A Study Of Five WWII Submachine Guns In 9mm,
.45 ACP And 7.62x25mm.
World War II will likely be the last major conflict wherein each major combatant mostly fielded small arms designed and produced in its own factories. The word “mostly” is used because, as usual, Great Britain had to go begging to other countries for all sorts of weapons, as did China. Also, it should be noted that Germany captured so many small arms while running rampant in the 1939 to 1942 period, the Wehrmacht reissued them by the tens of thousands, not only to their own troops but also to Hungarian, Romanian and other axis forces.
Still, it is true that frontline units of all warring nations got the best small arms their factories could produce, and the variety used between 1939 and 1945 is awesome. Nowhere is this truer than with submachine guns. Some used wooden stocks, some were all metal, some had folding stocks and others did not. Some were selective full or semi-auto fire and others were full-auto only. Some were equipped with the finest target sights and others had the most rudimentary ones imaginable. One thing they all had in common was that they fired pistol cartridges, which is part of the definition of a submachine gun.
When embarking on building a shooting collection of WWII small arms at the turn of the new century, I never dreamed it would grow so large, nor did I even consider it would contain any of the federally restricted full-autos. Indeed it now does, specifically five vintage submachine guns fielded by Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States. I’ve even set up a small area on my Montana acreage dedicated as a submachine gun range and enjoy firing them immensely.
Before continuing, it should be stressed that my five submachine guns were not exclusively used by their home nations in WWII. Many others were fielded along with sub variations of the ones I own. For instance, my Tommy gun is the M1 version. Prior to it, one segment or the other of American armed forces were issued Models 1928 and 1928A1. After the M1 came a very slightly modified M1A1. Also, the British had a subgun called the “Lanchester” prior to the STEN, which incidentally was made in five versions or “Marks.”
Duke’s first four WWII submachine gun purchases included
(from front) the German MP40, US M1 Thompson, British
Mk II STEN and the Soviet PPSh41.
The Russian PPSh41 in 7.62x25mm was one of the most widely
issued subguns of WWII and performed well even in the harshest
environments. Duke says it is one of the easiest to care for.
Photo: Jonathan Marmand
Without a doubt, the most popular of WWII submachine guns in America’s eyes is the Thompson. Many times when people hear that I own a “Tommy gun” their eyes light up and they say, “Do you have one of those round magazines for it?” Up to the 1942 redesigned M1 and M1A1 versions, all Tommy guns indeed could use the 50- and 100-round drum magazines. The two later versions can’t; they only feed from 20- and 30-round stick magazines. Nor do they have the Cutts Compensator at the muzzle or those finely made Lyman flip-up target-grade sights. The rear sight is a mere bent piece of steel (still marked Lyman) with a hole drilled in it for an aperture.
All Thompsons had 10.5-inch barrels. The earlier ones were finned and later ones were smooth. Also, the American military did not like the vertical foregrip, which the British bought by the ton on Models 1928/1928A1. For WWII, US-issued Tommy guns had horizontal foregrips. All military ones were also .45 ACP and selective fire, and they were immensely heavy—unloaded, my M1 weighs about 11 pounds. Nominal rate of fire is 700 rounds per minute (RPM).
In my opinion, the second most famous WWII submachine gun is Germany’s 9mm MP40 (Machine Pistol 1940). It is almost identical to the MP38 except the earlier version used more machined parts and the later one used many stamped parts. The Germans pioneered all-metal submachine guns (no wooden stocks) and also the folding stock feature. Magazines held 32 rounds and sights were two notched leaves for a rear (100 and 200 meters) and a post front in a protective ring. MP40s were full-auto only and barrels were 9.75 inches long. Mine weighs about 8.5 pounds unloaded. Here’s a unique fact about the MP40: It gained the misnomer “Schmeisser” from a German weapons designer named Hugo Schmeisser, but the man had nothing to do with its development. Nominal rate of fire is 500 RPM.
Visitors to Duke’s gun vault usually make a beeline to this display.
The US M1 Thompson (top) was a simplification of the Model 1928A1, which
was originally fitted with a Cutts Compensator and Lyman target grade
rear sight. The Cutts Compensators helped hold down muzzle climb.
Both versions of the M3 resemble their nickname of “grease gun.”
The US M3 (top) had the fragile and unusual cocking handle
dropped from the later M3A1 (bottom).
Perhaps the least known of WWII submachine guns is the Soviet Union’s PPSh41, which is odd because it is considered iconic by the Russians. They have uncountable statues and paintings of soldiers in the “Great Patriotic War,” invariably armed with a PPSh41, not to mention even more photographs of the same. The PPSh41 is easily identified because of its perforated jacket around the pencil-thin barrel. In most photos or other depictions, they are wearing their dramatic looking 71-round drum magazines. However, it should be noted, 35-round curved stick magazines were also issued and are far easier to load. Weight of my sample with 71-round unloaded drum is 8.5 pounds.
Some sources describing the PPSh41 call its 7.62x25mm cartridge “weak.” I must say, “Weak for what?” It fires an 86-grain bullet at over 1,700 fps from a 10.5-inch barrel. Such a load would give plenty of penetration, if not the impact of a .45 ACP’s 230-grain bullet. Also, with such a high rate of RPMs, a single hit from a PPSh41 would be unlikely. Most PPSh41’s are select-fire, but it has been written that some later ones were full-auto only. Nominal specs call for a 900-RPM cyclic rate, but see my comments later.
