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Small arms of the Wehrmacht.

If any combatant nation of World War II could be said to have armed its military forces with a hodgepodge of small arms, it must be Germany. The German leaders never expected Britain and France to declare war over their invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Consequently they were in the midst of their rearmament program. In the ensuing years the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) relied heavily on all sorts of weaponry both captured from subdued nations and pulled from their own obsolete stocks.

That said, their more elite frontline forces did get the newest weapons from pistols to tanks. In regards to small arms the basic models issued were few, but manufactured by a large assortment of different companies and factories in Germany and Austria (In 1938 Austria had been annexed to Germany and was not an independent country any longer.) As to pistols, from 1938 until 1945 the Walther P38 9mm was the official standard. However, the Pistole 08 (Luger) also 9mm had been standard prior to the P38's adoption so many, many, many thousands of them were still in Wehrmacht holsters right until the last day of the War. In fact, production of Luger P08s didn't stop immediately with the adoption of the P38, continuing well into the early 1940s.



For rifles, the common German soldier was issued a bolt action with 5-shot magazine chambered for the same cartridge adopted prior to 1900, one we Americans call the 8mm Mauser (8x57mm). The rifle itself was only a remodeled version of the Model 1898 Peter Paul Mauser designed. It was labeled K98k, the "K" standing for Karabiner (carbine). The dictionary defines carbine as a "short, light, rifle." Indeed the K98k was shorter and lighter than the earlier Gewehr 98 used by Germany in WWI. However, it is interesting to point out size and weight of the K98k was almost identical to the American Model 1903 Springfield, which no one considers a carbine.


For a submachine gun, the Germans started out with the MP38, which stands for Machinenpistole 1938. In looks it is what so many people today consider the quintessential submachine gun. It contained no wood, had a pistol grip with 32-round magazine loading into the receiver vertically, and a folding steel stock. The very term "submachine gun" indicates the firearm chambers a pistol cartridge, and the MP38 used the same 9mm as the P08 and P38.

The MP38 was time intensive to manufacture because it required many intricate machining operations. Therefore in 1940 the design was remodeled to use stamped parts and designated MP40. The two submachine guns are virtually identical in appearance and a knowing eye is required to tell them apart. Furthermore, the 32-round magazines for them are interchangeable and many are even labeled MP38/40. Many of their parts are likewise interchangeable.

American manufactured military small arms were produced both by government owned arsenals, with the most notable one being Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, and privately owned manufacturers. Winchester, Remington, Savage, Colt and virtually every other firearms factory in the United States turned out military weapons during WWII. The commercial companies' names are stamped prominently on all of those firearms. (An exception is the Thompson submachine guns made by Savage under contract to the Auto Ordnance Corporation.)

Conversely, during their rearmament program prior to WWII the Germans identified all their military small arms makers by codes. These can be bewildering to the uninitiated or the novice, of which I consider myself one. For instance, upon buying my P08 (Luger) I could see only it was stamped S42 on the toggle with 1938 stamped on the frame. Buying the book Standard Catalog Of Lugers by Aarron Davis permitted me to look up that code and find this particular Luger was made by Mauser specifically for the German military in 1938. Just last weekend, I bought a P38 with code of byf with 43 stamped beneath it, also made by Mauser in 1943.

Checking further into these codes in the book Military Mausers Of The World by Robert W. D. Ball I find my K98k bolt action has a code of S/147 with a date of 1937, therefore it was made by Sauer & Sohn in 1937. Then my K98k with the tiny Zf41 telescope is coded AR with a 42 meaning it was made by Mauser in 1942. The most recent K98k I acquired had a code of bnz with a mark like a lightning bolt and dated 43. The information it was made under SS control in a concentration camp got my attention. (See "MITCHELL'S MAUSER'S BNZ CODE K98K")


And lastly, one of my greatest treasures is a full auto, all original, MP40 submachine gun with a code of fxo 41. That means it was made by the C.G. Haenel Company of Suhl, Germany in 1941. That information is derived from the book Blitzkrieg: The MP40 Machinenpistole In World War II by Frank Iannamico. The reader might ascertain from this I consider shooting these WWII guns fun, but studying them in detail is also an education.

Before talking about actually shooting these Wehrmacht small arms, however, let's first look at some details of each. The Luger, in all its permutations, is one of the most recognizable handguns on the planet. Obviously some considerable thought went into its design as evidenced by the slant of its grip which makes it one of the most natural pointing pistols of all time.

It's a single action handgun and almost unique among autoloading pistols in that it has a toggle link action. To chamber a round, grab the two knurled knobs and pull upwards. That brings the slide back, allows a cartridge to pop up from the magazine, and upon letting the knobs go the round is shoved into the chamber. During its long era of manufacture from 1900 until the early 1940s, Germany made Lugers in 7.65mm, 9mm and even a few were made in .45 ACP for American testing. Barrel lengths ran the gamut from about 3-3/4" (and perhaps even shorter) to carbine models with 12" barrels (and perhaps even longer). As carried by the German army during World War II a standard Luger had a 4" barrel and was 9mm Parabellum (9mmx 19mm) caliber.

