June 18, 2020
The Lee Enfield series is generally considered the high water mark of military bolt action rifles. A tough, reliable design well-liked by the troops, it proved very effective during two World Wars and many smaller actions. I’ve always been a fan of the Lee, and find it interesting how this 19th Century manually operated design had a small influence on arguably the most innovative rifle developed during World War II, the German Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 (Paratrooper rifle 1942) or FG 42. I was thinking about this while lying prone behind a modern FG 42 reproduction dialing the rear sight up to 700 meters. In the far distance was my 800 yard berm with a number of steel targets. The FG 42 was sitting on its distinctive lightweight bipod, a fresh 20-round magazine jutting jauntily out from the left side of the receiver. Hauling back on the charging handle against the heavy recoil spring, I retracted the bolt and let it fly. The heavy bolt carrier assembly ran forward shoving a Hornady match load into the chamber. The rest of the world faded away. Now it was just this classic World War II rifle’s front sight, a faraway white steel silhouette and the building pressure of my finger on the trigger.
The global catastrophe we know as World War II begat many interesting small arms designs. Of these numerous models, the most influential proved to be Nazi Germany’s MP 43/44 and StG 44 series of Sturmgewehr (Storm or Assault rifle) chambered for the Polte 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge. A revolutionary new type of weapon, the Sturmgewehr series combined the best features of the submachinegun and battle rifle into one compact package. As its long lasting legacy, both the Sturmgewehr and its 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge were a direct influence on the Soviet AK47 and 7.62x39mm. As impressive as the MP 43/44 series is, in my humble opinion it pales in comparison design-wise to the much less well-known FG 42.
Why do I say this? Whereas the MP 43/44 and StG 44 combined the best features of the submachine gun and battle rifle, the FG 42 was part battle rifle and part light machine gun. In developing the FG 42 the engineers at Rheinmetall, and later Krieghoff, pushed the envelope reaching for what logically seems a bridge too far, and yet achieved it, to a degree. The result was a surprisingly compact selective-fire 7.9x57mm weapon with numerous advanced features. In combat it provided an over-match capability to the German Fallschirmjäger carrying it whether facing M1 Garands, SVT-40s or No. 4 Lee Enfields. Even today, the FG 42 looks remarkably contemporary despite being some 76 years old. Its legacy can be found inside the US M60 machine gun.
To understand the FG 42 we must travel back in time to 20 May 1941 and the Battle of Crete (Luftlandeschlacht um Kreta). The Germans launched Operation Mecury (Unternehmen Merkur) which was the first mass use of airborne forces in history. Their objective was drive the Greek and Allied defenders out and take the island in a lightening blow by landing troops in four zones. To make a long story short, the British and Commonwealth forces made some huge tactical blunders allowing the Germans to gain a foothold and then hold doggedly on. In the end Crete fell to the Axis Forces, but it came at a high price. The German’s suffered between 6,000 and 7,000 casualties and lost/wrote off approximately 284 aircraft with another couple hundred damaged. In the end it was not the easy victory the Luftwaffe had hoped for.
The Luftwaffe came away from Crete dissatisfied with the performance of the standard Wehrmacht infantry weapons issued to their elite troops. While the 7.92x57mm Kar 98k was capable at long range it had a slow rate of fire and limited magazine capacity. The MP 40 on the other hand lacked range, penetration and precision. The MG 34 was very effective but too few in number. So a decision was made by the Reichsluftfahrtministerium (Reich Air Ministry) to develop an entirely new multi-purpose weapon based upon the specific needs of the Luftwaffe. The new design would need to be compact and portable, possess the range and accuracy of a Kar 98k, and have the firepower of a light machine gun. Such a weapon would dramatically boost the firepower of the individual Fallschirmjäger and ease the logistics of resupply.
Initially the Luftwaffe intended to work with the German Army to initiate a formal project to develop a new weapon. However, the Army disagreed with the basic concept and expressed no interest in the project. They would eventually abandon the full-size 7.92x57mm cartridge and put their efforts into selective-fire weapons chambering intermediate size cartridges. Undeterred, the Luftwaffe bypassed the Heereswaffenamt (Army Ordnance Department) and went directly to German industry.
Krieghoff and Rheinmetall both responded by submitting prototypes based upon the Luftwaffe requirements. Of the two the Luftwaffe selected the Rheinmetall design. This is credited as having been designed by Louis Strange and was based upon the operating system of the World War I vintage Lewis Gun. A gas operated design; it utilized a bottom mounted long-stroke piston. Gas tapped from the barrel pushed this to the rear. The piston was fitted with a vertical post at its rear which rode in a cam track on the bolt. It rotated the bolt, which featured dual opposed locking lugs, unlocking it and extracting and ejecting the fired cartridge case before a recoil spring pushed it back forward loading another round into the chamber. Visually it was a great departure from traditional German rifles featuring an inline design, tall folding sights, sharply angled pistolgrip, stamped metal stock, side-mounted magazine, prominent muzzle brake and folding bipod.
Rheinmetall lacked the capacity to actually produce the rifle so Krieghoff was given this task. A batch of 50 was produced and testing began. From this point the FG 42’s design would remain fluid and ever-changing. While the designation FG 42 never changed, the rifle it designated evolved greatly based upon end-user feed-back, changing requirements of the Luftwaffe and the realities of wartime manufacturing. During its short production life the FG 42 saw small changes as well as a complete overhaul of the design due to the needs of manufacturing and to improve performance. The series is typically broken down simply as either early (Type I) or late (Type II) model. Approximately 2,000 early model guns were produced and approximately 5,000 late models. While they shared the same designation and general layout the two models are quite different if placed side by side.
Some shortcomings of the design were noted by troops when the FG 42 was first fielded by the “Green Devils”. Due to its light weight (9.3 pounds) and high cycle rate of fire (900 rpm) the FG 42 couldn’t match the performance of the MG 34, or the new MG 42 machine gun when fired off the bipod. It was also less controllable on full automatic when fired from the shoulder than the Army’s new 7.92x33mm Kurz MP 43. So a more effective muzzle brake was desired. Troops felt the sharply angled pistolgrip, designed to reduce the height and chance of snagging during a jump, should be replaced by a more vertical one. It was also decided to move the bipod mount from the gas block to near the muzzle. This was done to decrease dispersion. Troops complained about the metal buttstock which heated quickly and also deformed when launching rifle grenades.
The German Army did their own testing with the FG 42, comparing it to their MP 43. As to be expected, the 7.92x33mm Kurz MP 43 out-performed the 7.92x57mm FG 42 during the close combat trials. On the range both rifles performed similarly when firing on targets up to 400 meters. Past 400 meters the FG 42 had an advantage. However, it could not provide accurate fire on full-automatic at long range. Seeing as the MP 43 had matched the FG 42 out to 400 meters, and out-performed it in close-combat the German Army continued to oppose the project.
Despite the German Army’s position, the Luftwaffe’s Fallschirmjäger welcomed the design and appreciated the step up in performance it provided them. The FG 42 was first fielded during a daring commando raid during the rescue of Benito Mussolini. In the months following this small numbers saw action in Italy. The FG 42 gave a good account of itself during the Battle of Monte Cassino (17 January to 18 May 1944) in the hands of Fallschirmjäger defending the old monastery. This was ideal terrain for the FG 42 allowing it to showcase its full capabilities. The FG 42 also saw action in France during the hard fought hedgerow battles during the retreat from Normandy. It remained in combat with the hard-pressed Fallschirmjäger units, now fighting as conventional infantry, right up to Germany’s surrender on 7 May 1945.
What about major airborne operations which the FG 42 participated in? There were none. Fallschirmjäger losses during the Battle of Crete were so high Hitler decided airborne operations were no longer viable. While they didn’t know it in the aftermath of the battle, the Luftwaffe’s elite Fallschirmjäger units would spend the rest of the war fighting as conventional ground forces. After the war US Army ordnance took an interest in the operating system of the FG 42. It would later be incorporated in the US Army’s M60 machine gun. In doing so, Isaac Newton Lewis’s operating system, originally rejected by US Army Ordnance due to petty personal reasons became a staple of the US military.
The rifle seen here is a reproduction of a late model FG 42 manufactured by SMG Guns. This is a small three man shop in Decatur, Texas which became known for building semi-automatic Bren Guns, DP-28s and PPS-43s from kits. The company consists of Rick Smith the owner, and his two sons Bryan and Aaron. When I interviewed Rick for this article my first question was simply, “Why build an FG 42?” It is after all a complex design and difficult to manufacture. He replied that he was looking to take his company in an entirely different direction and move away from building kit guns. Due to this he was looking for a project to tackle that would catch people’s attention. So he spoke to his oldest son Bryan about the idea and they decided to do it.
Rick began by studying every photo and piece of information he could obtain on the FG 42. Three months later he had built a working, firing sample that resembled an FG 42. Initially Rick planned on using a tilting bolt, like a FAL, to simplify production and reduce costs. Bryan though would have none of that. If they were going to build an FG 42 then they would do it right. As to be expected various problems cropped up. A big one was manufacturing the bolts. Initially these were manufactured from 8620 steel, heat treated and surface hardened. But these failed within 35 rounds. They changed heat treaters and the bolts made it to 150 rounds. Eventually they changed their material to 9310 and with proper heat treatment never had a problem again.
Some of the challenges they faced were ensuring a long service life with components such as the extractors, barrel extensions and bolts. The German chamber on the FG 42 was not a conventional design. It was modified to aid extraction and reliability. SMG Guns didn’t have the capability to duplicate the original chamber design, so they had to tune their design in a different manner. Then there were the bipod legs, which were stamped sheet metal on the original design. Rick couldn’t afford a die set to have them stamped, so he had to go a different route. He ended up using raw castings from Japan and machined them. He also commented it was laborious to program by hand to make the receiver and bolt look the way they should.
Rick commented, “We knew it was going to be cool as soon as we got it up and running and saw how soft shooting it was.” In my opinion it is indeed soft shooting and it is very, very cool. Pulling it from its shipping case you can’t help but marvel at the design. Everything about the rifle exudes a different time, a different thought process and a deadly serious mission. The thinking is very German and out of the box, and it is a noticeable departure from commercial American designs built to a price point. Simply handling it transports you back in time, and puts a smile on your face.
In the hands the SMG Guns FG 42 is surprisingly compact for a rifle chambered in what Americans refer to as 8mm Mauser. At only 38.4 inches it is short. The placement of the magazine facilitates a shorter receiver which brings the rifle’s center of gravity in closer to the rifleman. The inline design is intended to reduce felt recoil and decrease dispersion. To further reduce recoil a large distinctive looking muzzle brake is fitted. In addition, the buttstock is spring-loaded and reciprocates a short distance. The folding sights are easy to use and provide a clear sight picture. The front is a protected post while the rear is a diopter design.
A gas operated design based upon the Lewis system; it features a long-stroke piston which acts as the bolt carrier. The rotating bolt features dual locking lugs. On the original design the rifle fired semi-automatic from the closed bolt position but full-automatic from the open bolt. This aided cooling when firing full-automatic and precision on semi-automatic. The SMG Guns reproduction is a semi-automatic design firing from the closed bolt position.
The design itself is relatively straight-forward and easy to strip once you get the hang of it. You start by removing the buttstock and then rotating the buffer freeing it. The buffer and recoil spring can then be pulled free. Next, pull the bolt to the rear, remove the charging handle from its slot and the piston/carrier assembly can be dropped out of the rear of the receiver. The bolt is easily separated from the receiver and taken down. This is all that needs to be done to perform routine maintenance.
While the SMG Guns FG 42 is a superlative conversation piece and wall hanger, its real home is on the range. It is a very fun rifle to shoot as it was intended to be used. Just understand it is by no means a match rifle. The original German accuracy requirement was for it to shoot into 5.5 inches at 100 meters with ball ammunition. This is a fairly typical requirement and not much different than that of the M16A2. While it is a fun rifle to shoot Fudd style from the bench, it really shines running drills, both near and far. The rifle handles well, the sights are good and while the horizontal 20-round magazine is a bit different, you quickly get used to it. Reloading is straight-forward and the rifle is very smooth shooting for the caliber. I was frankly surprised by how comfortable the FG 42 is. You do get some muzzle off it, and it does move around, but it doesn’t beat you, even prone.
I checked accuracy from the bench at 100 yards firing off a rest with a rear bag. Test ammunition was Hornady 196-grain Open Tip Match. The average of four 5-shot groups was a respectable 2.9 inches using the issue iron sights. Shooting a rifle like this from the bench is rather boring. So I moved to shooting off the bipod on steel at 400 yards. After a sighter to see where the Hornady load was impacting compared to the sight settings, I was putting shots on a silhouette. The impact of the 196-grain .323-caliber slugs was visually impressive, especially compared to a 5.56x45mm. Next I wanted to stretch the FG 42’s legs a bit.
I have a lot of time behind a Lee Enfield No. 4 and I was interested to see just how well the FG 42 compared at distance. Firing prone from the bipod at 800 yards I found the 8mm Mauser load a bit lazy in the Kansas wind compared to what I normally shoot. But it was certainly no worse than a .303 Mk VII. The trigger on the FG 42 is heavy, and does take some getting used to. But if you remember your basic fundamentals it is easily managed. Firing from the bipod is very comfortable and the command height seems a good compromise. Accuracy wise I made some nice hits on steel with the rest of my shots just off target. I did have to come down on my sights as the Hornady match load shot a bit flatter than the German issue load the sights were calibrated for.
How does the FG 42 compare to the lowly No. 4 .303 Lee Enfield at distance? Keeping in mind I am a bit jaded, and this was my first time behind an FG 42 I’d say the Brit has a slight advantage when it comes to accuracy on a known distance range in good conditions. It has a longer sight radius and I do prefer the milled rear sight on the No. 4. On the battlefield it would be a wash. The advantage really goes to the FG 42 which has a substantially higher rate of fire and great magazine capacity. The real limitation with both designs when shooting at distance is simply the iron sights and being able to discern a man-sized target, probably prone and shooting back at you. The FG 42 though, unlike the No. 4, does have an optic rail milled into the top of the receiver. A decent optical sight would be a game changer on this rifle.
And then, disaster struck. While firing prone at 800 yards with two colleagues spotting the right bipod leg suddenly snapped off. Oops. I will not type the exact word which came to mind. You can probably figure it out. Breaking a rifle this expensive, and it is very expensive indeed, during testing is never a good thing. The three of us all stood and stared for minute, mouths agape. Then we got back at it and, since the light was fading rapidly, did a night fire. Flash signature off the complex brake is pronounced and highly visibly.
My thoughts on SMG Guns FG 42 reproduction? I think it’s a marvelous piece. No it is not an exact 100% reproduction. There are small differences such as the handguard being slightly longer. But few will ever see a real FG 42 and be able to discern the differences. It is a very fun rifle to run drills with and shoot. The design is fascinating from both a mechanical aspect as well as historical. I did have a few failures to feed with the Open Tip Match ammunition which I don’t think I would have had with FMJ. Otherwise the rifle ran well.
The broken bipod? I asked Rick about this and he stated while it definitely is not common, it has happened before and he simply sends out a replacement leg to the customer. He says he stands solidly behind his rifle. Just read the information which comes with the rifle, use the proper ammunition and enjoy. The big bummer you have been waiting for? SMG Guns’ FG 42 is a limited production item and very expensive. To order one you must first get on their waiting list, and then it will be about six months before delivery. Price is $5,000. That’s some serious coin. However, if you want one for the reference collection they are the only game in town. Also, be aware production of the late model Type II FG 42 seen here is going to be suspended for a time with SMG Guns introducing the early Type I model. This should be just as exciting.
SMG Guns; www.smgguns.com
Hornady; 800-338-3220; www.hornady.com
SMG Guns FG 42 SpecificationsAction:
Rotating bolt via Lewis long-stroke gasCaliber:
19.5 inch Overall Length:
10/20 round detachable box magazinesSights:
Protect post front, rear diopterOptics Rail:
10.6 pounds w/out magFinish:
SMG Guns FG 42 Accuracy & Velocity