The submachine gun (SMG) is past its heyday in military and law enforcement circles, being supplanted by compact assault rifles and so-called Personal Defense Weapons (PDWs). But the weapon sure had a glorious run during the 100+ years of its existence, and it hasn’t completely disappeared yet.
Before I list what I consider to be the Top five SMGs, it’s useful to define the concept, courtesy of one of my fellow Quora posters: “‘Sub-machine gun’ here just means a rifle patterned firearm that is chambered in a pistol cartridge and is either full auto only or capable of select fire.”
The “Tommy Gun” (Thompson Submachine Gun)
Might as well start with the very first true SMG, and arguably the most famous one thanks to mobster movies from the original 1932 version of “Scarface” to “The Godfather” to “The Untouchables.”
But it was in the hands of the good guys, i.e., the U.S. Armed Forces, that the Tommy Gun truly came into its own and proved its mettle on the battlefield, thus earning its spot here in the Top five. Designed back in 1918 by her namesake, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Taliaferro Thompson, who intended her as a “trench broom” for American doughboys in WWI, the Thompson missed out on that conflict but made up for lost time, starting with the so-called “Banana Wars” in Nicaragua in the late 1920s and 1930s, then most heavily during the WWI, and even some usage by Green Berets in Vietnam.
The Tommy gun combined the hard-hitting power of the .45 ACP cartridge with a rate of fire of 700-800 rounds per minute (rpm) in the M1928 version or 600-700 rpm in the M1A1 variant. They’re lots of fun to shoot. You can rent and shoot a full-auto Tommy at The Range 702 in Las Vegas.
The other most famous SMG of all-time in terms of name recognition, thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and gangsta rap artists like N.W.A, has to be the Uzi. But just like with the Thompson, it was real-world battlefield performance that earned the Israeli-made Uzi its spot on this Top Five List. Designed in 1950 by Major Uziel “Uzi” Gal of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the gun proved itself in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and so forth.
As my friend Itshak “Ike” Sarfati – a battle-hardened veteran of those latter two wars – states: “The Uzi is one of the most reliable SMGs in the world but also a weapon you have to be very careful with, and it takes training to be efficient with it. It is effective up to 100 yards or even more and is one of the most effective weapons to have in close quarters or any urban setting.”
I myself had a grand ol’ time using a rental Uzi to blast a picture of Barney the Dinosaur in Vegas back in January 1994. The combo of the 600 rpm rate of fire and 9mm chambering proved to be quite controllable.
Heckler & Kock (HK) MP5
Not quite the “household name” as the previous two SMGs, the German-made MP5 is the most respected and popular SMG with real-world antiterrorist/counterterrorist units, and arguably THE best SMG ever made in terms of accuracy and reliability. It’s the only closed-bolt SMG on this list, which gives greater recoil control than the open-bolt operation of other guns discussed herein – albeit at much higher production costs – even with the 800 rpm rate of fire. The most famous combat usages of the MP5 were during hostage rescue operations, first by then-West Germany’s GSG-9 (Grenzschutzgruppe Neun) in Mogadishu in 1977, followed by Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) during Operation Nimrod in 1980.
M3 “Grease Gun”
This SMG has also been immortalized in song, albeit in military running cadences as opposed to Eazy E and Ice Cube rap songs: “K-bar, grease gun by my side/These are the tools that make men die …”
Designed as a simpler and less expensive (read: downright cheapo) replacement for the Tommy Gun and debuting in 1944, the “Grease Gun” retained the Tommy’s .45 ACP stopping power. And she proved herself to be quite venerable, still serving with American tank crews as late as Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Naturally the world’s oldest existing gunmaker has an entry on this list. This 9mm “subgun” debuted in 1959. As “Foghorn” wrote for The Truth About Guns in 2013, “(E)very once in a while, a truly inspired design comes along and just takes your breath away. Beretta’s Model 12S SMG is one of those designs.”
Rate of fire is 550 rpm. The Italian-made M12 served with the military and/or police forces of two dozen nations.
HONORABLE MENTION: The Sten Gun
The British-made Sten isn’t the most reliable SMG ever made, but it still ended up making history in a positive way, ergo it deserves a shoutout. As noted by Aden Tate in a June 2021 article for Pew Pew Tactical: “Perhaps no other weapon signifies the role of resistance fighters throughout World War II better than the unmistakable Sten gun … Its crude metal appearance gives it a made in someone’s garage vibe…and with good reason … Thanks to its few working parts, and the easy-to-make design, the Sten gun was made in partisan workshops throughout World War II … Had it not been so, the outcome of the war may have been very different indeed.”
I fired a rental MkV Sten Gun (cost $85.00 plus ammo) at the highly impressive new XCAL indoor shooting facility in Ashburn, Virginia this past August, and found it to be a lot of fun to shoot. It was quite controllable and easy to keep my shots within the torso of the target thanks to the relatively modest 500 rpm rate of fire. And notwithstanding what I indicated about the gun’s historical tendency to jam, this particular specimen was 100% reliable during my 50-round range session with her.
Author Expertise and Firearms Experience
Christian D. Orr is a Senior Defense Editor for 19FortyFive. He has 34 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.