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The Yugoslavian M53 Machine Gun: Historical Lookback

The M53 was based on the German MG42, often considered the first General Purpose Machine Gun.

The Yugoslavian M53 Machine Gun: Historical Lookback

Thompson beginning a long burst with the M53. 

The origin of the M53 Machine Gun can be traced to World War II when Yugoslav partisans fought against the Germans and often used captured MG34 and MG42 machine guns. Post-WWII, the Communist government of Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito used captured German machinery to produce what was basically the same weapon as the MG42, but designated the M53. Many captured MG42s remained in reserve with the designation M53/42. The M53 was built at the Zastava Arms Company, which had been rebuilt after heavy damage during World War II. Established in 1853, Zastava is located in Kragujevac, Serbia. Prior to WWII, Zastava had produced the FN-licensed M1924 Mauser rifle and the Czech Vz. 26 Light Machine Gun. Repairs to the Zastava factory were made even before the end of WWII when the factory was liberated from German control in October, 1944. The first weapon produced under the new Communist Yugoslavian government was the M1944 B2 Submachine Gun. Post-War, Zastava produced the Mauser M1948 rifle based on the M1924 the company had produced before the war. In 1953, production began of the M53 “Sarac” MG, based on the MG42. Production of the PAP M59 rifle, a licensed copy of the SKS, began in 1964, followed in 1967 by the introduction of the M67, a rifle based on the AK47. Three years later, the M70 rifle, also based on the AK47 was introduced.

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An M53 firing from the bipod; note the feeder keeping the ammo belt from kinking while feeding. (Paul Scarlata Collection)

A special favorite of mine from Zastava is the M84 copy of the Czech Skorpion (not to be confused with the M84 machine gun). Currently, within Serbia’s arms industries, Zastava is the second largest in terms of employees with 2,631 and seventh largest in terms of revenue with 32.6 million Euros. More recently, Zastava has produced various other weapons including the M92 SMG (a copy of the AKSU) and various pistols, such as the CZ99. Various other weapons including heavy machine guns and sniping rifles have also been produced. Semi-auto versions of the M70 and M92 as well as the CZ99 have been imported for sales in the USA. Now that the history of Zastava’s arms production has been discussed, let’s get back to the production specifically of the M53 MG. Zastava reverse engineered the MG42 when tooling up for production of the M53. Most importantly, Yugoslav engineers retained the MG42’s roller locking system. To avoid having to create all new internal specs, they also retained the 7.92x57mm Mauser chambering. One important change, however, was lowering the cyclic rate of the M53 to 950 RPM from the 1,200 RPM of the MG42. Additionally, the relatively useless in the jet age anti-aircraft sight was removed.

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Right side view of the M53’s buttstock, cocking handle, and pistol grip (top). The M53’s distinctive conical flash hider (left). Close-up of the M53’s front sight (right).

The M53 remained in service with the Yugoslav Army until 1999. As the Zastava plant was damaged by NATO bombing in 1999, it is not clear if that damage included the M53 production line, thus contributing to the M53’s demise. The PKM had been adopted as the Zastava M84 in 1984 and remains in service with the Serbian Army to date. The M84 is chambered for the 7.62x54mmR cartridge. During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, M53 and M84 machine guns, in some cases looted from armories, turned up in the hands of combatants on all sides. Other former parts of Yugoslavia, which are now independent countries and part of NATO, have normally adopted NATO standard machineguns. For example, Croatia uses the FN MAG; North Macedonia still has some M84 MGs but also uses the PKM, MG3, and M240; Slovenia uses the FN MAG; Bosnia and Herzegovina retained some M84 MGs, but also has US M60 and M240 MGs; and Montenegro still uses the M84. M53 MGs were exported to Iraq and used by Saddam’s troops during the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf Wars. These have been replaced in the current Iraqi Army by the German MG3 and the US M240. No doubt, some of the M53s have ended up in the hands of insurgents elsewhere in the Middle East.

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Though the appearance of the M53’s butt stock may seem a bit odd, it is well designed to be comfortable against the shoulder and to allow a good grasp with the support hand. Left-side view of the M53’s pistol grip, trigger, and cross bolt safety (top).

It’s interesting that despite being chambered for the 7.92x57mm cartridge, the M53 has remained in use. During the time period when 7.92x57mm Mauser 98k rifles were widely used, logistically, use of the M53 made sense, but with the advent of rifles chambered for 7.62x51mm, 5.56x45mm, 7.62x39mm, and 5.45x39mm, the 7.92x57mm cartridge became obsolescent. Presumably, keeping the production lines open for 7.92x57mm ammo was cheaper than buying MGs, and in cases where bolt-action surplus rifles were still used by civilians there was another market for the ammo. Janes Infantry Weapons has some interesting comments about the M53. According to Janes “…the M53 is intended for use against ground targets up to 800 m. with maximum effect up to 500 m. Corresponding ranges on its tripod are 1,000 and 600 m., but two or more such weapons can provide effective fire against multiple targets at ranges up to 1,500 m.” This seems to be a realistic view of effective use of the M53, especially using the iron sights.

