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Meet the MG 34: World’s First General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG)

Masterminded by small arms designer Heinrich Volmer (1885-1961), the MG (Maschinengewehr) 34 was initially designed in 1934 – hence the digital portion of the alphanumeric designation – and officially adopted into operational service with the Wehrmacht in 1936. 

MG 34. Image: Creative Commons.
MG 34. Image: Creative Commons.

“Give the devil his due,” the saying goes. When it comes to weapons innovation, no other evil entity – with the possible exception of the Soviet Union aka The Evil Empire – embodied this saying quite like Nazi Germany.

In aerial warfare, the Third Reich’s weaponry geniuses came up with the Wunderwaffen “(Wonder Weapons”) such world’s first jet fighter, jet bomber, and rocket-powered fighter, that being the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, Arado Ar 234 Blitz, and Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet respectively, not to mention the first cruise missile long-range guided ballistic missile in the respective forms of the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Meanwhile, at the level of the ground fighters, Nazi Germany’s war machine produced some historically significant guns for good measure. For one thing, there was the first assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr Stg-44. And then there was the subject of this article, the world’s first general purpose machine gun (GPMG), the MG 34 7.92x57mm Mauser machine gun. 

Semantic Clarification: GPMG Defined

In layman’s terms, a GPMG is an air-cooled, fully automatic weapon that can be adapted to light machine gun (LMG) and medium machine gun (MMG) roles. It’ll typically feature a quick-change barrel, configuration for mounting on bipods, tripods, and vehicles as infantry support weapons, and chambered to fire full-powered rifle cartridges; for example, the MG 34’s 7.92x57mm round is the same one used by the famed K98k Mauser infantry rifle (though it’s ofttimes referred to as an 8mm for brevity). The German equivalent term for GPMG is “Einheitsmaschinengewehr” (“Universal Machine Gun”).

MG 34 Early History and Specifications

Masterminded by small arms designer Heinrich Volmer (1885-1961), the MG (Maschinengewehr) 34 was initially designed in 1934 – hence the digital portion of the alphanumeric designation – and officially adopted into operational service with the Wehrmacht in 1936. 

The gun was recoil-operated and fired from an open rotating bolt. Specifications included an empty weight of 26.7 pounds, a weight of 70 pounds while mounted on a tripod, a barrel length of 24.7 inches, and an overall length of 48 inches. As far as the rate of fire is concerned, Jim Davis of GunMag Warehouse notes that the early models “were capable of firing either 600 or 1,000 rounds per minute. Later, the rate of fire was fixed at the rate of 800-900 rounds per minute. Other models, which were typically used on aircraft, had higher rates of fire, some 1,200 or even 1,500 rounds per minute.”

Battlefield Performance

Like many other Nazi weapons, such as the Tiger tank, it was way overengineered, with Will Dabbs, MD of The Armory Life describing it as “a nightmare to build.” Like the Tiger tank, the MG 34 had its fair share of battlefield reliability problems. Despite this, however, the MG 34 soldiered through the entirety of the Second World War, and it’s safe to say that this GPMG actually ended accounting for way more Allied casualties than the main gun of the oh-so-ballyhooed Tiger. To quote Dr. Dabbs again, “With the man-portable MG 34, however, a single mobile machine gun team could transport serious supporting automatic fire anyplace a man could walk. Warfare would never be the same.”

Indeed, speaking of WWII German tanks, they stuck with the MG 34 even after the much more reliable, user-friendly, and cost-efficient MG 42 came along. Why? Miguel Ortiz of We Are The Mighty – himself a former U.S. Army commissioned officer – answers that question in his February 2023 article:

“In short, science … In the case of the MG 34 firing 1000 rounds per minute, the barrel would heat up fairly quickly under sustained fire … machine guns like the MG 34 usually feature a barrel that can be swapped out quickly … In the case of the MG 34, the barrel is replaced by rotating the receiver counter-clockwise from the barrel shroud … On the MG 42, the barrel pops out to the right of the gun … However, this was simply not compatible with the existing German tank designs … Inside a tank, a gunner can easily rotate the MG 34’s receiver and swap out the barrel if it gets too hot. But, because the rest of the gun is mounted in the hull or turret, the side-swapping barrel of the MG 42 would not work. The mounting designs would have to be completely reworked in order to accommodate it.”

MG 34 at the Movies

Unsurprisingly, the war movies and action-adventure flicks in which the MG-34 has appeared are many in number. Just a few examples that come to mind are “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Escape From Sobibor.” 

Where Are They Now? Want Your Own?

Believe it or not, International Military Antiques (IMA) actually has one for sale! Granted, it’s a mere display piece, but still a big-time collectible nonetheless. It’s officially listed as “Original German WWII MG 34 Display Machine Gun by Mauser Werke with Drum Carrier & Inert Ammo in Belt” and sells for a measly $4,495.00.

Oh wait, you say you actually to *fire* an MG 34? Well, you’re still in luck, assuming you have the time and travel funds. Battlefield Vegas (in Las Vegas, Nevada, of course; where else?) has one available for rental; it’ll cost you $80.00 to fire off a 20-round ammo belt and $150.00 for 40 rounds, the latter being the literal and figurative “more bang for your buck” … or would that be “more rat-a-tat-tat for your buck” in this case?

So then, what if you’re not interested in either owning or firing an MG 34 and are perfectly content to see the world’s first GPMG in a museum? To cite just three examples, there’s Britain’s fantastic Imperial War Museum (IWM), as well as Greece’s War Museum in Athens, and “The Great White North’s” Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR) Museum in London, Ontario.

Christian D. Orr has 33 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.  In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports. If you’d like to pick his brain in-person about his writings, chances are you’ll be able to find him at the Green Turtle Pasadena in Maryland on Friday nights, singing his favorite karaoke tunes.

Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).