The Maschinengewehr 42
Germany produced many advanced weapons during World War II. Some were successful, some were unreliable, and some were a little too advanced for their own good. But a few German weapons were so good that they changed the face of warfare, and would influence weapons development all over the world for decades after Germany's defeat in 1945. Among their number were the MG-34 machine-gun and it's successor the MG-42.
When Germany entered World War 2 with the MG-34 as it’s major multipurpose machine gun, it was soon discovered that MG-34 was less than suitable for high volume wartime production, being too time and resource consuming in manufacture and also somewhat sensitive to fouling and mud. The search for newer, better universal machine gun began around 1939, and in 1942 the final design, developed by the German company Metall und Lackierwarenfabrik Johannes Grossfuss AG, was adopted as the MG-42.
It was manufactured in large numbers by companies like the Grossfuss AG, Mauser-Werke, Gustloff-Werke, Steyr-Daimler-Puch and others. The result was the classic MG-42 one of the most influential firearms in history. It used bakelite in the butt and pistol grip and stamped and die cast metal components instead of expensive machined steel and in place of riveted or screwed joints spot welding was used.
When Allied intelligence officers first evaluated captured MG-42's they assumed that these changes were the result of pressure on the German munitions industry. They did not at first realize that it was a conscious design decision which had so simplified manufacture that machine-guns could be produced at a much greater rate, even with a semi-skilled work force. To achieve the fast manufacturing and a relatively low cost, The Grossfuss AG company used as much steel stampings as possible. In fact, instead of the separate barrel sleeve and receiver, both machined from blocks of steel as found in MG-34, the MG-42 used a single piece receiver/barrel sleeve unit, stamped from one sheet of steel. This feature alone saved a lot of steel and time, but other measures also have been taken, so overall cost of the MG-42 at 250 RM was about 30% lower than of MG-34 at 327 RM, and it required 50% less raw materials and less manufacturing time, which took 75 man-hours to complete as opposed to 150 hours for the MG34.
The MG-42 incorporated lessons hard-won in combat on the Eastern Front. Both the cocking handle and the catch for the top cover to the working parts were designed so that the gunner could operate them wearing mitts or with a stick or rod. This was vital in sub-zero conditions where contact by bare flesh on cold metal could cause severe injury. The MG-42 also functioned well in other climates, dust and dirt in North Africa and Italy was less likely to jam the MG-42 then the more temperamental MG34. The MG-42 was lighter and slightly more compact then it's predecessor but used the same operating principal of short recoil assisted by gas pressure from a muzzle velocity of the MG-42 at 755 meters a second, the same as the MG34, but the most distinctive change was the rate of fire the MG-42 ripped through belted ammunition at a cyclic rate of 1,550 rounds a minute!
This high rate of fire heated up the barrel of the MG-42 even more then
the MG34 and so the quick-change barrel system was simplified to cope
with the extremely hot barrel. The gunner had only to reach forward of
the working parts push a retaining catch on the housing forward and the
barrel swung out to the right. Taking care because it was very hot, he
then pulled it to the rear and it was free. To replace the new barrel
he simply reversed the procedure. A trained machine-gunner could complete
the whole process in under 30 seconds.
This high rate of fire could be reassuring to a nervous soldier, but the vibration it produced was a problem, the MG-42 was less accurate then the MG34 on the bipod. Though soldiers were trained to fire short bursts this was sometimes hard to remember in the heat of battle. Enthusiastic use of the weapon also got through a lot of rounds, which meant that the three-man crew needed to carry heavy loads of ammunition. The snarling fire of an MG-42 was unmistakable, often likened by Allied soldiers to the sound of tearing linoleum. One veteran recalled at the hysterical shriek of the MG-42's furious rate of fire. " I remember my first reaction, was one of amazement at the crushing fire power of those guns. It seemed to me that the German soldier seldom used his rifle. He was a carrier of boxes of light machine-gun ammunition of which they seemed to have an endless supply!"
The MG42 weighed 11.6 kg in the light machine gun role with the bipod, lighter than the MG34 and easily portable. The bipod, the same type used on the MG34 but with a different bracket, could be mounted to the front or the centre of the gun depending on where it was being used. In the role as a heavy machine gun it used a newly developed Lafette-42 tripod with the ZF-40 optics, this all weighed in at some 30 kg, but gave the operator accurate fire over 2miles.
The barrel was lighter than the MG34s and wore out more quickly, but could be replaced in seconds by an experienced gunner who was usually issued two or three spare barrels in special containers slung across one‘s back.
In 1944 the acute material shortages of the Third Reich led to a newer version, the MG45 (or MG42V), which used steel of lesser quality, reduced weight to only 9 kg, and yet further improved the maximum rate of fire using a recoil booster to reach a rate of fire pushing 1800 rpm. First tests were undertaken in June 1944, but development dragged on and eventually only ten were ever built.
Being no doubt one of the best machine guns of the World War 2, MG-42 still shines as a world class weapon and is still in production in more or less modified forms in many countries today. In most countries like Germany, Italy and Pakistan, it is used re chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition, under the names of MG-42/59 and MG-3. In some countries, like Yugoslavia, it is used in its original chambering, 7.92mm Mauser. In any case, some 60 years since its first adoption, MG-42 and its direct descendants are among the best in the world in its class. Total numbers of the MG-42s built during WW2 are estimated at over 400,000 units, and keeping in mind that it is still manufactured in some countries, total numbers of the MG-42 and it’s direct descendants produced in the world up to date, are close to a million units.