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As the role of the military has changed, so have the guns used in battle.

The 20th century quickly established itself as a period of huge changes in military small arms as compared to advances made in the 19th century. Smokeless powder and self-loading mechanisms came into their own as the 19th century waned, setting the stage for further growth in the 20th century.

In the field of military handguns, the beginning of the 20th century was dominated by revolvers. At the end of the century however, revolvers are virtually gone from military use.

Arguably the first significant military handgun advancement of the century was the development of the 9mm Luger cartridge circa 1902. Originally only available in the Luger pistol, this cartridge is now the dominant pistol and submachine cartridge of most of the world's militaries.

The only major exceptions are Russia, some of her former republics, and China, which use the 9mm Makarov cartridge, and a few countries like the Philippines that cling to the .45 ACP. Most former Iron Curtain nations however, are currently in the process of switching to the 9mm cartridge for handguns.

Great Fighting Handguns

The Luger pistol's claim to fame was the fathering of the 9mm parabellum cartridge. As a military pistol it was actually obsolete by World War I, mainly because of its poor ergonomics and susceptibility to failure under adverse conditions. The pistol that rendered it obsolete was the seemingly immortal U.S. M1911 .45 ACP.

Nearly 90 years later at the close of the century, minor variations of the M1911 pistol are still the used by the elite U.S. Army Operational Detachment Delta and U.S. Marine Expeditionary Unit Special Operations Capable. In our modern world what other machines from 1911 are still considered the best in their field in 1999?

The other most significant handguns of the century were: the Browning Hi-Power, which introduced the high capacity magazine; the German Walther P38 9mm, which introduced the double action trigger; the Beretta Model 92 9mm, which introduced the combination of the double action trigger and a high capacity magazine (the S&W 59 came first by a small margin but was never accepted by the military); and the Glock G17, which successfully introduced polymer frame construction and a particularly effective type of DAO trigger mechanism.

From Sub-Gun To Assault Rifle

The submachine gun first saw limited use in World War I but its major military application was in World War II where it was used in huge numbers. The development and refinement of the assault rifle in World War II spelled doom for the SMG.

Now, as the century closes the SMG has only the most minor of roles in the world's militaries with short assault rifles largely taking its place. When the SMG is used at all it is primarily in special operations and then often in the suppressed mode.

The SMG has progressed through several generations of development over the century. The first generation SMGs were made of machined steel prior to World War II; the most significant include the German MP28 9mm, the Finnish 9mm Soumi, the Italian Beretta M38 9mm, and the American Thompson .45 in its various models.

The second generation SMGs first produced during World War II featured designs that could be made more efficiently and cheaply, primarily by using stampings. The most significant are the German MP4O 9mm, the British 9mm Stens, the Russian PPSh 41 7.62x25mm, and the post-World War II British Sterling.

The third generation SMGs are post-World War II and feature such things as telescoping bolts, extremely short construction, closed bolt operation, aluminum or polymer construction, and other refinements. The most significant examples are the Israeli Uzi, the H&K MP5 and the Beretta M12.

Farewell To The Bolt Action

At the turn of the century virtually all of the world's militaries were armed with bolt action rifles chambered for powerful small bore (6.5mm to 8mm) cartridges that fired jacketed bullets with smokeless powder. These rifles remained the primary individual infantry armament through World War II, with the sole exception of the U.S. where the semiautomatic M1 Garand was the primary rifle. Bolt action rifles currently remain in military service only in the form of sniper rifles.

While semiauto rifles made an appearance in World War I, they got their major acceptance during World War II with the Soviet M1940 Tokarev, the American M1 Garand, the Swedish Ag42 Ljungmann and the German G43 and K43 rifles.

The M1 Garand, in particular, established without a doubt the superiority of the semiautomatic rifle over the bolt action in combat. American squads with M1 Garands repeatedly proved that they could take on enemy platoons armed with bolt action rifles and still prevail.

Post-World War II production of refined semiautomatic battle rifles led to the Belgian FN SAFN M1949, the French MAS 49 and 49/56, the Belgian FN FAL, the Swiss SIG 510 series, the U.S. M14, the Italian Beretta BM59 and the German G-3. All were and are quite excellent.

