I got the awesome book Sturmgewehr! recently from Collector Grade Publications, and it contains tons of great stuff. It’s got a detailed history of the crazy internal politics and the various iterations of the prototypes that would eventually become the world’s first assault rifle.
All of that is awesome. And that alone would be worth the price of admission. Engineering prototypes are cool, and it’s great to track the evolution of an idea as it intersects with operational realities in testing. Plus, despite (or perhaps because of) being a dictatorship, the Third Reich had some crazy political struggles, with all kinds of subterfuge and pet projects and competing notions. Right there, I had my money’s worth.
But I was hoping for more, and happily Collector Grade (and the Waffenamt’s obsessive documentation) delivered. What I was really interested in was how the Germans figured they would be deploying this new weapon. Clearly, an assault rifle can replace bolt action rifles, semiautomatic-only rifles like the Gewehr 43, and submachine guns like the MP-40. That’s most of the weapons of the squad right there. But what about Hitler’s Buzzsaw? Can the StG-44 plausibly replace the MG-42? Did the Germans figure this was a net gain or a net loss?
Let’s look at the technical considerations for that very comparison, comparisons forged in the hellish engagements of the Eastern Front. I’ll have a follow up where I look at the 1944 organization tables built with the StG-44 in mind. Note that the Germans frequently deployed prototype StG-44s to combat units to gain feedback. One of the questions asked was “Can this weapon replace the MG-42 in an infantry squad?”
Anyway, let’s grab some relevant figures for comparison, so we have them all in one place. The MG-42 weighs 25.51 lbs, is chambered for 7.92x57mm Mauser, is belt fed, and fires at about 1,200 rounds per minute. We’re concerned primarily with the light machine gun use case, so not supported by the excellent tripod. While the MG-42 could be operated by one man, in practice a second man was designated to be the ammunition bearer, and would also help carry spare barrels.
The StG-44 weighs about 10 lbs unloaded, is chambered for 7.92x33mm Kurz, is detachable box magazine fed, and fires at about 500-600 rounds per minute (cyclic). A lot like a modern assault rifle.
When comparing the two options, it should be noted that this was not a one for one replacement. That is, the StG-44 would not be issued one per squad or fireteam in the fashion of the M1918 BAR. Rather, it was a shift to a ‘distributed firepower’ model, something like that of the Soviet submachine gun regiments. Clearly the StG-44 was a lot handier, and could be easily used in a trench or in built-up areas. A squad of StG-44s didn’t provide one obvious target for enemy suppression, and when relocating, did not have a significant drop in effective firepower as the machine gun was moved.
While the firepower of one MG-42 was significantly greater than that of one StG-44, given the different rates of fire and the relative capacities of a belt and a box magazine. Since the StG-44 was to be deployed en masse, this wasn’t a focus of comparison. It may interest the reader to know that Wehrmacht planners figured three StG-44s were roughly equivalent in close-in firepower to one MG-42.
The one big advantage the MG-42 held was at range. The MG-42 was still effective at ranges beyond 500 meters, but the StG-44 was never designed to be effective at these ranges. In the evaluations, units that were stationed in areas of Russia with long sightlines placed a high value on the MG-42 and keeping it available. Units that did not have many long sightlines available at the time of evaluation tended to value the handiness of the StG-44, and reckoned it could completely replace the MG-42.
Next time we’ll look at the units equipped with the StG-44, at least as they were drawn up on the organization tables.