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Tactical Life

  • The Game Changer: the MG34 Machine Gun

    By Michael Robichaux

    Machine guns were one of the dominant weapons of World War One. Given adequate supplies of water and ammunition, they could fire for literally hours on end, and mow down waves of attacking troops. But this firepower came at a price, namely weight: the base weight (unloaded, empty water jacket) of the German Maxim model 08 was about 125 lbs.

    Lethal in defense, these heavy machine guns were ill-suited for sprinting across No-Man’s Land. In the years following the war, the Germans set about designing a new machine gun that would be effective in both a defensive and an offensive capacity. Not only did they succeed in creating a remarkable weapon, they also redefined the infantry squad itself.

    Forerunners

    Several of the major belligerents in World War One had already introduced light machine guns, with varying degrees of success. The French Chauchat was fairly light, weighing only twenty pounds, but its open magazine was a magnet for mud and dirt, giving the Chauchat a lousy reputation for reliability. Moreover, it was more of an automatic rifle than a true machine gun. The German MG 08/15 was belt fed, and about as reliable as its big brother, the MG 08, but at 43 pounds (with a full water jacket but unloaded) it still wasn’t very light. The most effective of these LMGs was the Lewis gun, designed by an American but first adopted by the British. Drum fed and air cooled, it was quite reliable, and at only 33 and half pounds loaded, it was relatively portable. Thus it put mobile and dependable firepower in the hands of the front-line infantry, and was widely used in the latter years of the war.

    The Germans understood that the MG 08/15 wasn’t good enough, so they set about replacing it in the lean years following the Treaty of Versailles. Unfortunately we don’t know much about how the design progressed, as most of this documentation was destroyed in World War Two. We do know, however, that their requirements were stringent, too much so in fact, as this made the weapon unnecessarily complex. A few of the requirements were:

    • Light weight (which meant air-cooled)
    • Simple to operate
    • Quick-change barrel
    • Single-shot capability
    • Two cyclic rates (fast and slow)

    And this new machine gun was expected to replace the heavy machine gun, the light machine gun, the armored pillbox machine gun, and the anti-aircraft machine gun. Quite a tall order!

    Success

    The designers at Mauser Werke were certainly up to the task; the resulting MG34 was a breakthrough in firearms design. Upon its adoption in 1939, it effectively rendered all existing light machine guns obsolete, for these reasons:

    1) it weighed only twenty-six and a half pounds, thus it was light enough for a single man to carry, or run with;

    2) it could sustain a higher rate of fire because it was belt fed, whereas most light machine guns of that time fed from a 30-round magazine;

    3) it had a high cyclic rate of fire, 800 rounds per minute, so it could more easily hit running targets or suppress enemy fire;

    4) the barrel could be changed quickly; and,

    5) it was fairly reliable – more about this below.

    No other light machine gun could match these capabilities. The French FM 24/29 and British (Czech, actually) Bren gun were good designs for 1925 or 1930, but they couldn’t compete with the MG34, which weighed about the same but could generate much more firepower.

    A New Role for the Infantry Squad

    Now a belt-fed light machine gun with a rate of fire of about 800 rpm could burn through quite a lot of ammunition. But who was going to carry all that ammo? Answer: the whole squad. With the introduction of the MG34 came a change in perspective regarding the infantry squad: its core weapon was no longer the rifle, but the MG34. The riflemen were responsible for helping carry ammunition, which is why you see so many pictures of German soldiers in WW2 with a belt of ammo around their necks.

    This combination of a rapid-firing, highly mobile machine gun and copious amounts of ammunition on hand made the German infantry squad a difficult opponent. Allied squads, armed with a Bren gun or a Browning Automatic Rifle or two, were hard put to compete with the firepower of the MG34. Which is exactly the result the Germans sought.

    Any Drawbacks?

