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The Submachine Guns of Delta Force: A Unique History

The M3A1, MPL and the iconic MP5 shaped the future of firearms for special operations forces.

The Submachine Guns of Delta Force: A Unique History

At a time when special operations as we understand the term today was in its infancy, Delta Force shooters employed these three capable pistol-caliber SMGs. 

Unlike many of the world’s rarefied special operations units, the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta actually takes its anonymity quite seriously. We don’t even really know what to call it. They apparently change the name periodically just to keep the world on its toes. In the past, the Army has referred to Delta Force as the Combat Applications Group, Army Compartmented Elements, and Task Force Green. For those who’ve actually been on the inside, it was always just the Unit.

Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery
(Firearms News photo)

This is simply my opinion, but it seems the SEALs suffered from having some really cool movies made about them. The 1990 action epic Navy SEALs starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn was red meat to guys like me. And then there was Tears of the Sun, Act of Valor, Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, and American Sniper. In the immediate aftermath of each, it seemed like half the male high school seniors in America aspired to dip their toes in the harsh frigid waters of the Pacific at Coronado. I’m admittedly generalizing, but most of the SEALs with whom I am acquainted are honestly a bit obnoxious.

Jacked, tanned, and typically sporting both Oakleys and hair gel, the archetypal SEAL is like a professional surfer with a machinegun. By contrast, the Delta guys I have known could blend into a crowd. They were generally quiet and profoundly self-confident. The Delta NCO’s in particular seemed like they could orchestrate a coup in a typical Third-World country and successfully pin it on somebody else. At the end of the day, however, those of us on the outside really have no idea what that weird cloistered world is really like.

It’s a secret organization. They take their secrecy seriously. As a result, it’s not like you can just Google, “Guns used by Delta Force” and expect to find reliable information. I have drawn my insights from a variety of sources. Some of it is from books, while some of it is from discussions with Delta shooters I have known. If you’re on the inside and I get it all wrong just roll your eyes and sigh. I did the best I could with the limited information I had available.

Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery

Pistol-Caliber SMGs

At a time when special operations as we understand the term today was in its infancy, Delta Force shooters employed these three capable pistol-caliber SMGs. 

M3A1 Grease Gun

The M3A1 Grease Gun was all crude pressed steel and welding. The sliding stock on the M3A1 has at least four different functions that I know of. The pistol grip on the Grease Gun is absolutely enormous. (Firearms News photo)

Side-Folding Wire Stock on MPL

The side-folding wire stock on the MPL is fairly stable and effective for its intended purpose. The sights on the MPL are relatively unorthodox, and the barrel is easily removed at the user level. (Firearms News photo)

Walther MPL

The bolt on the Walther MPL included a heavy weight to help slow down the cyclic rate. (Firearms News photo)

Walther MPL

The Walther MPL represents the next generation in pressed steel open-bolt SMGs. It was underappreciated in its day and is a superb close-combat weapon. (Firearms News photo)

Sound-Suppressed MP5SD

The sound suppressed MP5SD shown here is one of more than a hundred subvariants of the MP5 family of submachine guns. (Firearms News photo)


Charging the M3A1 took nothing more complicated than a human finger. Contrary to appearances, this is not some grizzled late ’70s-era Delta Force operator. This is rather just a geeky gun writer who only recently figured out how to use his primitive photo editing software. (Firearms News photo)

Submachine Guns of Delta Force

(Firearms News photo)


The HK MP5 is a truly modular weapon. Pushing out a few pins lets you swap all sorts of things around. (Firearms News photo)


The HK416 was specifically designed with input from Delta’s gun guys. It represents the current state of the art in close-combat assault rifles. (Firearms News photo)

"Delta Force"

This is SGM Mike Vining (bottom left), a founding member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. He is packing an M3A1 Grease Gun. (Public domain). Having an epic action movie made about them didn’t do much to cool down that legendary Navy SEAL ego (top left). ( Colonel Charles “Charging Charlie” Beckwith (top right) was the iron will behind Delta Force. (Public domain) 

Effective Submachine Guns

When fired offhand in measured bursts at a target ten meters distant all three of these weapons are undeniably effective. (Firearms News photo)

Delta Force is indeed a secret organization, but it has a Wikipedia page. Delta Force also has a dad. That guy was Colonel Charles Beckwith. Charging Charlie Beckwith was a decorated Special Forces officer. He turned down an offer to play for the Green Bay Packers in favor of military service in the 1950’s. After a combat tour as an Infantry officer in the Korean War, CPT Beckwith took an assignment as an exchange officer with the British 22d Special Air Service. In 1962, Beckwith commanded 3 Troop, A Squadron of the 22d SAS in combat during the Indonesian Confrontation in Malaya. He came home determined to create a similar direct action capability for the US Army.

In 1965, Beckwith deployed to Vietnam as an SF officer. In 1966, he took a .50-caliber round through the belly but, miraculously, fully recovered. After a stint as a training officer at the Ranger School, Beckwith returned to Vietnam to command an infantry battalion in the 101st Airborne Division. Throughout it all, Beckwith pestered anyone who would listen about forming that dedicated direct action unit within the US Army Special Operations community.

Traditional Special Forces troops were trainers. Their mission was to operate in hostile territory organizing indigenous forces to become combat multipliers. However, that isn’t what Beckwith had in mind. In his words, he wanted his operators to be, “Not only a force of teachers, but a force of doers.” Toward the latter part of the 1970’s with terrorism on the rise, somebody finally listened to him. Delta Force officially stood up on 19 November 1977 with Colonel Beckwith in command. A temporary organization drawn from the 5th Special Forces Group titled “Blue Light” was created to bridge the counter-terror gap until Delta could get on its feet. Some of the stuff Colonel Beckwith did in those early days seems pretty radical today.

Another iconic Vietnam Delta Gun is the CAR-15: Click Here to Learn More

Beckwith supposedly proposed early on that prospective Delta operators would be shot in the thigh with a .22 rifle so they could experience a gunshot wound. Considering this was from a guy who survived a fifty cal to the gut, that’s an interesting proposal. Alas, cooler heads prevailed, and getting shot was never a requirement for Delta selection. Throughout it all, Colonel Beckwith and his boys figured it out as they went along. From uniforms and equipment to weapons and tactics, they wrote the book on counter-terror operations. The resulting tactical evolution is a fascinating thing to study.

Nowadays, Tier 1 operators sport the best body armor, uniforms, helmets, gear, and night vision that mankind can produce. Back in the 1970’s, however, there was not that deep well from which to draw. Most of the Delta guys, who punched into the Iranian desert as part of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue American hostages on 24 April 1980, wore black watch caps along with OD field jackets and Levis dyed black to match. Their field jackets were customized by their parachute riggers to carry ammunition magazines, survival gear, and similar stuff on the inside. One gentleman who was there stated that his kitted-out field jacket weighed seventy pounds. That this mission ultimately failed is attributable to broken helicopters, not any lack of skill or bravery. The HK416 is arguably the finest assault rifle in the world. This weapon was a collaborative effort between Heckler and Koch and Delta gear heads back in the 1990’s. HK416 variants have since been adopted as the standard service rifles for France, Germany, Norway, and the US Marine Corps. However, before the adoption of the HK416, the D-boys often used submachine guns.

In the Beginning…

Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery
(Firearms News photo)

In its infancy, Delta drew its weapons from US Army stores. In the very beginning that meant M3A1 Grease Guns. Colonel Beckwith supposedly checked ammo cans at the end of range days to see how much if any ammunition was remaining. If there was anything left over, then they needed to push harder. The original M3 submachine gun was adopted on 12 December 1942 as a replacement for the cumbersome, expensive, and heavy Thompson SMG. Firing the chunky .45ACP round and designed from the outset to be cheap and easy to produce in volume, the M3 was a harbinger for things to come. It represented the transition from heavy forgings and walnut to institutional pressed steel for the masses. Troops immediately began referring to the ugly little gun as the “Grease Gun” or “Greaser” based upon its similarity to the ubiquitous mechanic’s tool.


