Gun World - - Contents - By Chuck Tay­lor

Peo­ple have talked about the demise of the submachine gun for decades, but is it fi­nally dead?

This year, the submachine gun (SMG) is 100 years old and is rightly cel­e­brated for be­ing one of the most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial weapon con­cepts in his­tory. Although the Ital­ians in­ad­ver­tently cre­ated the SMG with the 9mm Vil­lar Perosa in 1915, they fore­saw it as an anti-air­craft weapon, rather than a hand­held in­fantry arm.

Vis­ual ex­am­i­na­tion of the weapon to­day quickly dis­closes that it’s essen­tially a sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion de­sign and was thus way ahead of its time. But back in 1915, no such anal­y­sis was forth­com­ing.


Hon­ors for be­ing the first ded­i­cated SMG must go to Ger­man arms de­signer Theodor Bergmann, whose

9mm MP-18 first ap­peared in 1918 and saw ac­tual com­bat in the lat­ter days of World War

I. The MP-18 and sub­se­quent other first­gen­er­a­tion SMG de­signs were beau­ti­fully ma­chined ex­am­ples of the gun­maker’s art.

Yet, such qual­ity was ex­pen­sive and time­con­sum­ing—is­sues ev­ery mil­i­tary or­ga­ni­za­tion ve­he­mently seeks to re­duce. Nonethe­less, the MP-18 con­tin­ued in ser­vice through­out the 1920s and 1930s and served well into World War II.




On this side of the At­lantic, Gen­eral John T. Thomp­son’s .45 ACP M-1921 caused quite a stir when it was un­veiled and was thought to be a har­bin­ger of great things to come. Yet, un­for­tu­nately, be­cause World War I was widely con­sid­ered to be “the war to end all wars,” mil­i­tary bud­gets were slashed to the bone; and, for the en­tire decade of the 1920s, small-arms ac­qui­si­tion and devel­op­ment were at a vir­tual stand­still.

As a re­sult, while ev­ery­one lauded the weapon, it­self, sales of the M-1921 Thomp­son were quite slow, and the re­sult­ing fi­nan­cial strain on its par­ent com­pany, Auto-Ord­nance Cor­po­ra­tion, was ex­treme. To il­lus­trate how bad Au­toOrd­nance‘s predica­ment was: Of the orig­i­nal 15,000 M-1921s pro­duced, by 1938, only 3,500 had been sold!

The prob­lem was sim­ple, but at the time, it was im­pos­si­ble to over­come. Like all first-gen­er­a­tion SMGs, the Thomp­son was ex­pen­sive and time con­sum­ing to man­u­fac­ture, mean­ing that its per-unit cost was high. When one con­sid­ers that a Ford au­to­mo­bile sold for $400 at the time, the $200 re­tail price tag of an M-1921 Thomp­son was so high that it was con­sid­ered to be “out of sight.” Even the later M-1928AC (although its price had been re­duced to “only” $175) failed to ex­cite the mar­ket to any sig­nif­i­cant de­gree. Af­ter the stock mar­ket crash of 1929, the world­wide econ­omy cratered, and the phrase, “Times are hard,” be­came le­gion. No one, not the in­di­vid­ual cit­i­zen, the state or fed­eral gov­ern­ment, had any money to spare.

Thus, the Thomp­son’s first ac­tion was in the hands of the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army (which bought 683 of them sur­rep­ti­tiously through a “straw man” buyer), the var­i­ous gangs of the “beer wars” of the 1920s (which had the money) and then, in the 1930s, “mo­tor­ized ban­dits” such as Bon­nie and Clyde, John Dillinger and Lester “Baby­face” Nel­son (who reg­u­larly stole them from po­lice ar­mories). Even Auto-Ord­nance Cor­po­ra­tion’s new sale slo­gan, “On The Side Of Law And Or­der,” failed to gen­er­ate much busi­ness, be­cause even though small quan­ti­ties were pur­chased as a re­sult, the vast ma­jor­ity of po­lice de­part­ments sim­ply didn’t have the bud­gets to af­ford ex­pen­sive weapons such as the Thomp­son.


