Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
Teaser Image

Rifles

The nations that went to war in 1939 were all armed with rifles from World War I, although some modifications had been made during the 1919–1939 period. Germany went into battle with a shortened, lightened version of the Gewehr 98, which had become the Kar(abine) 98k(urz). The cartridge it fired was virtually the same, the 7.92 mm s.S.Patrone ( schweres Spitzgeschoss, heavy-pointed bullet).

Great Britain also went to war with a World War I rifle, the modified Rifle No. 1, Short, Magazine, Lee Enfield in Marks III to V. The Mark VI had also appeared, which was the forerunner of the weapon introduced after the outbreak of war, the Rifle No. 4, Mark I, and its subsequent derivatives. This weapon fired the .303 (inch) Mark VI, Mark VII, and Mark VIII cartridges. Wartime shortages caused Great Britain to import many rifles from Canada and the United States, but these were issued to the Home Guard, not to regular troops. The British experimented with semiautomatic and self-loading rifles, but they did not bring any into service.

The French had changed their rifle design and were issuing the Fusil 34 and the Fusil 36. These rifles fired a 7.5 mm rimless cartridge developed in 1929 for light machine guns. The weapon was bolt-operated and had a five-round magazine. Despite the development of the Fusil semiautomatique in 1918, the French army had not made the change to this weapon by the end of operations in June 1940. The Italian army chose rifles based on their 1891 design, often called the Carcano. The rifles were redesignated Model 38 and fired either 6.5 mm or 7.35 mm cartridges. These weapons were characterized by design flaws, and they bear no comparison with later Italian designs.

Japan went to war in 1941 with the type-38 Arisaka 6.5 mm rifle. This old design was soon superseded by the type-99 (1939) 7.7 mm rifle, which was put into service to overcome the weakness of the 6.5 mm cartridge. Although it had strange appendages (to Western eyes), such as antiaircraft sights and a wire monopod, it was nevertheless a well made and effective weapon, although not up to British and U.S. standards. The Arisaka was also too large for the average Japanese soldier to use effectively.

On the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet troops were armed with their M-1891/30 rifle, in 7.62 mm. Various versions were available, including a special sniper version, but the Soviets soon realized that their massive conscript army needed firepower (rather than accuracy, the product of long periods of training), and the submachine gun rapidly overtook the rifle in both numbers and popularity. Nevertheless, research into automatic weapons produced the Tokarev M-1940 as well as its predecessors from 1936 onward. All were in the Soviet 7.62 mm caliber and were well regarded by the Germans, who used the design principles in their own semiautomatic rifles later in the war.

The U.S. Army was still employing the Springfield Cal .30–06 M-1903 rifle. In 1936, the army adopted John Garand's new rifle as the Rifle, Semi-Automatic, M1. The United States became the only country in World War II to have a semiautomatic rifle as a standard infantry weapon. The rugged Garand weighed 9 lbs, 8 oz (unloaded) and was a gas-operated, clip-fed, air-cooled, semiautomatic shoulder weapon that fired .30 caliber ammunition from an 8-round clip. It had an effective range of 440 yds and a maximum range of 3,200 yds. The M1 was the standard U.S. infantry firearm from 1936 to 1957. The one problem with this weapon was that it had an unpleasant recoil because it fired the same cartridge as the Springfield.

During the war, while the Soviets placed increased emphasis on the submachine gun, the Germans also made great strides in developing their own semiautomatic assault rifles. This new genre in the rifle world was intended to provide increased firepower without sacrificing range. Submachine guns are excellent weapons at short (pistol) ranges of up to 50 yds, but beyond that, there is a need for accurate and effective fire out to 300 yds. Machine guns were the mainstay of the German army's infantry tactics, but the sheer weight of numbers in Soviet attacks made it imperative that every infantryman be able to put down effective defensive fire.

Mauser (the main German small-arms manufacturer) had been looking into semiautomatic rifles since the nineteenth century, but technical problems had ruled out its designs until the German army began to collect Tokarev semiautomatic rifles on the battlefield. The Germans then went ahead wholeheartedly, seeing their previous mistakes and how the Soviets had avoided them. The first rifle in the new range was the Gewehr 41 W, a weapon with a gas blast cone at the muzzle. The gases trapped at the muzzle operated the action by means of a rod that extended to the rear to the breech mechanism. At the same time, the German "borrowed" the Degtyarev machine-gun locking system to close the bolt firmly for firing.

