The Grease Gun Was for Killing Nazis
Cheap, easy to make, great for shooting bad guys
Born out of the necessity rapidly to put inexpensive submachine guns in the hands of American soldiers and Marines, it was so cheap it looked like a mechanic’s tool rather than the product of advanced American industrial know-how.
It was supposed to serve as a replacement to the iconic and expensive Thompson submachine gun, but developed a reputation of its own that kept it in the U.S. military inventory from World War II all the way through Desert Storm.
Nobody really loved the M-3 that G.I.s dubbed the “Grease Gun.” But nobody really hated, either.
“By the Korean War, the M-3 and M-3A1 were used in greater numbers than the Thompson,” said Alan Archambault, former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History and former director of the Fort Lewis Military Museum at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
“Although unattractive and cheaply made, it was a practical weapon,” said Archambault, an Army veteran who is also an artist and illustrator who specializes in military subjects.
“The weapon did have close-range stopping power,” he continued. “A visitor to the Fort Lewis Museum once told me the story of shooting a Chinese soldier at close range and knocking him out of his boots like in a cartoon or a Three Stooges movie.”
In the 21st century, we are used to weapons made of exotic materials and possessing high-technology features that maximize killing power—polymers and aerospace metals, lasers and optics.
But during World War II, there was an almost desperate urgency to manufacture vast quantities of weapons as quickly and cheaply as possible. The materials then looked like they were on sale at the corner hardware store.
The British did it by producing the Sten Gun, a 9-by-19-millimeter submachine gun composed of steel tubing and sheet metal and which bears a similarity to a piece of plumbing.
So did the Russians when they made the PPSh, a 7.62-by-25-millimeter submachine gun that unskilled laborers produced in auto shops.
It saved the government money. The iconic Thompson submachine gun—a sleek, well-made weapon highly prized by any G.I. who could get his hands on one—cost Uncle Sam about $225 each. That’s around $3,000 a weapon today when you adjust for inflation. A new Grease Gun cost the government about $20 each, or about $260 a weapon in today’s dollars.
No wonder it was also bore the nickname “the poor man’s Tommy Gun.”
Soldiers didn’t embrace it at first, Archambault said. The M-3 had some initial problems with an awkward cocking handle, but in 1944 the military eliminated the cocking handle and added a flash hider, resulting in the M-3A1.
Once they discovered its stopping power and the weapon’s kinks were worked out, G.I.s and Marines developed a sort of grudging affection for the gun.
It survived through the Korean War and into the Vietnam War. U.S. helicopter pilots often carried one in their cramped cockpits because it was smaller than an M-16 and offered more firepower than a pistol.
It even developed a kind of bad-boy reputation because of its prominence in the popular film The Dirty Dozen. In one famous scene, Lee Marvin’s character—seen above in the MGM capture—fires an M-3 at the criminals and misfits he is transforming into a fighting unit while they train on an obstacle course.
The reality is the M-3 was probably the easiest and least expensive weapon for the movie’s armorers to obtain. Yet, the image stuck.
Archambault said the last time the Grease Gun went to war as an official member of the U.S. inventory was during Desert Storm in 1991. Tank crews carried them as a back-up weapon—nearly 50 years after the military first introduced it to save money and kill Nazis.