    The MG34 had two main drawbacks: 1) it was complex and expensive to manufacture, requiring quite a bit of milled steel; 2) it was prone to jam in very dusty conditions. It also had a tough time operating in the freezing Russian winter, but that held true for almost all German weapons, until they learned Russian tricks for keeping their weapons operational.

    The MG34’s successor, the MG42, was meant to address these problems, which it did, and more. But the MG34 remained in production throughout the war, as it was more suitable in situations (e.g., armored vehicles) where changing the barrel was difficult.

    Conclusion: a Game-Changing Weapon

    The MG34 was the finest light machine gun in the early years of World War Two, surpassed only by its direct successor, the MG42. Its combination of light weight, high firepower, and good reliability put it ahead of all comparable weapons of its day. Likewise, the changes the Germans made to the infantry squad gave them an edge over their opponents. In the decades following World War Two, many nations, including the United States, adopted similar weapons and doctrine, ample testimony to the outstanding results achieved by the MG34.

    Sources

    German Machine Guns of World War I: MG 08 and MG 08/15. Bull, Stephen. Osprey, 2016.

    MG 34 and MG 42 Machine Guns. McNab, Chris. Osprey, 2012.

  • Ever the Bridesmaid: The 7mm Mauser

    By Michael Robichaux

    2x 7x57 cartridge next to 7.5x55 Swiss / GP11 (mid), .308 Winchester and .223 Remington (right)
    The 7mm Mauser (aka 7x57) has an interesting yet paradoxical history. Early in life, it was used in combat against the United States and the British Empire, and its performance made a powerful impression on its opponents. For example, the United States Army almost immediately dropped its Krag-Jorgensen rifle, even though this had been introduced only five years earlier. Its replacement was chambered for a cartridge based on the 7mm Mauser, and used a Mauser-type action. And yet, after such impressive performance, the 7x57 was never adopted as a standard service cartridge by any major belligerent in either of the two World Wars.

    Background
    Peter Paul Mauser, an up-and-coming German rifle maker, traveled to Spain in 1892 to demonstrate a new rifle and its new cartridge, the 7mm Mauser. Both took advantage of the latest technological developments: the rifle featured a staggered internal magazine that held five rounds, and the cartridge was designed for the revolutionary new smokeless powder which the French had introduced six years earlier. The Spaniards were so impressed by both rifle and cartridge that they promptly placed an order with Mauser, and even awarded him the Grand Cross of the Spanish Military Order of Merit.

    Little did they know that six years later they would find

    themselves at war with the United States. And thus when 6,600 American troops charged up San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill, outside of Santiago, Cuba, they faced the business end of 750 Mauser M93s. Eventually numbers told, and the Americans took the hill – but at great cost. Outnumbered about nine to one, the Spanish troops inflicted 1,400 casualties on the Americans in a matter of minutes. This got the U.S. Army’s attention.

    How Did That Happen?
    Many of the American troops involved in the attack were carrying the .30-40 Krag-Jorgensen, introduced in 1893. Like the Mauser, it was a bolt-action rifle that held five rounds. Unlike the Mauser, it was reloaded one round at a time through a spring-loaded side gate. This was very handy for topping off the magazine, but decidedly slower to reload, as the Mauser could be reloaded five rounds at a time, using a stripper clip. Moreover, the Model Mauser 93 had a fast-cycling action; this video clip shows how quickly you can work its bolt.

    Last but not least, the 7mm Mauser had a flatter trajectory. Its military load at this point in time was a 173-grain round-nosed bullet. Launched from a 29-inch barrel, it had a muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps. While that might sound modest to 21st-century ears, it was a very flat-shooting round for its day. This gave it a clear edge over the .30-40 Krag, and a huge advantage over the black powder .45-70 that many American troops in Cuba still carried.

    Back to the Drawing Board
    Having noticed how many casualties it suffered at Santiago at the hands of only 750 Spanish troops, the Army commissioned a board of investigation that recommended replacing the Krag. In 1903, the Springfield rifle was introduced. It sported a Mauser action, was fed from a five-round stripper clip, and was chambered in a flatter- shooting cartridge, the 30-03. Remarkably similar to the rifle used by the Spanish troops at Santiago.

