Few Weapons Scream ‘Nazi’ as Much as This Submachine Gun
But the MP40 proved popular among Allied troops and in the post-war era
by PAUL HUARD
In 1943, Jef Van Troy from the Belgian town of Oud-Turnhout lived in the midst of a German occupation. He was only 14 years old.
In an oral history prepared shortly after the war by the Belgian government, he vividly recalled Waffen-SS troops training in the town and the surrounding countryside.
The soldiers practiced driving half-tracks, shooting their pistols and donning gas masks. But whatever they did, their Maschinenpistole 40 — MP40 submachine gun — was the weapon of choice even on their days off.
“On Sundays, they went out to the pubs of Turnhout,” Van Troy said. “The soldiers used to walk three by three and one of them always carried an MP40 machine pistol.”
Probably no other weapon other than the Luger screams “Nazi” as much as the MP40. German infantry soldiers, paratroopers and officers widely used the submachine gun and it remains one of the most sought-after World War II weapons among hobbyists.
It’s rugged, reliable and capable of spitting out more than 500 rounds per minute. There are plenty of stories of American and British soldiers grabbing MP40s on the battlefield for their own use — as long as they had an adequate supply of 9 x 19-millimeter Parabellum ammunition.
As for war movies and video games with World War II themes, there are plenty of characters who brandish MP40s. It’s illustrative of the weapon’s iconic status, but these portrayals sometimes stretch the bounds of credulity.
Where Eagles Dare — the 1968 classic movie starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood — is actually Eastwood’s “deadliest” movie. The actor who would later play Dirty Harry “kills” more people in the movie than any other film in his career, including dozens of German soldiers when he wields MP40s in both hands during one scene.
But the reality behind the MP40 is far more interesting than its cinematic or video game portrayals. And don’t make the mistake of calling it “the Schmeisser.”
“Allied soldiers often referred to the MP40 as the Schmeisser,” historian Bill Yenne wrote in Tommy Gun — How General Thompson’s Gun Wrote History, which chronicles the history of the war’s submachine guns. “And it is still referred to as such in various accounts — although neither Hugo [Schmeisser] nor any of this family members had a role in its design.”
In fact, Heinrich Vollmer of the German weapons manufacturer Erma Werke designed the MP40 in 1938. The company used an earlier weapon called the MP36 — designed by Berthold Geipel — as the basis for the new weapon.
The MP40 is actually a simpler version of the MP36. This earlier gun was far more expensive to produce, as it was made out of machined steel. In contrast, the stamped-metal MP40 was cheaper and came with a folding bent-wire stock.
Firing with an open bolt, the MP40 is only about 33 inches long with the stock extended. The weapon weighs less than 10 pounds when loaded with a full 32-round magazine.
There was a good reason for the shift in design. During World War II, there was an almost desperate urgency on all sides to manufacture vast quantities of weapons as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Despite the fact that German-designed weapons were notable for quality rather than quantity, even the Reich succumbed to the same wartime pressures that led to the development of such quick and dirty weapons as the American M3 “Grease Gun” and the British Sten.
But don’t assume that the MP40’s cheapness translates to a shoddy weapon. The MP40 is a compact killing machine that was particularly useful during street fighting — such as in Stalingrad — or in Berlin during the final days of the war.
Erma Werke churned out more than a million MP40s. But despite portrayals in popular culture, the MP40 was not the most common weapon issued to German troops.
At the outbreak of World War II, the majority of German soldiers carried Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifles. The Karabiner is a solid weapon chambered for the 7.92 x 57-millimeter Mauser round, but it’s a rather old-fashioned rifle.
Still, it was so prevalent that the Soviets acquired millions of the rifles from dead or captured German troops, which they promptly redistributed to Red Army troops or sent to Cold War allies after 1945.
During the Battle of Stalingrad, the ratio of MP40s and 98ks was roughly 50–50. But throughout the rest of the Wehrmacht, a bolt-action rifle — within origins dating back to before World War I — was the most common weapon carried by the German infantry.
The MP40 also enjoyed an interesting post-war career. The Allies captured hundreds of thousands of them, and thousands more ended up on the international arms market.
The CIA and MI6 supplied anti-communist forces around the world with limited numbers of MP40s. At least 20 different nations acquired the MP40 for their armies. Norway had the submachine gun in its arsenal until 1990.
But perhaps the most surprising user of all was Israel. During the early days of the nation’s existence, Israel cobbled together whatever arms and armaments it could find from a variety of international sources.
That included members of the militant groups Haganah and Irgun who joined the young Israel Defense Force in 1948 while toting MP40s. Many of these fighters had fled for their lives from the Nazi regime — and redeployed German-made weapons to help them establish a country of their own.