Imagine yourself on a ship heading across the English Channel. You check your gear for the hundredth time to make sure you are ready for what is to come. You share your ship with hundreds of other troops, all of whom are asking themselves the same question, “Will I survive the next few hours.” During your mission briefing, your NCOs clued you in on what to expect from the defending troops. German weapons during the Second World War were some of the most advanced and effective of the time. At the start of the war and leading up to the Normandy invasions, Nazi Germany had much of the world outgunned on the battlefields of Europe.
The Karabiner 98k was the standard issue bolt-action rifle for German Wehrmacht during the Second World War. Designers based it on the Gewehr 98, which German troops used throughout the First World War. The new rifle maintained the bolt-action mechanism, as well as the magazine. However, the 98k was shorter, lighter, had a simplified sighting system, and was more soldier friendly. Troops on both sides of the conflict touted the rifle as being very accurate and dependable. Despite its reputation, the 98k suffered from several shortcomings. Like all other military rifles based on early design, the 98k was comparatively bulky and heavy, having been created during a time when military doctrine centered around highly-trained marksmen engaging targets at relatively long range. The gun’s action limited the rate of fire by how quickly a soldier could operate the bolt. Furthermore, its magazine had only half the capacity of Great Britain’s Lee-Enfield series rifles. However, the internal magazine did make the weapon more comfortable to carry over long distances. While the Americans had standardized a semi-automatic rifle in 1936 with the famous M1 Garand, the Germans maintained these bolt-action rifles due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the light machinegun so that the role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners.
MP 38 and MP 40
If you heard a World War II veteran talking about this gun, you probably heard him call it a Schmeisser, not an MP 38 or 40. A weapons designer, Hugo Schmeisser, developed the MP 18, which was the first mass produced submachine gun, and saw extensive action in the First World War. He did not design the MP 40. For a time, Schmeisser was the name given to just about any German submachine gun, regardless of model. The weapon gained much popularity in films and video games after the war. In reality, the image of a Nazi soldier carrying a submachine gun was far less common than one would think. The German military only issued the submachine guns to paratroopers and squad leaders. Your average German grunt carried the Karabiner 98k. This tactic later shifter on the eastern front where urban fighting was common, and Soviet units armed with submachine guns were winning against the bolt-action rifles the German were carrying. Both MP 38 and MP 40 submachine guns are open-bolt, blowback-operated automatic arms. Fully automatic fire was the only setting, but the relatively low rate of fire allowed for single shots with controlled trigger pulls. The bolt features a telescoping return spring guide, which serves as a pneumatic recoil buffer. The cocking handle served as a safety by pushing the head of handle into one of two separate notches above the main opening; this action locked the bolt either in the cocked or uncocked position. The absence of this feature on early MP 38s resulted in field expedients such as leather harnesses with a small loop, used to hold the bolt in forward position.
One of the most elegant and recognizable pistols in history, the Luger served Germany through two world wars. It was the gun for which designers created the 9mm Luger cartridge, and helped spread the use of automatic weapons across the globe. Despite the gun having a large number of moving parts, it still maintained a reputation for being tough and reliable. The roots of the P08 actually began in the United States. Hugo Barchardt immigrated to the United States from Magdeburg, Germany. There, he developed the C-93 pistol based upon the Maxim toggle-lock principle. Georg J. Luger later created an evolution of the C-93 and made the much-improved Luger P08. The Germans put the gun into service before World War I, and it served through the Second World War, before they replaced it with the Walther P38.
The Walther P38 is a 9 mm semi-automatic pistol that Walther developed as the service pistol of the Wehrmacht at the beginning of World War II. Germany intended it to replace the costly Luger P08, the production of which they scheduled to end in 1942. The Walther P38 was in production from 1938 to 1963. From 1945 to 1957, Germany produced no P38s for the military. Slowly over time, West Germany desired to rebuild its military so that it could shoulder some of the burden for its own defense. Walther retooled for new P38 production since no military firearms production had occurred in West Germany since the end of the war, knowing that the military would again seek Walther firearms. When the Bundeswehr announced it wanted the P38 for its official service pistol, Walther readily resumed P38 production within just two years, using wartime pistols as models and new engineering drawings and machine tools. The first of the new P38s were delivered to the West German military in June 1957, some 17 years and two months after the pistol had initially seen action in World War II, and from 1957 to 1963, the P38 was again the standard sidearm. In late 1963, the German military adopted the postwar military model P1, identifiable by the P1 stamping on the slide. The postwar pistols, whether marked as P38 or P1, have an aluminum frame rather than the steel frame of the original design. Designers later reinforced the aluminum frame with a hex bolt above the trigger guard. During the 1990s, the German military started replacing the P1 with the P8 pistol and finally phased out the P1 in 2004.
The German military of World War II centered their infantry doctrine around the machine gun. The MG34 filled the role of both light and heavy machine gun capacities. The German military intended the MG42 to replace the 34, but production demand too high for manufacturers to keep up, so the 34 saw action throughout World War II. The 34 had many advantages. It was air cooled, and fired the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge. Rate of fire was excellent, spitting out 800-900 rounds per minute. The German military accepted the gun for service almost immediately and the troops generally liked the weapon as it was used to great effect by German soldiers assisting Nationalist Spain in the Spanish Civil War. Early in its service life, it had a number of advanced features and the general-purpose machine gun concept aspired to be an influential one. However, the MG 34 was also expensive, in terms of both construction and the raw materials needed, which included 108 pounds of steel. The gun’s manufacture was too time-consuming to produce in the numbers required for the ever-expanding German armed forces.
One of the most feared weapons on the WWII battlefield was the MG42. The rate of fire on this weapon was so high that soldiers reported that they couldn’t hear individual rounds cycling from the weapon. Soldiers could fire between 1,200 and 1,500 rounds per minute from the MG42, and it created a reputation for putting down large fields of fire. The United States army had to create training films to aid its soldiers in dealing with the psychological trauma of facing the weapon in battle. The gun reportedly makes a sound similar to ripping cloth, rather than the steady bark of the British and American guns. Some troops called it Hitler’s buzz saw, or Hitler’s zipper. The high rate of fire resulted from experiments with preceding weapons that concluded that since a soldier only has a short period to shoot at an enemy, it was imperative to fire the highest number of bullets possible to increase the likelihood of a hit. The disadvantage of applying this principle was that the weapon consumed exorbitant amounts of ammunition and quickly overheated its barrel, making sustained fire problematic.