|Action||Long-Stroke Piston||Barrel Length||16.5″|
|Magazine||30-rnds dtch box||Weight||10.2 lb|
The StG.44 was a revolutionary rifle nearly killed in the development stages. Its overwhelming value was proven repeatedly in trials and so, despite opposition, it found its way to the front lines of WWII.
The German military had long known that the standard rifle cartridge was overpowered for most engagements. As early as 1918 there were studies showing that firefights rarely extended more than 800 meters. Studies during WWII showed that most combat was within 200 meters and very rarely beyond 300 meters. The standard 7.92x57mm cartridge was plenty effective beyond 1,000 meters and that unnecessary power translated to slower follow up shots, carrying less ammunition in total, and greater consumption of resources.
During WWI we saw the adoption of the submachine gun and the acknowledgement that burst or automatic fire could be very useful in warfare. While extremely effective in close quarters, pistol caliber submachine guns were limited in range and struggled at the 200 meter average range. Research into intermediate cartridges was actually carried out at varied levels of interest from 1918 through WWII. The USSR’s SVT-40 semi-automatic rifles and PPsh-41 submachine guns began to fill a greater role on the battlefield as Germany struggled with the Eastern Front. Facing difficulties pitting bolt action rifle-armed troops against this overwhelming fire, German officers began clamoring for an automatic rifle of their own. This kicked off production of the comparable Gewehr 43 semi-automatic rifle, but just matching the Russians wouldn’t be enough.
By 1939 a previous experimental cartridge (8x33mm) was merged with the 7.92x57mm in order to best use existing manufacturing tools. This led to the adoption of 7.62x33mm Kurz. Walther and Haenel both submitted automatic rifles chambering this new cartridge, with the Haenal winning the initial bid. Their Maschinenkarabiner 42 or Mkb42(H) was a stamped steel design firing from an open bolt. It featured a hinged receiver to aid with disassembly and cleaning, a fire selector for semi or full auto firing, and a long-stroke gas piston action. Later an ejection port cover and sight rail were added.
Troop trials yielded more changes. TheMkb42(H)’s open bolt, striker-fired system was replaced with Walther’s closed bolt, hammer-fire. The gas expansion chamber over the barrel was omitted and a longer handguard was fitted. The project was almost doomed when Hitler ordered all new rifle programs to halt in favor of submachine guns. The Armament Office simply renamed the gun Maschinenpistole 43/1 and kept working.
The Mp43 was essentially the final version of the rifle, minus a few small changes over the course of the war. It was a closed-bolt, long-stroke piston operated, semi/full automatic rifle made from less-than-premium steel. This meant the gun was rather heavy, especially when loaded, but put less strain on demand for quality steel. It fed from a 30-round detachable box magazine and sported a rear leaf sight graduated to 800 meters. Its hinged disassembly method would be repeated on other rifles later, notably the M16. Locking was achieved by a tilting bolt, which locked against a rear shoulder, not unlike the SVT-40. When the piston was pressed rearward, the rear of the bolt was lifted by a carrier, unlocking the action.
We should probably stop here and clear one thing up. Yes, Hitler rejected what would become the StG.44 several times over. His reasoning, however, was unlikely because of any hatred for the weapon. Each report seems to represent that he actually appreciated the potential of such a gun. He did, however, see it as potentially redundant on the battlefield and with the already strained German war machine barely keeping up with demand, he had strong reservations about introducing a whole new cartridge. The strain on logistics was actually quite great, but in the end, so was the new rifle.
This new rifle underwent several name changes. It was first marked “MP43” and then “MP44.” Initial impressions of the rifle actually sagged due to the extreme weight and inability to lie in a low, prone position with the high sights and protruding magazine. Basically, it was just too different. However, actual reliability and success with the rifle was high. So a morale-boosting clarification to the name was made in 1944. Since this intermediate cartridge rifle was a new class of weapon, it was named the Sturmgewehr, “Storm Rifle” (as in to assault) and took on the date code 45. It was billed as a German “wonder weapon,” one of many that would obviously lead to the triumph of the Reich.
Despite first appearances, field use produced glowing reports from the front. The “assault rifle” provided mild recoil, quick follow up shots, was effective in most combat ranges, and could do the dirty work of a submachine gun if caught short. Use of the fully automatic fire mode was discouraged and troops were asked to fire in short, 3-4 round bursts. One of the biggest advantages of the StG.45 was the ease in training newer soldiers and the more forgiving 30-round magazine giving them plenty of second chances to hit their mark. Finally, the rifle was reliable even in cold weather conditions and was greatly appreciated on the front lines.
While accurate for medium range engagements, the StG never lived up to expectations that it might fill the role of the original Kar98k and displace the costly Gew.43. Its limited precision and lower powered cartridge kept it from ever functioning as a true designated marksman’s rifle actually benefiting from a scope. That same low power also precluded it from effectively firing rifle grenades. Also its shortened length and awkward handling meant the bayonet lug was dropped. Overall the name change was the way to go, because it never displaced the traditional rifle or submachine gun during the course of WWII. StG.44s were produced at Haenal, Sauer, Erma, and Steyr. It was manufactured until the end of the war and while it proved valuable, was not enough to turn the tide. Initial Allied reports on the weapon were actually poor and resembled the opinions of German troops first issued the gun. U.S. and British analysts went further, however, and said the stamped steel gun was an obvious sign of the panic in the German production lines. The benefits of the new Assault Rifle were better realized by the Russians who faced so many on the Eastern Front. While the U.S. took up the M14 and Europe investigated rifles like the FN-49 and MAS 49 post-war, they developed the SKS and AK-47.
Post-war usage of the StG.44 itself was limited. It served on in East Germany until being displaced by the AK-47, and in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. On the surplus market, they have repeatedly been spotted in the Middle East, including a cache of some 5,000 discovered in Syria in 2012. While there are a few designs chambering intermediate cartridges and technically fitting the assault rifle definition that came before the StG.44, it definitely was the first to truly set the standard and make the utility of such a weapon known. The changes in warfare this gun made are still standard today.
Special thanks goes out to The Charleston Museum for sharing this piece with us and all of you!