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G41 (W): A Flawed but Notable Part of 20th Century Firearms History

When General John J. Pershing was born in 1860, many American state militia units were still armed with smoothbore muskets, some of them flintlocks. By the time his U.S. troops marched in the victory parade in Paris in 1919, the semi-automatic pistol, the light automatic rifle, the submachine gun, and the portable flamethrower were all established infantry weapons. Most infantrymen were still armed with bolt-action rifles, however, the core design of which was about as old as Pershing himself, with a magazine and centerfire cartridges utilizing smokeless powder and jacketed bullets being the primary improvements added in the intervening time.

G41(W)

It wasn’t that many hadn’t tried to design an effective semi-automatic infantry rifle. In fact, many designs appeared during World War I such as the Mondragon from Mexico used to a limited extent by Germany, the French FAM 1917, and the innovative, if extremely short-lived, Pedersen Device, which converted slightly modified M1903 rifles into semi-automatic rifles firing a .30-caliber pistol cartridge. The Pedersen Device never saw active service during World War I. The FAM 1917 and the Mondragon certainly did, but neither were particularly impressive; like most semi-automatic rifle designs of the time, they were only marginally reliable. The effectiveness of firepower during World War I was perhaps its most enduring legacy, however, and virtually all major countries attempted to design a semi-automatic rifle in the interwar period that could be a standard, if not commonly issued and reliable, infantry weapon.

G41(W) Bolt

Early semi-automatic military rifles such as the G41 reflect the fusion between fine machining and mass production.

Germany was limited to an army of only 100,000 men under the Treaty of Versailles. It was allowed no heavy artillery, tanks, or combat aircraft. However, Germany continued to innovate during the interwar period often covertly. In the 1930s, German designers sought to create innovative small arms, and a semi-automatic combat rifle was part of that research. The end result was the G41. It’s important to note that there were actually two different G41s, one made by Walther, the G41(W), the subject of this article, and the G41(M) designed by Mauser. The G41(M) saw very limited production, although it often commands close to $20,000 on today’s collector’s market due to its rarity.

g41

The G41(W) was a complicated rifle for its day. It utilized the Bang system whereby gases were trapped at the muzzle and used to drive the operating rod to the rear, providing the momentum needed to drive the semi-automatic mechanism. It’s this system that gives the G41(W) its most distinctive feature, the oddly shaped cone at the end of the barrel in which the gases were trapped. 

If it seems overly complicated, it was. It was also an exceedingly dirty method of operating what was, in reality, a nicely machined rifle with typically tight German precision and tolerances. As the reader might guess if he or she is familiar with the controversy that has surrounded the direct impingement method of operating the M16 series of rifles, dirt and debris create complications for finely tuned mechanisms. Combined with the fact that German powder of the day, although of good quality, was quite dirty compared to more modern powders, and it left considerably more fouling. For a weapon like the MG42, this was little issue; for a rifle like the G41(W) it was a serious problem.

g41 W sling


The G41 utilized the same sling as virtually every other German-issued rifle during WWII.

While the Wehrmacht stressed daily weapons maintenance, the G41(W) still gave its operators some serious headaches, primarily due to the complicated gas system that was easily clogged with powder fouling and dirt after even very limited operation. While it was reliable enough when freshly cleaned and lubricated, the complexity of the operating system made regular maintenance much more of a chore than cleaning the K98 or even the later G43 (which was designed to correct the problems with the G41(W)). The obvious resulting issue from the unreliable gas system was a lack of reliability, and although the bolt could be cycled by the operator, malfunctions are never a positive thing in the heat of battle. The bayonet lug offered a final, less-than-comforting option.

Another limiting factor was the fixed box magazine, a problem that was again resolved with the G43. On the plus side, the magazine could be filled fairly rapidly by means of two standard K98 stripper clips. This also reduced the logistic load, as the G41(W) required no specific carrying pouches for extra magazines, a problem sometimes presented with the G43 and almost always with the MP43/44 series of rifles.

G41 W

The G41’s sleek lines have a Steampunk feel to them, combining traditional wood and iron new ideas and materials.

The G41(W) was also fairly accurate, and some are found with rails for fitting the Zf41 optic. While there still exists some debate over the exact nature of the Zf41, evidence suggests it was indeed provided to give German rifle squads a sharpshooter capability, akin to a modern designated marksman. The Zf41 wasn’t a serious sniping optic, and the G41 wasn’t utilized in a sniping role, as the G43 later was. Various sources list differing effective ranges for the G41(W), but 500m is reasonable considering its cartridge and relative accuracy.

The G41(W) was also a heavy beast, weighing in at 11¼ pounds. While the mass of the rifle and the gas system helped absorb the notoriously violent recoil of the 7.92×57 Mauser that pushed a 197-grain bullet at velocities at or above 2,700 fps, it was a brick to lug around compared to the K98. The fact that it wasn’t very reliable did nothing to sweeten the deal.

The G41’s design was complicated by maintaining the traditional protected front sight assembly with the cleaning rod segment combined with the complex gas system.

Compared to the M1 rifle and the SVT series, the G41 wasn’t a success. Its flaws, from its excessive weight to its inherent unreliability and non-detachable magazine, were largely corrected with the G43. Production numbers are debated, but 50,000 to 60,000 seems reasonable predicated upon known examples and what’s known of the original scale of issue.

In the end, the G41(W) wasn’t a very popular weapon with its operators. Its production was limited, and its actually quite difficult to find wartime photos of the G41(W) in the hands of German soldiers or captured by the Allies. What few exist are generally well known. G41(W)s aren’t terribly hard to find on the U.S. collector’s market, but one should be prepared to pay rather handsomely for one. Prices are currently in the $7,000 range, a bargain compared to the G41(M), but still over twice the price of the average G43. 


G41 (W) Stats

Weight: 11.25 pounds
Length: 46.25 inches
Barrel Length: 21.5 inches
Effective Range: 500 meters +/-
Operating System: Gas Trap based on Bang System
Practical Rate of Fire: 25 RPM
Magazine: 10-rounds fixed box


More Firearms History by RECOIL




One response to “G41 (W): A Flawed but Notable Part of 20th Century Firearms History”

  1. Rock Island Auction says:

    Nice write up!

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