    Next Stop: South Africa
    The Spaniards weren’t Peter Mauser’s only customers. Sensing that a war with the British was brewing, the Boers of the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State placed an order with Mauser Werke for 50,000 Model 1895 rifles, chambered in 7x57. A little over thirty-five thousand of them arrived before hostilities broke out, and the Boers put them to good use.

    The Boers didn’t have an empire they could draw on for recruits. What they did have was tough and rugged citizen soldiers, who usually fought as dragoons – they travelled by horseback, but often dismounted to fight. The flat-shooting 7mm Mauser proved to be an excellent choice for fighting in the open country of South Africa, as the British soon found out.

    For example, the British assaulted a Boer-held position on Talana Hill, outside Dundee, Natal, on October 20, 1899. They sound found themselves in a maelstrom of rifle fire, and hit the dirt. Rallied by their commander, they resumed the attack and took the hill, but at great cost. Their commanding officer lay dying, they had suffered 253 other casualties, and the Boers simply mounted their ponies and trotted away. The British suffered even more heavily at the battle of Spion Kop three months later, where they lost 1,500 men, against only 335 Boer casualties, most lost to British artillery, not rifle, fire.

    Not up to Snuff
    The British were learning the hard way that their rifles’ sights were too crude for long-range shooting; to boot, many of them were incorrectly graduated, and shot wildly off the mark. Like the Krag-Jorgensen, the British Lee-Metfords were also slower to load, as they were not designed to be fed from a stripper clip. And to round out their troubles, the Lee-Metfords fired a 215gr cartridge whose ballistics were much inferior to those of the 7x57.

    The British Army made some hasty improvements to the sights on the Lee-Metford, and eventually their superior numbers forced the Boers to the negotiating table. Yet once again, the 7mm Mauser had dealt its opponents a stinging blow, and the British concluded their service rifle was inadequate: back to the drawing board they went. The result was the Short, Magazine Lee-Enfield, which soon won an outstanding reputation on the battlefields of the First World War. In the meantime, thanks to their experiences in the Boer War, the British Army had begun paying more attention to marksmanship, which served them well in the ensuing conflict.

    Meanwhile, back in Germany
    Having given two major powers a bloody nose in less than four years, the 7mm Mauser made quite a name for itself on the field of battle. All in vain. No major power chose to adopt this outstanding cartridge for its service rifle. Spain and the Boer Republics had done so, but they had no comparable indigenous weapons industry. The German Army had indeed adopted a Mauser design, the model 1898, but decided to chamber it in 8mm Mauser (8x57).

    The Sweet Spot
    In my opinion, the Germans made a mistake. Not that the 8mm Mauser was a bad cartridge, or the Mauser 1898 a bad rifle. But the 8mm kicked a lot harder, especially with the 198gr load adopted in 1933. Shooting that out of bolt-action rifle with a steel butt plate – no thanks! In addition, the ’98 action was slower to cycle, since it cocked on opening rather than on closing, like the ’93 (and the equally fast Lee Enfield).

    The 7mm Mauser came closer to the ideal cartridge in the age of battle rifles, possessing an effective combination of muzzle energy and range, with low recoil that just about any recruit could handle. The 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser would be another contender for this title, with even better ballistics due to its insanely high ballistic coefficient, but I’d go with the 7mm on the hunch that it delivers greater stopping power, and due to its impressive performance in the two conflicts mentioned above.

    Alas, it never got star billing. The major powers of the two World Wars ended up fielding cartridges ranging from 6.5mm (Italy and Japan) to .30 caliber (US, British Empire, France, USSR) to 8mm (Germany), but the 7mm Mauser was left on the sidelines. If there is any silver lining to this cloud, it’s the fact that the major American rifle cartridge in both wars, the .30-06, is a direct descendant of Peter Mauser’s outstanding 7x57.

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