The 5 Most Innovative Firearms of the Second World War: The years leading up to the Second World War saw great innovations in firearms. The Germans had developed the MG34, the world’s first successful general-purpose machine gun, while the United States had introduced the M2 .50 caliber, a weapon that is still employed today. The Thompson submachine gun, the MP38/40 submachine gun, and Bren Gun were also all fine weapons.
But five other small arms stand out for being the most innovative firearms to be developed during the Second World War.
The M1 Garand
Technically, the M1 Garand was developed prior to America’s entry into the Second World War, but it was such a game-changer it couldn’t be left off this list. The gas-operated, semi-automatic rifle could hold eight rounds, and easily fire upwards of 40-50 rounds a minute, which was a considerable step up from most bolt action rifles of the era. It was also designed to fire the .30-06 Springfield cartridge, the same cartridge was utilized with the M1903 Springfield bolt action rifle, the BAR, and the .30 caliber Browning Machine Gun which helped ensure that troops weren’t left scrambling for ammo. That also meant it had greater stopping power and range than the submachine guns being utilized at the time.
Some 5.5 million M1 Garands were manufactured during the war, and while other nations attempted to introduce their own respective self-loading/semi-automatic rifle, nothing came close. It is easy to see why General George Patton called the M1 rifle, “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”
Every major combatant nation developed a submachine either prior to, or during the Second World War. The best was also the one that was the most widely produced. During the course of the war, some six million PPSh-41s were manufactured – compared to just a million German MP40s.
The Pistolet-Pulemyot Shpagina (PPSh-41) was arguably so good because its designer was given the ultimate “do-over.” It was actually in development when war broke out in June of 1941, and the gun was a follow-up to Russian gun designer Georgi Shpagin’s PPD-40, which interestingly enough had been first designed in 1934, but didn’t see widespread production until the Winter War with Finland. This gun proved to be reliable enough, but an easier-to-produce variation was needed – this would be the PPSh-41.
The PPSh-41, as with the PPD, fired the 7.62x25mm pistol cartridge that was developed for the TT-33 Tokarev pistol. It was originally fitted with a 71 round drum magazine, which gave the gun its distinctive silhouette. Interestingly the drum magazine had been copied from the Finnish M31 Suomi magazine. That gave it plenty of ammunition, but it meant the gun was quite heavy, so later in the war a 35-round curved box magazine was made available.
The PPSh-41 was durable and more importantly, it was effective as it could fire 900 rounds per minute. Because of its reliability, it was often used by German soldiers, who were lucky enough to capture one rather than have been killed by it!
The Germans were arguably the first military power to consider specialized weapons for different troops, and one group that received special treatment was the Fallschirmjägers (paratroopers), who were issued the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 or “paratrooper rifle 42.” That was somewhat ironic in a way because the gun was developed only after the major German paratrooper drops of the Second World War. Following the Invasion of Crete in 1941, the German paratroopers were used as elite infantry, and could have been armed like everyone else, but yet were still accorded with this unique weapon.
The FG42 was an automatic rifle that had the characteristics of an assault rifle or even light machine gun. It fired the same 7.92x57mm round as the Kar98K main battle rifle, but featured selective fire from a 20-round side-mounted magazine. Two versions of the FG42 were produced, the early FG42/I and the later FG42/II. While the later version featured operational refinements, visually the two versions are distinctive, notably by the angle of the handgrip and the placement of the attached bipod. None of the parts are interchangeable – not even the magazines.
Both versions provided select-fire, a steady rate of fire, and folding bipods. The gas operation of the FG42 was later utilized in the American M60 squad machine gun.
With a high rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute, it is easy to see how the Maschinengewehr 42 quickly earned the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw.” Intended to replace the MG34, both were produced until the end of the war, however. The MG42 was actually introduced to address the biggest issue with the MG34, namely that the earlier machine gun was simply too complex and expensive to produce.
While it lacked the elegance of the MG34, the MG42 made up for it in reliability and firepower. The MG42 fired the same 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge and also employed an easier to swap barrel system. Like its predecessor, it could be used in a variety of roles.
Original versions remained in production until nearly the end of the war, while it lived on with the M53, a version built under license by the Yugoslavian Military, as well as the German-made MG3. Moreover, the American M60 copied the basic feed design of the MG3 – and features from the aforementioned FG42 – and thus could be seen as a descendent of the German buzzsaw.=
It could be argued that the Sturmgewehr 44 was a weapon that changed firearm design in countless ways. Development began in 1942 and it was first introduced as the MP43/MP44, reportedly as a way to convince Adolf Hitler to consider a new rifle for the German military. After winning praise from troops, the infamous dictator was all on board, and the weapon was designated the Sturmgewehr, which translates to “storm rifle” or “assault rifle.”
The StG44 came about as German military thinkers noted that combat engagements took place at distances less than 300 meters, with many taking place even closer. The standard 7.92x57mm round was excessive, yet it was determined that the 9mm of the MP40 was not effective at that range. Thus the intermediate 7.92×33 Kurz cartridge, also known as 8mm Kurz was developed, and with it this new rifle. In addition, the StG44 offered selective fire and featured a 30 rounded double-row feed magazine. All this made for a fairly heavy firearm, but one that was considered quite effective.
It is also worth noting that Hugo Schmeisserwas was the lead designer of the StG44, and after the war, he was “detained” by the Soviet Union. He likely played at least somewhat of a role in the development of the Soviet’s AK47. For years Mikhail Kalashnikov stated that the StG44 had nothing to do with his design for the AK-47, however, in 2009 he admitted that Schmeisser had “helped.” As if that hadn’t been obvious all along!
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes Magazine.