If the First World War was the conflict in which the machine gun was defined, it was the Second World War that the weapon was refined—and also how it was employed in both defensive and offensive roles. The early water-cooled machine guns gave a defender a true advantage, but it was the development of air-cooled machine guns that truly changed the battlefield forever.
Efforts were made by several nations, but it was Germany with its MG13 and later MG30—that lead to the development of the general-purpose machine gun.
German MG34 and MG42
The MG34 (Maschinengewehr 34) proved to be the first successful “general purpose machine gun,” meaning it could be employed in both heavy and medium machine gun roles. The recoil-operated, air-cooled machine gun was developed even before the Nazis took power and it introduced a new concept in machine guns.
It could operate as a medium machine gun in a fire support role with just its built-in bipod, or when used with a Lafette tripod could be used as a heavy machine gun. With a rate of fire of 800-900 rounds per minute, and an effective firing range of 2,000 meters and a maximum firing range of 4,700 meters it could literally take command of the battlefield.
If the MG34 had an issue it was that it was expensive and time consuming to produce—a trend that the German military needed to overcome during the war. The result could have been a lackluster gun, but instead it gave the world the MG42, one of the most lethal machine guns of the Second World War.
While it utilized stamped parts instead of the machined ones of the MG34, this new weapon proved to be reliable and easy to operate. It had a high rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute, and the distinctive sound of it being fired led to the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw.” The MG42 also had the same range as the MG34 but another improvement was an easier to change barrel—something highly important in an air cooled machine gun with such a high-rate of fire.
British Bren Gun
While this weapon is remembered as one of the main British light machine guns of World War II, the Bren Gun was actually a licensed version of the Czechoslovakian-made ZGB 33 light machine gun. Unlike the American Browning Automatic Rifle, which was designed to provide “walking fire” to an infantry squad, the Bren offered a quick change barrel, yet like the BAR the ammunition was fed from a box magazine—in this case a top loading 30 round curved magazine.
The gas-operated light machine gun had a 500 round per minute rate of fire and an effective range of just 550 meters. So, while it did offer walking fire for assaults it wasn’t really a long range weapon by any means.
However, the British Bren Gun was so reliable and effective that it remained in various roles until 1992 and was last used in a major combat role in the 1982 Falklands War. It could be fitted with a bipod or mounted on a vehicle where it took on a medium/heavy machine gun role.
American M1919 Browning Machine Gun
Among the most important military guns designed by John M. Browning is certainly the M1919, which is an air-cooled version of his water-cooled M1917 .30 caliber heavy machine gun. The weapon improved on the Maxim and Vickers designs that were used during the First World War.
The M1919 had a fairly slow rate of fire, ranging from 400-600 rounds per minute, but that helped keep the barrel from overheating. The recoil-operated machine gun had an effective range of 1,400 meters, and like its German counterparts it was belt-feed. It was used by infantry, mounted on Jeeps, tanks, aircraft and even landing craft on D-Day.
With the development of general-purpose machine guns in the Cold War, the M1919 was relegated to a secondary role, but even 100 years later this .30 caliber weapon remains in use today.
Soviet DP-28 Light Machine Gun
The Pulemyot Degtyaryova Pekhotny (Degtyaryov’s infantry machine gun) earned the nickname “the record player” due its large drum magazine on top. Likely inspired by the Lewis Gun, this light machine gun—which was introduced in 1928—utilized a simple design with very few parts compared to other machine guns. As with other Soviet small arms it was also highly rugged and could be buried in dirt and still work. It also used the 7.62x54mmR cartridge; making it a light machine gun as it fired a rifle round rather than a heavier round, and fired from the drum magazine rather than from a belt.
That magazine proved to be a major detraction however, as it took longer to change out but was also difficult to reload. With just 47 rounds in each magazine the guns had a limited amount of ammunition available to the shooter, but in fairness this was still greater than the 20 round magazine of the American BAR or 30 round magazine of the British Bren Gun. None of those facts endeared it to those who had to carry it—especially since it was light in name, but not in weight!
Unlike with the Bren, the DP-28 did not feature a changeable barrel, so the firearm’s lower rate of fire, and magazine changing time helped reduce the risk of the barrel overheating.
Japanese Type 96/99 Light Machine Gun
Similar in appearance to the British Bren Gun, this is an unfair comparison as other than the top-loading curved magazine and basic silhouette the guns’ respective internal workings are quite different. The Japanese Type 96 was actually an improved version of an earlier design—the Type 11, which featured a hopper instead of a magazine.
The Type 96 featured a folding bipod and interestingly enough could even be fitted with a bayonet. A serious problem with this LMG was that it jammed when fired cases often became stuck in the chamber. To solve the problem, it was suggested by the gun’s designer Kijiro Nambu that the cartridges should be oiled—which in combat only made matters worse in the field.
As a result, the Japanese introduced the Type 99 in 1936. Early models employed a mono-pod at the stock as well as a flash suppressor. One feature it did share with the Bren was that the barrel could be rapidly changed to avoid overheating. The distinctive feature, and what makes the comparison to the Bren inevitable, is that aforementioned top-mounted detachable box magazine, which held 30 rounds and solved the loading problems. As with the Type 11 and Type 96, the Type 99 was used throughout World War II.
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.