The Gun That Changed Absolutely Everything: The German MP43

by Vern Evans
The German MP43 revolutionized infantry combat. Will Dabbs MD Photo

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Certain mechanical contrivances fundamentally transform the human experience. The cotton gin, the jet airplane and the cell phone might be considered typical examples. In each case, the world was a certain way before these things. It was way different afterwards. So it was with the iconic MP43 assault rifle.

The AK rifle is the most-produced firearm in human history. With well over 100 million copies in circulation, Comrade Kalashnikov’s rugged farm implement of an infantry weapon has legitimately shaped the affairs of men. The gun even made it onto the national flag of Mozambique. However, it was hardly the first.

 

The Knockoff

The AKM (left) and the MP43 look awfully similar. It’s tough to believe they could have both been designed independently. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The Russians vehemently assert that Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov had never before seen an MP43 when he contrived his eponymous assault rifle. The gun that began as the MP43 eventually became the MP44. The MP44 eventually evolved into the StG44. StG is short for Sturmgewehr or “Storm Gun.” There is a likely apocryphal tale that Adolf Hitler himself coined the term. It was translated into English as Assault Rifle, and here we are.

Despite the three different technical appellations, the basic chassis remained essentially the same. There were esoteric differences to such stuff as barrel nuts and stock geometries, but normal folk don’t care. To the pragmatist, the MP43, the MP44 and the StG44 are all virtually the same gun design.

I struggle to believe that Comrade Kalashnikov actually designed his weapon in a vacuum. There’s just too much Storm Gun in the AK for me to think that was just random. Regardless, it was the MP43 that was the true tipping point in modern small arms design.

 

Origin Story

From left to right we have the Combloc M43 7.62x39mm round, the German 7.92x33mm Kurt and the full-sized 7.92x57mm cartridge that fed wartime bolt-action German service rifles and machineguns. Will Dabbs MD Photo

In the early years of the 20th century, infantry rifles fired smokeless cartridges capable of dealing death out to 2,000 meters. These rounds were as long as your index finger, and the guns that fired them were as big as rowboat oars. Then we slogged through our first true world war and found that most infantry engagements took place at much shorter ranges. As a result, a great deal of that prodigious ballistic horsepower was simply wasted on the countryside behind the target. Pistol-caliber submachine guns strived vainly to fill that niche, but they still left a capability gap out beyond about 100 meters.

In 1923, Germany was still reeling from post-WW1 chaos. They lost the war fair and square, and demands for reparations amidst a faltering economy were crushing the German people. Throughout it all, that legendary German martial spark nonetheless glowed brightly.

German military research programs in the interwar years ultimately produced a revolutionary cartridge. The 7.92x33mm kurz fired the same diameter bullet as the larger 7.92x57mm rifle round but only used half the powder charge. The end result was a soft recoiling and adequately powerful cartridge out to 400 meters or so. However, the Germans still needed a gun to shoot it.

When the Germans invaded Russia, they were surprised to find entire enemy formations occasionally armed solely with PPSh submachine guns. When facing such a lopsided fire disparity, German engineers set out to contrive a selective-fire combat rifle that fired this revolutionary intermediate 7.92x33mm kurz round. The end result was the MKb 42 or Maschinenkarabiner 1942.

The MKb 42 came in two broad variants. The MKb 42(W) from Walther used a novel annular gas system, while the MKb 42(H) from Haenel orbited around a more conservative long stroke gas-operated mechanism. After troop trials on the Eastern Front, elements of both guns were melded to become the MP43.

MP was shorthand milspeak for Maschinenpistole or machine pistol. Rumor has it that questionable moniker was bestowed upon the rifle to get it around Hitler’s personal prohibition against intermediate-cartridge designs. After Der Fuhrer saw the revolutionary rifle demonstrated, however, he was just as smitten with it as are the rest of us.

The Rest of the Story

The MP43 was a truly paradigm-shifting design. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The rest, as they say, is history. By war’s end three different production plants had manufactured some 424,000 copies of the radical new assault rifle despite around-the-clock Allied bombing. German industry also produced 822 million rounds of 7.92x33mm ammunition to feed them.

That first German assault rifle subsequently showed up in war zones around the world for decades after the guns finally fell silent in Europe. Hundreds of the weapons were discovered in storage in Syria during their recent civil war. If properly cared for, guns, like bad politics, seem to last about forever.

Nowadays, the MP43 is the crown jewel in any well-heeled gun collection. Rumor has it that Palmetto State Armory will soon debut a new-made semiauto version. I’m giddy at the prospect. The gun’s classic lines foreshadowed even greater things to come. Sleek, sexy, lethal and cool, the MP43 was indeed the shape of things to come.

Thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the gear used to outfit our reenactor.

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