Key point: Walther made many different kinds of weapons that were used by special forces and police around the world. How did the MP gain its place and then manage to lose it?
While the most famous product of Carl Walther GmbH in fiction is the PPK pistol used by James Bond, Walther actually made a line of submachine guns that were the weapon of choice of real covert operatives during the Cold War. The Walther Maschinenpistole (MP) line—in either the MP Lang (MPL) or MP Kurz (MPK) format—was used by numerous police agencies, special forces units, and counterterror teams during the Cold War, due to its compact yet controllable design, accuracy and light weight. But what made the Walther MP the best of its time? Why did later SMGs like the H&K MP5 replace it?
The operating mechanism of the Walther MPs is fairly conventional. Like most submachine guns of the WWII era, it is an open bolt blowback design, meaning that upon pulling the trigger the bolt would move forwards, strip a round from the magazine, chamber it, then fire. Unlike the older guns, the Walther MP uses an interesting layout where the majority of the bolt mass is contained within a tube above the barrel, reciprocating above it with a little blocky protrusion under the main cylindrical bolt mass that handled feeding, firing and extracting the cartridge with the actual bolt face. The result of placing this heavy bolt above the barrel was that recoil and muzzle climb was reduced versus other designs, and the gun was allowed to be much more compact. It also featured other ergonomic improvements like a selector/safety (including a semi-automatic mode) that could be easily actuated by the thumb, and a left-side cocking handle making it easy for an operator to cock it after an empty reload. Sights were simple but adequate, one aperture sight for long-range shooting, and one post and notch sight for close-range work. Rounding out the features of the Walther MP was a simple but sturdy folding stock, a brisk yet controllable rate of fire at 550 rounds per minute, and light weight (6.17 lbs for an MPK, compared to 7.1 lbs for a WWII Sten Mk. II or 8.75 lbs for an MP40).
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This combination of features made the Walther MP, specifically the MPK, extremely attractive for covert police and military units worldwide. 1st SFOD “Delta Force” used Walther MPKs, notably during Operation Eagle Claw, the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt and during training during the 1970s. The other unit that participated in the raid, Detachment A, who managed to infiltrate Iran prior to the failed heliborne assault, also used Walther MPKs. Detachment A was about as close to a real “James Bond” unit as it got in the Cold War military, in the combination of fieldcraft, direct action and surveillance skills. Members of the detachment often operated in plain clothes, assisting the police in busting criminals that crossed the Berlin border. In the event of war, they would attempt to infiltrate East Berlin, possibly by means of underground, water-filled tunnels. On such missions, the MPK was the weapon of choice. German Navy units (Kampfschwimmer) tasked with similar missions of underwater sabotage and infiltration in the waterways of Germany during the Cold War also preferred the MPK. German police units also used them, notably during the 1972 Munich hostage crisis. While it was not a big success on the export market, it also found favor in the Republic of South Africa, arming the Special Task Force of the South African Police Service under the name HMK. MPKs also served in small numbers in various other militaries.
While the MPK was replaced in service in almost every unit listed above by the H&K MP5, the Walther was known to have some advantages over the MP5. James Stejskal, a Detachment A veteran, described the MPK as being more reliable in dirty and dusty conditions than the MP5. However, the MP5 edged out the MPK on accuracy, likely due to the MP5 being a closed bolt design. In the end, the MP5 is very similar on many design features to the MPK, both use left side cocking handles, have ergonomic thumb selectors, and make use of aperture sights. The Walther MP ended its production run in 1980, having been superseded by the MP5.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.