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Sturmgewehr – the First Assault Rifle

During World War II the German military promised a number of wonder weapons – these included the V1 and V2 rockets. German engineers developed jet aircraft, advanced submarines and some of the largest tanks to date. However, one largely overlooked “wonder weapon” may have helped change the course of weapons development forever.

In the early 1940s Hugo Schmeisser, a leading German arms designer, began development on what would become the world’s first “assault rifle” and in the process influenced future arms designers including Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the AK-47. Schmeisser’s weapon was the Sturmgewehr – originally developed as the MP-43/44 (Maschinenpistole 43/44). This particular weapon was notable for several reasons, one of the most important being its intermediate caliber cartridge.

Hugo-Schmeisser

Ex Historiam: Sturmgewehr – the First Assault Rifle

The Surmgewehr was designed for use for the new 7.42x33mm Kurz cartridge, which was itself designed to be lighter than the 7.92x57mm rifle cartridge, but heavier than the 9mm cartridges used in pistols and submachine guns – such as the MP-38/40.

The Kurz cartridge was also notable in that it incorporated a bit more taper than larger rifle versions because it was developed to use steel cases due to brass shortages. Steel is less elastic than brass. In the end this resulted in the need for the curve of the magazine, a feature that has come to signify what are typically referred to today as “assault rifles.”

ArnhemMilitaryMuseumStG44 RS4

ArnhemMilitaryMuseumStG44
A collection of German small arms at theAirborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in Oosterbeek – the former British command HQ during Operation Market Garden. This collection includes the infamous StG-44 (second from top). (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Mkb42 to StG44
The first attempt to develop what would become the Sturmgewehr was Schmisser’sMaschinenkarabiner1942 or MKb 42, which literally translated to “machine carbine.” It was a gas operated weapon that featured selective fire for semi-automatic and fully automatic firing modes. Two different actual designs were tested and it was the MKb 42(H), developed by German arms maker Haenel that eventually won out, and some 50 prototypes were produced for field testing on the Eastern Front.

This new rifle was seen by some as a potential game changer – but that didn’t include those at the highest levels. Accordingly to widely told stories Adolf Hitler was against the development of a new rifle and saw the need for new submachine guns instead.

The Waffenamt – Armament Office – found a work around. Instead of developing a new gun the MKb 42 was re-designated Maschinenpistole 43 or MP-43. This made it sound – in name at least – as if it was a successor of the MP-38/40 and not an entirely new design.

“I’ve heard those stories that it was put into production without Hitler’s knowledge,” said Captain Dale Dye, USMC (Retired), military history consultant and president of Warriors Inc. “The designers did the tap dance and that was enough to get the gun green lit. However, it should be noted that resistance to new guns often happens at the high command level, but then you had, as usual, officers in the field who wanted it.”

This was how the story of the Sturmgewehr was to play out. Hitler found out about the deception yet after some convincing allowed for further evaluation. Then in April 1944 after those tests the weapon was officially re-designated MP-44 and it is possible that would have been how it was known to the world.

Then in July of that year, during a meeting of army heads, there was a discussion of the success of the “new rifle” being used on the Russian Front. Commanders in the field wanted more of those rifles. After finally being given an actual demonstration of the weapon. When he saw it in action Hitler was apparently impressed – and the popular legend is that he suggested it be dubbed a “storm (assault) rifle” and it earned the moniker Sturmgewehr or StG-44.

StG44 RS2

StG44
The German-made StG-44 – the world’s first assault rifle (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The weapon was issued originally to German forces on the Russian Front to counter the Soviet’s PPSh-41, which was the largest produced sub-machinegun during the Second World War. Given its rate of fire of 550-600rpm, and the fact that it was reliable in the extreme cold of the Russian winter made it an excellent weapon for that theater of operations.

First Assault Rifle

As a weapon that influenced the future of small arms design the StG-44 is certainly one that left its mark, but had it been developed earlier it still might not have turned the tide for Nazi Germany.

“Thinking that the MP44 would have changed the course of the war is a fallacy,” said Alex Cranmer, firearms expert and vice president of International Military Antiques (IMA-USA.com).

“First of all it arrived too late,” said Cranmer. “The initial idea was for it to replace the 98K (bolt action rifle), had that been the case in 1938, could it have changed the outcome of the war? Perhaps, but the reality is that Hitler bit off more than he could chew with pushing too far east too fast. No amount of StG44’s were going to stop an overwhelming Russian infantry pushing from the east while the largest amphibious invasion force in history landed in the west.”

Even the bullet’s uniqueness – as an intermediate cartridge – proved to have more problems than it solved. The round did what it promised in terms of being more controllable in an automatic rifle while having more stopping power than a pistol cartridge; its counter-issue was the logistical problems it created.

“We (the U.S. Army) had the .30 caliber round and it worked in everything we had from the M1 Garand to the BAR to the Browning machine gun,” said Dye. “We paid attention to the logistics. And our other primary round was the .45 pistol cartridge, which was used in the Colt 1911, the Thompson and the M3 ‘Grease Gun.'”

As it wasn’t possible to replace all the 98K rifles at the time, that meant a need for a third bullet in the works. Thus the Germans went from having just the 9mm pistol cartridge and 8mm rifle cartridge to introducing a new round that created supply and production issues at a time when it was not just unnecessary, but counterproductive to their war effort as well.

