By: Peter Suciu
Lead photo: There have been many bad machine guns, but the Breda 37 could top the list.
The Second World War will go down in history as the deadliest conflict in human history, but also for its innovation. During the war new technologies such as jet aircraft were developed, while it also ushered in the atomic age. The war saw the development of new small arms, including the assault rifle.
Yet, not every firearm design hit the bull's eye, and some simply missed the mark. There were designs that were awful, while others simply needed refinement. Others might have been ideal for another type of conflict, and some weapons should have never been produced in the first place. Here is a look at some of the worst small arms of World War II:
About the best thing one could say about the Japanese Type 94 pistol is that it helped inspire the Ruger Standard pistol after the war. (Photo: Collection of the author)
Type 94 Pistol (Japan)
Designed by KijiroNambu, who also was responsible for Type 14, the 1934-designed Type 94 (based on the Japanese year 2094, which was believed to be the date from the creation of the world) was arguably the worst military handgun ever made. The 8mm Type 94 pistol has become notorious for its quite serious design flaw, which allowed for the gun to be accidentally discharged by pressing the exposed trigger bar on the left-hand side of the receiver. Some "fans" of the gun might argue that the manual safety should always be on until the gun is ready to be fired, but it seems to be a real flaw nonetheless.
Some 72,000 Type 94 pistols were made by the end of the war, and quality diminished greatly during the later stages of the war, and many of these cruder versions are the ones that were brought home in large numbers by returning American GIs, which only added to the myth of the poor quality of the Japanese small arms in general.
The Italian Breda 37 was arguably the heaviest "light machine gun" employed during World War II. It was a dated weapon when it was introduced in 1937. (Photo: Collection of the author)
Breda 37 Machine Gun (Italy)
The Mitragliatrice Breda calibro 8 modello 37 – commonly known simply as the Breda 37 – might have been a very good weapon for the trench warfare of the First World War; however, by the time it was introduced in 1937, it was clearly an antiquated design that proved ill-suited to modern combat.
The Breda was chambered for the heavy 8x59mmRB Breda cartridge, which was wasn't used in any other infantry weapon. That meant the machine gun crews had to have unique supplies of ammunition – whereas most nations of the era utilized the same rounds for the main battle rifles and machine guns. Also, instead of being fed from ammunition belts or changeable magazines, the Breda 37 was fed by 20-round trays of cartridges similar to those employed on the French Hotchkiss machine guns that were introduced prior to the First World War.
The final issue was with its weight. Unlike the British Bren Gun or Germany's general purpose MG34, which could be easily used in an attack, the Breda 37 utilized a heavy tripod that made it among the heaviest machine guns employed during the Second World War.
The Japanese Type 11 is likely the worst machine gun ever made. (Photo: IMFDB)
Type 11 Machine Gun (Japan)
Modeled after the French Hotchkiss, the Japanese Type 11 was an air-cooled, gas-operated light machine gun that was designed by KijiroNambu – it could be proof that Nambu shouldn't have been an arms designer.
It was developed to use the same cartridges as the Type 38 infantry rifle, but instead of ammo belts or even feed strips, the latter of which was used in the Hotchkiss, the Type 11 featured a detachable hopper magazine. In theory, this could allow the weapon to be constantly feed with ammunition while firing. Five round clips could be stacked laying flat above the receiver, which eased loading –and this probably seemed like an excellent idea in test situations.
In combat it was another story. Dirt, sand, and grime could easily enter the hopper along with grass and twigs, which made jams all too common. Likewise, while reloading from a fixed position was easy, it was nearly impossible to reload quickly whilst on the move. Another serious issue with this feed system was that the weight of the rifle cartridges unbalanced the weapon when it was fully loaded. Nambu compensated for this by having the buttstock bent to the right – which led to the Chinese referring to the Type 11 as "bent buttstock."
A final issue was that the 6.5mm ammunition used in the Type 38 rifle – which had a barrel a full foot longer – produced an excessive flash. As a result a new 6.5xmm Arisaka "genso" round was produced, which essentially negated the ability to keep the Type 11 fed with rifle ammunition!
Had the trench warfare of World War I been repeated the French MAS-38 might have been an excellent weapon, but it proved ineffective in World War II. (Photo: Collection of the author)
MAS-38 Submachine Gun (France)
Here is an example of a submachine gun that likely seemed perfect in concept, but proved less so when employed in combat. With war on the horizon in the 1930s, the French military looked to the lessons it learned in the First World War when its Lebel and Berthier rifles were among the longest main battle rifles used in the conflict. The length proved problematic in the trenches, as did the slow rate of fire – so a new rifle was produced, the MAS-36, which was far shorter and thus better suited to such a type a conflict.
Two years later the French developed the MAS-38, a compact submachine gun. At just 24 inches and with a barrel that was a scant 8.7 inches it weighed just 6.5 pounds. It had a simple blowback action and could fire only on full-auto from an open bolt. It had an unusual design in that the barrel and bolt travel were not parallel – while the bolt handle was non-reciprocating and stayed in the rearward position once the gun was charged. Even with its light weight, the mild recoil reportedly made it easy to control. It was also machined from solid steel and had only a few stamped parts, which resulted in a high production cost.
The MAS-38 was chambered for the 7.65mm Longue cartridge, which was also used in the newly introduced Model 1935A sidearm that was developed for the French Army. The choice of ammunition ensured standardization among French small arms, but as a result they would be unable to use the German 9mm ammunition when such was captured. Moreover, the round didn't have the stopping power of the German ammunition. Due the cartridge, the MAS-38 also had limited range and while reliable was a complex weapon to maintain.