The rise of Ger­man, Ja­panese and Ital­ian mil­i­tarism dur­ing the sec­ond half of the 1930s ini­ti­ated a new look at small arms, and it be­came im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent that first-gen­er­a­tion submachine guns sim­ply had to be made cheaper and faster.

The re­sult of this re­view was the first of the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion SMG: the 9mm MP-38/40. Con­structed mostly of sheet metal stamp­ings, spot welds and phe­no­lic resins, the M-38/40 her­alded a ma­jor break­through in SMG tech­nol­ogy and caused it to pro­lif­er­ate wildly. In­deed, as World War II en­tered its sec­ond year, the 7.62x25mm Rus­sian PPSh-41 and 9mm Bri­tish STEN saw the be­gin­ning of large-scale pro­duc­tion that con­tin­ued through­out the war.

At that time, the United States was some­what be­hind, in that it had fi­nally adopted the M-1928A1 Thomp­son as its “stan­dard” SMG in 1939. But it was quickly re­al­ized that it was too ex­pen­sive and, in 1940, the Army en­tered into a mas­sive pro­gram to sim­plify it and cut pro­duc­tion costs and time. The re­sult was the M-1/M-1A1 Thomp­son, which con­tin­ued in pro­duc­tion un­til late 1943. In com­par­i­son to the $175 pe­runit price tag of the M-1928, the $42 unit price of the M-1A1 re­flected a sub­stan­tial sav­ings. Nev­er­the­less, a re­view of the Ger­man MP-38/40 by the U.S. mil­i­tary re­sulted in a crash pro­gram to cre­ate a U.S.-made, sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion SMG. The re­sult was the M-3/M-3A1 “grease gun,” which of­fi­cially be­gan to su­per­sede the Thomp­son in 1944.

The sheer num­bers of SMGs pro­duced dur­ing World War II were stag­ger­ing: tens of mil­lions were in cir­cu­la­tion by 1945. Thus, the post­war years saw them ap­pear­ing vir­tu­ally all over the world in the var­i­ous dirty, lit­tle wars that took place from 1945 to the end of the Cold War in 1991.

U.S. law en­force­ment agen­cies had kept their beloved Thomp­sons, of course, but sel­dom used them in the field, so they never ex­hib­ited any sig­nif­i­cant amount of wear and tear. Even to­day, there are still Thomp­sons in many po­lice in­ven­to­ries, although more-mod­ern de­signs have over­shad­owed them.


The Arab-Is­raeli war of 1967 saw the first wide­spread use of a third­gen­er­a­tion SMG—the 9mm UZI. Uti­liz­ing a tele­scop­ing bolt, the UZI was much shorter than any first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion SMG; and with the ad­di­tion of a fold­ing butt­stock, it was quite com­pact. Shortly there­after, an Amer­i­can de­signer, Gor­don In­gram, un­veiled his M-10, which took the con­cept even fur­ther. Avail­able in both 9mm and .45 ACP, the M-10 wasn’t much big­ger than a pis­tol and fea­tured a threaded bar­rel to al­low a sound suppressor, as well.

In the late 1960s, Heck­ler & Koch in­tro­duced the first fourth­gen­er­a­tion SMG—the 9mm MP-5. It out­wardly looked like a so­phis­ti­cated sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion de­sign, but the MP-5 fired from a closed bolt like a stan­dard self-load­ing ri­fle. All pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions had fired from an open bolt in the mis­taken—but uni­ver­sally ac­cepted—no­tion that sus­tained au­to­matic fire would cause “cook-offs” from the heat gen­er­ated.

Oddly enough, the no­tion per­sisted with­out be­ing ques­tioned for more than 50 years be­fore it was dis­cov­ered that none of the pis­tol car­tridges uti­lized in SMGs gen­er­ated enough heat to cause a prob­lem. Thus, the ac­cu­racy-de­grad­ing “slam-fire” lurch of all pre­vi­ous SMGs to push a puff of cool air down the bore was quickly shown to be in­valid.

This opened up a new vista of sec­ond- and third-gen­er­a­tion SMG de­signs uti­liz­ing the closed-bolt prin­ci­ple. Back in the 1990s, Heck­ler & Koch sub­se­quently cre­ated the UMP and then the MP-7, both of which fire from a closed bolt. The 9mm Czech Scor­pion EVO 3 and Kriss Vec­tor that have ap­peared in the last 15 years also uti­lize the con­cept.

