September 20, 2023
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[EDITOR’S NOTE: Palmetto State Armory announced, at the 2023 SHOT Show, that it would be producing a semi-auto StG44. Firearms News will be reviewing the rifle as soon as it becomes available.]
The term “assault rifle” is so widely used today it is easy to forget the original characteristics that defined the term for German designers:
- Simple mechanism (i.e. soldier friendly/soldier proof)
- Capable of selective fire
- Chambered for an intermediate-power cartridge (i.e. 7.92x33mm, 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm)
- Controllable in full-auto “assault fire”
- Have a detachable box magazine (normally with a high capacity)
- Have an effective range of at least 300–400 meters on semi-auto
- Protected against dust and dirt
- Reliable in severe cold or sandy conditions (Russia, North Africa, etc.).
Assault Rifle is actually a translation for the term Sturmgewehr applied to a group of rifles developed in Germany during WWII. At times, the term “assault rifle” has been incorrectly used to describe the “battle rifle,” which has many of the same characteristics but is chambered for a full power rifle cartridge that is normally heavier to handle that cartridge (i.e. FN FAL). An important step in developing a viable Sturmgewehr was creation of the intermediate cartridge for it. As a side note, the .30 M1 carbine cartridge may be considered the US attempt at an intermediate cartridge. Without going into detail about various other candidates, the cartridge chosen was the 7.92x33mm Kurz. Only 1.9 inches in overall length, the 7.92 Kurz propelled a 125-grain ball cartridge at 2,250 feet per second. As with other military cartridges, tracer, AP, APT, et. al. were all available.
Quest for the Sturmgewehr involved most well-known German small arms manufacturers. Haenel and Walther produced early examples: Haenel’s was the MK42 (H) MasechinenKarabiner and Walther’s offering was the MKb 42 (W). An innovative aspect of both designs was the inclusion of a mount for a telescopic sight. While the Sturmgewehr designs were under development, influenced by the US M1 Garand and the Soviet SVT38 and SVT40, Mauser and Walther were also working on a more conventional semi-auto rifle: the GEW41.
Also under development was a specialized rifle for German Fallschirmjager (paratroopers). Designated the Fallschirmjagergewehr, this weapon was intended to give the paratroopers a lot of firepower in a weapon with which they could jump, and which could give them the ability to fight until relieved by ground forces. Note that, originally, German paratroopers had jumped armed with a P08 Luger pistol, with Gew 98 rifles or MP40 SMGs being dropped in a separate container. Many of the requirements for the Fallschirmjagergewehr were similar to those of the Sturmgewehr; however, additional requirements were the ability to effectively fire the weapon from the hip, ability to mount a scope, be chambered for the standard 7.9x57mm rifle cartridge, and be shaped so that it could be used as a club when necessary! The requirement also called for the rifle to have the capability of full auto fire. In effect, the requirement was for a paratrooper battle rifle. As delivered to the Fallschirmjager, this weapon was designated the FG42/I.
Though interesting, the FG42 does not really meet the criteria of the Sturmgewehr. Back to the Walther MKb 42(H), of which almost 12,000 were produced. In trails, these weapons performed fairly well. At least partially due to Hitler’s dislike of the Sturmegewr concept, the MKb 42(H) was re-named the MP 43 (Maschinenpistole 43) thus making it sound as if it were an SMG rather than an assault rifle. Meanwhile, the German Army on the Eastern Front desperately needed more firepower at the infantry squad level. Finally, Hitler was convinced to put the MP 43 “Submachine Gun” into production to eventually replace the MP38 and MP40. Production began of the MP43, which with a handful of minor modifications (reduced stock height, grip panel material from wood to composite, larger barrel nut, etc.) evolved into the MP44 and finally the Sturmegewehr 44 (StG 44), the first widely used assault rifle.
Mention of the MP43 raises the question of the “Shoot-Around-the-Corner” version of the weapon. An MP43/1 was developed with a curved barrel to allow an armored crewman to engage a target in one of the blind spots when inside the vehicle. Weapons were developed with 30-, 45-, 60-, and 90-degree-curved barrels and used a mirror-prism rear sight. They could also theoretically be used in trench warfare. The devices could also be fitted to the MP44 and StG44. These devices were designated Krummlauf (Curved Barrel). In Musgrave and Nelson’s The World’s Assault Rifles & Automatic Carbines, an interesting anecdote about the first use of the MKb 42 in combat is related. Reportedly, The German Army’s Kampfgruppe Scherer was cut off at Cholm on the Eastern Front by a superior Russian force. MKb 42s were airdropped along with a goodly supply of ammunition, allowing the unit to fight its way out. A lot of skeptics were convinced that the Machinenkarabiner was a force multiplier. As Hitler delayed production of the Sturmgewehr by at least a year, one can only speculate how much earlier production would have extended the war.
As it finally evolved, the Stgw44 weighed a little over 11 pounds with a full magazine and was about 37 inches in overall length. Based on my experience handling and firing the Stgw44, it feels lighter and handier than its weight might indicate. It took a 30-round magazine and fired at a rate of 500 RPM making it quite controllable. Neither the Soviets, nor the Americans, nor the British had anything that could match it. One criticism of the Stgw44 by allied ordnance intelligence personnel was that the stampings used to keep the weapon light also made the receiver prone to becoming bent/dented, thus locking the bolt up. Still, about 426,000 StG44s were produced, not enough to win the war, but probably enough to have extended the war!
As produced in quantity, the StG 44 has a pressed sheet metal receiver with a block at the front into which the barrel is pressed and another block behind the magazine well that acts as the locking abutment. Ribs in the receiver strengthen it and also act as guides for reciprocating parts. The long-stroke gas piston extension travels in the upper part of the receiver, and the bolt travels in the lower part. The cocking handle, which is attached to the piston extension reciprocates while firing. While there is no gas adjustment dial, the plug-in front of the gas cylinder is easily removed for cleaning. Movement of the bolt is controlled by the piston extension, which is propelled by the main spring. Upon a round being fired, the bolt is cammed upward to move to the rear, then after the bolt comes forward chambering a round and cocking the hammer, the rear of the bolt is forced downward into the locked position.
Ergonomics for the StG44 are good, though a couple of features require a bit of adjustment. For example, the safety and selector are separate. The safety lever is positioned in typical position above the pistol grip easily reached by the thumb of the shooting hand. The selector is a cross bolt located above the safety. An advantage of this system is that when patrolling or otherwise not facing immediate engagement, the selector can be kept on the semiautomatic setting with the safety on. Flicking off the safety allows an immediate shot to then evaluate whether full auto is required. In front of the trigger guard is the magazine release button, which is good-sized for quick operation. I found the StG44’s pistol grip to be well designed. It is angled just right and is slim enough for a good grip. When firing bursts, I found it aided control of the weapon. The stock’s butt plate is ribbed, which helps keep the weapon positioned properly against the shoulder when firing full auto. On a battle rifle firing a full power cartridge the ribs might have caused discomfort.
The cocking handle is on the left side of the receiver, which allows operation with the support hand. Having done a lot of shooting with the FN FAL, this location seems natural to me. The cocking handle is smooth and a little short, which might make operation difficult in wet or cold weather. Sights are good, the front hooded post being easy to see using the rear V-notch, which is adjustable for elevation. The front sight is rather high, which might make it susceptible to getting banged around, but it seems sturdy. I’ve read that the magazine housing and the magazine for the StG44 were purposely strengthened so it could act as a monopod when firing from the prone position. I fired a couple of magazines prone when shooting the StG44 for this article but did not use the magazine as a monopod. The sheet metal ejection port cover operates in standard fashion and is pushed open by the reciprocating cocking handle. The metal hand guard allows a good gripping surface for the support hand without worry of getting burnt by the hot barrel. I fired one full 30-round magazine burst and felt no noticeable heating of the hand guard. Speaking of magazines, the StG44 was normally issued with two magazine pouches, each holding three magazines.
The StG44 was available early enough in the war that it saw a lot of combat and proved itself. Early on, reportedly, some of the first StG44s rushed into combat had problems with pins and springs breaking, but modifications were quickly made and the StG44 proved reliable. Reportedly, as part of the quality control testing of the StG44, examples were pulled at random from the production line and fired for 5,000 rounds full auto. However, by 1945 with Germany facing shortages of materials and enemy advances from all sides, quality of the StG44 production almost certainly suffered. One possible example of quality problems due to lack of materials was encountered when I was test firing the StG44. With two of the three magazines we had loaded for testing there were multiple feed problems; however, with the third one the gun ran fine even on long bursts.
It is important, too, to remember that the Russians who faced the StG44 in combat were enough impressed by it that the AK47 and its 7.62x39mm intermediate cartridge were influenced by it. Previously, I’d only fired one magazine through an StG44 and that was 30 or 35 years ago, so I fired the Panzergrenadier’s basic load of 180 rounds when testing the example for this article. As I mentioned earlier, reliability was determined by which magazine I used, so I had to load the reliable magazine each time. Firing four- to five-round bursts offhand, the StG44 was easy to control with little muzzle rise.
Extraction was not only reliable but “robust,” kicking the empties high into the air. Privi Partizan makes new 7.92x33mm Kurz ammo, which is what I used for shooting. With this ammo and the reliable magazine, there were only a couple of failures to feed. Accuracy was good as well. At 100 yards firing on semi-auto at plates I could hit pretty consistently offhand. I fired bursts at a silhouette target at 50 yards and put a lot of holes in the torso. The StG44 is an interesting gun to shoot and truly an iconic piece of history. Our M4s and AK47s, among other “assault weapons” that we enjoy shooting today and keep to defend our homes and families, owe a major debt to the StG44 and its 7.92 Kurz cartridge.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.