The Walther designed P38 bears a slight resemblance to the Luger, but is a vastly different handgun. Instead of a toggle link action, it has a more traditional type slide and exposed hammer. Luger grips were checkered wood; P38 grips were serrated synthetic material.

The greatest difference between the P38 and Luger, however, is the fact the P38 is double action, making it one of the first double action semi-auto pistols adopted by a major military force. Those made for the German military for WWII were all steel (except grips) with 5" barrels, and of course 9mm caliber. (Some post war P38 design pistols were built with aluminum alloy frames. These were termed P1s.)

The German's K98k was made with many minor variations and in at least nine factories. Pre-war made ones are of exquisite quality with beautiful rust bluing, and 1-piece walnut stocks. Such is my 1937 vintage sample As materials grew scarce during the war their fit and finish both declined and by even the early war years K98ks were being fitted with laminated wood stocks with a much poorer metal polishing prior to bluing. Toward war's end the German's even eliminated things like bayonet lugs. Standard specs for a K98k were 23.62" barrel length, 43.6" overall length, and 8.6 pounds weight. Sights were a tangent open rear sight adjustable for elevation out to 2,000 meters with an inverted V front sight.

The K98k also served as a basis for the Wehrmacht's sniper rifles. Germany did not enter WWII with a standard sniper rifle, but when Russian snipers managed to do their officer corps so much harm they were quick to alter K98ks by adding scopes. In the beginning many of these were simply commercial hunting scopes. In fact some of the rifles were even fitted with sporting type double set triggers.

By 1941 the Wehrmacht adopted a tiny 1.5X scope termed the Zf41, which was mounted far out on the barrel in quick detachable mounts. One veteran German sniper who had been using a captured Russian rifle was shown a K98k with the little 1.5X scope. He thought at first it was a joke. I bought one and agree with him. It's the most difficult rifle/scope combination to sight in of my lifelong experience. A myriad of K98ks were fitted with other scopes in likewise a wide variety of mounts. Interested readers should refer to the book Sniper Variations Of The German K98k Rifle by Richard D. Law.

Conversely, the Germans' MP40 is considered (arguably) the best submachine gun issued by any country in WWII. At only 8.87 pounds (empty) it is several pounds lighter than an American Thompson. It incorporated the steel folding stock so no wood was necessary for its manufacture, and its cyclic rate of fire (rounds per minute--rpm) is only 500. Coupled with the mild recoil of the 9mm cartridge, it is very controllable. Barrel length of the MP40 is 9.9", overall length with the stock extended is 35", and its only 24.5" long with the stock folded. The rear sight is a 2-leaf affair; one for 100 meters and one for 200 meters. The front sight is a simple post protected by a hood.


As viewed by WWII movies, you might think the MP40 was the most used submachine gun in the conflict. That must be because they are photogenic, because even though the Germans were producing them in no less than five factories, they turned out less than a million. By comparison Russian PPsh41 production hit about five million, British STEN guns amounted to over three million, and even over 1.6 million of the intricately made American Thompsons were produced.

Collecting aside, shooting of these WWII Wehrmacht small arms trips my trigger. (Brilliant pun there!) There is a plentitude of factory ammo available for both 9mm Luger and 8mm Mauser, but I should say I avoid military surplus stuff. Mostly it's corrosive, which is a minor point. The major point is that some of the 8mm surplus ammo is just plain junk.

Here are a couple of caveats I can give based on my own shooting experience. One is my Luger feeds only cartridges with bullets shaped like the military ammo. I've shot 115- to 124-grain FMJ roundnoses, both factory loads and handloaded cartridges through my Luger with perfect feeding. Change the bullet shape and the feeding changes, too. It stops! Sights on the Luger are only slightly adjustable by drifting the front blade in its dovetail. Elevation is what you get. Mine hits a few inches high at 25 yards depending on the exact load.


The P38 is more agreeable as to feeding, but it shoots a bit low at 25 yards, depending on the load. Its front sight can also be drifted for windage. Both of my Wehrmacht 9mms will group about 2" to 2-1/2" at 25 yards using good factory loads or my handloads.

There are some good factory loads available for 8mm, and there are some awfully puny ones, too. Here's the deal. Because the Germans changed their bore diameter from .318" to .323" in 1905, most American ammo makers hold pressures very low. They figure someone is bound to put .323" bullets in barrels only .318" in diameter. Norma and Hornady don't follow that lead. They use 196- and 195-grain bullets respectively at about 2,500 fps, which is about what the Germans used for a standard load in WWII. Also, Mitchell Arms is importing new manufacture 8mm loads from Europe with 198-grain bullets going about as fast.

The K98k's sights make it is obvious the Germans were not a nation of riflemen. The K98k is a finely made rifle capable of good shooting crippled by a set of very poor sights. By WWII, American and British military forces had settled on peep sights for battle rifles (and submachine guns too, for that matter). My eyes are nearly six decades old now and I have a terrible time doing precise shooting with iron sighted K98ks.