The original M3 was comprised of two pressed steel shells welded together to form a rugged chassis. The bolt rode on a pair of internal rods with ample mechanical clearance for fouling and crud. This made the weapon supremely reliable. The M3 sported a fairly complex ratcheting charging handle that was prone to break under hard use. Early on, the Army did not stock replacement parts for the weapon. If something on the Grease Gun failed you would just run over the weapon with a tank and requisition a new one. The subsequent M3A1 was introduced in December of 1944 and was even simpler.

The M3A1 dispensed with the ratchet charging system in favor of an enlarged ejection port and a bolt with a big divot to accept a standard human finger. Charging the open-bolt weapon involved simply tugging the bolt to the rear until it locked. The pivoting ejection port cover was the gun’s sole safety. Open the cover and the gun was ready to fire. Close it and the gun was on safe.

The sliding wire stock on the M3A1 doubled as a cleaning rod and barrel disassembly wrench. It also included a magazine loader to help charge the 30-round double-stack, single-feed box magazines. The stock was uncomfortable no matter how you used it, and the pistol grip was configured for giants. However, the gun cycled at a comatose 450 rounds per minute and was undeniably effective. While on active duty, I encountered the M3A1 in use with American armored units well into the 1990’s. Many of the Greasers used by Delta in the 1970’s were equipped with sound suppressors. One reference I found online from a man who took part in Eagle Claw stated that his sound suppressed Grease Gun included a D-cell Maglite and early IR laser designator affixed to the gun with pipe clamps and a chunk of balsa wood. As I said, these studs just made it up as they went along.

The Germans Get Involved

The few photos that were released of Delta Force training in the latter 1970’s occasionally showed their operators clearing structures armed with Walther MP submachine guns. The 9mm MP-series guns reflected the apogee of stamped steel, open-bolt, pistol-caliber subguns. Developed in the aftermath of World War 2, the Walther MP was a speculative venture intending to ride the wave of West German rearmament during the Cold War. Walther formally launched the gun in 1963. From the outset, the weapon was offered in both MPL (Lang or Long) and MPK (Kurz or Short) versions. MP stands for Maschinen Pistole or Machine Pistol. Both weapons used the same magazines and fire controls. Only the upper halves differed between the two.

The MPL, like the Grease Gun, was a pressed steel design. The heavy bolt had an overhung weight that synergistically conspired to move the line of recoil low while keeping the rate of fire sedate. The non-reciprocating charging handle rode on the left front of the weapon for easy access, and the side-folding heavy wire stock was stable in action. The double-column, double-
feed magazine of the MPL was simply superb and served as the basis for the box used by the 9mm MAC-10. However, despite its conventional technology, the MPL still offered some interesting technical surprises.

The three-position selector was opposite that of an M16. The first 90-degree position was full auto, while the 180-degree spot was semi. The barrel was easily removable via a threaded nose cap. The rear sight had a curious duality as well. The top of the sight assembly sported a forward notch and a pressed steel rear triangle. This arrangement was reversed from that of most conventional military weapons. There was additionally a small peep sight oriented underneath this wide battle sight. The peep included its own forward post. The peep sight was suitable for precise work, while the notch and triangle were designed to be fast. In the heady days before we started hanging electronic red dots on everything, this reflected the state of the art.

The Walther MP saw service with the 39th Special Forces Detachment in Berlin, and with the German police during the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Navy SEALs used a few in Vietnam, as did SF operators during Operation Ivory Coast, the effort to rescue American POWs from Son Tay. Delta operators supposedly packed these Walther weapons during Operation Eagle Claw. Production wrapped at 27,000 units in 1983. However, in 1980 events transpired that relegated the Walther to the dust bin of history.

Who Dares Wins

Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery
(Firearms News photo)

Eleven days after the ill-fated mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, the British SAS launched Operation Nimrod. Conducted in full view of the world’s accumulated press, this audacious assault seized the occupied Iranian embassy in London and resulted in the neutralization of six terrorists for the loss of a single hostage killed. The iconic images of black-clad SAS operators breaching the embassy building while packing HK MP5’s was the best advertising for which Heckler and Koch might ever have dreamt.

