In this retrospective, we’ll take a look at the first viable submachine gun, the Maschinenpistole 18.
MP 18: To Own the Trenches
During World War I, many weapons were rushed into the field to try and break the war’s stalemate. Various countries struggled to produce weapon systems that would allow their forces to conduct fire and movement and hopefully fire and maneuver tactics. The Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR is one example familiar in the U.S. However, the German MP 18 would cast a long shadow on later small arms design. Considered the first submachine gun by many, the MP 18 would create an entirely new category of small arms and change small unit tactics forever.
The German Empire, like the majority of combatants in the First World War, concluded that bolt action service rifles and crew served machine guns weren’t enabling the infantry to advance across no man’s land. Germany needed a weapon that could provide infantry squads with their own base of fire to suppress and assault through enemy strong points. Other nations looked to lighter man-portable machine guns or automatic rifles. The Germans decided not to create a lighter machine gun, but instead a pistol caliber weapon that could provide automatic fire in the close combat of the trenches.
Germany initially fielded lightened machine guns like the MG 1908/15 but stocked pistols proved to be more popular. Issued pistols like the Luger and C96 Mauser were available with a shoulder stock holster and could be used on the assault. This was a step in the right direction, but the foot soldier needed something more capable for trench combat. A design built from the ground up to be light and capable of full-auto fire was needed. Hugo Schmeisser and Theodor Bergmann would be the lead designers on the project.
The MP 18 was the result of Schmeisser and Bergmann’s work and was an outstanding first attempt at a submachine gun or machine pistol. This weapon was designed in 1916, and true to manufacturing of the time was very robust. It weighs 9.2 lbs., much heavier than later SMG’s (submachine guns). Its caliber was the 9x19mm round used in the Luger service pistol.
Further Luger influence was obvious in the 32-round drum or “snail” magazine which carried over from the artillery model Luger. This awkward magazine necessitated a feed collar on the MP18 and required a loader to fill the drum. The drum magazine would be one of the few criticisms of the MP 18. Rate of fire was 400-500 rounds per minute operating from an open-bolt, full-auto only blowback system.
One can easily identify the MP 18 by its perforated barrel shroud intended to aid in cooling and keep the operator from burning their hands. Production began in early 1918 and a minimum of 5,000 were produced, with production numbers varying between sources. Manufacturing was curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles after the war, but production was continued in secret despite the treaty’s demand that only police be allowed to utilize SMGs.
MP 18s would be fielded very late in the war and were pushed to the German Army’s Sturmtruppen detachments that specialized in early assault tactics. Sturmtruppen were a handpicked lot of soldiers tasked with breaching through no man’s land and assaulting trench lines. These men were loaded down with grenades, pistols, Mauser carbines, and the new MP 18. Reports from the field were very positive. This positive response would influence other countries to discuss adapting similar platforms.
War’s end didn’t mean an end to the MP 18’s service. Post-war use included the Spanish Civil War, in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Chaco War. Weimar police would continue to use MP 18’s modified to use 20-round straight magazines and it would see service with the Nazi regime during the Second World War, albeit secondary to the more advanced MP 38 and MP 40 submachine guns that superseded it.
The MP 18, being the first true submachine gun, heavily influenced submachine gun design in the post war period. MP18-influenced designs include Chinese copies chambered in 7.63 Mauser used in the fight against Japan, the French MAS35 and MAS38, and the Swiss SIG Bergmann. The SIG Bergmann would, strangely enough, lead to the Soviet PPSH-41 which Nazi Germany would encounter in World War II. This came about because the SIG Bergmann influenced the Finnish Suomi 31, which influenced the PPD-34 and later PPSH-41. The later German MP 28, an improved MP18, would also influence the British Lancaster SMG. As is so often the case in small arms, the influence of the MP 18, not its initial combat use, would be its legacy. However, later designs such as the MP 38/40 would eclipse the MP 18’s notoriety.
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About the Author: Sean “Groz” Burke is a former Assault Section Leader in the Marine Corps infantry with combat deployments to assorted sunny Middle Eastern and African locations. During his tenure as a gyrene many doors were kicked, gates blown, and people’s days excessively ruined. During these deployments Sean often instructed the use of foreign weapon systems, helped his command understand the armament capabilities of the enemy and was his unit’s resident “terp wrangler.” He attended numerous PME schools, including Sensitive Site Exploitation and the Iraqi Arabic and Culture Course. After departing the Marine Corps Sean graduated Temple University with a degree in history and is now (no shit) a high school teacher. When not teaching he continues to compulsively study foreign weapon systems, world affairs and foreign policy. Groz is one of the biggest geardos the Mad Duo knows (which is really saying something). He is a wealth of information regarding all things Cordura, Steel and COMBLOC.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
To learn more about other combat arms of the First World War, check out our reviews of: