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Sturmgewehr: the first assault rifle Germany's MP44.



When the Russians overran the eastern part of Germany at the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of its citizens were taken in captivity back to the Soviet Union. Not all of these captives were soldiers. Many were civilians with special talents or knowledge. One such was Hugo Schmeisser, who was director of the weapons manufacturing plant named C.H. Haenel located in Suhl, Germany. He was also the firm's chief designer.

One bit of irony is that Schmeisser's name has been forever connected with the German MP38 and MP40 9mm submachine guns, with which he had little or no part in designing. On the other hand he was the father of the entire assault rifle concept and gets little credit for it. His design evolved through many names but most firearms enthusiasts today prefer the last one bestowed on it by Germany's military--the Sturmgewehr. That's German for "storm rifle" or "assault rifle."

Germany's Wehrmacht began hostilities in 1939 with two basic shoulder-fired personal weapons for its front line units. They were the MP38 9mm submachine gun and the K98k 7.92x57mm (8mm Mauser to Americans) bolt-action rifle. Shortly thereafter German ordnance officers recognized most infantry rifle combat occurred at ranges within 400 meters. Therefore, the 1,000 meter-plus effective range of the standard 7.92x57mm as fired from bolt-action rifles was unnecessary. On the other hand, the 100-yard effective range of the 9x19mm pistol cartridge in submachine guns wasn't enough.

Therefore, a compromise round was developed. Bullets remained 7.92mm (.323") but weighed only 125 grains compared to 198 grains for the standard S-Patrone 7.92x57mm cartridge then in use. Case length was reduced from 57mm (2.244") to 33mm (1.299"). Overall cartridge length came down from 3.17" to 1.89". The new cartridge's nominal velocity of 2,300 fps was considered sufficient. It was named 7.92x33mm Kurz--German for Short.


Two German companies began developing a select-fire weapon around the new cartridge and had them ready for testing by 1942. They were Walther and Haenel and their prototypes were labeled MK42(W) and MK42(H). MK stood for machinenkarabiner (machine carbine). As with most full-auto weapons of that era those prototypes fired from an open bolt. This feature allows air to circulate through a full-auto's barrel, helping to keep it from overheating. However; as anyone who has fired a shoulder arm with open-bolt operation, that heavy device sliding forward at the pull of the trigger definitely hinders precise shot placement.

Therefore Germany's military, rather intelligently, decided on a closed-bolt system by which the new weapon could deliver accurate fire in semi-auto mode. Early in 1943, the Walther submission was dismissed and designation of the Haenel design was changed to MP43, this time meaning machinenpistole (machine pistol). For reasons not fully understood today, the new weapon's stamping was changed to MP44 early in 1944, but by October manufacturers were ordered to change their stamps again. This time the guns were labeled StG44, which is where the famous name Sturmgewehr came into play.

At this point, I'd like to briefly relate some personal stories. In 2010 Yvonne cashed in some inherited stocks for fear the value of "paper" would become nil in today's shaky economy. Then she asked if I'd like to invest the cash in a couple more full-auto WWII weapons for my growing collection. One that I found at a decent price (relatively speaking) was a Sturmgewehr made when the MP44 designation reigned. It appeared a bit worn, but it was guaranteed by the seller to function 100 percent. We did the government paperwork and early in September of 2010 I took possession of it. The seller was correct. Its condition indicates it did see field use but still functions perfectly both in full- and semi-auto fire.

Then winter set in and shooting stopped. However, at our big winter gun show a group of friends set up a display of WWII firearms and artifacts. Since I was sitting with them behind the table, I brought my MP44 for display. The publics' response to it was very humorous and split into three basic groups. The first group of people would pass by completely ignoring it. They were the avid big-game hunters and varmint shooters. The second group had a more modern frame of mind. As they passed by the MP44 you could hear them comment to each other something like this, "That old AK has sure seen better days."




Lastly there were the truly knowledgeable. As they passed by, their glance took in the MP44 and they stopped dead in their tracks. Pointing at the Sturmgewehr they would look at us sitting behind the table and say, "Is that real?" I would say "Yep." Then they would ask, "Does it work?" Again I would say "Yep." invariably then they would ask something like "Can I just pick it up for a minute?" Of course I again said "Yep." Then they would examine it with an aura almost of reverence. The reason for that is because MP44s, aka Sturmgewehrs, are very rare. Even someone as oriented towards historical firearms as I had never personally seen but one other before buying mine.

At this point an uninitiated person might be asking, "Why would someone mistake it for an AK?" That's because the AK obviously grew from Hugo Schmeisser's initial work. In fact, it is very interesting to note that in the late 1940s and early 1950s captive Hugo Schmeisser was put to work by the Soviets at the Izhevsk Machine, Engineering and Motor Plant Complex, one of the Soviet Union's largest arms making factories. And guess who else was there at the same time: Mikhail T. Kalashnikov to whom the Soviet Union gave sole credit for designing the AK-47. In fact, Kalashnikov has even been quoted as saying he had never even seen the German's MP44/Sturmgewehr before dreaming up his own assault rifle. Funny then how outwardly similar the two weapons are.

Propaganda As History

Soviet propagandists had difficulty in telling the truth, even when it would have been easier than lying. So would they prefer saying that an ordinary man from the working class developed their revolutionary new infantry rifle all by his communist self or that a captive German had been instrumental in the work? It's hard to blame Kalashnikov for going along with the party line because he reaped great lifetime rewards along the way. Besides he had already been sent to Siberia once. For a great read with documented detail about Mr. Kalashnikov and the development of the AK-47, I would refer readers to a new book titled The Gun by Pulitzer Prize winning writer C.J. Chivers.

(This following information was especially interesting. In The Gun, Chivers credits this magazine with being the first American publication to reveal the Soviets new rifle and cartridge with a cover story in the September 1956 issue. The article was by William B. Edwards who actually got his hands on an AK-47 with Soviet military ammunition. Incidentally, he also likened it to the Sturmgewehr.)

Here's another concept Chivers pointed out in his excellent book. America came close to having the first true assault rifle without realizing it or meaning to. That was the M1 Carbine, which was actually developed with the intent of replacing pistols in US military inventory. Consider these facts: The .30 Carbine round fired a 108-grain roundnose bullet at 1,900 fps; the German 7.92x33 Kurz fired a 125-grain spitzer bullet at 2,300 fps; and the Soviet's 7.62x39mm fired a 123-grain spitzer at 2,330 fps. (Figures quoted from Military Small Arms Of The 20th Century 7th Edition, by Ian V. Hogg and John S. Weeks.)

If the .30 Carbine developers had made the cartridge just a bit more powerful and the M1 Carbine a bit more robust and kept its magazine capacity high, they could have trumped the Sturmgewehr. But then it wouldn't have been a replacement for pistols, which it never managed to do anyway.



Regardless, let's return to the physical aspects of the MP44. It has only a 16" barrel with 37" overall length. That's actually only 1" longer than an M1 Carbine. However, look at unloaded weights of the two. An M1 Carbine scales at 5-1/2 pounds. The MP44/Sturmgewehr is twice that. The buttstock is wood, as are the pistol grip panels. The rest of the weapon is steel--mostly stamped steel. Because its gas operating system is above the barrel it is necessary for its sights to also be rather high. The rear sight is an open, tangent type with graduations to 800 meters. The front sight is a simple blade protected by a large hood. The only way windage can be adjusted is to remove the hood and drift the front side in its dovetail.

Ammunition capacity is nominally 30 rounds in the banana-shape magazine so commonly seen today. The magazine release is a button located just behind the magazine housing on the frame's left side. There's a 2-position safety aft of the triggerguard and a select-fire button, too. It is simple in the extreme: when extending to the left the rifle is in semi-auto mode; when extending to the right side it is in full-auto mode. Rate of fire is nominally 500 rounds per minute in full-auto.


This question has been asked of me many times. "Duke, it's cool to have such a historical gun in your collection but where in the world do you come up with ammo?" That's the easy part. Hornady actually produces a factory load now, exclusively for sale by Graf & Sons, Inc. It uses a .323", 125-grain hollowpoint bullet rated at 2,265 fps. Furthermore, Graf & Sons sells those bullets as a separate reloading component and imports newly made 7.92x33 Kurz brass from Prvi Partisan located in Serbia.

Hornady not only sells proper reloading dies but also has a data section in their new Handbook Of Cartridge Reloading, 8th Edition. My chronograph reads the Hornady factory load at 2,34t fps. The only handload I've tried in it thus far has the 125-grain Hornady bullet over 20 grains of IMR4227. That toad clocked at only 1,956 fps. My PACT Model IV timer can also count rpm (rounds per minute). It rated the Hornady factory load at 483 rpm and the handload at 501 rpm.


Thus far, eagerly aided by several friends, I have fired about 500 rounds through what I love to call "Yvonne's present." Here are my impressions: recoil is negligible as might be expected with such a mild cartridge and heavy rifle. Also, if you load the original magazine with more than 25 rounds you're just asking for stoppages. Otherwise it functions 100 percent just as it was advertised. Shooting it for group size at 100 yards in the traditional manner from sandbag rest is difficult. The magazine extends so far that it hits the bench top. With just a muzzle rest I can get about 3" groups in semi-auto. At 300 yards it is easy to keep all shots on a PT-Torso armor steel plate measuring 18"x24", likewise in semi-auto. So far my "effective" range in full-auto on those same steel plates is 100 yards.

Is the AK-47 a better assault rifle? Undoubtedly. Although, admittedly, I can count the number of 7.62x39mm rounds I've fired through semi-auto AK-47s on my fingers. And I've never seen a genuine full-auto AK-47. But, as an addition to my collection of World War II firearms, the MP44/Sturmgewehr shines!

Photos: Yvonne Venturino


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Author:Venturino, Mike "Duke"
Publication:Guns Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Aug 1, 2011
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