Guns of World War II

A wide variety of weapons were designed and used by  both the Allied and Axis  powers in the European theater during the  course of World  War II.  Most countries in Europe had their own  particular models and manufacturers at the beginning of the war, but as  the Axis powers conquered the nations of Europe, the guns that were  issued by the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and to a lesser  extent Russia became the most widely used both by soldiers on the  battlefield, and by partisan efforts, due to their availability.  All of the small arms used during the war had both benefits  and drawbacks in  their design, functionality, and manufacture.

The most common weapon on the  battlefield is the rifle.  Rifles were standard issue for the vast  majority of ground personnel, excepting officers, and specialized  personnel, such as artillery crews, couriers, and commando squadrons.   Most of the rifles used during the war were of the bolt action design,  which holds  multiple rounds in a magazine, but requires the shooter to  work the action (bolt) to extract the empty cartridge and to load the  new round. Later self-loading rifles were developed and issued where  the shooter had to load the first round, then the rifle used propellant  gas from the firing of the round to eject the spent casing and load the  next cartridge automatically. 

The standard issue rifle used by  British forces was the Lee-Enfield  No.4.  The Lee-Enfield was a bolt  action rifle chambered for the .303 British cartridge.  It was equipped  with a ten round removable box magazine, the largest used in a standard  rifle during the war.  The No. 4  Enfield was reliable and very  accurate, and is still used by NATO as a sniping rifle. 

The most common military rifle design used in the world at the outbreak of World War II was the German Mauser design.  The  German army used the Mauser Karabiner 98 as its standard issue rifle.  The Kar 98 was chambered in 7.92mm, and had an internal  five round magazine, which was not removable.  The 7.92mm cartridge was a similar size to the .303 used by the Lee-Enfield rifles, but due to the Kar 98 being considerably lighter, it had worse recoil.  Besides being  used by the Axis powers during the war, the Mauser rifles were used by  the armies of a number of  countries before World War II, including  Chile and Turkey, and modified Mauser actions were used under license in a number of other rifles, including the Japanese Arisaka Meiji 38,  Japan's standard issue rifle throughout World War  II (which suffered  from poor quality and the low 6.5mm caliber), and the American  Springfield 1903 rifle, which were phased out early in the war.  The  Springfield 1903 was replaced by the M-1 Garand as the standard issue  service rifle of the American military.  The M-1 Garand was the only  self-loading rifle to see extensive use in World War II.  It was a  .30-06 caliber rifle fed from an eight round integral magazine. The  .30-06 was  a heavier round than what was being used by other countries  at the time. 

The Soviet forces officially used the Mosin-Nagant 1930G as their standard issue rifle, but in practice the  Soviet forces issued the PPSh-1941G submachine gun to a much larger  extent than the Mosin-Nagants, eventually effectively replacing the  rifle as the standard weapon for Soviet forces.

Submachine guns are closely related  to the rifle in both form and mechanical design.  Submachine guns are  essentially automatic self-loading rifles, the difference being that  with a self-loading rifle the shooter has to pull the trigger to fire  each shot, while the submachine gun will continue to fire  rounds once  the trigger is pulled until the trigger is released. Submachine guns  are shorter than rifles, and are only useful at short to medium range.  They also typically use pistol ammunition in order to reduce the recoil  from firing multiple rounds in succession.  The Soviet armies were  particularly fond of using submachine guns.  The PPSh-1941G submachine  gun became for practical purposes the standard issue weapon for the  Soviet  military. The PPSh-1941G was chambered for the 7.62 Tokarev  round, and could be fitted with a 71 round drum magazine or a rarely  used 35 round box magazine. The PPSh-1941G was designed with ease of  manufacture as the primary consideration.  It is described as being:

    "An excellent example of  mechanical and structural practicability.  All the parts requiring hand  finishing were eliminated, and the weapon was made of stamped steel,  often using barrels stripped from old guns, [Mosin-Nagant rifles] which were then cut in half and chromium plated, to reduce wear." (Cavendish, Vol. 8 p. 2221)

