Throughout the Cold War, despite being a communist nation under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia didn’t actually maintain close ties with the Soviet Union. This is was notable in that many of the small arms employed with its military were essentially clones of weapons developed in Germany.
The state-owned firm Zavodi Crvena Zastava produced a variant of the highly-effective MG42 general purpose machine gun using original German machinery. Designated the M53, it was chambered in the same 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge. It remained in use until 1999 and saw use in the Yugoslav Civil Wars.
Another weapon that certainly had a German influence also took on some Soviet elements and characteristics. It was the M56 submachine gun (SMG), which at a passing glance seems to be a cross between the German MP40 and Soviet PPS-43. The pistol grip, folding stock and receiver look almost identical to the MP40, and the barrel is also similar in profile but a bit longer. However, the magazine well and curved magazine are close in design to the Soviet SMG.
The origins of this mash-up submachine gun began in 1956 when the Yugoslav People’s Army sought to replace its previously issued M49 submachine gun, which was a straight copy of the Soviet PPSh-41. It originally began as a state-funded product, but was later produced by the Zastava.
It featured a long tubular receiver and a plastic molded lower receiver and pistol grip. There were issues with the plastic cracking in cold weather, but this was rectified by the addition of a wooden insert inside the lower receiver. As with the weapons it borrowed elements from, the M56 was basic in controls, which consisted of a right side charging handle, simple magazine catch and cocking handle safety. Unlike either the MP40 or PPS-43, the M56 offered a way to select for semi- and fully-automatic fire.
It was inexpensive to produce, and reasonably easy to maintain.
While such clones of existing weapons were often considered inferior to the original, in the case of the M56 SMG, it actually improved upon the classic German design. One notable factor was that it was chambered for the 7.62x25mm cartridge—the same used in the PPSh-41 and PPS-43—which was noted for providing significantly more penetration and accuracy at range over the German 9x19mm Parabellum round that was originally developed for the Luger pistol and used in the MP40.
Interestingly, despite the benefits of the 7.62x25mm cartridge, Zastava began manufacturing a version chambered in 9x19mm in 1965, designated the M65.
The firearm was widely issued to Yugoslav People’s Army as well as border guards throughout the 1950s. It was largely replaced by the Zastava M70 AK derivative in the 1960s, as well as by the M84, a licensed copy of the Czechoslovakian Vz.61 Skorpion.
Meanwhile, the M56/M65 was also exported. Versions of the Yugoslavian SMG saw use in the Vietnam War, the Lebanese Civil War and some were even employed by elements the Iraqi Army in the Gulf War. It was widely used in the Yugoslav Civil Wars.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.