In the aftermath of Operation Nimrod, everybody everywhere, myself included, wanted an MP5 of their own. Cops eventually bought the guns by the tens of thousands. The Navy SEALs contracted for their own specialized variants, and the Army’s Delta Force acquired a bunch as well. The Army’s Task Force 160 Special Operations Aviation Regiment also outfitted their aircrews with the stubby little 9mm weapons. The MP5 was an evolutionary development of the German wartime MG42 belt-fed machinegun. Designed by a bunch of guys who built pressed steel railway lanterns, the MG42 represented a radical departure from convention. The MG42 orbited around a novel roller-delayed blowback mechanism that was fairly easy to make and shockingly reliable.

At the very end of the war, the same operating mechanism was adapted to the MP44 chassis to make the StG-45 assault rifle. This weapon fired the 7.92x33mm round and used the same 30-round magazines, but was not completed in time for production before the war ended. In the aftermath of the war, the gun’s designers took their ideas to Spain and tooled the gun up as the CETME. In time, the CETME came back to West Germany. The fledgling Heckler and Koch Company was occupying itself making machine tools and sewing machine parts before winning the tender to produce the new service rifle for the West German Bundeswehr. The resulting G3 saw widespread distribution.

That same basic design was adapted to fire the 7.62x39mm, the 5.56x45mm, and the 9mm Parabellum. The 9mm version was titled the HK54. In 1964, the HK54 was christened the MP5 and adopted by West German border police. The MP5 was really way over-designed for its pistol-caliber chambering, but it was inimitably smooth as a result. The gun has been offered in more than 100 different variations and remains in production both at HK and under license around the world today. One example used by security personnel at Cape Canaveral in Florida has supposedly fired more than a million rounds without meaningful failure.

Trigger Time

Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery
(Firearms News photo)

The ergonomics of the Grease Gun are honestly pretty ghastly. With the stock collapsed it eats into your wrist. When extended the stock is cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and uncomfortable all the year round. I have big monkey mitts, and I have difficulty getting my hands around the gun’s enormous pistol grip. However, the M3A1 shoots reliably and well at reasonable ranges.

The Grease Gun’s peep sight is essentially worthless for a weapon of this sort, and the trigger is unduly big and heavy. However, at 450 rpm a thirty-round magazine lasts a good while. Additionally, half a dozen .45ACP slugs delivered in less than a second means not having to say you’re sorry in all the world’s recognized languages. The Walther MPL really is a superb and underappreciated military tool. The switchology is intuitive, and the weapon is beautifully controllable. Running at 550 rpm, the gun easily lends itself to doubles and triples. For applications at close range demanding surgical precision, the MPL delivers. The MP5 is arguably the smoothest pistol-caliber SMG ever made. However, with a cyclic rate of around 800 rpm it runs a bit fast for my tastes. Regardless, in experienced hands, the MP5 does indeed set the world standard for SMG controllability.

Punching a few pins lets you swap out buttstocks, fire control groups, or forearms as the spirit leads. It’s kind of tough to mount an optic, particularly when compared to such modern fare as the M4 or HK416, but in the world of iron sights little can compare. The manual of arms involves locking the bolt to the rear, swapping out magazines, and then slapping the bolt down into battery. This takes a little more time than the same chore with an M4, but it earns you cool points in the process.


Guns of Delta Force Photo Gallery
(Firearms News photo)

I have a pal who did most of his long and storied Army career with the Unit. He is reserved, humble, and kind…on the outside. However, this guy gives 
me the impression that, were he really tooled up, he could suddenly become a force of nature. He is a product of the most selective military screening and training program in the world. These exceptionally rarefied warriors have used some eclectic weapons along the way.

Rumor has it that the HK MP7 has found its way into the arms rooms in the Delta compound at Bragg, but I obviously have no way of verifying that. To study the cloudy history of Delta Force is to appreciate the meteoric trajectory of modern special operations. Developed in uncertainty and quickened in failure, the end result was the most capable group of warriors in the history of mankind. As was opined in the classic John Le Carré Cold War novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, “Thus we do disagreeable things…that, I think, is still fair. We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night.” Indeed.

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