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'Hitler's Zipper': Nazi Germany's Deadly Machine Gun No One Wanted to Mess With

The MG 42, possibly the best machine gun ever created, originated as a replacement for the German Army’s standard machine gun, the MG 34, which first came into service in 1936. Designed by Louis Stange of the Rheinmetall-Borsig AG (referred to simply as Rheinmetall) located at Sommerda, the MG 34, at the start of World War II, was the Third Reich’s preferred general purpose machine gun (GPMG) and was intended to replace the heterogeneous collection of automatic infantry weapons then in service as befitted the new German “one-gun-fits-all” philosophy.

The MG 34, using a 7.92mm round, turned out to be a fine GPMG, meeting all the specifications laid down over the previous decade. Crewed by two or three soldiers, the gun weighed 24.3 pounds; its tripod weighed an additional 52 pounds. Air cooled and recoil operated, it had a cyclic rate of fire of 800 rounds per minute, mandating that the barrel be changed after every 250 rounds. By changing its mounting and fire mechanism, the operator could radically transform its function. With its standard bipod it was a light machine gun, ideal for infantry assaults; mounted on its tripod it served as a sustained fire medium machine gun spewing bullets to a range of 3,829 yards. Between 1939 and 1945, Nazi Germany manufactured over 354,000 of this proven and effective weapon.

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For all its qualities as a first-rate GPMC and popularity with its users, the MG 34 did have its problems. In their enthusiasm to make the weapon the finest machine gun possible, the designers had gone over the top by producing a gun that demanded a high-quality finish, the use of scarce raw materials, and higher precision manufacturing than was really needed. Consequently, the manufacturing process was quite time consuming and expensive, so much so that demand due to combat losses and the expansion of the German armed forces could never keep pace with the demands for new production during the war, even after several new manufacturing centers including the main one run by Mauser AG-Werke were established. A simpler, easier to produce GPMG appeared to be the only solution.

The MG 42’s Design Improvements

The MG 42 fired a 7.92mm round. With a muzzle velocity of 2,480 feet per second the MG 42’s effective range was nearly 1,100 yards. The gun used a 50-round flexible metal belt feed, or, alternatively, a 75-round snail drum magazine. A full 50-round belt of ammo would be depleted in a 21/2-second burst; the 75 round drum in 31/2 seconds. To permit longer fire bursts, MG 42 crews normally linked together several 50 round belts. Ammunition boxes (weighing 22 pounds each) held five separate belts totaling 250 rounds per box. A good crew could shoot 250 rounds in 12½ seconds of continuous fire, or 20-30 seconds by firing quick bursts.

As good as the MG 42 was, there were still complaints about its performance. First, unlike the MG 34, it could not fire single shots. Another complaint that arose due to the high rate of fire was that during prolonged firing the gun tended to veer away from the target due to the vibration and even push its operator backward. Once the gun was set on its tripod these problems vanished, and the MG 42 became the perfect sustained fire support weapon.

What’s more, the tremendous rate of fire coming from the MG 42 was considered by some to be a waste of ammunition. To counter that argument, others said that since a soldier, in the Germans’ experience, only fired at an enemy he could see and time (only seconds) was fleeting, the more bullets directed at the enemy the greater chance for a kill.

During the war a number of companies produced the MG 42, although never in the numbers needed to keep up with the ever increasing demand. These included Gustloff-Werke in Suhl, Mauser AG-Werke in Borsigwald, Steyr in Vienna, Grossfuss in Dobeln, and Maget in Among them, 129 MG 42s were made each day from 1942 through 1945. More than 400,000 units were produced (17,915 in 1942,116,725 in 1943, 211,806 in 1944, and 61,877 in 1945).

Machine Gun Doctrine

Of course, even the best weapon has to be used appropriately for its battlefield capabilities to be fully realized. Fortunately for the Germans, and unfortunately for their opponents during World War II, the German Army formulated an effective machine gun doctrine and tactics.

Unlike their American, British, Commonwealth, and Soviet adversaries, the Germans in World War II employed machine guns as their major infantry support weapons. The Allies used automatic weapons to support rifle-armed infantry. The German Army reversed the process, using infantry to support machine guns in combat. As a result, the standard German Army infantry company of 150 men in 1944 contained 15 MG 42s needing only 30 to 50 men to crew the lot. By contrast, only two light machine guns were assigned to each American foot company.

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