The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

The MG42 Machine Gun, Hitler’s Buzzsaw

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 27

Photos by Jamie Slaughter and Rutsen Eagle

The chilly gray waters of the English Channel slowly became visible in the weak light of the early morning. The surf rolled over the sand, almost rhythmically, as the world prepared for another day of war. This day would be different. A vast armada approached the coast; so numerous were its vessels that the sea was darkened. The date was June 6, 1944. The Allies were coming.

Heinrich Severloh manned an MG42 in Wiederstandsnest 62 overlooking Omaha Beach. He began firing at the American infantry sometime before the ramps dropped on their landing craft. Belt after belt disappeared into his gun. The pile of spent cartridge cases quickly grew around his feet. He switched barrels frequently to keep the gun running. Soldiers brought him more and more ammunition as he pounded away at the infantry littering “Bloody Omaha.” By the end of the action, he fired over 12,000 rounds of ammunition through his MG42 and inflicted over 2,000 casualties on the Americans storming the beach.

This story is absolute rubbish. But people still believe it. People believe not because Severloh was a verifiable Nazi superman, but because of the weapon he used, the MG42. In truth, there were about 3,700 casualties on Omaha Beach from all sources. Legendary weapons are like legendary people; there’s usually a solid core of truth surrounding the myths. Such is the case with the MG42. The MG42 didn’t win World War II more than any other high-tech German Wunderwaffe. However, it was, and indeed remains, an excellent machinegun by almost any standard.

The MG34 was the epitome of an old-school medium machine gun, but its successor created the blueprint for every GPMG in the last three quarters of a century.

The MG34 was the epitome of an old-school medium machine gun, but its successor created the blueprint for every GPMG in the last three quarters of a century.

The MG42’s predecessor, the MG34, was an excellent machinegun. It represented a sort of punctuated equilibrium in development. Suddenly, a lightweight, air-cooled, easily man-portable GPMG was a reality. Early attempts such as the water-cooled MG08/15 (and the later, unfortunate air-cooled boat anchor M1919A6) were too bulky to be overly practical. The MG34 was accurate, fired a very hard-hitting 7.92×57 round, and sustained a reasonably high rate of fire. The MG34, however, was complicated. It took considerable hours and materials to construct, and it could be temperamental in harsh climates, such as those encountered during Russian winters and in the hot dusty environments found in the southern USSR and North Africa.

The MG42 emerged from demands to improve upon the successful MG34. While the MG34 continued to be manufactured almost until the very end of the war, the MG42 was simpler to produce than the MG34. It took less time and material to manufacture. What set the roller lock MG42 apart though was its reliability. Whereas the MG34 was a finely machined, hand-finished gun, especially in its early stages of production, its design contributed to its reliability problems under harsh conditions. Something new was needed. That something new was the roller-locking mechanism of the MG42.

Die-formed sheetmetal receiver, detachable trigger pack, disintegrating link feed, quick-change barrel, side-charging handle, and integral bipod. Yeah, the Negev and MG5 are so cutting edge...

Die-formed sheetmetal receiver, detachable trigger pack, disintegrating link feed, quick-change barrel,
side-charging handle, and integral bipod. Yeah, the Negev and MG5 are so cutting edge…

The MG42 was immediately popular with German troops and almost immediately as quickly dreaded by the Allied troops facing it. It’s high rate of fire earned it several nicknames such as Hitler’s Buzzsaw, Hitlersäge (Hilter’s saw), Singende Säge (Singing Saw), and Knochensäge (Bone Saw). It required far less maintenance than the MG34. It could go for far longer periods without cleaning than the MG34. In combat this was a major advantage. Unlike the keyboard commandos who keep meticulous count of how long they can go without cleaning their direct impingement guns before they blow up (and for no reason), in combat it’s not always convenient to stop and perform weapons maintenance. From Kursk to Kurland to Salerno, Cassino, and Normandy, the MG42 repeatedly proved its reliability.

Barrel change were also easier and faster in the MG42. Considering the barrel was supposed to be changed about every 150 to 200 rounds in sustained fire, it’s easy to see how this was an issue. Overuse of barrels without cooling results in barrel distortion, grossly reducing the effective life of an otherwise good barrel. It wasn’t unusual to see German soldiers carrying multiple spare barrels for the MG42. These were to be utilized on the spot to keep the weapon up and running.

