Submachine gun

Submachine gun

A submachine gun (SMG) is a firearm that combines the automatic fire of a machine gun with the cartridge of a pistol, and is usually between the two in weight and size.


Submachine guns, like shotguns, are ideal for close-range combat in enclosed urban environments, where a weapon's range and accuracy are less important than the ability to easily obtain multiple strikes on a target. Pistol rounds are ideal for many law enforcement applications where noncombatants are present, since they are less likely to over-penetrate and hit unintended targets compared to most rifle cartridges.


Conversely, submachine guns are largely ineffective against body armor, which limits modern military applications. Submachine guns lack long-range power and accuracy compared to rifles, limiting their use in the open.


In the early 20th century, experiments were made by converting stocked pistols from semi to fully automatic. Stocked automatic weapons firing pistol rounds were developed around the same time during World War I, by Italy, Germany, and the United States. The first dedicated designs were developed in the latter stages of World War I both as improvement on earlier stocked pistols, and to offer an advantage in trench warfare.

They were popularized in the 1920s and '30s as weapon of choice of American gangsters and police, in the form of the famous Thompson submachine gun, commonly referred to as the "Tommy Gun". Submachine guns rose to prominence as a frontline close-quarters combat weapon and commando firearm during World War II. They are now widely used by police [ [] ] SWAT, military commando, paramilitary, and counter-terror team members for a variety of situations.

19th century to 1920

The first automatic weapon to fire a pistol round was a scaled-down version of the Maxim machine gun, used for demonstrations in marketing the Maxim in the late 19th century, especially when a full-sized firing range was not available. First-generation submachine guns were characterized by machined metal parts, blowback designs with the bolt directly behind the barrel. The submachine gun appeared during the later stages of World War I. It first saw action in trench warfare where grenades, pistols, sharpened entrenching tools, improvised clubs, and bayonets were commonly employed.

The Italians developed the Villar Perosa, introducing it in 1915. It is considered to be the first submachine gun, as it fired a pistol round (the 9 mm Glisenti). Originally developed as an aircraft weapon, it also saw some use by infantry, both for close quarters assaults and as a light machine gun. This odd design was eventually modified to become a traditional submachine gun, the Beretta 1918.

However, the Bergmann MP18 may be the first true submachine gun by comparing the dates of the early Bergman prototypes with the Beretta date of service entry. While the Beretta 1918 became standard issue a few months prior to the Bergmann MP18 in 1918, the Bergman was tested in prototype form as early as 1916. The Thompson submachine gun program began in roughly the same period. The various dates and achievements of the first generation submachine guns creates a contentious area for firearms historians, with conclusions much to do with their nationality and interpretations.

The Beretta 1918 had a traditional wooden stock, a 25-round box magazine, and had a cyclic rate of fire of 900 rounds per minute. The Germans had been using heavier versions of P08 pistols, equipped with larger capacity snail magazine, and longer barrel; these were semi-automatic. A stocked purposed designed automatic pistol was worked on by Bergmann, which by 1918 had developed the MP18. The MP18 used 9 mm Parabellum round in a snail-drum magazine. The MP18 was used in significant numbers by the German stormtroopers which, in conjunction with appropriate tactics, achieved some notable successes in the final year of the war. However, they were not enough to prevent Germany's collapse in November 1918.

The Thompson submachine guns had been in development at approximately the same time as the Bergman and Beretta, but development was put on hold in 1917, when the US and the weapon's designer (Thompson) entered the war. The design was completed afterwards and used a different internal system from the MP18 or Beretta, but it had missed its chance to be the first purpose-designed submachine gun to enter service. It would however go on to serve as the basis for later weapons and have the longest active service life of the three.

1920 to 1950

In the inter-war years the submachine gun became notorious as a gangster weapon; the iconic image of pinstripe-suited James Cagney types wielding drum-magazine Thompsons caused some military planners to shun the weapon. It was also used by the police, but many criminals favored the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle. The submachine gun was nevertheless gradually accepted by many militaries, with many countries developing their own designs over the period, especially in the 1930s.

In the USSR, the PPD34 and PPD34/38 were developed. In France the MAS-35 was developed into the MAS-38. In Germany some improvements on the MP18 were employed, namely the MP28/II and the MP34. Also, Nazi Germany adopted the MP38, unique in that it used no wood and a folding metal stock, though it used similar amount of stampings as the MAS. Italy further developed a number of its own designs (see list of Italian submachine guns), with similar attempts at improvements in lower production cost, quality, or weight.

During the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, the MP38 production was still just starting and only a few thousand were in service, but it proved very popular especially in towns and cities. From it, the nearly identical, but safer and cheaper to make, MP40 was developed; about a million MP40s were made in World War II. The MP40's design used even more stampings, and less important metals such as aluminum, but still managed to be lighter because it avoided some of the heavier machined parts of the MP38.

Britain adopted the Lanchester submachine gun, based on the MP28/II. However the high cost of manufacture and low rate of production led to the much simpler, cheaper and faster to make Sten submachine gun. The Sten gun was so cheap to make that near the end of World War II, Nazi Germany started manufacturing their own copy of the design (the MP 3008). Britain also used many M1928 Thompsons early on (the inter-war period version with a drum magazine), and also many of the improved version M1 (the one seen only with a stick magazine). After the war, the Sten would be replaced by the Sterling submachine gun.