As a side note – a MAS-38 was used by Italian partisans to execute Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in Milan at the end of World War II. So while an underperforming weapon, it did do something right!
The American M3 isn't terrible, but the "Grease Gun" is no Thompson. (Photo: Collection of the author)
M3 Grease Gun (United States)
The American M3 was developed to address the high cost of the Thompson Submachine Gun, but it was hardly the best example of a "cost-cutting" measure. Noting the success of the British stamped steel Sten Gun, as well as the German MP-40 submachine, the American military designers came up with the cost-effective M3, a .45-caliber submachine gun, which quickly became known as the “Grease Gun” due to its resemblance to the mechanics' tool. During the course of the war, about 700,000 of the all-metal firearm were produced. Interestingly, the M3 was designed to be easily converted to fire 9x19mm Parabellum – by swapping out the barrel and bolt and magazine as well. This also allowed the gun to be compatible with Sten magazines and fire British 9mm or German 9mm ammunition.
The weapon wasn't actually that bad – it is really on this list because it wasn't a refined weapon. It had limited range, poor sights and a slow rate of fire. Instead of improving upon the Thompson it was just cheaper.
However, what is notable too is that the M3A1 version, which was introduced in December of 1944, was still in use by drivers of the 19th Engineer Battalion attached to the 1st Armored Division during the Gulf War of 1991. As a result the M3 was the last WWII firearm to be used by U.S. forces on the battlefield.
The Soviet SVT-38 was not a refined weapon, and the Soviets tried to fix the problem with the SVT-40. In the end, the half century old Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle remained in service instead. (Photo: Collection of the author)
SVT-38 Semi-Automatic Rifle (Soviet Union)
Soviet arms designer Fedor Tokarev had made a name for himself as the designer of the TT-30 and TT-33 self-loading (semi-automatic) pistols, which werein essence a good copy of John Browning's Colt M1911 .45 pistol. Tokarev's next design wasn't as successful.
The SVT-38, which was chambered to the 7.62x54mmR cartridge that was used in the Russian/Soviet Mosin-Nagant bolt action rifle, utilized a gas-operated action along with a gas cylinder cup, which made it rather complex by Soviet standards. Before the weapon could be refined, the new rifle was rushed into service with the Red Army during the Winter War with Finland (1939-40).
In the field soldiers found the gun too long, too cumbersome, difficult to maintain and worst of all, it had a removable box magazine that fell out at inopportune times. Another concern for soldiers was that the SVT-38 was not well suited to handle corrosively-primed ammunition. That required the weapon to be cleaned frequently, something that the Mosin-Nagant didn't need, and not something soldiers wanted to do in the bitterly cold conditions. Production ceased in 1940, and the rifle was refined as the SVT-40, but even that was far from perfect and by the end of the war the Soviet's ramped up production of the time-tested Mosin-Nagant instead.
If you had nothing else to take out a tank, the British PIAT would do – but it was far from an ideal anti-tank weapon. (Photo: Collection of the author)
PIAT (Great Britain)
The British Army entered the Second World War with the Boys Anti-tank rifle, an oversized bolt action rifle, and it proved no match for Germany's tanks. As a result, a new weapon was developed. It was the PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank – a hand-held anti-tank weapon. Unlike the American bazooka, it didn't fire a rocket but rather was in essence a personal spigot mortar.
Introduced in mid-1943, it was first used in action by Canadian forces during the Allied invasion of Sicily, where it actually underperformed. This was due to a fault in the bomb, which failed to detonate and instead misfired unless a target was hit squarely. The problem was remedied by the time of the invasion of the Italian mainland, but confidence was still lacking until the invasion of France a year later.
With the new ammunition it did prove reasonably effective, and it was reported that seven percent of all German tanks that were destroyed by British/Commonwealth forces in the Normandy Campaign were knocked out of action by PIATs. That was compared to six percent destroyed by aircraft. Those who liked it found that it was an effective and simple to operate weapon. It produced no dangerous backblast or muzzle flash and was capable of defeating the armor of most tanks of the late World War II era.
However it was also rather heavy, especially when compared to U.S.-made bazookas. It had a rather unusual and moreover uncomfortable cocking procedure for the shot, and when fired produced a very heavy recoil. Loading and initial firing remained a complicated matter. While the PIAT could be fired from a prone or kneeling position, it all but required the user to stand to cock it – not ideal when facing down an enemy tank!
The German Volksstrumgewehr proved to be too little, too late. (Photo: IMFDB)
Nazi Germany has been created with designing some very innovative firearms – from the MG-34, the first general purpose machine gun, to the StG44, the world's first "assault rifle." However, at the end of the war, with defeat all but assured, the Nazi's produced several rifles that are commonly known as the Volkssturmgewehr or "People's Assault Rifle."
These included a series of crudely made bolt action rifles, as well as the MP507, the latter of which was developed as part of the "Primitiv-Waffen-Porgramm" ("primitive weapons program") for use with the Volkstrum, the national militia established during the final months of the war. The weapons were unreliable, not very accurate and poorly constructed.
While some would argue the designs weren't the issue, but rather it was the fact that the Germany had no option but to churn out whatever it could. However, that's not fair as the quality of Japanese "last ditch" weapons and even French small arms of the First World I are routinely criticized for the same reasons.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.