Wehrmacht Heavy Metal: The German MP40 Submachine Gun

by Tommy Grant

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We humans have always venerated our weapons. This is but one of mankind’s curiously dark attributes. Some three millennia ago, the Israelite King David used the sword of the Philistine Goliath to take the terrible giant’s head. He then revered the blade in the tabernacle at Nob for years afterward. A bit closer to home, the German MP40 submachine gun became an iconic emblem of the Wehrmacht’s unprecedented battlefield successes early in World War II.

WW2 changed everything about modern life. The crucible of planetary conflict brought us such stuff as the guided missile, the modern assault rifle, the aircraft carrier, the jet fighter plane and the attack submarine. The Second World War also saw the ascendency of the pistol-caliber submachine gun.

Origin Story

The Germans actually blazed the trail back during WW1 with their 9mm MP18. The Italian Villar Perosa was nominally the first, but it took two magazines, fired off of a bipod and was as awkward as Joe Biden at a high school cheerleader competition. That original MP18 featured a wooden stock and fed from the 32-round snail drum designed for the artillery Luger, but it spawned a genre.

The MP-28 traded the snail drum for a stick magazine. Both of these guns fired from the open bolt and were manufactured to an extraordinary standard of workmanship. The receivers and ventilated barrel jackets were milled from big chunks of forged steel. With a modest rate of fire and decent ergonomics, these early SMGs changed the way German Stormtroopers cleared trenches. However, during the chaotic interwar years it became obvious that German industry could do better. That ultimately led to the elusive MP-36.

Erma-Werke produced the MP-36 in, you guessed it, 1936 as a speculative venture. The underfolding stock did not lock in place and the gun was not really amenable to mass production, but it served as a stepping stone. The subsequent MP-38 altered the landscape just a little bit.

In the MP-38 we see vestiges of greatness to come. The receiver was milled out of steel tube stock and the fire control housing was cut from aluminum, but the gun could pass for the subsequent mass-produced MP-40 in dim light. The easiest way to differentiate the two at a glance was that the MP-38 had longitudinal ribs cut into the receiver as well as a dime-sized hole punched through each side of the magazine well. The evolutionary MP-40 was the definitive icon.


The 9mm MP-40 was the first general-issue military firearm to eschew wooden furniture. The receiver and fire control housing were pressed from sheet steel, while the furniture was synthetic Bakelite. The underfolding stock was later aped almost exactly by Mikhail Kalashnikov on his folding stock AK-47. The gun fired from an open bolt via a 32-round double-stack, single-feed magazine and was full auto-only. The sole safety on early versions was a notch cut in the receiver to secure the bolt to the rear. A later modification included a redesigned bolt handle that could be used to lock the action closed.

At 8.75 pounds and 32.8 inches long with the stock extended, the MP-40 was both bulky and front-heavy. However, the gun’s sedate 500 rpm rate of fire made it eminently controllable. At a time when the industry standard was a four foot-long bolt-action rifle firing a round the size of your index finger, the MP-40 offered a quantum advance in firepower.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Stalingrad, the MP-40 became synonymous with Hitler’s jack-booted legions. While the tactical world has since moved on to rifle-caliber carbines and advanced electro-optics, the WW2-vintage MP-40 nonetheless earned its esteemed place in military history. As many as 1.1 million copies rolled off the lines. The German MP-40 SMG was a transitional form to greater things to come in firearm development around the world.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used by our re-enactor.

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