MG34 & MG42 machine guns
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- Last updated: 21/06/2023
From 1933 onwards, the German army entered into a re-armament programme to introduce modern weapons. Army commanders knew more of everything, from ammunition to weapons, would be needed should the country go to war. When war broke out, the armaments industry managed to achieve remarkable successes in production output, despite the ‘round-the-clock’ bombing of factories by the Allied air forces. Even when resources were running out towards the end of the war, the factories such as Mauser and Rhinemetall were still turning out vehicles, guns, and ammunition.
As early as 1934, German armament manufacturers showed the world what they could produce when Mauser and Rheinmetall unveiled the Maschinengewnr 34, a new and radical design of machine gun. Capable of firing over 800 rounds per minute (RPM), it was known simply as the MG34, and it was unlike any other machine gun design. The weapon designer, Heinrich Vollmer of Mauser, had taken inspiration from the Solothurn MG30, and by the end of the war, in excess of 570,000 had been produced.
The MG34 would be referred to today as a general-purpose machine gun (GPMG), capable of being fired from its integral bipod. It could also be fitted to vehicles, deployed in a sustained fire role from a tripod, and used in either the ground role or anti-aircraft role against low-flying aircraft. Weighing over 26 lbs and measuring 48” overall, it was heavier and larger than the MG30, but the operational advantages it offered outweighed these factors.
The MG34 was an air-cooled, belt-fed weapon of 7.92mm calibre, using barrel recoil on firing to operate the bolt. In 1940, a typical rifle squad comprised nine infantrymen, commanded by an NCO with an MP40, and they were supported by a machine gun group of three men who operated the weapon. These being the gunner and the loader, both armed with pistols for personal protection, and a second loader armed with a rifle. With a range of over 1,800 yards, the MG34 would provide fire support to the infantry during attacks.
Two years after the evacuation from Dunkirk, sometime between May and June 1942, during the Battle of Gazala, British troops were subjected to another demonstration of advancement in German weapon engineering. It is believed that it was the first time the new MG42 had been used in battle, and it was another weapon unlike anything the Allies would have had in their arsenal at any time during the war. The same size as the MG34, and very slightly lighter in weight, this new weapon used many parts that were stamped, which reduced production time. For example, the MG34 took around 150 hours to produce and cost 327 Reichsmarks. By comparison, the MG42 cost 250 Reichsmarks, required 50% less material, and took only 75 hours to produce.
Like the MG34, the MG42 was a GPMG, capable of being mounted on vehicles and used to engage ground targets and low-flying aircraft. Special iron sights were used in this role and a ‘saddle’ or ‘drum’ magazine with a belt holding 50 rounds of 7.92mm ammunition was fitted. The ammunition was fed from the left in 50-round strips, with several being linked to give continuous fire. The only role in which the MG42 could not be used was as a hull-mounted weapon. This was because the barrel could not be changed in this role.
The feed mechanism of the MG42 was improved and the cyclic rate of fire increased to 1,200 RPM, which would lead to it being used in static defensive positions, such as the Atlantic Wall. One man who fired the MG42 in combat was Heinrich Severloh, who was serving with the 352nd Division holding the fortified ridge overlooking the stretch of Omaha Beach where the American 1st Infantry Division would land. In 2000, he co-authored a book in which he detailed his experiences, including firing some 13,500 rounds from his position using an MG42. He claimed he was responsible for inflicting between 1,000 - 2,000 casualties on D-Day.
By the end of the war, over 750,000 MG42s had been produced, and used in all theatres of war, but still, the Allies had not developed anything comparable to either it or the MG34. In post-war years, weapons emerged that had very obviously been influenced by the German machine guns. The first of these was the American M60 in 1957, followed by the Belgian FN MAG in 1958, both of which can trace their origins back to the MG42.
As for the MG34, it served throughout WWII and saw some limited post-war use, mainly during the wars in the Middle East (1960s). The MG42 was a more modern design and production was resumed in 1959 for use by the German Bundeswehr, which had been formed in 1955 as part of NATO. The designation of the machine gun changed to MG3, but for all intents and purposes, the weapon was the MG42 and looked like it. Since the end of the war, the MG3 has been used by more than 50 countries, and produced under licence by Spain, Pakistan, and Italy, being given its own local designation.
It still remains a GPMG, like the M60 and the FN MAG, and is capable of being mounted on vehicles and helicopters as door guns. With such a combat history, along with the influence it had on other weapons, covering a period of more than 80 years, the MG42 is an important weapon to collectors, extending beyond WWII. The variety of producers and the roles in which it has been used would make for a collection on its own.
Wartime versions are available, as too are examples built under licence, with prices varying accordingly. A boxed version, legally deactivated to current standards, with all the ancillary items and spare barrels, can be obtained from reputable dealers either online or through the adverts in specialist magazines, such as the pages of Gun Mart. Sectionalised examples, those with parts cut away to show the internal mechanism, also need to be certified legally deactivated with the correct documentation.
Re-enactors make the best possible use of either the MG34 or MG42 in static displays and use blank firing examples in arena battle re-enactment displays. Some have been converted to a ‘gas firing’ method, which still produces the desired effect of sounding and looking like a machine gun. These can be mounted on trucks, motorcycle combinations, and event replica vehicles, such as StuG IIIs. Some vehicle owners have recreated high-angle mounts fitted with twin MG42s. These would have been effective against ground targets and low-flying aircraft.
In static displays, the weapons can be presented on their bipods, or mounted on tripods to show the sustained fire role which allowed high rates of fire to support troops. With a few sandbags, a gun pit can be created for effect, and realistic-looking prefabricated ‘Tobruk’ stands, made using plasterboard, have been used to show them in a fortified setting. In any of these settings, these weapons always draw attention, because they are recognisable, and model makers, in particular, take lots of photographs for reference.