Gewehr 41 (Walther version)

The ammunition question refused to die, however, and the lead in ammunition technology the Germans established during World War II brought the matter to the fore after the end of that war. The Germans began the war with the Mauser Gew 98k in 7.92mm caliber. This was a shortened version of Mauser’s famous Gew 98. However, experiences in Russia during OPERATION BARBAROSSA convinced the Germans that they needed an SLR to combat the masses of Russian soldiers counterattacking them and that they also needed a controllable assault rifle capable of automatic or, at least, rapid semiautomatic fire.

An early attempt to provide such a weapon resulted in failure. The Mauser G41(M) was judged too heavy (it weighed over 11 pounds), it was muzzle-heavy and too long, and the action was awkward. The weapon was scrapped in favor of the Walther G41, which soon became the target of Waffen SS demands to supply “the SS units standing on the front [with] an automatic carbine.” Eventually the SS was allocated 3,000 of these rifles. The Walther rifle operated with a free-floating barrel and a piston rod that actuated the mechanism. The weapon was adopted for issue in December 1942, and a captured version, tested at Aberdeen Proving Ground, concluded that “this German semiautomatic rifle is a gas-operated, clip-fed, air-cooled weapon that performs approximately the same tactical mission as the United States, M1 (Garand).”

So the Germans had arrived at the same solution as the Americans and were firing the standard Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) rifle cartridge (the 7.92 x 57mm sS round). Needless to say, the problem of accuracy when fired on automatic arose, and it proved impossible to hold the weapon on target when so fired. The rifle underwent some changes, and its G43 version was also used as a sniper rifle, despite the fact that usable telescopic sights were unavailable until May 1944. The real developments of importance were taking place while this rifle was being issued, and in accordance with the best principles, the cartridge came before the weapon.

The 7.92mm x 57mm round was a development of the earlier Mauser 7.9mm x 57mm I and IS rounds and was a high-power military cartridge that was suited to the bolt-action rifles of the early war years. The Germans realized that infantry actions took place, in the vast majority of cases, within the 400-yard range. Further, they had learned from experience that automatic fire, even if not killing the enemy aimed at, if concentrated reasonably accurately on his position, forced him to keep his head down, making the approach and assault much easier for the men involved. When this was added to the fact that the Russians were opting for cheap, stamped machine pistols (submachine guns), they came to the obvious conclusion that any new assault rifle would not need a range in excess of 400 yards but would need to be controllable when firing on automatic.

German interest in an intermediate cartridge first expressed itself in the 1930s. Much work on new cartridges was unofficial,7 and of these, the 7.75mm x 40mm from Genschow (German firearms and ammunition manufacturers) seemed the most promising from the military point of view. Eventually discarded, however, it was replaced by the 7mm x 39mm developed for the Luftwaffe, Germany’s new and powerful air arm (the German Air Force). The important factor was that the cartridge had to be powerful enough to deliver a kill or wound up to 400 yards and yet allow the user to control his weapon when firing on full automatic.

A number of not dissimilar cartridges appeared during the prewar years in Germany, but the Polte firm in Magdeburg came up with a shortened version of the standard 7.9mm x 57mm military cartridge (in much the same way as the AR15 cartridge evolvedThis became the 7.9mm x 33mm cartridge (later the 7.92mm x 33mm kurz).8 The next problem was what weapon was to fire the new cartridge, and for this the Waffenamt (the Weapons Office of the German High Command) turned to the Haenel firm of Suhl, whose director of design was the famous Hugo Schmeisser, who was the son of the gunmaker Louis Schmeisser, also of Suhl. The weapon was to be called a machine carbine, to distinguish it from the rifle. The weapon was designed to replace the standard rifle, the submachine gun (erroneously named after Schmeisser), and possibly the light machine gun. It was to be a light weapon, with selective fire, to be fired from the shoulder. Its manufacture was to be from pressings whenever possible, and any machining had to be no more complex than for the standard rifle.

The Waffenamt also specified that it had to be an all-weather weapon, operating well in everything from severe cold to desert conditions; it had to be operable in dusty, dirty, and muddy conditions; and it had to have a simple mechanism. It had to weigh no more than the standard rifle, yet be shorter. Ballistically it had to have a trajectory very similar to the standard rifle out to 600 yards and had to be accurate when fired as a semiautomatic out to 400 yards. It had to be effective firing bursts up to 400 yards with a moderate rate of automatic fire. It had to be controllable when fired fully automatically. Naturally, as with all weapon specifications, a rider was added specifying that it had to be capable of accommodating a grenade launcher.

The design was a fact by 1940, but Haenel had little experience in actual sheet-metal weapons production. It approached the Merz company in Frankfurt, which did have experience in metal forming, and the first Maschinenkarabiner (machine carbine, German abbreviation MKb) appeared in late 1941. At the same time as Haenel was working on this rifle, the firm of Carl Walther of Zella-Mehlis was also working on the new type of weapon and got an official contract for continuing its developmental work in January 1941.

Both firms produced what were very similar designs, the Haenel version being the MK42(H) and the Walther version the MK42(W). By 1942 the Haenel design drawings were complete (and the addition of a bayonet lug had been made in response to a request from the Waffenamt). Manufacture of the rifle (to be provided with a 30- round magazine) was to begin in late 1942, with production scheduled to be at 10,000 weapons per month by March 1943. This target was not achieved because of production problems at Haenel. Troop trials reflected the users’ attitude to the new ammunition: “As long as there is an adequate supply, the troops are unconcerned,” but they also reported that the sight line was very high, and that muzzle flash at night was too great. However, the general conclusion was that “the weapons are especially suited for patrol, raiding and attack” (emphasis added).