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Panel open to allow removal of the M53’s barrel; note, though, that there is no handle on the barrel; hence, it must be grasped with a heat resistant glove. Close-up of the M53’s rear sight. Close-up of the pistol grip showing the cross bolt safety (top).

Often when I am testing a historical weapon, I consider the history in which it has taken part. When I recently fired the MG42 and pondered its effectiveness, I considered the accounts I’ve read of the battles on the Eastern Front, the D-Day landings, the Battle of the Bulge, and the drive from both East and West to Germany’s final defeat. The MG42 was there for all of them, and though it couldn’t gain victory for the Germans, it did help stave off defeat for a little longer. In considering the M53, my thoughts ran more to the Cold War and its aftermath. Arguably, by arming the Yugoslavian Army, the M53 enabled Tito’s Yugoslavia to remain free of the Soviet Union to practice its own brand of Communism, which was a bit less repressive, and which seemed to keep the ethnic minorities that made up that country from civil war.

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A good view of the flash hider, barrel shroud, bipod, and flip-up sights.

However, inevitably, after Tito’s death when Yugoslavia was torn apart by fighting among the Serbs and the various minorities, the M53 was turned against some of those it had formerly protected. As mentioned above, some of those new countries created from the remnants of Yugoslavia still retain the M53 in their armories. The M53 has been used in another bitter struggle in Iraq. Although the M53’s “Butcher’s Bill” may not match that of its forbearer, the MG42, it has dealt its share of death and destruction, albeit at a slower cyclic rate! I had recently shot the MG42 so when I prepared to shoot the M53 everything seemed familiar. The stamped squared off barrel shroud still looked efficient if not elegant, and the flash hider still looked like the Tin Man’s hat. Features I liked from the MG42 were retained such as the tubular cocking handle, which allowed a solid grip with the entire right hand, and the butt stock, which offered a good resting place for the support hand. Note that the oversized cocking handle is appreciated because it takes some effort to pull the bolt back due to the roller locking system used in the M53. As was the MG42, the M53 was full auto only. Although there was no selector switch, there was a cross bolt safety button located above the pistol grip.

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An MG53 parts kit; note the good view of the bolt with the roller locking system at upper left center. (Courtesy of Morphy Auction Service)

The loading drill is the same as for the MG42. After lifting the top cover and then the feed tray to make sure there is not a round in the chamber, the belt (with open side of links down) should be pushed onto the feed tray until the first round rests against the stop. Being careful the hand is clear and while holding the belt in place, the top cover can be shut with enough force to make sure it locks. The bolt may then be cocked by pulling it to the rear until it locks open. Then, the cocking handle is pushed forward until a click is heard. The reason for this is to prevent a misfire because the recoil spring has to work harder to push both the bolt and cocking handle forward. With bolt cocked, the safety may be put on safe. Also, as with the MG42, the M53’s barrel may be changed quickly after firing long bursts. To change the barrel, a panel on the right side of the MG42 is opened and the barrel is pulled free, followed by inserting a fresh barrel and closing the panel; a change is very fast. However, there is not a handle to grasp as there is on other machine guns. An asbestos glove was usually supplied, but a handle is normally preferable. On either the MG42 or the M53, for firing longer bursts a tripod is optimum; however, the weapon I shot for this article was only equipped with a bipod. But, it was a sturdy one so I made do.

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Yugoslavian M53 machine gun team, with weapon on the tripod mount for use from a fixed position.

The M53’s sights are the same rear notch and front post as on the MG42. Though not designed for precision shooting, this combo allows engagement of man-sized targets firing short bursts at 500 meters. The lower cyclic rate of the M53 compared to the MG42 aids accurate shooting as well. I found the M53 reliable and easier to shoot than the MG42, which due to its high cyclic rate has a tendency to vibrate with longer bursts. There were other copies of the MG42 marketed in the Post-WWII years, especially the German MG3 and the Austrian MG74, the latter of which I’ll be covering in another article. However, the M53 is intriguing because it was developed in Yugoslavia and used in some of the bitterest fighting of the post-war era. Back around 15 years ago, there was a closed-bolt semi-auto M53 available, assembled with surplus parts kits and USA-made parts, manufactured by Wise Lite Arms and also sold through Century Arms. Prices for these rare collector pieces are over $10,000 currently.

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The M53 was based on the German MG42, often considered the first GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun). Shown is a WWII MG42 crew in action. (Bundesarchiv)

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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