Be­cause of its fire­power and hand­i­ness, the SMG saw world­wide pro­lif­er­a­tion and be­came a stan­dard item in both mil­i­tary and po­lice in­ven­to­ries. How­ever, to­ward the end of World War II, the Ger­mans in­tro­duced the first as­sault ri­fle— the 7.92mm StG-44—that ef­fec­tively took over the role of both the SMG and stan­dard in­fantry ri­fle. Tech­ni­cally, this made both ob­so­lete, but the sheer quan­ti­ties of SMGs made, along with their dis­tri­bu­tion to vir­tu­ally ev­ery coun­try dur­ing that war, en­sured a long life span. In­deed, SMGs con­tinue to be en­coun­tered on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, war af­ter war, con­flict af­ter con­flict.


Be­cause of the in­creased in­ci­dence of body ar­mor, it be­came ap­par­ent that typ­i­cal SMG am­mu­ni­tion lacked suf­fi­cient pen­e­tra­tion for re­li­able tar­get neu­tral­iza­tion, so smaller-cal­iber car­tridges, such as H&K’s 4.6x30mm and FN’s 5.7x28mm, ap­peared.

How­ever, it was sub­se­quently dis­cov­ered that while they pen­e­trated soft ar­mor quite sat­is­fac­to­rily, their small calibers have often lacked stop­ping power. Thus, by all ap­pear­ances, the SMG has reached the high point of its ca­reer. Even so, its lim­i­ta­tions are more ap­par­ent than ever and can­not be over­come.


On the other side of the coin, the as­sault ri­fle has evolved to the point at which it is the same size or smaller than the SMG and, in most cases, it is the same weight or lighter. The United States adopted the 5.56x45mm back in 1963, and it has since be­come the stan­dard ser­vice car­tridge of all the non-former Soviet na­tions, which still uti­lize the 7.62x39mm and later, the 5.45x39mm.

So, as the lim­i­ta­tions of typ­i­cal SMG car­tridges be­came more ob­vi­ous, and (in the United States, at least) the avail­abil­ity of M-16s and M-4s to law en­force­ment agen­cies rad­i­cally

in­creased, the 5.56 has steadily in­creased in pop­u­lar­ity. The 5.56 eas­ily pen­e­trates soft body ar­mor—but, with prop­erly se­lected bul­let de­signs, it is ac­tu­ally less pen­e­tra­tive through walls, etc., than a typ­i­cal 9mm or .45 ACP bul­let. And with its in­creased ve­loc­ity, even from a short bar­rel, fran­gi­ble bul­let ex­pan­sion is vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed, whereas with a 9mm or .45 ACP it is not.


There­fore, it isn’t surprising that short­en­ing a 14.5- or 16-inch-bar­reled M-4 to, say, 10.5 or 11 inches to en­hance the weapon’s hand­i­ness would oc­cur. That, in­deed, hap­pened dur­ing the Viet­nam War with the CM-177E2. Known as the CAR-15 by those who car­ried and used it dur­ing that con­flict, its hand­i­ness and light weight made it much sought af­ter, although it was ac­tu­ally is­sued only to Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions and other test units. To­day’s short-bar­reled M-4A1 is a di­rect spinoff from the XM-177E2 and is see­ing rapid pro­lif­er­a­tion through­out the Spec Ops world.

By all es­ti­mates, the need for such short-bar­reled car­bines is in­creas­ing. As a re­sult, many man­u­fac­tur­ers around the world have be­gun of­fer­ing their own ver­sions: Heck­ler & Koch’s M-416 FC and G-36C, SIG’s MCX and SIG556 SBR, and Is­rael

Mil­i­tary In­dus­tries’ G-2SBR are clas­sic ex­am­ples of this trend. Former Soviet na­tions, all of which are well in­doc­tri­nated to the AK-47, are also adopt­ing shorter-bar­reled ver­sions, such as the AMD and AKS-74U (called the Krinkov in the United States), in both 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm.


