Key point: The submachine gun’s baptism by fire occurred in 1956, when Israeli paratroopers of Unit 202 sized the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula.
One of the most recognizable weapons of the postwar era came from one of the newest nation-states. The Uzi submachine gun was designed to be a simple, inexpensive weapon that would overcome the logistical problems of a ragtag army turning professional. In doing so it became a commercial success, exported far and wide and a legend among postwar small arms.
(This first appeared last year.)
The story of the Uzi goes back to 1948 and the birth of Israel. Declared a nation in May 1948, the young country was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors—Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Transjordan. Various Israeli paramilitary organizations, particularly the Haganah militia, coalesced into the Israeli Defense Forces, the country’s armed forces. Despite being outnumbered and often outgunned, the IDF successfully defended the country.
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All in all, the IDF repelled the Arab world’s combined assault with just two hundred machine guns, ten thousand rifles and 3,600 submachine guns. The IDF’s victory came despite its reliance on a motley collection of surplus small arms from around the world, from British small arms and Enfield rifles to surplus Axis equipment—particularly from Czechoslovakia. Some of Israel’s earliest defenders used their own civilian sporting rifles and shotguns. This prevented universal training and was a logistical nightmare, as the different weapons used dozens of different ammunition types.
Israel’s network of allies—and enemies—had yet to coalesce, and acquiring arms abroad was a tricky (and sneaky) business. Much of the country’s armaments, even fighter planes, were acquired via smuggling. The country was also very poor and could not afford the latest arms. The solution was to take advantage of the country’s highly educated citizens, constant near-war footing and many veterans of World War II, and create an arms industry of its own.
In 1952, a Israeli of German descent, Lt. Uziel Gal, patented a new machine gun design. The gun was short and compact, with a metal stock that folded up above the upper receiver. It took a twenty-five- or thirty-two-round magazine that was inserted vertically into the pistol grip. It utilized a simple blowback design, firing either semiautomatic or automatic at a relatively slow rate of six hundred rounds a minute. It had a simple sight, protected in both the front and the rear from being dented or bashed. The gun even had three safety mechanisms: a manual lever safety, a grip safety not unlike the one built into the 1911 pistols and a bolt safety. The gun was named Uzi, after the creator.
There were a number of advantages to the Uzi that made it an effective submachine gun. Firstly, it used stamped parts, making it easy and inexpensive to mass-produce—an important feature for a poor country without a lot of industry. Second, the placement of the magazine in the middle of the weapon made it well balanced, much like a pistol. The safety mechanisms made it easier to train and entrust to conscripts and recruits without much military training. Finally, the ability to spray nine-millimeter parabellum rounds at six hundred rounds a minute gave the user the ability to put out a large volume of suppressive fire.
Contrary to popular belief, the Uzi was not the standard weapon of Israeli infantry. The weapon’s short range—its sights maxed out at just two hundred yards—made it useful in built-up, urban areas, but much less useful in open, rolling terrain, where a full-sized battle rifle would be much more useful. The bulk of the IDF carried the Belgian FN-FAL rifle, while the Uzi went to paratroopers, tank and armored-vehicle crews, and special-forces units.
The IDF placed its first orders for the Uzi in 1954. The submachine gun’s baptism by fire occurred in 1956, when Israeli paratroopers of Unit 202 sized the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Peninsula. The paratroopers cleared out Sudanese and Egyptian forces from in and around the pass in support of a larger offensive to take the Sinai, and the compact, high-firepower Uzi proved useful in clearing Egyptian troops out of nearby caves. During the 1956 war, the Uzi was used in the Sinai desert once against Egyptians, in the streets and alleys of the West Bank against Jordanian troops, and in the Golan Heights against Syrians.
The proliferation of AK-pattern weapons on the Arab site of the equation—particularly the AKM—set the Uzi on a path to disfavor. The Uzi delivered a pistol-caliber round a maximum of two hundred yards, while the AKM could fire an assault-rifle-caliber round with reasonable accuracy three times as far. That mean that at ranges beyond two football fields, Arab troops could easily achieve fire superiority over their Israeli rivals armed with a mixture of Uzis and FALs. Uzis would continue to serve with Israeli special forces units, but IDF infantry were often issued M16s and later locally designed and produced Galil assault rifles instead.
Outside of Israel the Uzi proliferated widely, contributing to its global image. Countries as diverse as Japan, Germany, Belgium, Peru and Brazil all used the Uzi in their armed forces, as well as producing it under license. The Uzi wormed its way into a variety of Third World conflicts, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, was active in antirevolutionary conflicts in Central and South America, and became an object of desire in the United States among criminal gangs.
The Uzi was a textbook example of a simple project successfully completed by a nascent arms industry. A well-designed, reliable submachine gun made of stamped parts, it was simple to build and had universal appeal. Although mostly out of service, the Uzi’s profile will be recognizable for decades to come.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.