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Firepower from the Third Reich: German World War II Small Arms

By: Enid Burns

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The German MG34 and MG42 – two of the most iconic small arms used by the German military in World War II.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in the fall of 1939 – 80 years ago this September – it was at a time when the German Armed Forces, called the Wehrmacht, were in a period of transition. The military had made repeated efforts to modernize in the 1930s, however, the Germany Army remained behind the curve with much of its equipment. Its uniforms, boots, and field gear were not much different from what they used in the First World War.

The aggressors’ armed forces even had more horses as part of its invasion force of the Soviet Union in 1941 than Napoleon had used when he invaded Russia in 1812. What was notable, too, was that Germany lagged behind in small arms. This is a contrast to the depiction from movies and TV shows, which often suggest the Germans were all outfitted with the latest and greatest in submachine guns. But the truth is that bolt action rifles and other, older weapons were still very a part of the German arsenal.

While advancements were slow to roll out in the field, 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 word "assault rifle."

Here is a look at the small arms of the German military of World War II:

Karabiner 98 Kurz (K98)
This bolt action rifle evolved from the long line of Mauser military rifles dating back to 1898. It entered production in 1935, replacing the earlier Mauser Standardmodell and Karbiner 98b, as well as the Gewehr 98.

Called the K98 in the field, it was shorter than the standard Mauser rifle used a generation earlier, and thus earned the designation Karbiner 98 Kurz, meaning "Carbine 98 Short." The name created some confusion that the K98 was in fact a "carbine" in the traditional sense, which it was not.

The standard issue wasn't even the shortest of the K98s. A shortened version of the K98 was designed for paratroopers, but these were produced in very limited numbers and are considered extremely rare.

The standard K98, by comparison, remained the standard German rifle throughout the war, and nearly 15 million were produced from 1935 to 1945. The rifle's biggest shortcoming was its limited firepower, being that it could only be loaded with five rounds into the internal magazine.

Despite this fact, the rifle was so accurate and so reliable that surplus models saw service for decades after the end of the Second World War. Ironically, it was the 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.

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The iconic bolt action rifle – the Karabiner 98 Kurz at a spring 2019 World War II reenactment.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

G-43
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. That began development on the Gewehr 41, a semi-automatic rifle that offered 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 became known as the Gewehr 43 or Karabiner 43 –it is known as either the G43 or K43, although the former is usually the more common designation.

The weapon fired the same 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds as the K98; but unlike the bolt action rifle, it used 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.

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The semi-automatic G43 compared to the K98 at a World War II reenactment.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

MP-28
Among the lesser-known machine pistols of the Second World War was the MP-28, essentially an updated version of the MP-18. An important fact of note: it was designed by Hugo Schmeisser. While the MP-18 was arguably the world's first submachine gun, the MP-28 was the first German-designed, post-World War I 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 capacity. The magazine was inserted from the left side – and there are suggestions this influenced the design of the British Sten Gun. The fact is that for right-handed soldiers, this would be the only practical method of a side-mounted magazine. If the machine pistol looks familiar, it’s likely because the British Lanchester Machinegun is considered a direct copy of the MP-28.

The MP-28 saw limited use with armed police (Polezi) 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.

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A German soldier during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 armed with an MP-28. (Public Domain)
PHOTO: Public Domain

MP-38/MP-40
The most iconic German small arm of the Second World War, the MP-38 and the updated MP-40 ironically 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 MP-41, which was basically an updated version of the MP-40 with the wooden stock of the MP-28.

Credit Heinrich Vollmer 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 where Germans encountered entire Soviet units armed with the PPSh-41, 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 the end of the 1945, approximately one million MP40s were produced, and the gun was used in a variety of conflicts following the Second World War. It remains a highly iconic small arm to this day.

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Despite what is seen in the movies, most German soldiers didn't actually carry the MP-40. It was mainly carried by NCOs and Squad Leaders.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

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.

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Essentially a copy of the British Sten Gun, but with a bottom-fed magazine, the MP3008 was truly a last ditch weapon.
PHOTO: Creative Commons

FG-42
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 after the major German paratrooper drops of the Second World War occurred. 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, the two versions are visually 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 and innovative small arms coming into production.

FG42
The two different models of the FG-42 – these are replicas owned by the author.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

StG44/MP-44
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 of 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 7.92x33 Kurz cartridge, also known as 8mm Kurz, was developed, and with it this new rifle.The StG44 offered selective fire and featured a 30-round, 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!

STG44
The world's first "Assault Rifle" – the StG44 – was introduced in 1943 and revolutionized firearms development. This example was seen at a Spring 2019 World War II reenactment.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

MG-34
Maschinengewehr 34 is a small arm that more people have probably seen than they’d ever realize; 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 issued 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 as the standard infantry rifle – thus the MG-34 fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser rounds. What set the MG-34 apart was that the gun could be employed in several roles. With its attached bipod, it could be used as a light machinegun and fired from a 50-round assault magazine, or could be used as 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 mode 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.

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The MG-34 on an anti-aircraft mount at a WWII reenactment.
PHOTO: Enid Burns

MG-42
The Maschinengewehr 42 was intended to replace the MG-34, although both were still 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, with stamped steel hardware and almost crude design that 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 as the K-98, 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 was called the MG-45, 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. The American M60 copied the basic feed design of the MG3; thus, it 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.

MG42
The gun known as "Hitler's Buzz Saw," the MG-42!
PHOTO: Enid Burns

Enid Burns is a freelance writer based in Michigan. She covers a wide range of topics from antique relics from around to the world to the latest bleeding edge technology too. Her exposure to military history and firearms comes from her husband, fellow freelance writer Peter Suciu, and together they have traveled the world visiting around 20 countries on five continents. Together they have built a collection of helmets, uniforms and small arms representative of armed forces and conflicts that span the globe. She and her husband continue to travel to military collectibles and antique arms shows around the country to find more treasure, and to discover more topics to research and to write about.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Gunpowder Magazine.