The assault rifle is now used by infantry units in armies across the globe. However, prior to World War Two, such weapons were virtually unknown.
The first mass-produced assault rifle was introduced by Nazi Germany during that conflict. This weapon influenced many subsequent designs, and it may even be directly related to the famous Russian AK-47.
During World War One a surprising fact emerged. The rifle, the main infantry weapon, wasn’t a particularly effective means of inflicting casualties on the enemy.
Many rifles used during that conflict were superb weapons: the bolt-action British SMLE (Small Magazine Lee-Enfield) rifle for example, was provided with a ten round magazine and the highly trained professionals of the British Expeditionary Force were able to fire fifteen aimed rounds per minute during early battles.
The problem was, relatively few of those rounds were hitting their targets. Artillery was the main killer in World War One, estimated to have accounted for up 70% of British and French combat casualties on the Western Front and around 60% of German casualties. Next in lethality was the machine gun.
It wasn’t possible to distinguish between combat wounds caused by machine guns and rifles, as most of the heavy machine guns used by all sides fired the same cartridges as infantry rifles. However, observation on the battlefield made it clear that the machine gun was responsible for far more casualties than the rifle.
The issue wasn’t a fault with the rifles themselves – the average range at which rifles were used during World War One was over eight hundred yards. At that distance and using iron sights it’s barely possible to distinguish a human-sized target, let alone to hit it reliably with a single shot.
What was needed was a weapon which was easily portable by a single soldier, and also capable of fully automatic fire which would give it a better chance of supressing a distant target.
One of the earliest attempts to produce such a weapon was the Fedorov Avtomat, designed by a Captain Fyodorov in the Russian Army in 1915. This weapon fired the Japanese 6.5×50mm SR Arisaka cartridge which was widely available in Russia as many of its infantrymen were equipped with Arisaka rifles.
The Avtomat was provided with a 25 round magazine and was capable of fully automatic fire. It was used in small numbers by the Russian army during World War One, and by both sides in the Russian Civil War which followed.
The Fedorov Avtomat can be regarded as the very first example of what we now call an assault rifle, but it wasn’t particularly successful as a weapon of war. It was complex and expensive to manufacture, it wasn’t especially accurate, and it tended to overheat and jam.
Later in the war the French produced the Ribeyrolles Carabine Mitrailleuse 1918. This used a completely new round, created by joining the 8mm Lebel projectile to a necked-down version of the .351 Winchester Self-Loading cartridge case.
The Ribeyrolles proved to be extremely unreliable in use, and it was never used in combat. However, this was the first time that anyone had attempted to produce what would later come to be called an “intermediate” round, a reduced-power rifle round designed specifically for use in a fully automatic weapon.
In the search for improved firepower, most armies in World War One elected for the sub-machine gun, sometimes called the machine pistol, a weapon capable of fully automatic fire but which used pistol ammunition. These weapons had short range and indifferent accuracy but they proved ideal for close-in trench fighting.
Between the wars there were several attempts to produce a military rifle with fully automatic capability. The Swiss Pistolengewehr was introduced in 1921, and used the same toggle mechanism as the Luger pistol. It was chambered for a 7.65x35mm cartridge and was a select fire weapon which could be used in semi or full automatic modes. However, it was not adopted outside the Swiss Army.
In Germany, research led to the development of the Vollmer M35, a rifle caliber weapon with full automatic capability. However, it proved complex and expensive to manufacture and it was never mass produced.
The standard German army rifle, the Karabiner 98k, was a reliable and accurate weapon, but it was large and unwieldy. It didn’t fit with new German tactical approaches focused on mechanized warfare, in which infantry were rapidly deployed into combat from trucks and armored personnel carriers.
In response, the German army equipped increasingly large numbers of its troops with machine pistols such as the MP-38 and later derivatives including the MP-40, which fired the 9mm Parabellum pistol round. Despite being completely inaccurate at ranges of anything over 300 feet, these weapons proved adequate during the early phases of World War Two.
The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 changed everything. Faced with large numbers of Soviet troops armed with the SVT-40 semi-automatic rifle, the Wehrmacht reported an urgent need for an automatic weapon capable of being carried and fired by a single soldier but with greater range and accuracy than machine pistols.
Analysis showed that most engagements on the Eastern Front took place at ranges of between 200 and 600 feet, so any new weapon had to be accurate at the upper end of this range. German development contracts were issued in early 1942 for an automatic weapon which would use the new 7.9x33mm Kurz (Short) intermediate round.