Another submachine gun that was  designed for the ability of quick production was the British Sten gun.   The Sten gun was chambered for the 9mm pistol round, and had a 32 round  box magazine, which was inserted from the left side of the gun, rather  than from the bottom as was typical for guns at the time.  The Sten was  produced as an emergency measure by the British, who at the time did not have a submachine gun and needed something that could be produced in  vast numbers quickly and cheaply.  This it did exceptionally well, and:

    "Between 1941 and 1945, total  production of all the various versions of the weapon was 3,750,000.  The average production cost of the Sten in England was only 11 dollars" (Cavendish, Vol.2, p.575)

The Sten proved to be a well liked  and versatile design, and was used extensively by partisan groups in  occupied Europe throughout the war.  "The Sten was an ideal weapon for  resistance work: tough, easy to operate, and  simple to dismantle for  concealment purposes." (Cavendish, Vol.7 p.1758)  Versions of the Sten  gun were produced by various nations and groups, both during and after  the war.  The German army had a version called the  MP3008, and since  the war, copies have been made in China, Kenya, India, Cyprus,  Indonesia, and countless other places.¬  The Sten gun is still being used by groups around the world. An article in The Daily Texan that  appeared on December 4, 2000 (p.3) included a picture of a Zapatista  rebel from the Chiapas region of Mexico using a Sten Mk. II.

The American standard issue  submachine gun was the M1928 Thompson.  The  Thompson submachine gun was chambered for the .45 ACP round, which was a ballistically superior  round to the 9mm round being used in European submachine guns at the  time.  Thompsons could originally use four types of magazines, a 20 or  30 round box magazine and a 50 or 100 round drum magazines, but the  design of the Thompsons produced later in the war were simplified, and  one of the modifications was limiting it to being able to use the two  box  magazines only.  Both the benefits and the drawbacks of the  Thompson were summed up by Ian Hogg:

    "The Thompson had a lot of  drawbacks; it was difficult to make; it was expensive, it was heavy.  But for all that, it had one great virtue in the eyes of soldiers--It was  reliable.  Trouble with a Thompson was a rare event, provided it was  properly cared for." (Hogg, p.56)

Thompson submachine guns are held in high regard by gun collectors for their high quality and historical role in World War II.

Another submachine gun from World War II that is highly prized by collectors is the German Schmeisser MP40.  The MP40 was the standard issue submachine gun used by the German army  during World War II.  It was chambered for the 9mm cartridge, and used a 32 round box magazine. The MP40 had two features that were  particularly interesting. First, it was equipped with a folding wire  stock  A few rifles in World War II also had folding stocks, but these  were usually paratroop variants, and no other submachine gun had one.¬   Secondly, "beneath the barrel was a hook-like steel bar which was to  prevent damage to the barrel when firing through the gun port of an  armored vehicle, and which was designed to prevent the gun from being  pulled  inadvertently inboard during firing should the gunner lose his  footing." (Hogg, 63)  This feature is unique to the MP40, and was never  used on any other gun. There were relatively few Schmeisser MP40s  produced  during the war, and they have become a coveted item among gun  collectors.

During World War II, the third  weapon that was commonly used by soldiers was the pistol.  There were  two basic types used at the time of the war, revolvers and automatics.  Revolvers stored the cartridges in a revolving cylinder.  When the  trigger was pulled, the mechanism of the revolver would turn the  cylinder, aligning the unfired cartridge to line up with the barrel,  then be fired by the hammer falling. The rotation of the cylinder for  the next shot would move the spent cartridge out of the barrel, and  align the next one.  Automatics worked along the same principals as the self-loading rifles discussed earlier.  Automatics were by far more  widely used than revolvers. "At the outbreak of war in 1939, Britain's  was the only major army to retain a revolver in first-line military  service; several countries held them in reserve stocks and were to bring them out for use by rear-echelon troops during the course of the war,  but only Britain relied entirely on the revolver." (Hogg, 67)  The  British standard issue handgun was the Enfield No. 2 Mk. 1 series  revolver.  It was chambered for .38 caliber, and held six rounds.  Early in the war, the British converted the Mk. 1 pattern to the Mk.1*  pattern by filing off the spur (the external cocking piece on the back  of the hammer) of the gun.  This was intended to prevent it from  accidentally discharging when being used in cramped conditions by tanker crews, but it had the side effect of making it impossible to shoot  single action (by manually cocking the hammer, rather than just pulling  the trigger), and severely impeding the accuracy and effectiveness of  the gun.  The Enfield No. 2 was not popular among the British army, and  was quickly phased out after World War II.