The U.S. Garand system worked by means of a gas port tapped into the barrel that allowed gases in the barrel to operate a rod, which in turn forced the breechblock back against a spring. The first German system was much less sophisticated. The next German design was similar to the Garand but imported from the Soviets. Now there was a gas port some 12 inches along the barrel, allowing gas energy to operate the reloading mechanism of the rifle. This system was seen in the Gewehr 43.

The Germans also fielded a revolutionary weapon, the Fallschirmjäger Gewehr 42. This paratroop weapon had a folding bipod, and it was gas-operated and fired from a closed bolt when in single-round mode, which increased accuracy. In automatic mode (for it really was a light machine gun), it fired from an open bolt, allowing better cooling. This system was first seen in the U.S. Johnson light machine gun.

The modern assault rifle had its genesis in the German development of the Sturmgewehr rifles from 1943 onward. In 1938, development of the short, 7.92 mm cartridge began, and by 1942, both the Haenel and Walther companies were producing test weapons. In 1943, the first weapons were submitted for troop testing, and in 1944, the Sturmgewehr 44 was on limited issue to troops. This weapon was the first true assault rifle, and it eventually led to the design of the Soviet AK-47 and the Czech Model 58.

Demands from the field led to the adaptation of many standard service rifles for sniping use. The No. 4 British rifle became the No. 4 Mark I(T) and was equipped with a No. 32 telescope. The German Kar 98k was also fitted with a telescopic sight, as was the Soviet M-1891/30. The United States issued the M-1903 in an A4 version, made by Remington, but did not adapt the .30 Garand due to the problems caused by the clip-loading system, which would have caused the sight mount to be fitted to the side of the loading port.

The Soviets adapted their semiautomatic Tokarev M-1938 and M-1940 rifles for sniping purposes. The weapons were sighted to 1,430 yds and weighed just over 9 lbs each. These were standard rifles, however, for weapons were not specifically designed for sniping until after the war.

The United States also produced the only true carbine of the war, the U.S. Carbine Cal .30 M1. This weapon fired a shortened .30 caliber cartridge, which was designed by Winchester and adopted in October 1941. The weapon was seen as a medium-range, medium-velocity arm, designed for use by junior officers and men who had heavy loads to carry. More accurate than the M-1911 pistol, it nevertheless did not receive unconditional approval from the troops, being considered too light in firepower. However, it was used widely and was even equipped with the first infrared sighting equipment to be fitted to a weapon (the M3). The Carbine was also issued in a fully automatic version (the M2), which was not widely used, and it had a paratroop version with a folding stock. Basically, the weapon did not have the killing power needed in a military weapon, and although it was a good design, it was not as valuable as a good submachine gun.

Rifles were also adapted to fire rifle grenades. The Germans developed their grenade attachment to fit the Kar 98k and fired high-explosive and smoke grenades, as well as indicator bombs. The Americans fitted the Garand with the Grenade Launcher M-7, used with a blank cartridge, which was loaded with black powder (the M3 cartridge).

World War II saw a number of extremely effective designs in service, but the days of the bolt action were ending, and the influence of the Sturmgewehr range of rifles in particular caused all nations to look to semiautomatic and assault rifle design. Since 1945, the gas-operated semiautomatic (and even fully automatic) rifle has taken over on the battlefield.

David Westwood


Further Reading
Hogg, Ian. Military Small Arms Data Book. London and Philadelphia: Greenhill/Stackpole, 1999.; Huon, Jean. Military Rifle and Machine Gun Cartridges. Alexandria, VA: Ironside International, 1988.; Schecker, Arnim. Das deutsche Sturmgewehr 44. Privately published, n.d.; Smith, W. H. B. Small Arms of the World. 7th ed. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.; Walter, John. Dictionary of Guns and Gunmakers. Philadelphia: Greenhill/Stackpole, 2001.
 

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
  Introduction
  Essays
  A
  B
  C
  D
  E
  F
  G
  H
  I
  J
  K
  L
  M
  N
  O
  P
  Q
  R
  S
  T
  U
  V
  W
  X
  Y
  Z
  Documents Prior to 1938
  1939 Documents
  1940 Documents
  1941 Documents
  1942 Documents
  1943 Documents
  1944 Documents
  1945 Documents
  Images
ABC-cLIO Footer