Captain Kirk’s Submachine Gun
Madsen M-50s appeared on ‘Star Trek’ and during the Vietnam War
In the 1968 Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses, Capt. James Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. Leonard McCoy beam down to Planet 892-IV, a parallel to Earth in almost every way—except Rome never fell.
The aliens capture the Enterprise’s familiar trio. Kirk has a predictable romantic encounter. There are televised gladiatorial games that pit the crew against sword-wielding warriors named Flavius and Achilles.
The episode even lampoons the cutthroat competition between television broadcasters and their search for ratings. When one of the gladiators refuses to fight with his usual vigor, the master of the games snarls, “You bring this network’s ratings down, Flavius, and we’ll do a special on you!”
But one of the biggest surprises are the gun-toting legionnaires. Not only did Rome never fall in this story, a Danish weapons manufacturer apparently became a supplier of submachine guns to the empire—and a pretty cool submachine gun at that.
The Roman police tote Madsen M-50 nine-millimeter submachine guns made by Dansk Industri Syndikat. The weapon’s simplicity and ease of maintenance are stellar, even if its popularity back on Earth was somewhat limited.
With some exceptions. Latin American military and police units used it widely. Special Forces and CIA operators during the Vietnam War frequently carried the M-50 or armed the “indigs” with the gun.
And, of course, it was popular in the entertainment industry.
It’s a “well-made weapon” that “incorporates low-cost production features, sturdiness and simplicity of disassembly seldom found in weapons of this type,” described The Special Forces Foreign Weapons Handbook.
It possessed a stock that was “one of the most rigid types available and the weapon can be fired as easily with the stock folded as it can with the stock unfolded.”
In a world full of cheap, mass-produced submachine guns, it put up with abuse without jamming, was easy to aim, and simple to clean and maintain. All of those characteristics are virtues when putting full-auto firepower in the hands of indigenous fighters or highly-trained covert forces.
The M-50 is an open bolt, blowback submachine gun that fires only in full-auto, at a cyclic rate of 550 rounds per minute. It has a 32-round box magazine and is slightly more than 30 inches long with the stock unfolded.
A barrel nut holds two halves of its hinged sheet metal receiver together. When the operator closes the stock and removes the barrel nut, he or she can open the receiver like it’s a snap-together clamshell, exposing the inner parts of the weapon.
The bolt, operating spring and guide, and the barrel easily remove for cleaning. To put it back together, just reverse the process—snap the sides of the receiver shut and replace the barrel nut.
During the 1950s, Dansk Industri Syndikat sold thousands of M-50s to Latin American countries including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Venezuela.
Brazil also purchased the gun, but later produced its own licensed version called the M-953 or the INA—for Industria Nacional de Armas of Sao Paulo. The Brazilian makers of the INA originally chambered the weapon in .45 ACP, a caliber popular with most of their nation’s armed forces and police.
However, during the early 1970s, Brazil’s defense ministers decided that the nine-millimeter Parabellum would be a better choice for ammunition. They ordered a massive conversion program to re-chamber the weapons and added a select-fire modification.
Slightly earlier, the M-50 made its appearance in South Vietnam. Green Berets frequently placed the weapon in the hands of Degar fighters trained as rapid-response forces during the war. Also known as the Montagnard, the Degar are indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Small enough to hide inside woven pack baskets, M-50s gave them real firepower as they scouted hills and trails for Viet Cong activity.
Despite obvious interest in the M-50, sales of the weapon were good, but not great. Its stiffest competition was the flood of surplus submachine guns from World War II that inundated the military market during the 1950s.
In the United States, it’s better remembered as a movie prop gun.
However, the show’s armorers probably wanted a gun that looked formidable in the hands of the actors playing Roman guards, but unfamiliar enough to look like it belonged on another planet.
The M-50 is a natural for the role.
In the original Planet of the Apes movies, artists mocked-up the M-50 in a futuristic shell to make it look even more alien—perfectly suited for a world where apes carried the guns and made the laws.
In 1968, the film Ice Station Zebra depicted Soviet paratroopers carrying the gun, no doubt because of its foreign look.
Even legendary cinematic Italian crime families packed the gun. In The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Corleone enforcers carry M-50s as they provide security around the various family compounds depicted in the films.
So when you watch those old movies and shows, note that those oddly-shaped guns are quite real. They just needed a little time before the rest of us remembered just how unique they really were.