The German army officially used the  Walther P.38 9mm as its standard issue pistol, but a wide range of  handguns were issued by various branches of the German  military,  including the Walther PPK 9mm Kruz (primarily used by the Luftwaffe),  the Luger Parabellum P.08 9mm, and the Browning High Power 9mm.  The  Browning High Powers were produced by both the Axis and Allied powers.   The German version was issued mostly to SS and Paratroop units.  The  Allied version was supplied to the Chinese Nationalist Army and was also issued to some British commando and airborne units.¬  The Walther P.38  was chambered in 9mm and had an eight round box magazine. It is a  reliable but not particularly impressive pistol, but was found to be  useful on the Russian front, where more complicated weapons suffered  from technical problems due to the extreme cold. The Luger Parabellum  P.08 pistol was by far the best and most popular of the German pistols.  It was so well liked among the German military that production  continued for four years after the¬  development of its replacement, the  Walther P.38. The version of the Luger made for the German army, the  P.08 variant, was chambered for the 9mm Parabellum round, and fed from  an eight round box magazine.  Before the outbreak of World War II,  Germany supplied Luger variants to a number of other countries, and  variants were available in .22LR (Stoger), .30, and .45 (American  Eagle). The United States army was considering the issue of the Luger  (which led to the .45 American Eagle variant), but instead chose the  Colt .45 1911.  The Luger pistol is mechanically interesting, due to the unique action, "ts breech-block is hinged on a jointed arm which  folds  upwards at the moment at which the pressure of the gas makes the  breech-block recoil" (Cavendish, Vol. 2 p. 431).  This design had the  disadvantage of having numerous moving parts exposed, which made it more sensitive to the weather than the more conventional slide pistol  design.  The Luger Parabellum P.08 pistol was one of the most  sought-after souvenirs by Allied servicemen, only rivaled by the  Japanese Samurai swords from the  Pacific Theater. The Luger pistol and its variants remain one of the most coveted pistols of all time, and  the P.08 and other variants of the Luger pistol are highly collected.

The standard issue pistol of the  American  army was the Colt 1911A1. The Colt 1911 uses the .45 caliber  cartridge, which had been proven by the United States military to be  superior to the 9mm cartridges that were currently being used in Europe. The 1911A1 was the  most widely used of all combat pistols in World War II.  The 1911 was an extremely well built pistol, and earned a  reputation for reliability among the American army. It was believed that it was going to be the first pistol to be used by a military for 100  years, but the 1911 was replaced by the American army in the mid 1980s  by a 9mm Beretta model in order to use the same caliber used by the rest of NATO.  The 1911 model pistol is still being manufactured in America, and remains a popular handgun with both shooting enthusiasts and  collectors. 

Of the wide variety of small arms  that were designed and used by both the Allied and Axis powers in the   European theater during the course of World War II, some were elegant,  some were functional, and they all had their own unique features and  characteristics. Many of the weapons used in World War II became valued  collector's pieces, and others remain in use by various groups around  the world today. The developments made in small arms design and  production during the course of World War II had wide ranging influences in the design of modern small arms  well into the twentieth century.


Hogg, Ian V., The Encyclopedia of Infantry Weapons of World War II 1977, Fredrick Fell Publishers Inc., New York

The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War II Vol. 1-10 1985, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Freeport, NY

Hogg, Ian V., Military Pistols and Revolvers 1987, Sterling Publishing Co., New York

Datig, Fred A., The Luger Pistol: Its History and Development From 1894 to 19451962, Borden Publishing Co., Los Angeles

Ezell, Edward C., Handguns of the World Barnes & Nobel Books, New York

The Daily Texan, Monday, December 4, 2000.