Sturmgewehr: Hitler’s Only True Wunderwaffe
Replacement or Supplement?
Initially much time was wasted trying to make the MP43 an all-out weapon, capable of replacing, not just supplementing Mausers. This was obviously impossible, as the intermediate round was too weak to propel rifle grenades, not accurate enough to act as a sniper rifle, and too short to make a good bayonet-fencing implement. As the manufacturing preparation went into higher gear it was becoming growingly obvious, that the total replacement concept was a fallacy and instead both weapons were to co-exist. The first to go was the optical sight base – K98k was a much better marksman weapon. Then the grenade-launcher extended muzzle thread of the MP43/1 was shortened – launching the grenade with small blanks was a waste of time and effort. The bayonet lug experimented with on early MKb42(H)s never returned – again, the K98k with bayonet made a much better pike.
The MP43 excelled in tactical shooting, though – at short range it was as accurate as a Mauser rifle, but at the same time fired semi- and fully automatic with much less recoil, giving much higher firepower. As of September 1943, the issue was settled: the MP43 would as of now be supporting, and not substituting the K98k. The wide spread adoption was finally just a matter of time.
The final tactical concept for the employment of the MP43 when it was finally introduced into inventory as an intermediate weapon between submachine gun and bolt-action rifle was virtually a repetition of the WWI concept that spawned the submachine gun itself. The MP43s were to supplement rifle fire at times when K98k armed soldiers reached for hand grenades or bayonets, in defense or assault. One or two MP43s in a K98k armed squad were valuable added firepower especially in offensive, when the squad’s machine gun had to cease or move fire in preparation for the assault to avoid inflicting Blue Force casualties. After the soldiers closed in to the assaulted position, the volume of their fire fell, as they reached for potato masher grenades to rain them on the defenders – that’s when an assault rifle capable of accurate and fast semiautomatic fire or short bursts comes in really handy, keeping the defenders’ heads pinned down. And precisely that’s why in December 1944 the MP43 and MP44 were renamed for the last time – to assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr.
The 1st Infantry Division of Army Group South had been chosen for the wholesale introduction of the new weapon and tasked with field trials of the new concept, along with 32nd Infantry Division of the Army Group North, both undergoing refitting after heavy losses in the East. The lack of ammunition reduced the experiment to only one division, the 1st ID. In its units, the K98k was retained only as a ‘specialist’ weapon – for standoff marksmanship and rifle grenade launching. MP40s were left only with AFV crews, artillery NCOs and drivers. All infantry soldiers were given MP44s, thousands of them.
The Division returned to the front in June, and in September the first enthusiastic evaluation was submitted, which ensured the MP44 a future well beyond the submachine gun replacement.
Last-Minute Changes and Experiments
The general redundancy of the muzzle thread, as the blanks and BFA were never introduced, and the nut had to be taken off for grenade launcher attachment, influenced the decision to eliminate the muzzle thread (along with corresponding muzzle nut, as well as its retainer and retainer spring, mounted in the front sight carrier) in the fall of 1944. It was first proposed a year earlier, but then it was decided against, as the suppressor was then proposed – but again it was never to see a production line.
Throughout all of 1943 the Infantry Department of the OKH requested installation of a bolt hold-open device to retain the bolt to the rear after the last shot from a magazine. Such a device was included into the MKb42 (W), and was about the only Walther rifle’s solution praised, except for the hammer FCG. The introduction of the bolt hold open would mean re-building of the magazine, by introducing a projection on the follower to operate the hold-open, as well as redesigning the upper and lower receiver. In January 1944 a redesigned MP43 with bolt hold-open installed and correspondingly redesigned magazine were even accepted into mass-production – but for some reason never manufactured.
Problems with follower spring service life (soldiers were ordered to load no more than 25 rounds per 30-round magazine to extend the spring life), led in January 1945 to introducing of a magazine fitted with a fixed plug, reducing the capability to 25 rounds, designed by the Infantry School in Döberitz. Also, magazines with holes in the sides, covered with a plexiglass plate, enabling the quick visual control of the number of rounds inside, were experimented with at the last stage of the war. These were the predecessors of the now generally accepted translucent magazines pioneered by the Austrian AUG in 1977.
The sight leaf was also changing. At first, in 1943, the HWA demanded reducing the sighting increments from 100 to 50 meters. Then a second (grenade launching) scale underneath the leaf, visible with sight leaf set upright was accepted – but never implemented. Then the HWA demanded shortening the sighted distance to 400 meters in order to save tooling, and finally on December 6, 1944 the last manual for the MP44 introduced both the new name, Sturmgewehr 44, and included photos of the 50 meters-incremented sight leaf.
During 1944 the shape of the buttstock was changed, to conform to K98k weapon holders. The new stock was not only made narrower at the buttplate, but also dropped down further to allow proper contact with the shoulder, while allowing the butt to get narrower.
At approximately the same time, the bolt also got revised, reflecting the ultimate decision to abandon brass as case material. With this decision, realities of steel-cased ammo, such as flaking lacquer, had to be taken into consideration, and a relief groove was cut across the bolt to channel the lacquer and other debris and prevent it from blocking the extractor.
Experiments were conducted with muzzle jump suppressors, something along the lines of modern day porting: two lines of tiny holes were drilled on either side of the front sight holder, venting the gases up to reduce the muzzle jump. This proved very effective in reducing the muzzle jump, but the compensator required a widened front sight holder, thus preventing grenade launching – and was dropped. Only one such modified Sturmgewehr was preserved in a British collection.