The German company C. G. Haenel Waffen produced prototypes of a new weapon, the MKb 42(H), designed by Hugo Schmeisser. Schmeisser’s name has now become most closely associated with the MP 38 machine pistol, although he had almost nothing to do with the design of that weapon.
Prototypes of the MKb 42 were field tested in November 1942 and received very strong support from the Wehrmacht. The new weapon was fully automatic and provided with a distinctive, curved 30 round magazine. It weighed no more than a rifle and could easily be carried and used by a single soldier.
More than 11,000 MKb 42s were sent for additional field testing in early 1943. The new weapon was found to be reliable and accurate at ranges of up to 900 feet – a vast improvement over existing machine pistols.
Then, disputes between different departments responsible for the production of rifles led to Hitler angrily stepping in and halting work on all new rifle designs, including the MKb 42. However, setbacks on the Eastern Front led to continuing demands for improved weapons.
In June 1944, Hitler was finally persuaded to personally test the MKb 42. He was so impressed that he insisted it be immediately put into production.
Hitler, who liked dramatic sounding names, also instructed that the new weapon was to be called a Sturmgewehr. The literal translation is “Storm Rifle” but this is more usually given as “Assault Rifle,” the first time that this term was used.
More than four hundred thousand examples of the newly designated StG 44 were produced in the last ten months of World War Two. The assault rifle proved to be an effective and reliable weapon. Experience of bitter street fighting on the Eastern Front even led to the production of a Krummlauf version, which had a barrel bent at either 30° or 45° to allow for shooting round corners.
However, introduction of the new weapon was too late to prevent the defeat of the Wehrmacht. The Soviet Union captured large numbers of these weapons when the war ended. The Soviets then used them to equip military and police units in East Germany, as well as supplying insurgents in many parts of the world.
StG 44s have been used by the PLO and Hezbollah and surviving wartime examples were even taken from militia units during recent conflicts in Iraq. GSG (German Sport Guns), a German firearm manufacturer based in Westphalia, currently sells the GSG-StG 44, a semi-automatic, .22 rimfire copy of the StG 44.
It has also been widely claimed that the StG 44 directly influenced the design of the AK-47, the most widely used assault rifle of the 20th century. However, assessing whether that is true is difficult.
Officially, the Avtomat Kalashnikova 47 (AK-47) was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a Russian combat soldier who was wounded in fighting against the Nazis before being moved to the main Soviet rifle design bureau. This was surprising because Kalashnikov wasn’t formally trained as an engineer, a designer or even as a gunsmith.
Rather, Kalashnikov was a farmer’s son and an enthusiastic tinkerer who dreamed of designing a new weapon for the Red Army. He was also a particularly ardent Communist, so politically it suited the Soviets to claim that their new weapon had been created not by a technocrat but by an ordinary Soviet soldier. The story played well in Pravda, but not everyone believed it.
Most of the early designs created by Kalashnikov were rejected. It wasn’t until he relocated to the Izhevsk Armaments factory in the Ural Mountains that his design for a new weapon suddenly improved to the point where it was selected as the winning entry in a competition to design an assault rifle for the Soviet army in 1946.
Many people feel that it is not coincidental that the designer of the StG 44, Hugo Schmeisser, and members of his design team who had been captured by the Russians were forced to work at the same factory from 1946-1952. It’s also notable that the earliest prototypes of the AK-47 which were produced in Izhevsk were similar to the StG 44, though production versions incorporated notable differences.
Some people have even pointed out that after the German design team had been allowed to return home, Kalashnikov never produced another innovative weapon.
Kalashnikov is still generally credited as the designer of the AK-47, though he did admit in 2009 in an interview given on the occasion of his 90th birthday that he might have been “helped” by Hugo Schmeisser and his team. Schmeisser died in 1953 and never spoke about his time in Russia.
Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of ninety-four. In September 2017 a commemorative statue of the inventor was unveiled in Central Moscow. The base on which the figure stood was adorned with several cast metal plaques which showed detailed views of the AK-47. Or at least, most of them did.
Embarrassingly and ironically, at least one actually showed an StG 44 – apparently the sculptor had confused the two weapons, which do look externally very similar. A grim-faced official with an angle grinder quickly turned up to “correct” the new monument by removing the image of the German weapon.
The Sturmgewehr 44 was the first mass-produced assault rifle and as such it is the predecessor of weapons such as the American M16. We will never know for certain, but it may also have had a much more direct relationship to the design of the definitive Russian assault rifle, the AK-47.