Nazi Germany's Sturmgewehr-44: The Assault Rifle That Started Everything

Nazi Germany's Sturmgewehr-44: The Assault Rifle That Started Everything

But Hitler didn’t like it, and initially ordered production to halt.

A revolutionary German weapon that first appeared in 1943 inspired generations of assault-rifle design. Incredibly, Adolf Hitler almost canceled the weapon’s development.

The Sturmgewehr-44 debuted many features that now are standard on military assault rifles. It fired an intermediate round that was bigger than a standard German army pistol cartridge was but also shorter than a German rifle cartridge was.

The new weapon also could shoot in semi-automatic mode as well as in full-auto mode. It boasted a 30-round, detachable box magazine.

“The Sturmgewehr-44 is often heralded as the grandfather of all modern assault rifles,” historian Matthew Moss wrote.

But Hitler didn’t like it, and initially ordered production to halt. “The reasons why are complex,” historian Paul Richard Huard explained, and were “partly rooted in his own experiences as a soldier during World War I, partly because he often thought he was the greatest military genius who ever lived.”

“The combat experiences of the 1930s and 1940s convinced many German officers that a modern army needed an infantry weapon that would provide more firepower than a bolt-action rifle in environments other than an open battlefield,” Huard wrote.

On the Eastern Front, Red Army soldiers armed with semi-automatic weapons like the Tokarev SVT-38 took a great toll on German troops.

In 1942, arms-manufacturers Haenel and Walther both received specifications to develop a gas-operated machine carbine that could be manufactured quickly and inexpensively from stamped metal parts. The result were two amazingly similar weapons. Eventually, the army selected the Hugo Schmeisser-designed Maschinenkarabiner 1942, manufactured by Haenel.

The MKb42 (H) fired the 7.92-by-33-millimeter Kurz (short) round — an intermediate round. Soldiers loved the weapon, particularly when they used it on full auto because the cartridge packed enough punch to kill a person without making the weapon unmanageable because of recoil.

Production of the MKb42 (H) began in 1943 under the designation MP-43. That’s when Hitler intervened. The genocidal German leader “ordered production stopped,” Huard wrote.

However, the generals did something rarely risked while Hitler was in charge — they went behind his back. They re-named the MKb42 (H) the Maschinenpistole 43 or MP-43, claiming it was an upgrade to existing submachine guns. Of course, it wasn’t a submachine gun … and eventually Hitler discovered the deception.

Surprisingly, Hitler didn’t order the German brass shot for disobedience. After briefly ordering a halt in production, he found out that his troops on the Eastern Front demanded more of the new rifles. Stories of overwhelmed German soldiers armed with MP-43s fighting their way out near annihilation made the weapon legendary on both sides of the lines.

Finally, Hitler actually fired an MP-43. He was so impressed he wanted it named Sturmgewehr — meaning “storm rifle” as in “taking the objective by storm” — for propaganda purposes. But the more common synonym in English is “assault” — and the assault rifle as we know it today made its first appearance as the StG-44 with some minor modifications.

German industry built no fewer than 400,000 StG-44s beginning in 1943. Meanwhile, German firm Mauser developed an even better assault rifle, the StG-45.

“However, Nazi Germany’s manufacturing infrastructure even in 1943 was under severe strain due to constant day and night bombing raids by Allied bombers and the dwindling stream of raw materials available,” Moss noted.

“Only 30 of the StG-45 were manufactured by late April 1945 and only one of those was ever assembled and tested.” The improved assault rifle never saw combat.

The StG-44 “changed the battlefield forever,” Huard claimed. “After World War II, militaries around the world began arming themselves with select-fire rifles or carbines that fired intermediate rounds.”

A few operational StG-44s survived into the 21st century, Huard reported. “As recently as August 2012, the Syrian Al Tawhid Brigade posted a video clip showing a cache of the assault rifles and ammunition the rebels claimed to have uncovered in the city of Aleppo.”

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.