While some of these were available with a selective fire capability, they were largely ineffective in the full automatic role because the power of their cartridges made them uncontrollable. Consequently they were used almost universally as semiautomatic rifles.

The successor to the battle rifle is the assault rifle. First introduced during World War I in the form of the Russian Federov 6.5mm M1916, the assault rifle was refined in World War II by the Germans and fielded as the Sturmgewehr (Stg) 44 firing the intermediate powered 7.92mm Kurtz (short) cartridge. There is little doubt that the extremely effective Stg44 inspired the Soviet 7.62x39mm AK47 assault rifle, which is likely the most prolific small arm ever fielded.

The AK47 first saw quantity issue in the Soviet forces in the 1950s and it became their primary combat rifle by about 1960. The U.S. countered with the Armalite 5.56mm M16 assault rifle in the 1960s.

By 1970 the M16A1 had replaced the M14 as the main U.S. combat rifle. The M16 has since become the single most prolific small arm in U.S. history and is probably only behind the AK47 and the Mauser 98 in numbers made of all the rifles of the world.

As the century closes, the U.S. M16 has the longest reign as a first line standard rifle of any rifle in our history and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

Other Guns Of Note

The area of combat military shotguns is interesting in that the century began with the U.S. using the pump-action Winchester M97 12 gauge and is ending with the U.S. military using the Mossberg 590 pump-action 12 gauge as its primary shotgun. The only significant functional difference is that the newer gun holds three more rounds. That is not a lot of progress over the course of a century.

The light machine gun, basically a magazine-fed, one-man portable machine gun, was born in the early years of this century with the Danish Madsen and was used extensively in World War I in the form of the excellent British Lewis LMG and the awful French Chauchat. World War II saw the LMG reach its pinnacle in the form of the British Bren, the Russian Degtyarev and the Japanese Type 99 LMGs.

Since World War II the LMG has been largely replaced by the more versatile belt-fed general purpose machine gun and the squad automatic weapon. While some LMGs are still in limited use, none are in production and they are quickly becoming extinct.

The field of squad automatic weapons is dominated in the east by variations of the AK firing large capacity magazines (40 to 100 rounds) from a bipod and the belt-fed RPD. In the west there are several excellent belt-fed SAWs like the Belgian FN Minimi (which can also use magazines) and the Spanish CETME Ameli as well as SAW versions of assault rifles like the British L86A1 and the Austrian AUG light support weapon.

While the water-cooled, tripod-mounted machine guns like the German and Russian Maxims, the British Vickers, and the American Browning M1917 ruled the battle fields of World War I, their lack of mobility saw them fall into decline in World War II in favor of the air cooled MG42 and Browning M1919A6. To this day, water-cooled machine guns are without peer in a defensive position but as the century closes, no modern army uses water-cooled machine guns to any significant extent.

The modern sniper rifle is a scope sighted rifle firing a smokeless powder high velocity round. Such rifles saw their debut just before World War I and were used extensively in that war in the form of scoped bolt action military rifles.

World War II saw the introduction of semiautomatic sniper rifles. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. Army developed one of the best of the semiauto sniper rifles, the M21, an accurized M14 with a Redfield 3-9 autoranging scope sight. It was also used extensively for night sniping with an ANPVS-2 Starlight scope and a Sionics noise suppressor in place, an incredibly capable and effective combination.

During the Vietnam era the Soviets developed the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, a 10-shot semiauto shooting the old 7.62x54Rmm Moisin round. In my experience the SVD is not in the same accuracy class with the American sniper rifles but it has the advantage of currently being issued in much larger numbers to every infantry platoon.

As this century closes a number of incredibly accurate semiauto sniper rifles have been developed such as the M14 based M25, the German H&K SG/1 and PSG1, the American Armalite AR10T and Knights Armaments SR-25. These rifles have practical accuracy approaching that of good bolt action rifles, along with the substantial advantages of semiauto operation.

Over the last century military arms saw major advancements in optical sights, night vision sights, noise suppression, ammunition performance, volume of fire and weight. At the same time, many of the current military handguns, sniper rifles, machine guns, submachine guns and shotguns are only minimally better than the best guns of the two World Wars and in some ways actually inferior. It certainly has been an interesting century.
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Article Details
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Author:Karwan, Charles
Publication:Guns Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999

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