It was a good thing there were normally several spare barrels on hand for the MG42, especially if the barrel was supposed to be changed every three to four belts. With a rate of fire of at least 1,200 rpm and some guns clocking as many as 1,500 rpm, the MG42 needed them. This high rate of fire was a mixed blessing. The MG42 could lay down an impressive beating zone in combat. On a tripod, it could effectively deny enemy infantry clear and easy maneuvering over large swathes of land, especially with good fields of fire.

mg42-gun

When fired from a bipod, aimed fire from the MG42 was downright devastating. In urban environments or tight terrain such as the Bocage in Normandy, the high rate of fire meant that only good luck, tactics, or timing could get Allied infantrymen through narrow lanes of fire frequently controlled by no more than one MG42. After mid 1943 when Germany was almost always in retreat, the MG42 proved a formidable defensive weapon.

The high rate of fire, however, also meant the MG42 consumed vast amounts of ammunition, fully twice or more than most allied infantry machineguns. This created problems for the soldiers manning the gun. First, it meant more ammunition had to be carried by soldiers in combat. Second, under sustained combat, soldiers using the MG42 would run out of ammunition far more quickly if the gunners weren’t especially mindful of round consumption. To Americans who have heard nothing but stories about the “Arsenal of Democracy” for the past 70 years and the almost unbelievable U.S. industrial output during World War II, consumption of small arms ammunition is almost an afterthought. But to the average German Landser, his officers all the way to the top, and those in charge of German production and logistics, it wasn’t.

Allied aircraft dominated the skies by 1944. Even though the strategic bombing campaign didn’t disrupt production to the extent Allied planners hoped, the constant and continual aerial interdiction of German logistics from the moment it left the factory to the moment it made it to the battlefield meant that ammunition consumption was always an issue. Massive losses of materiel due to German defeats at such places as North Africa, Stalingrad, Kursk, and the almost wholesale destruction of Army Group Center in the east in 1944 exacerbated this issue.

“Hitler’s Saw” could thus cut both ways. Yes could thus cut both ways. Yes, it was supremely reliable, and, yes, its high rate of fire made it a terrible opponent to face on the battlefield. But the MG42’s consumption of ammunition could also be a liability. Even in the hands of an expert, the high rate of fire could result in the gun becoming combat ineffective for lack of ammunition if the gunner didn’t carefully manage his consumption. The MG42 was also full-auto only. Most people never consider this a problem. If you ever have a chance, try shooting on a military-grade combat simulator. Given unlimited ammo, check your ammunition expenditure after a five-minute defensive scenario only using your weapon in semi-auto; then you might get the picture.

mg42-machinegun

The MG42 was such a superlative performer on so many levels that it was destined for greatness even after World War II. It lived on in such guns as the Yugoslavian M53. If you ever get the chance to go through “Yugo M53” parts kits, you’ll normally find at least some original World War II production parts. By far though, the MG3, the direct lineal descendant of the MG42, is proof of the effectiveness of the roller-locking MG42 design. Side by side, the MG3 and MG are almost indistinguishable at a short distance (the MG3 is also chambered for 7.62 NATO). And one more thing: rate of fire. The MG3’s rate of fire is about two-thirds that of the MG42.

The roller lock design was an engineering masterpiece. With further wartime and post-war development, the roller-delayed mechanism developed. The roller-delayed mechanism gave rise to the G3 and the MP5, both of which earned their place in firearms history for performance and reliability as well.

In summary, the MG42 deserves its place amongst legendary weapons. Its revolutionary design, combat effectiveness, and length of service in one guise or another gave it few equals. If you ever get the chance, we highly recommend you take the opportunity to shoot one, and, if not, at least do some further reading. We would like to extend a special thanks to the Machine Gun Nest of Frederick, Maryland, for use of this MG42, and Terra Piccirilli for help with the still photos.


MG42

Caliber: 7.92x57mm
OAL: 48 inches
Barrel Length: 21 inches
Weight: 25.52 pounds
Rate of Fire: 1,200 rpm
Capacity: 50-round, non-disintegrating belt

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