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By Paul Richard Huard, War Is Boring
This story first appeared on Nov. 26, 2015.
By 1944, the Third Reich pulled out all the stops when it came to technological marvels. It was the year of the Wunderwaffe, the “wonder weapon” – devices born out of a combination of science and desperation that Nazi Germany hoped would knock the Allies back on their heels.
The V-2 intermediate range ballistic missile, the V-1 cruise missile, the Me-262 jet fighter are the weapons that most often come to mind in the Wunderwaffe category.
But there was another super weapon that had been around before that watershed year but still had 1944 in its name. Inspired by the Germany’s experience with urban combat on the Eastern Front, it was a firearm that used an intermediate round that was larger than a pistol cartridge but shorter than the standard rifle cartridge used by the German army.
What’s more, it was designed to fire both in semi-automatic and full-auto, and had a 30-round detachable box magazine.
It was the Sturmgewehr 44 or StG-44, the grandfather of all modern assault rifles … and its appearance on the battlefield was nothing short of revolutionary. The Sturmgewehr didn’t change the outcome of the war, but it did change the philosophy of military rifle design forever.
It was also a weapon with a tortured development history. Adolf Hitler almost killed it in the cradle.
Above and at top — StG-44s. Photos via Wikipedia
The combat experiences of the 1930s and 1940s convinced many German officers that a modern army needed an infantry weapon that would provide more firepower than a bolt-action rifle in environments other than an open battlefield. On the Eastern Front, Red Army soldiers armed with semi-automatic weapons like the Tokarev SVT-38 took a great toll on German troops.
In 1942, arms manufacturers Haenel and Walther both received specifications to develop a gas-operated machine carbine that could be manufactured quickly and inexpensively from stamped metal parts. The result were two amazingly similar weapons. Eventually, the army selected the Hugo Schmeisser-designed Maschinenkarabiner 1942 manufactured by Haenel.
The MKb42 (H) fired the 7.92 x 33-millimeter Kurz (short) round – an intermediate round. Soldiers loved the weapon, particularly when they used it on full auto because the cartridge packed enough punch to kill a person without making the weapon unmanageable because of recoil.
There was just one problem — Hitler hated the new weapon. The reasons why are complex, partly rooted in own experiences as a soldier during World War I, partly because he often thought he was the greatest military genius who ever lived.
Hitler ordered production stopped. However, the generals did something rarely risked while Hitler was in charge – they went behind his back. They re-named the MKb42 (H) the Maschinenpistole 43 or MP-43, claiming it was an upgrade to existing submachine guns. Of course, it wasn’t a submachine gun … and eventually Hitler discovered the deception.
Surprisingly, Hitler didn’t order the German brass shot for disobedience. After briefly ordering a halt in production, he found out that his troops on the Eastern Front demanded more of the new rifles. Stories of overwhelmed German soldiers armed with MP-43s fighting their way out near annihilation made the weapon legendary on both sides of the lines.
East German police with StG-44s on Oct. 7, 1955. Giso Loewe/German Federal Archives photo
Finally, Hitler actually fired an MP-43. He was so impressed he wanted it named “Sturmgewehr” – meaning “storm rifle” as in “taking the objective by storm” – for propaganda purposes. But the more common synonym in English is “assault” – and the assault rifle as we know it today made its first appearance as the StG-44 with some minor modifications.
It’s often said that the Sturmgewehr appeared too late in the war to make any difference for the Germans.Unfortunately, it still inflicted terrible damage on advancing Allied troops. For example, many G.I.s first encountered the weapon during the Battle of the Bulge, where U.S. soldiers were poorly supplied and underequipped. The surprise attack caught the Allies completely off guard, giving the Germans the initiative.
“Furthermore, the German equipment in many cases was superior to that of their opponent,” historian Christer Bergstrom wrote in The Ardennes, 1944-1945. “With their Sturmgewehr assault rifles, a small group of Germans often was able to outperform a much larger U.S. infantry unit in firepower.”
Beleaguered American soldiers found themselves pinned down by withering fire from weapons that outmatched even the otherwise excellent M-1 Garand, which can only fire eight .30-06 rounds per clip. The Germans also produced accessories that made the StG-44 even more dangerous. One was an infra-red night sight called the Vampir that allowed soldiers to spot — and kill — their enemies after dark.
Perhaps the oddest device was the Krummlauf, a barrel curved at 30 or 45 degrees that allowed the operator to shoot around corners with the aid of special periscopic mirror sights. It was designed for street fighting – but few were actually used in battle.
The Sturmgewehr changed the battlefield forever. After World War II, militaries around the world began arming themselves with select-fire rifles or carbines that fired intermediate rounds.
What’s more, some of the 500,000 StG-44s manufactured by Nazi Germany still turn up on the battlefield. As recently as August 2012, the Syrian Al Tawhid Brigade posted a video clip showing a cache of the assault rifles and ammunition the rebels claimed to have uncovered in the city of Aleppo.