrapped as the world transitioned from the nightmare of the past into the struggles of the Cold War. Finding exception to this was the MG 42, which found new life being re-chambered into the standardized 7.62 x 51 mm NATO round, undergoing some slight modifications and transitioning through the designations of MG1, MG2, and finally, the MG-3.
Produced by Rheinmetall, the MG-3 has gone on to serve with over 35 countries and has seen combat on virtually every continent, and for the most part, with the armies of democratic countries, right up to the War on Terror. Beyond this, it can be expected to serve for many more years with its distinctive silhouette no longer dispensing judgment on behalf of a dictator, but as a wolf growling in defense of the free world.
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