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World War I, 100 Years Later: Remembering the Black Gun, Born in the Trenches

By: Peter Suciu

November 11, 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. Many new weapons were introduced during this period into the arsenals of the militaries of the world. While it is easy to see the legacy of the first tanks and airplanes, two weapons that are often overlooked are the sub-machinegun and the assault rifle.

Debut of the Assault Style Weapon
Today we think of the AR-15/M-16 as being the first “black gun,” but, in fact, its origins go back to the mud and blood-soaked trenches of the Western Front. It is true the moniker “assault rifle” wasn’t created until the Germans developed the StG44/MP44 during the Second World War, but the first assault style weapons were very much developed prior to and during the First World War.

The combination of artillery and the machinegun made is so on the Western Front – and to a lesser extent along the other front lines – movement became static, and crossing even a small amount of ground was akin to a suicide attack. The machineguns of the era proved to be excellent “defensive” weapons, but none in 1914 were close to mobile.

Weighing nearly 100 pounds without the mount, the German MG08 couldn’t easily be moved forward with advancing troops. The vast majority of infantry soldiers were armed with bolt action rifles; these were a significant improvement over single shot weapons, but when charging fixed positions, they didn’t provide enough firepower.

Enter the French Chauchat
The French military had developed a weapon prior to World War I that seemed perfect for the job – at least in theory. It was the “Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG,” more commonly known as the “Chauchat,” as its development was overseen by French military arms designer Colonel Louis Chauchat.

In the early 20th century, Chauchat considered the weight of machineguns a problem and designed an automatic rifle. History has been unkind to this innovative weapon, and today this firearm has a notorious reputation for being unreliable and even poorly designed. Many of these criticisms could, however, be due to the fact that the weapon was supplied to American troops in 1918, and many of them were well-used models past their prime. The firearm was actually reasonably reliable, but only if properly maintained and cleaned.

Moreover, due to strategic demands, the weapon’s construction had been simplified to facilitate mass production, and it was often produced using low quality metal components. Likewise, a seemingly innovative design proved a flaw in the muddy conditions – this was the open magazine, which was originally designed to allow the shooter to monitor the flow and supply of ammunition.

The Chauchat, though, featured a pistol grip, in-line stock, detachable magazine, and selective fire capability that proved to be innovative features at the time. These features are practically standard in today’s “black guns.”

For soldiers fighting in the trenches, the Chauchat offered a significant advantage over the bolt action rifles and the fixed machineguns. The weapon weighted just 20 pounds and could be fired from the hip and while moving. In many ways, the Chauchat was arguably the first true assault weapon, even if not the first “assault rifle.”

The Lewis Gun and BAR
The British, too, looked to a more mobile machinegun, and interestingly choose an American design, the Lewis Automatic Machinegun, or simply Lewis Gun. It featured a distinctive wide tubular cooling shroud and a top-pan magazine. This gas-operated machinegun had a rate of fire of 500-600 rounds per minute and weighed 28 pounds, so it was heavy but still manageable. While it was issued to the British Army’s infantry battalions on the Western Front as a replacement for the Vickers machinegun, it also proved to be a rather successful machinegun for aircraft!

While the American Expeditionary Force had to rely on the Chauchat, and to a lesser extent the Lewis Gun, John Browning was already working on something truly innovative. This was to be the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), which is often considered to be the best weapon to come out of the war.

It only reached American soldiers in the closing months of the war, and even then, was only issued in small numbers for fear the Germans could copy it before vast numbers could be provided to the troops. It was designed to be carried by advancing infantrymen and could be fired from the hip, thus improving on the French concept of “walking fire,” which was thought to be necessary given the static trench lines.

The weapon could also be used as a light machinegun and fired from a bipod, which was introduced in the later models. The BAR, which also saw action in World War II, Korea, and early on in Vietnam, was also notably used by bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. This is especially noteworthy as Ms. Parker was reported to weigh just 90 pounds and was able to carry and fire the nearly 16 pound automatic rifle.

Automatic Pistols
The BAR, Chauchat, and Lewis Gun provided needed mobility to the infantryman, but the Germans went another direction. In 1915, the German military attempted to make the MG08 Maxim “mobile” by adding a pistol grip, but this still weighed nearly 60 pounds – not including the ammunition! This weapon was used by “storm troopers” – men trained in infiltration tactics – but a more compact firearm was needed.

Here came the sub-machinegun, which was designed to fire pistol-sized cartridges. This was born out the concept known as a “machine pistol,” or maschinenpistole. Hugo Schmeisser is in essence the forgotten father of the sub-machinegun. While working for the Bergmann Waffenfabrik firm Schmeisser, along with Theodor Bergmann, developed a new type of weapon. It was the Maschinenpistole 18/I, more commonly known as the MP-18.

This submachine gun was used by the Germans during the final stages of the war, and it was so successful in its design that it directly influenced later submachine guns. What made the MP-18 as it is now known unique is that it featured an open bolt blowback action and fired pistol rounds.

It was originally designed to use the snail drum of the Luger Artillery model pistol, and this feature provided the soldier with 32 rounds of 9mm Parabellum. The downside to this, however, was that the shooter was required to have a special tool to reload the magazine.

As a side note, while the MP-18 was the first true purpose-designed submachine gun, the Italians actually developed the Villar-Perosa as a dual barrel light machinegun for use with aircraft. It also fired pistol rounds, rather than rifle rounds, to increase the rate of fire and to provide more rounds for the second crew member/observer in the military aircraft. The weapon’s 9mm rounds proved insufficient to shoot down aircraft, and the gun was then issued to ground troops in a single barrel configuration.

The French Army also experimented with lighter machineguns and attempted to remedy some of the flaws of the Chauchat with a pistolet-mitrailleur – or submachine gun – that was originally intended to provide protection for French tank crews. Nevertheless, that weapon never entered mass production, and today it is largely a forgotten weapon from a conflict that saw many interesting attempts at small arms design.

The ‘Tommy Gun’
The final noteworthy gun to have been born – at least in concept – in the trenches of World War I would become infamous with gangsters and bank robbers in the post-war era.

It was, of course, the Thompson submachine gun.

While its namesake was General John T. Thompson, who had envisioned a semi-automatic rifle to replace the bolt action rifles in use during the war, it was Theodore H. Eickhoff, Oscar V. Payne, and George E. Goll who were the “Tommy Guns” principal designers. Together they created what Thompson originally saw as a “one-man, hand-held machine gun,” and designed a weapon that fired the .45 ACP round. Known as the “Trench Broom” or the “Annihilator,” the weapon was officially renamed the “Thompson Submachine Gun,” and was the first small arm to actually earn the moniker of “submachine gun.”

The Tommy Gun arrived too late to see service in the trenches, and only entered production in 1921. However, as with the BAR, it would prove to have a colorful history in the interwar period, and even pave the way for the weapons of the next World War. More importantly, with its dark gun metal parts, pistol grip, and select fire, the Thompson could truly be seen as the very first “black gun,” a series of firearms that wouldn't exist today were it not for that tragic war 100 years ago.

Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at petersuciu@gmail.com.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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