There are several truly “famous” or even “infamous” submachine guns, notably the Tommy Gun and the Uzi, but then there is the iconic World War II German MP-40, aka the “Schmeisser.” It remains among the most popular guns in the category as it gets a lot of screen time in video games and a few movies.
Semantic Clarification: “MP” vs. “SMG?” And is “Schmeisser” Proper?
The German word “Maschinenpistole” literally translates into “machine pistol,” yet for whatever reason, German gunmakers both then and now use it as the equivalent word for “submachine gun,” which Anglos define as “rifle patterned firearm that is chambered in a pistol cartridge and is either full auto only or capable of select fire.”
The MP-40 definitely falls into that Anglophile category. Now, truly machine pistols *do* exist, but they’re comparatively few and far between. They include the Beretta 93R (immortalized by RoboCop), the HK VP70z (which worked well for James Bond in the 1980s novels but not so much for real-life shooters), the Glock 18, and the Russian APS Stechkin. The first three are all chambered for the Western 9mm Parabellum cartridge just like the vast majority of SMGs including the MP-40, while the Stechkin uses the same Soviet-designed 9x18mm round as the Makarov pistol.
As for the “Schmeisser” nickname? “GermanWarMachine.com,” in a December 2015 article for Military History Now, admonishes readers “Don’t Call It ‘Schmeisser,’” for the following reasons:
“In reality, Hugo Schmeisser, the prolific German gun maker behind history’s first mass-produced submachine gun, the MP-18, was not at all involved in the design of the weapon. Schmeisser factories did however manufacture parts for later variants and magazines were often stamped with the Schmeisser trademark. The gun, which was originally designated the MP-38, was in fact engineered by Berthold Giepel of the ErfurterMaschinenfabrik company (or Ermawerke for short).”
But by that same rationale, nitpicking purists also point out the German Luger and Walther P-38 pistols are instead officially and properly called the “P08 Parabellum” and “Heeres Pistole” respectively, but the “improper” names are so goshdarn commonplace that in my professional opinion you might as well just roll with it instead of argue with it. The word “Schmeisser” is mentioned in a number of online dictionaries as a generic term for various German automatic firearms.
MP-40 Early History and Specifications
The MP-40 was initially designed in 1938 and entered into official service with the Third Reich the following year.
The rate of fire was a modest and more easily controllable 500 rounds per minute – on a par with the British Sten Gun – weight was 8.7 pounds, barrel length was 9.8 inches, and overall length was 24.8 inches with the stick folded and 32.8 inches with the stock extended. The standard magazine capacity was 32 rounds. Roughly 1.1 million were produced between 1941 and 1945.
To cite the Military History Now article again, this SMG was robust, effective, and accurate: “Allied troops fighting in close quarters in places like Monte Cassino and Stalingrad quickly learned to fear the staccato sound of its bursts. Its effectiveness and the convenience of its folding shoulder stock meant that it had a long postwar career. Captured models were added to the arsenals of a number of Warsaw Pact militaries during the early Cold War and even turned up in North Vietnam, Spain and Israel. Some were still being used by Norwegian tank crews into the 1980s.”
Starring the Schmeisser: MP-40 at the Movies
The films in which the MP-40 has appeared are myriad. Arguably the most famous iconic is the WWII thriller “Where Eagles Dare” starring Clint Eastwood – five years before his portrayal of Dirty Harry made a different gun (the Smith & Wesson Model 29 .44 Magnum) famous – and Sir Richard Burton, which was considered by many as one of the best war films of all time. Oh yeah, the SMG also features prominently in a certain 1981 film titled “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
While the “Schmeisser” has also appeared in many action-adventure novels – some WWII-related, some post-war – for me, the one that sticks out most in mind is “Sicilian Slaughter,” Book #16 in Don Pendleton’s bestselling series “The Executioner.” On the original 1973 cover of that book is a Gil Cohen painting depicting the hero, Mack Bolan, blasting the bad guys with an MP-40 in his right whilst driving what appears to be a Fiat with his left.
Where Are They Now? Want Your Own?
To reiterate what I’ve said in my previous writeups about purchasing SMGs: assuming you’re willing and able to deal with the bureaucratic headaches and costs of the BATFE paperwork to own a full-auto weapon, be ready to cough up a few extra bucks or Euros for a genuine shootable MP-40. Legacy Collectibles recently sold one for $28,500.00; GunsAmerica.com has a “Sale Pending;” Black Widow Firearms LLC just sold theirs for an even $20K, and Rock Island Auction obtained a “Price Realized” of $20,700.00. If you keep your eyes peeled on these websites, and if you’re lucky, another MP-40 will come along.
What if you’re not willing to spend that sort of money and are perfectly content to see the “Schmeisser” in a museum? Well then, you have plenty of options to choose from. Among your choices are the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Behring Center in Washington, DC, as well as Britain’s Imperial War Museum (IWM).
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.