Osprey continues to roll out new titles in their excellent WEAPON Series of soft-cover books. Each book in the series provides an in-depth history of a famous weapon, using a combination of authoritatively researched text, photos and commissioned artwork.
As September is the time of year when we remember and commemorate the courageous exploits and sacrifices of Allied Airborne Forces in Operation Market-Garden during WWII, we’re going to highlight two recent volumes from the WEAPON Series.
The Sten submachine gun – officially the ‘Carbine, Machine, Sten’ – was developed for the urgent British requirement for large quantities of mass-produced weapons in 1940-1941, when German invasion seemed a very real possibility.
Over four million were built during World War II, and the Sten was widely used by airborne and commando troops, tank crews, and others who needed a compact weapon with close-range firepower. It also proved very popular with Resistance fighters as it was easy to conceal, effective at close range, and could fire captured German ammunition.
Officially named as an acronym formed by combining the first letters of the surnames of the gun’s designers, Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin, with the first two letters of the Enfield Arsenal where the gun was developed, the Sten was also nicknamed “Plumbers Nightmare” because its design was so simple that Resistance fighters could build them in basic machine shops.
At the other end of the small arms spectrum are the German MG34 and MG42 machine guns.
With the very notable exception of the Lewis Gun late in the war, machine-guns during the First World War were emplaced and employed like miniature artillery pieces – largely because they were cumbersome, tripod-mounted, water-cooled weapons that were too heavy to be carried or used on the move. With the successful emergence of platoon and squad-based assault and fire-and-maneuver tactics during the last year of WWI it quickly became apparent that a new type of machine-gun was needed – one that was light enough to be carried and used by the gunner as part of an infantry platoon or squad in dismounted mobile combat.
Enter the MG-34. Although it wasn’t designated as such at the time, the MG34 was in fact the first successful, mass-produced, General Purpose Machine-Gun (GPMG). The MG34 was a finely engineered, lightweight, air-cooled, selective-fire, recoil-operated weapon that fired the same cartridge as the standard infantry rifle. With a drum attached that held a 50-round belt of ammo the gun could be used as a bipod-supported light machine gun to support an assault or to provide over-watch to infantry troops using fire-and-maneuver tactics. Then by mounting the gun on a special recoil-absorbing tripod with a built-in optical sight, the gun quickly and easily became a deadly sustained-fire weapon for defensive tactics. The gun showed its extreme adaptability by also being successfully used mounted on vehicles, ships and aircraft – single, double, triple and even quadruple mounted MG34s were also successfully used as anti-aircraft machine-guns.
The MG34 did have its flaws however – the biggest flaw in the MG34s design was (ironically) that it was too well-built. The MG34 was so sleek, and even elegant, because it was machined to very close tolerances and finished to a very high degree. All of which is fine if you’re making an expensive sporting gun, but not so great if you need an economically-priced, mass-produced weapon to be dragged through the dirt and grime of battle. So the MG34 was phased out in favour of the MG42.
Retaining all of the tactical superiority of the MG34, the MG42 was lighter, less-costly and more efficient to manufacture, used a more robust feeding mechanism, and a roller-locked short recoil operated, full-auto only firing mechanism. The MG42 also increased the MG34s 900 rounds-per-minute cyclic rate of fire to an unprecedented 1,200 rounds-per-minute – double that of the US M1919 Browning machine-gun! The MG42s high rate of fire earned it an infamous reputation on the battlefield among American troops who nicknamed it “Hitler’s Buzzsaw”. Nonetheless, the MG42 is considered by many historians to be the best GPMG of the Second World War – in fact it was so good that re-tooled 7.62x51mm NATO versions are still the standard GMPGs of many nations today.
Check out the full range of Osprey’s WEAPON Series here.