The odd-looking Hotchkiss Type Universal represented an extraordinary attempt at creating an extremely compact submachine gun.
The need was obvious. In World War II, soldiers found themselves getting in and out of vehicles, jumping from planes and fighting in close quarters. They needed a weapon that wouldn’t get in the way.
Submachine guns had become an essential weapon during the war owing to their small size and high rate of fire. By 1949 France was seeking to replace its lend-lease STEN guns and aging MAS-38s — the latter a pre-war design — with a more compact submachine gun.
Chambered in nine-millimeter Parabellum with the standard 32-round magazine, the Universal was originally designed as a solely semi-automatic compact carbine for police use. But when the French army announced its requirement for a new submachine gune, Hotchkiss redesigned the Universal, adding fully-automatic capability. The new design featured select-fire and cycled at approximately 650 rounds per minute.
Designers went to extraordinary lengths to minimize the size of the Universal. Not only did the stock fold beneath the barrel, but the magazine housing and magazine also rotated forward to sit beneath the barrel, with the magazine fitting between a U-shape cutout in the butt stock.
The weapon’s pistol grip was also hollow and the grip could fold forward to cover the trigger. But the most interesting folding component was the telescopic barrel, which could retract several inches. These features brought the Universal’s length down from 30.60 inches with the stock extended to a diminutive 17.25 inches in its most compact configuration. But the weapon could not fire with its stock collapsed.
The Universal’s extreme compactness was its best feature and also its worst feature. The complexity of its folding mechanisms made it difficult and expensive to manufacture. The weapon’s ergonomics were poor, with its narrow buttplate, an uncomfortable pistol grip and narrow sights that were less than ideal for quick target-acquisition.
The French military eventually chose the MAT-49, which also had a folding magazine housing that made it almost as compact as the Universal — but without the Universal’s complexity.
Sadly, Hotchkiss produced the Universal for just three years between 1949 and 1952. There were only two customers — the French police and the Venezuelan military. The Universal would be one of the last firearms the Hotchkiss ever made. The company retooled in early 1950s in order to focus on automobile manufacturing.