5 Best Guns of World War II: Literally tens of millions of firearms were produced during the Second World War.
Some of the designs performed better than others, while a mere few stood out as masterpieces. Of those, five truly were the best of the best.
5 Best Guns of World War II – Best Bolt Action Rifle: Mosin Nagant Model 1891 Rifle
Arguably one of the most widely produced firearms ever (with the possible exception of the much later AK-47), some 37,000,000 were made between 1891 and 1965.
The rifle was already showing its age by the First World War when millions were produced. Yet, with the establishment of the Soviet Union, production of the Mosin Nagant increased and the gun underwent a few changes. The basic M1891/30 saw the barrel shortened by about 3.5-inches to the length of the “Dragoon variant.” This would be the standard issue weapon of Soviet troops when the nation was invaded by the Germans in 1941.
Millions of rifles were produced during the war, and it remained the main small arm of the largest mobilized army in history with some 17.4 million being produced from 1941 to 1945.
This entry might seem controversial as the German Kar98K and the British Lee Enfield were far more refined. However, the Mosin Nagant was a rifle that was well-suited to an ill-educated army of conscripted peasants and factory workers. It could be dragged through the mud, it functioned in the extreme cold and the rifle was reasonably accurate. Due to its 7.62x54mmR cartridge, it had a serious kick but also serious stopping power.
5 Best Guns of World War II – Best Semi-Automatic Rifle: American M1 Garand
Here is an example of where American ingenuity shined in World War II – the M1 Garand was the first standard issued semi-automatic rifle, and it went on to become the most widely used semi-automatic of the Second World War. It earned high praise from those who carried it, while General George S. Patton even described it as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”
It fired the .30-06 caliber round that had been used in the Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle and M1919 .30 caliber machine gun. It was a gas-operated rifle that featured an eight-shot clip-fed magazine. This provided the American GIs with more rounds than the German counterpart Kar98K, but it also meant that it was impossible to “top off” or add bullets until all eight were fired. Despite the minor setback, the M1 Garand was a perfect weapon for the GI, and it was widely employed in every theater of operation to great success.
5 Best Guns of World War II – Best Submachine Gun: PPSh-41
The Mosin Nagant was an example of Imperial Russian ingenuity – with some help from a Belgian designer – but the Pistolet-Pulemyot Shpagina truly was a Soviet marvel. It was already in development when war broke out in June of 1941, as the submachine 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 (1939-40).
That weapon proved to be reliable enough, but an easier-to-produce variation was needed – and the result was the PPSh-41. Some six million of the weapons were produced during the war, as compared to around 19,000 of the PPD. Thus, the PPSh-41 was the most widely produced submachine gun of WWII (as compared to one million MP-40s that Germany was able to produce).
The PPSh-41, as with the PPD, fired the 7.62x25mm pistol cartridge that was developed for the TT-33 Tokarev pistol. The weapon was originally fitted with a 71-round drum magazine, which gave the gun its distinctive silhouette, but later a 35-round curved box magazine was made available. In an interesting twist, the drum magazine was a copy of the Finnish KP/31 Suomi’s magazine, which also held 71 rounds.
The PPSh-41 was durable yet crude. But looks could be deceiving, as the weapon could fire 900 rounds per minute. Because of its reliability, it was often used by German soldiers, especially in the latter part of the war.
5 Best Guns of World War II- The World’s First Assault Rifle: StG44
The Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44) was arguably the gun that changed everything. A passing glance might mistake it for an AK-47, a weapon it also arguably influenced, but the era of the assault rifle began with the StG44. Its development is almost legendary. Originally designated the MP-43, and later the MP-44, it was developed as a hybrid between the main battle rifle and submachine gun. The original name was due to the fact that German leader Adolf Hitler didn’t think a new rifle was needed. After the dictator saw the potential of the weapon, it was renamed the Sturmgewehr, which means “storm rifle” or in English, “assault rifle.”
It was well suited to a new era of warfare, 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 MP-40 was not effective at that range. Thus, an intermediate 7.92×33 Kurz cartridge, also known as 8mm Kurz was developed, which was used with the rifle.
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 Schmeisser served as the lead designer of the StG44, and after the war Schmeisser was “detained” by the Soviets, where he was instrumental in aiding the Red Army’s weapon program. 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” with the development!
5 Best Guns of World War II – The Heavy Machine Gun: M2 .50 caliber
The Soviets may have devised the best submachine gun, while the Germans created the first true assault rifle, but leave it to the Americans to go big. The basic design principles of John Browning’s M1919 .30 caliber machine gun were used to “supersize” the weapon, resulting in the M2 .50 caliber machine gun.
It was mounted on tanks, aircraft, ships, and other vehicles during the war. It went on to see service in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. Even now, while the other weapons on this list have been long retired from front-line service, nearly 90 years since it was introduced, the M2 .50 caliber still remains the U.S. military’s big gun workhorse, and it isn’t going out to pasture anytime soon.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.