Another experimental rifle is the V9, or Versuchmodell 9, Experimental Model 9 of 1944, where the front sight holder was abolished altogether, and front sight was moved back to the gas block. The sights were lowered by 5 mm, cocking handle was made immobile during shooting, and folding when not in use – altogether the V9 looked conspicuously HK-ish.
Then in 1945 the MP45 appeared, with a redesigned front portion of the upper receiver.
Scoped and NV Sturmgewehrs
During the war, Germans were trying to create a short-round Designated Marksman Rifle. All MKb42(H)s, MP43/1s and even early MP43s were fitted with a special rear sight base sporting rails for a Zf41 long eye-relief optical sight. With the open-bolt MKb42 (H) it was clearly pointless, but nevertheless for more than a year the program was continued.
In 1943 the sight base was simplified, and rails were no longer pressed in the sides. The high rear sight base, necessitated by the rails, required the smaller shooters to crane their necks and remained, however, until the bitter end (despite efforts like the V9 to lower the sights). It took a better scope, the Zf4, actually a shameless copy of the Soviet PU, to enable a more sensible try. In September 1943, the Infantry School in Döberitz came forth with a proposition of a side-mounted Zf4, along the lines of the scoped G43. All that was needed was to rivet a dovetailed rail to the right side of the upper receiver above the pistol grip and slide the mount with the scope upon it. In October the Zf4-scoped MP43 underwent a tactical trial at the School, compared with the similarly fitted G43s. The results were disappointing, which was blamed on the mount, shaking itself loose after shooting just one magazine. Upon redesigning, tests were continued in February 1944 but the results never justified the effort. Then it was discontinued, which was most unfortunate, as proved by the experiences from invasion front in France, where sniping was one of the most successful ways of fighting.
The sight mount was aborted, yet the rail itself was also experimented with when in the end of 1944 experiments were conducted with ZG 1229 Vampyr NV sight. This “Zero Generation” NV was quite bulky and heavy; the shooter had to carry the transformer backpack, powered by battery fitted inside the gas mask canister, then electric cables connected the power unit with the IR reflector and the cathode ray tube, mounted upon the rifle, where invisible enemy lighted with IR from the searchlight was imaged. Vampyr was primitive, and the battery lasted for a mere 15 minutes, but nevertheless it enabled observation and sighting within 200 meters range in total darkness. To avoid muzzle blast blinding the shooter, a conical flash hider was fitted to the front of the rifle – mounted on the grenade launcher adapter. For once this useless contraption proved useful for the intermediate round rifle…
Behind The Corner
The most famous and the least understood Sturmgewehr accessory was the bullet deflector, said to enable the rifle to be fired ‘around the corner.’ In reality, they only deflected bullets downwards, not sideways, as their goal was to enable safe firing from a trench or dispatching tank-hunters lurking in tank’s numerous blind spots. The bullet deflector program started in late 1943, after the final demise of its ambitious predecessor meant to be mounted on a full-house rifle’s muzzle. In July 1944, during a live-fire demonstration of a prototype Vorsatz P (Extension P), the shooter was able to place all 30 bullets within a 30 cm (12 inch) square at a distance of 100 meters. Vorsatz P (for Panzer, tank) was a tank-defense device, bent 90°. The tank crewmen were enthusiastic about that performance and ordered 10,000 sets right away – highly unlikely to be ever delivered, as no material trace of these is known to have survived. The infantry was likewise happy, but they were contended with a much more modest bend, 30 or 45°, enough to fire bullets safely from the trench. First trial of the Vorsatz J (for Infanterie, infantry) was held in October 1944. De-bugging took until December, and in January 1945 Rheinmetall was contracted for a trial batch of 1,000 Vorsatz Js. The trial was a disaster, as the service life of the deflector was short beyond any reasonable failure rate. The company was ordered to improve their product. Another trial was held in March, and then no production followed before the end of hostilities.
The early Hugo Schmeisser’s MP/MKb42 were assembled by Haenel of Suhl, with receivers supplied by Merz Werke (‘cos’), FCGs made by WMF Geislingen (‘awt’) and machined parts manufactured by Haenel (‘fxo’). Most of these were MKb42(H)s, 12,000 of which were assembled before June 1943 when the MP43/1 took over, the first really mass-produced variant, made at the C.G. Haenel between June and December 1943. Its sheet-metal parts were still outsourced. The number is guesstimated at 14,000 – in production reports all assault rifles were reported as one type, with no variations listed.
The same reason makes an exact head count of the main production variants, the MP43, MP44 and Stg44 impossible. But maybe there is no reason indeed for such detailed separation of these – as they differed mostly in name, after all. The Waffenamt data are more or less preserved until March 1945, listing 415,000 manufactured so far. By extrapolating the average monthly output of 5,000 rifles, that would make a grand total of 420,000 rifles manufactured until April 1945. This number more or less fits-in with Hugo Schmeisser’s affidavit taken by the Americans during their brief occupation of Suhl, taken over by the Soviets in August, 1945. According to his relation, 424,000 rifles of his design were assembled by four plants:
- C.G. Haenel in Suhl (fxo) – 185,000
- J.P. Sauer & Sohn in Suhl (ce) – 55,000
- Erma in Erfurt (ayf, qlv) – 104,000
- Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, in Steyr, Austria (bnz) – 80,000.
All in all, less than half million were manufactured out of one and a half million ordered, and 4 million Sturmgewehrs planned. The conditions were hard, the war was on, but it still seems that that the optimistic Armaments Ministry’s was way out of sync with reality. So maybe the Fuehrer wasn’t that dumb after all, dragging his feet instead of jumping headlong for a mid-stream change of horses.