Also, I must say that of all WWII military rifles, I find the 98k's recoil the most punishing. I always wear a shoulder pad when shooting them. Even the fabled recoil of the US Model 1903 Springfield does not punish me like K98ks. The several K98k's I've been shooting all seem to group around 3" to 4" at 100 yards. I attribute such large groups to the iron sights because with scope-sighted ones I shoot groups half that size.

If shooting the Luger, P38, and K98k is fun, then the MP40 is exhilarating! Since buying one I've let several friends fire it and one and all they get a big smile on their faces after the first burst. Like the Luger, it's a bit finicky about its ammunition, and I've learned it needs regular cleaning for 100 percent functioning. But, those considerations taken into account, it's a very easy gun to hit steel targets with out to 50 yards or so, and I've even been able to keep dueling tree paddles swinging with it.

For shooting my Wehrmacht small arms, I've settled on just a couple of handloads for the bulk of my ammunition. In 9mm those include the 124-grain, .356" cast roundnose from Oregon Trail Bullet Company. They are very hard and function through all these autoloaders perfectly. The second 9mm bullet preferred is the Hornady 9mm, 115-grain FMJ. Under either of those bullets is a charge of 4.3 grains of HP38. As befits a cartridge to be used in quantity from a full auto, the ammo is assembled on a Dillon Square Deal B progressive press.



My 8mm handload is even simpler. After much fussing and fiddling, I settled on the Hornady 195-grain spirepoint over 48 grains of Varget. Actually Hornady's new Handbook Of Cartridge Reloading 7th Edition lists a l/2-grain less as max, so I recommend you follow their lead and work up to it from below.

These are just the principal Wehrmacht small arms and I don't even have all their major infantry weapons yet. For example their StG44 Sturmgewehr was the forerunner of the famous Russian AK-47, and I doubt if I'll ever own one of them at today's prices. Their G43 semi-auto 8mm is often called "Hitler's Garand" and eventually I'm sure one of those will come my way. Also, I'm working on assembling the same type of small arms assortment from the United States, Britain, Russia and Japan although I cringe at spending my hard earned gun'riter's bucks on a Nambu pistol!

RELATED ARTICLE: Mitchell's Mauser's BNZ code K98k.

One important problem you might encounter picking up Wehrmacht small arms (as I have) at gun shows or from friends is their condition, especially the K98ks. Battlefield pick-ups brought home as souvenirs can be in any condition. Surrendered rifles at the end of the war were often dropped in one pile and their bolts in another. Then American GIs stuck bolts in whatever rifle one would fit and brought it home. My own pre-war K98k is one such with all parts matching except for the bolt. Luckily for me, its headspace is proper.

This is where the firm of Mitchell's Mausers conies into play. I was first introduced to their refurbished K98ks at one of Thunder Ranch's Old Rille Classes about live years back. Several shooters had what appeared to be brand new K98ks. They were not new. but had been recovered from various sources in Europe and returned to like new condition.


Recently Mitchell Mausers sent me a K98k to examine, but it is not just any K98k. It carries the bzn code meaning it was made by Steyr in upper Austria. Perhaps in itself that code wouldn't mean much but this rifle also has a single mark like a lightning bolt stamped on top of the receiver. That is a rune meaning this was an SS rifle. The SS, one of the most notorious organizations in history was the Nazi's politically indoctrinated army, with the Warren SS (Armed SS) fighting alongside the Wehrmacht throughout the war. The SS also ran all of Germany's infamous concentration camps. One called Mauthausen-Gusen was set up near the Steyr arms factory in Austria steyr slave labor could be used on the production lines as early as 1940.


Then in 1943, the SS began their own rifle production at the same facility with the products going to arm Waffen SS units. The K98ks resulting from there were like this sample with both bzn and the lightning boll/rune codes. Even as abhorrent an organization the SS was, it is a well-known fact any item carrying their markings are at the top of the collectors' lists. For instance, steel helmets with genuine SS runes cost thousands of dollars today whereas ordinary German helmets sell for a few hundred.

These Mitchell Mauser bnz K98ks with SS rune markings are all dated 1943 and 1944 because in '44 The US 8th Air Force bombed the Steyr factory to rubble. The one sent to me has been cleaned and reconditioned but the death's head stamping in the stock on the pistol grip is still perfectly clear. (That's another rare SS insignia.) Its bore is perfect as is its complete shooting condition. The stock is laminated wood as is proper for German rifles of that era. Its specs are exactly the same as a standard K98k. The sample rifle also shot as I have come to expect K98ks in decent condition to shoot. That is groups of about 3" to 4" at 100 yards. Again, I think that's due to their very poor sights and my aging eyes. Point of impact with most loads tried was centered but several inches high at 100 yards--again as I've conic to expect of K98ks.

These Mitchell Mausers with bnz codes and infamous SS markings are very historical rifles from one of the darkest, most evil chapters in European history.


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Author:Venturino, Mike "Duke"
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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