“What they brought out was the right round,” added Dye. “But it only created ammunition issues for the Germans.”

WWIIMuseum RS1

WWIIMuseum
The StG-44 utilized a round that was between the 98K rifle and the MP-40 machine pistol. This fact is noted in the display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

Still, the gun was liked by the soldiers – after they had time to learn how to carry and use it.

“It was a heavy weapon compared to the MP-40, and for those who came from the 98K it was a little difficult to wield because of the magazine,” noted Dye. “They quickly got over that.”

While its impact on the war was minimal, the StG-44’s greater impact was on the future of small arms design as it related to the new class of “assault rifles.” It is hard not to see the influence of the StG-44 in the AK-47 for one.

“Most people believe that the AK-47 is the direct descendant of the StG-44,” said Cranmer. “It is not. The mechanism of the AK-47 is very different. Were the Russians – including Kalashnikov – influenced by the idea of the MP44? Almost certainly. They had seen it in action, captured thousands, it was more powerful and accurate than an SMG and more maneuverable and much higher rate of fire than a rifle.”

However, evidence suggests that if the StG-44 wasn’t a direct ancestor of the AK-47, the designer of the former likely did play a part in the latter. It should be noted that Hugo Schmeisser was forced to work for the Red Army and reportedly contributed to the development of the AK-47.

“The guns are closer in design that some people might suggest,” said Dye when discussing the StG-44 and the AK-47. “Overall it is also safe to say that the StG-44 was the precursor to the modern assault rifle and no doubt countless designers looked at its innovations.”

The StG44 in Pop Culture

Today the StG44 is practically as ubiquitous as the AK-47 or M-16. However, it was actually a weapon that few American G.I.s in World War II encountered, and its use in movies and TV was largely limited. It is generally accepted that the StG44 first appeared in the film The White Darkness, a Czechoslovakian war movie produced in 1948, before being seen in some scenes in the 1951 West German/American produced war film Decision Before Dawn.

The latter film, which was nominated for a Best Picture at the 1952 Academy Awards, was notable for being shot on location in West Germany in areas that had suffered wartime damage – as well as for its use of authentic German wartime equipment. It is believed that the StG44s that appear on screen were actual wartime produced models and not prop guns.

More interestingly the StG44 appeared in the 1965 epic Battle of the Bulge, a film with numerous historical errors. The rifle appears in an early scene when the Americans interrogate a captured German soldier. Apart from some use in foreign films the world’s first assault rifle was largely unseen in films or TV, but it has been brought into the mainstream after becoming a staple in numerous World War II video game shooters.

The weapon today has made a comeback in media when wielded by Brad Pitt’s character in the recent World War II film Fury. The use of the rifle by Pitt’s character Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier seems an odd choice as it is a bit large to get in and out of the tank, and ammunition for it would have been harder to secure than that of the far more common MP-40, but no doubt the appearance of the weapon in the film was a delight to the gun’s fans!

GermanSportsGuns RS4

GermanSportsGuns
It isn’t an 8mm Kurz version but collectors can blast off rounds with the German Sport Guns version in .22LR (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The StG-44’s Legacy

The world’s first assault rifle has had a lasting legacy beyond its influence on other weapons. It was used by the East Germany military throughout the 1950s, and of the nearly half a million that were made thousands ended up being used in other conflicts. Interestingly some 5,000 may have been found in a cache of old weapons in Syria and may be in use by Syrian rebels.

Today this weapon is alsowell known to countless movie fans, gamers and collectors of action figures – as well as military history buffs of course. Surviving examples of the gun are rare, especially among those that are still operable – and it is unlikely that any large caches of the gun exist in America like the ones in Syria and Eastern Europe.

A live, fully-transferrable StG-44 has been seen at military collectible and gun shows selling for $30,000 – plus the $200 transfer fee. Finding one for sale can be almost as tricky – but in December 2012 one did show up at a police gun buyback in Connecticut, when an older woman brought in one that was captured by her father in World War II.

Fortunately collectors have other options; modern versions in semi-automatic only are being sold now for around $2,000 – while German Sports Guns (GSG) introduced a version in .22LR that looks externally like the wartime version, and is readily available for around $500.

Clearly the gun that changed weapons’ development continues to fascinate, and while collectors may have a hard time finding one that is probably a good thing for those who may have had to face it in war.

“Thank goodness hundreds of thousand weren’t pumped out earlier in the war,” said Dye. “That would have cost a whole lot more American lives even if it wouldn’t have affected the outcome. And thank god the Japanese never came up with anything like that.”

StG Specs:

Type: Assault Rifle
Caliber: 7.92x33mm Kurz
Weight: 10.2 pounds
Length: 37 inches
Barrel Length: 16.5 inches
Muzzle Velocity: 2,247 feet per second
Fire Modes: Semi-auto/full-auto
Bullet Capacity: 30-rounds/detachable box magazine

FirstAssaultRifle

Featured Image: RockIsland-StG44
Part of the massive Rock Island Armory collection – including three StG-44 assault rifles (top) above the Soviet made AK-47. This photo shows how similar the weapons were in design. (Photo: Peter Suciu)


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