Without a doubt, the homeliest of WWII submachine guns is the Brits’ STEN gun. Mine is the Mark II version, which was the most common with about 2 million produced in only 3 years. Its buttstock is not foldable but skeletal in form and easily removed. Barrel length is only 7.75 inches and weight is only about 6.5 pounds. STEN guns are easily recognizable in photos because their 32-round magazines extend from the weapon’s left side instead of downwards, as with most subguns. That was a good idea because soldiers can then get their heads closer to the ground. Also good was that the British adopted it as 9mm instead of coming up with some caliber of their own.
The entire lineup of British STEN guns has often been called “Plumbers’ Nightmares” because they are so crudely made. Indeed they are mostly tubes spot-welded together with a non-adjustable set of sights. At one point in their manufacture cost was a mere $10.99 each. Ugly is as ugly does, and so in some eyes STEN guns were works of art. They did their job well, cost little and weren’t so heavy to pack about. They were select fire. Nominal RPM is 550.
Finally we get to the last American military submachine gun—the M3, more commonly called the “grease gun.” And it definitely resembles that automotive tool. No prettier than a STEN gun, my M3 weighs 8.5 pounds unloaded; barrel length is 8 inches. The front sight is a blade on the receiver and not the barrel. The rear sight is another non-adjustable bent piece of steel with a hole drilled through it.
Duke considers the German MP40 (left) the easiest of WWII submachine guns to hit with. Note that there are several empty cases in the air but no dust flying up around the steel target, indicating there were no misses in that burst. Nonetheless, Duke feels the most practical of his five WWII submachine guns is the STEN MkII (above).
Both versions of the M3 resemble their nickname of “grease gun.” The US M3 (top)
had the fragile and unusual cocking handle dropped from the later M3A1 (bottom).
Obviously the American designers of the M3 borrowed from STEN gun ideas but came up with a less sturdy, collapsible buttstock and an odd cocking handle on the right side behind the ejection port. Odd because it’s a fragile arrangement and was dispensed with in the M3A1 version. Here’s something else odd about M3’s: They could be converted from .45 ACP to 9mm merely by switching the bolt and barrel and installing a magazine adaptor for STEN gun magazines. (I’d love to find one of those conversion kits for my “grease gun.”) Rate of fire is the slowest of all WWII submachine guns at 450 RPM and mode of fire was full-auto only.
Now I’m going to detail some personal opinions based on my experiences with these subguns. However, I urge the reader to keep in mind I am not a submachine gun expert and have never been trained in their use.
Here goes: In my opinion the double-stack, double-feed magazine of Tommy guns is a far better system than the double-stack, single-feed methods used in the other four subguns. Not only is my Thompson more reliable in terms of function than the others, but also no special magazine loading tool is needed for it. The M3 grease gun is the second most reliable subgun in my collection, followed by the Soviet PPSh41. Both German MP40 and STEN Mk II fail to function far more than the others.
As regards to disassembly for cleaning, top honor goes to the PPSh41 with the MP40 and STEN Mk II tying for second place. Both American subguns are more time-consuming to tear down for cleaning. Thompson and PPSh41 barrels are fixed in the frames so they must be cleaned from their muzzle end. The others’ barrels can be dismounted and cleaned from the breech end.
Three of my five subguns offer semi-auto fire on demand. The US M3 grease gun and German MP40 do not. Is that a detriment? I don’t think so because in my life-long extensive study of WWII history, never have I encountered a first-person story of a combatant from any nation firing his submachine gun on semi-auto. You might think more precise bullet placement would come with semi-auto, but all five of the subguns discussed here fire with an open bolt. That heavy chunk of steel sliding forward for the first shot does nothing to aid well-aimed shots.
A target-grade Lyman peep sight (top) was standard on Thompson submachine guns until towards the end of Model 1928A1 production. Simplifying matters, later Tommy guns were fitted with bent pieces of steel (middle) with a hole drilled for the aperture. These were still built by Lyman. The German MP40 had a 2-leaf open rear sight (bottom).
As these five submachine guns were described above, their nominal rates of fire (RPMs) were listed. PACT offers speed-shooting timers with both chronograph and RPM modes installed. I have clocked all my subguns many times with many types of factory ammunition and my own handloads. The only one that has been significantly different from nominal RPMs is the PPSh41. It is listed in several places at having a 900-RPM cyclic rate. Mine consistently exceeds 1,100 RPM with several types of military surplus ammunition and over 1,050 RPM with some milder handloads. It is literally a bullet hose.
And here is the final point: If I wanted to hit a target consistently with a WWII submachine gun, I would opt for the MP40 or STEN Mk II with the PPSh41 coming next. The US M1 climbs so much with the recoil of the .45 ACP, although the M3’s RPM of 450 makes it easier to control. If I actually had to carry one of the things at my age, it would certainly be the STEN Mk II. All of the others need strong young men to pack them about with a load of ammunition.
Over the past 5 years I’ve invested time and considerable treasure in building my WWII collection. It’s about finished now and wouldn’t be near as complete without those five subguns.
By Mike “Duke” Venturino
Photos: Yvonne Venturino