Weapons: German Assault Rifle From The 1940s Back In The News


January 17, 2014: The government in Los Angeles, California recently held a gun buyback program offering $200 grocery gift cards or pre-paid Visa cards for any firearm turned in, no questions asked. One of the weapons turned in was a World War II vintage German assault rifle. This was the StG (Sturmgewehr or “assault rifle”) 44. This weapon is very much a collectable and depending on the model and condition sells for up to $30,000 or more. The price has tripled in the last decade and continues to rise. This is despite many more of them coming on the market as so many World War II veterans (especially American ones) die and weapons like this are found hidden away as one of the not-so-legal souvenirs many American veterans brought back from Europe.

More of them are now coming onto the market as illegal weapons because of those found recently in the Middle East.  In the last decade a lot of StG 44s have shown up in the Middle East, first in Iraq and now in Syria. These StG 44s are part of the large quantity of German weapons bought by the governments of Syria and Iraq after World War II. This included Me-109 fighters and Panzer IV tanks. Syria and Iraq were pro-Nazi (as were most Arabs) during the war and merchants in these countries had connections in Europe enabling them to obtain a lot of captured German weapons once the war was over. The StG 44s were never put into service but thousands of them were left sitting in warehouses, packed in preservative jelly and good as new once cleaned up. The fighting in Iraq and Syria led to these warehouses full of ancient weapons to be looted. Fortunately there was not much of the ammo for StG 44s handy so few of them were encountered in combat. The 7.92x33 StG 44 ammo is stuff is available commercially, as owners of the many StG 44s in collectors hands are still operable and frequently fired. But World War II ammo cannot be preserved as effectively as World War II small arms and none of the ammunition bought with these StG 44s over 60 years ago is still usable.  The German factory that made StG 44s during World War II kept operating for a while after the war and since then other manufacturers have made small production runs of StG 44 facsimiles. One model of StG 44 copies is chambered to fire low-powered .22LR caliber (5.56mm) bullets.  

What makes the Sturmgewehr 44 so valuable was that it was the first modern assault rifle and the inspiration (and model) for the AK-47. Although the first prototype was available in 1940, the StG 44 did not appear in combat (as a prototype) in 1943. This was for testing and the test was a success. The troops clamored for more of this revolutionary new weapon and mass production was able to arm entire divisions with it by late 1944. In the final battles for Germany in 1945 allied and Russian troops often encountered StG 44s. The 4.6 kg (10.2 pound) StG 44  was loaded with a 510 gr (1.1 pound) magazine carrying thirty rounds of the new 7.92x33 rounds. These were a shortened version of the standard 7.92x57 rifle round and the short round was lighter and accurate enough for most combat situations and even for short range (like urban) sniping. Only about 420,000 were manufactured during the war. Western troops appreciated the usefulness of the StG 44, but the Western small-arms experts dismissed the StG 44 as unwieldy and unsuitable for combat. It took twenty years for the troops to be heard and obtain a similar weapon (the M-16, first developed as the civilian AR-15 in the 1950s).

Russian weapons experts were more accurate in their assessment of the StG 44. Four years after the StG 44 showed up in combat, the Russian AK-47 was designed, tested and adopted by the Russians. This was part of a post-World War II Russian program to adopt many of the more effective German military ideas and technologies. This was an extensive program which, for obvious reasons, got little publicity.

Originally designed to allow poorly trained troops to deliver automatic fire, the 4.5 kg (10 pounds loaded with a 30 round magazine) AK-47 didn't have to be cleaned frequently, and could still fire even if covered with mud, sand or any other crud commonly encountered on the battlefield. All this was similar to the Sturmgewehr 44, although the German weapon was designed to allow accurate single shots as well as, in emergencies, automatic fire.

Despite its wide popularity the AK-47 has flaws. The same design that makes it jam proof, also delivered poor accuracy. Moreover, the shabby sights on the AK-47 don't help much either. The design also trades reliability for the ability to quickly change magazines, or even operate the safety. But the main reason over fifty million AK-47s were built was because it did what it was designed to do very well. The AK-47 was the ultimate "spray and pray" weapon. But the AK-47 was the end of the line for a weapon design philosophy that began nearly a century ago.

Equipping infantry with lightweight automatic weapons began as a German innovation during World War I (1914-18). In doing that, the Germans also took the lead in developing submachineguns, like the MP 18, a weapon that would eventually evolve into the modern assault rifle. By the end of World War I, about 30,000 MP 18s were in use. The MP 18 demonstrated the devastating effect of automatic weapons in the hands of infantry. The MP 18 fired the standard 9mm pistol round at the rate of 6-7 bullets a second, and used a 32 round drum magazine. The basic need was for a compact weapon that could quickly fire a lot of bullets. This gave the MP18 user a big edge in combat. The Germans kept developing this type of weapon and by World War II they had the MP 38 and MP 40. The short range (50-100 meters) of the 9mm pistol round prevented the Germans from attempting to rearm all their infantry with this weapon, because the troops often had to hit targets farther away.

It wasn't until they saw the Russians use similar weapons on a mass scale during World War II that the Germans realized that the short range of the 9mm pistol round was not as great a shortcoming as they thought. The Russians understood that for an attack, arming all the troops with submachineguns gave you so much firepower, that the enemy had a hard time shooting back at your advancing infantry. This was particularly useful in urban or trench warfare, where there were a lot of small scale (a dozen or fewer attacking troops) operations at short ranges.

Russia produced over five million of their 3.6 kg (8 pound) PPSh submachineguns. It used either a 35 pound box magazine (weighing 680 grams/1.5 pounds) or a 1.8 kg (four pound) drum holding 71 rounds. That was 7-8 seconds worth of firing. The bullet used was a 7.62mm (.30 caliber) pistol round that moved at only about 516 meters (1,600 feet) per second. Catch one of these in the head, and you were dead. Anywhere else, and you would probably live. But with so many of these bullets flying around, multiple hits were more likely.

One thing the 7.62/25 PPSh round didn't have was penetration. You needed that in urban areas to fire through doors, floors and walls. The Germans overcame this by developing the StG-44, which used a more powerful, 7.92mm, bullet. The StG.44, like the AK-47, used a shorter (than the standard rifle), and about 20 percent lighter, cartridge that used a bullet that could still fire through walls and doors.

But war has changed. Better trained troops, with more accurate weapons (like the M-16/M-4/SCAR), are more likely to prevail. Even the Russians have long since abandoned the AK-47 for weapons similar to the M-16. But all those AK-47s out there still appeal to the ill-trained, impoverished and trigger happy young men eager to make their point with a hail of bullets.





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