German work on designing a semiautomatic rifle began in earnest after Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. During the Nazi sweep eastward, German soldiers encountered Russian troops armed with SVT-38s and SVT-40, early semi-automatic rifles fielded by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Though imperfect, both rifles offered a much better rate of fire, and held double the amount of ammunition, ten rounds, than the Karabiner 98k, at the time Nazi Germany’s standard issue bolt-action rifle.
The first German design was severely hindered by restrictions that were placed on the design. In order to improve the rifle’s robustness, it was not to have any externally moving parts. In addition, no ports or holes were to be drilled into the barrel: an alternative cycling mechanism would have to be used. And, in case the automatic action failed, a backup bolt action was to be incorporated into the design. The resulting Gewehr 41 was an unmitigated disaster.
A cone-shaped gas trap at the end of the barrel was used to catch gas and drive a piston that cycled the rifle’s action, adding weight to the rifle. In addition, designers mounted a front post sight to the moving gas trap, making the rifle inaccurate. After extended firing, the trap would become dirty and was prone to jamming, a problem that was further exacerbated by difficult field cleaning thanks to the rifle’s mechanical complexity.
New and Improved
In 1943 the design was revisited and improved, and the resulting Gewehr 43 was far superior. The design eliminated the heavy and unreliable gas trap system in favor of a more conventional gas mechanism for cycling cartridges. In addition, a ten-round detachable magazine was incorporated, allowing soldiers to reload much more quickly than was possible with the Gewehr 41, which relied on two five-round stripper clips for a full reload.
The rifle was valued for significantly simpler maintenance as well as a more robust, reliable design. Despite using the full-powered 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge, the standard German rifle cartridge during both World Wars, it did not suffer from an inordinate amount of kick or noise, perhaps due in part to the rifle’s somewhat shorter barrel length. A number of the rifle’s components like the magazine, trigger guard, sight hood, and other parts were made of stamped, rather than milled steel which increased production speed and reduced per unit cost—a boon to Germany’s increasingly strained war economy. Still, the design was too little, too late despite the improvements.
Though the design was functional and appears to have been produced until late in the war, it came too late to tip the balance of power in Germany’s favor. Post-war, Karabiner 43s were used to arm both the Police and armed forces of several Socialist Republics, though other designs like the superior AK-47 quickly supplanted the surplus rifles as standard issue.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.