The groundwork had been done, and the troops seemed satisfied in the main, although the muzzle-flash problem had two disadvantages: excessive muzzle flash blinds the firer at night, and it also makes him very visible to the opposition. The weapon was acceptable as the starting point for subsequent development, which included flash-hiders, and the MP43 was the result.

The Walther version had not proved to be a success, and when Haenel was awarded the development contract for the MP43, Walther withdrew from this short cartridge field. Walther had been involved in the field from 1937 when it had submitted its short cartridge Maschinenkarabiner for approval. Its involvement in the later competition with Haenel had resulted in the production of the MK42(W), which had a turning bolt-locking system, one of the factors that told against the design in the eyes of the officials from the German Weapons Testing Office (the Waffenprüfungs Amt). As mentioned above, Walther had already been in the SLR field with the G41 rifle, and production planning for the MK42(W) seemingly suffered, with only two prototype weapons produced in late 1942, when production was scheduled to be high by March of the next year. Added to this were the doubts about the turning bolt system, closed bolt firing, and the internal hammer.

Both weapons were produced by a method hitherto unheard of in weapons manufacture, which had been a highly specialized, precision process. Now, as with the MK42 machine gun, the weapons were to be made with the absolute minimum of machining and the maximum amount of speedy, almost tolerance-free stampings and pressings. Nevertheless, with their ability to produce a firearm that looks like a weapon, the Germans were producing some of the most effective and exciting designs in infantry weapons ever seen.

The MP43 series of weapons was also designed by the brilliant Hugo Schmeisser, and some of the characteristics of the Walther MK42 appeared in this version of the rifle. The open breech system became a closed bolt one, a hammer was fitted internally, and the safety was improved. At this time the name of the type changed to “machine pistol,” the word “carbine” being dropped. The new abbreviation MP would cause some confusion, as it had previously applied to 9mm submachine guns rather than to assault rifles, which is what these weapons were. However, it may be, as Senich argues, that “[Adolf] Hitler was said to have expressed particular disdain at the prospect of introducing an entirely new weapon and cartridge.” Hitler did, however, authorize a “special series” to be assembled from the parts already made in March 1943.

A number of the MP43 (also known more widely as the StG 44) weapons were tested on the Eastern Front, with good reports coming from the troops. This was passed to Hitler, who, beginning to realize just what manpower levels he was facing from the Russian Army, finally changed his mind and gave official approval to the project. This meant that Haenel could go ahead with production, and these rifles continued to be made to the end of the war.

The great benefit of the short cartridge was that it had the ballistic characteristics of its longer brother out to 400 yards, but each man could carry more rounds for the same weight of ammunition in comparison with the long cartridge. The rifleman was also able to use the weapon on full automatic and to control his fire. This meant that in the assault the enemy could be sprayed with bursts of fire to keep his head down, and in the defense attacking troops could be covered with a much increased weight of fire at short and intermediate ranges.

The weapon itself found approval not just from the German soldiers; Russian captures of arms naturally included these weapons, and “captured weapons were highly prized and eagerly turned against the Germans, particularly during the long withdrawal.” The weapon and its cartridge also came to the notice of Russian small arms designers and engineers, and there can be little doubt that both had some influence upon N. M. Elizarov and B. V. Semin, who designed the Russian 7.62mm x 39mm Soviet M43 cartridge, and possibly also on Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, the designer of the well-known and fabled AK47.

The weapon became the MP43/1 and then the StG 44. Name changes were almost cosmetic, for the basic principle of the weapon was not altered, although various small modifications and improvements were made during the last two years of the war. One of the best descriptions of the weapon comes in an article by Major (ret.) A. L. Thompson:

The StG 44 rifle was of futuristic and novel design and one that, 50 years later, still appears contemporary. The weapon was a technological achievement of the highest order, embracing the principle that a reduced-power cartridge would allow a shorter rifle to produce both single shots and automatic bursts. The gas-operated rifle employed a rotating bolt. It worked on the blow-back system in which some of the gases created when a bullet [sic] ignited were used to push back the mechanism after each shot. The weapon was reliable, robust, accurate and provided selective fire. . . . Despite designer efforts the weapon was rather heavy in relation to the muzzle energy generated by the 7.92mm cartridge. However it handled well and withstood combat use. It was simple, cheap and fast to produce—essential wartime prerequisites for weapon manufacture. The shorter, lower-power cartridge naturally created savings in cartridge, bullet and propellant material costs. Furthermore, the German ability to use steel pressings also contributed to reductions in costs and production time.

With an increasing number of favorable reports coming from the various fronts in 1944 and the need to standardize nomenclature, Hitler ordered that the very effective MG42 was to retain the same designation, the self-loading G43 was to become the Karabiner 43, and the MP43 was to become the MP44. The MP44, no matter what Hitler called it, remained essentially the same weapon. A further renaming in December 1944 meant that the weapon was now called the StG 44, and many earlier weapons were also referred to in the same way in documents, even if they began their lives as MP43s or MP44s.

The importance of this weapon series cannot be overlooked. They stand as the first of the assault rifles, which are today commonplace. From the MK42(H) have developed all the modern SLRs and assault rifles, be they standard designs or bullpups. The main principle is simple: the assault rifle must be simple to make and operate; it must fire a cartridge that allows control when the weapon is fired automatically; and the rifle must be shorter than previous designs to allow ease of storage and use in armored fighting vehicles.