The an­swer: No. But it’s def­i­nitely ail­ing and, I think, is reach­ing the end of its life span. Its lim­i­ta­tions make it a less-at­trac­tive and -use­ful weapon than the short-bar­reled car­bine. The lat­ter is more pow­er­ful, just as easy to con­trol and carry, and al­lows ef­fec­tive tar­get en­gage­ment at ranges far be­yond those pos­si­ble with any SMG. Con­se­quently, we’re see­ing it rel­e­gated more and more to ur­ban po­lice func­tions, with more de­part­ments and more agen­cies re­plac­ing them with SBRs as their SMGs reach the end of their ser­vice lives. Within the next decade or two, the SMG will, there­fore, most likely grad­u­ally fade away. It has been a gal­lant and im­por­tant part of firearm his­tory. GW



By 1940, the Thomp­son had evolved into two dis­tinct mil­i­tary ver­sions: the M-1928A1 and sim­pli­fied M-1/M-1A1. Both saw world­wide ac­tion dur­ing World War II in the hands of Al­lied forces. (Photo: Stowe/Dreamstime) Also ap­pear­ing dur­ing the last decade, the

9mm Kriss Vec­tor SMG ex­hibits an ul­tra­mod­ern de­sign that has caused it to be used in a mul­ti­tude of mo­tion


Gen­eral John T. Thomp­son dur­ing a demon­stra­tion of his fa­mous .45 ACP M-1921 Thomp­son SMG

The pro­lif­er­a­tion of body ar­mor since

2000 caused the devel­op­ment of smaller-cal­iber, high-ve­loc­ity SMG car­tridges. Heck­ler & Koch’s MP-7 and FN’s P-90 re­flect this trend.

The cur­rent it­er­a­tion of the XM-177E2 is based on the stan­dard M-4A1 plat­form and is be­com­ing highly pop­u­lar among both mil­i­tary and po­lice Spec Ops per­son­nel. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Based on the AK-47, the 5.45x39mm Krinkov short-bar­reled ri­fle is also gain­ing great pop­u­lar­ity among na­tions that pre­vi­ously used the stan­dard

AK. (Photo: Papova/ Dreamstime)

The In­gram M-10 (shown with sound suppressor) in both 9mm and .45 ACP first ap­peared in the late 1960s and quickly be­came fa­mous as a mil­i­tary covert ops weapon (and, later, no­to­ri­ous in the hands of the drug car­tels).

A fa­mous pro­pa­ganda photo of Win­ston Churchill with an M-1928 Thomp­son de­picted Bri­tain’s de­fi­ance of the Nazi on­slaught dur­ing the dark days of 1940–41. (Photo: Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum)

Due to its world­wide use by a huge ar­ray of mil­i­tary forces and the avail­abil­ity of M-16s and M-4s to Amer­i­can law en­force­ment agen­cies, the ven­er­a­ble 5.56x45mm ri­fle car­tridge and short­bar­reled car­bines that uti­lize it ap­pear to be re­plac­ing the SMG.

The 4.6x30mm is used in the HK MP-7, and the 5.7x28mm was de­vel­oped for the P-90. While with­out question able to pen­e­trate soft body ar­mor, the stop­ping power of both car­tridges in com­par­i­son to tra­di­tional SMG car­tridges such as the 9mm or 45 ACP has been widely crit­i­cized.

Two of SIG’s cur­rent en­tries into the 5.56mm short­bar­reled ri­fle mar­ket: the

SIG 516 SBR (top) and the MCX (be­low). The 516 is a gas-pis­ton ver­sion of the M4, while the MCX dif­fered in de­sign from the M4 but has sim­i­lar er­gonomics and fire con­trols.

Dur­ing the last decade, U.S. mil­i­tary and other Spec Ops forces are in­creas­ingly seen with short-bar­reled M-4A1s—and why not? The hand­i­ness, light weight and su­pe­rior “hu­man en­gi­neer­ing” of such weapons are un­de­ni­able. They’re the same size and weight as most SMGs but are more pow­er­ful and ver­sa­tile.

Is­raeli Mil­i­tary In­dus­tries’ 5.56mm G-2SBR is also based upon the M-4 and is be­gin­ning to see con­sid­er­able ser­vice with Is­raeli Spe­cial Forces and other elite units.

The M-416 FC and G-36C are Heck­ler & Koch’s cur­rent en­tries into the bur­geon­ing 5.56mm short-bar­reled ri­fle mar­ket.

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