America and its allies used the Thompson submachine gun, especially the simplified M1 version that was not machined to accept the drum magazine. Because the Thompson was still expensive to produce, the M3 "Grease Gun" was adopted in 1942, followed by the slightly improved M3A1 in 1944. The M3 was not necessarily more effective, but was made with cheap stamped metal, making it much more affordable. It could be configured to fire either .45 ACP ammunition, which the Thompson and M1911 pistol also fired, or the 9 mm Parabellum, widely used by Allies and Axis. It would be among the longest serving of the submachine guns designed during the war, being produced into the 1960s and serving in US forces officially into the 1980s.

Finland had developed the M/31 Suomi before the Winter War in which it saw much use. The weapon fired 9 mm Parabellum rounds from a drum magazine with the capacity of 70 (although often loaded with up to 74). Although America used stick magazines in the Thompson, and Russians carried only a few drum magazines (usually one drum, if any, and remaining ammunition as stick magazines), the Suomi was mostly deployed with drums. They were also less prone to jamming than the stick or "casket" magazines developed for the weapon. The weapon was used until the end of Lapland war, and in peacetime service, to the early 1990s.

By the end of World War II, the USSR had fielded the largest number of submachine guns, such as the PPSh-41, with whole infantry battalions being armed with little else. Even in the hands of conscripted soldiers just out of basic training, the volume of fire produced by massed submachine guns could be overwhelming. The German forces formed similar troops of their own in response to this. The discovery made during World War II that a high rate of fire was more effective than the slower but more accurate fire (such as provided by bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles) was one of the main causes for the development of the assault rifle.

1950 to present

Submachine guns lend themselves to moderation with suppressors, particularly so in cases where the weapon is loaded with subsonic ammunition. Variants of the Sten and modern-day Heckler & Koch MP5 have been manufactured with integral suppressors, and such weapons are on occasion used by special forces and police units. After the Korean War, the role of submachine guns in military applications was gradually diminished. Both submachine guns and battle rifles were supplanted by the new assault rifles, such as the CAR-15 and Heckler & Koch HK53. Submachine guns are used by special forces and counter-terrorist units operating in urban environments or cramped interior areas, and as defense weapons for air crews, armored vehicle crews, and naval personnel. Though submachine guns still have a strong hold on niche users, due to their advantage in compact size, they are facing competition from carbines and shortened assault rifles. The dominance of submachine guns in law enforcement tactical operations has been diminished by new developments since the 1990s. Factors such as the wide availability of assault rifles and carbines and the increasing use of body armor have combined to limit the appeal of submachine guns to government agencies. Assault rifles and carbines have been supplementing submachine guns in some roles. However, assault rifles are not a complete replacement, since they are generally heavier, have greater muzzle blast, more recoil, and may be likely to overpenetrate due to their use of rifle rounds.

Also touted as a successor to the submachine gun is the personal defense weapon (PDW), a machine pistol-like weapon which fires armor-piercing pistol cartridges. The PDW is similar in operation to submachine guns and is often considered as such. However, the PDW's specialized ammunition is incompatible with common pistol and rifle rounds, and it is less effective than rifle rounds against unarmored targets.Fact|date=May 2008 The trend in modern submachine guns had been toward lighter, smaller weapons utilizing plastics to a greater degree.


In the United States, submachine guns are regulated under the National Firearms Act of 1934 as amended by Title II of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and Firearms Owners' Protection Act of 1986. The manufacture of machine guns for civilian ownership has been illegal since this law passed. Machine guns in circulation previous to 1986 were grandfathered allowing them to be owned by civilians legally only if they were properly registered with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. For more information on the subject see the NFA link above.

Switzerland allows the private ownership of semi-automatic versions of submachine guns as sporting firearms. Fully automatic submachine guns may only be owned by collectors and may not be fired in fully automatic mode. Many other countries such as Germany, Austria and Italy authorize the private ownership of semi-automatic versions of submachine guns as sporting firearms, in some cases with modifications. Italy requires the magazine capacity to be permanently reduced to 5 or 10 rounds depending on the case, and requires a permanently fixed stock. The fully-automatic submachine guns remain forbidden for civilian use.

The Czech Republic allows the ownership of all kinds of automatic weapons up to .50 caliber for collectors who obtain a license from the Ministry of the Interior. In the United Kingdom they are prohibited except for use by the police and military. The exception is relatively hard to obtain and depends largely on the discretion of the local police department. Finland and Sweden allow ownership of submachine guns and other automatic weapons, though subject to licensing. Private ownership of submachine guns and indeed all automatic weapons (except weapons disabled and forming part of a collection) are banned in all Australian states though they are used by the various states' police services (mainly if not exclusively by specialist counter-terrorist or TRG units) and the Australian military.


External links

* [ Submachine guns a brief introduction] at
* [ Submachine Gun] at Encyclopedia Britannica

ee also

*List of submachine guns
*Firearm action
*Semi-automatic pistol
*Personal defense weapon
*Sputter Gun
*Submachine gun competition

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • submachine gun — UK [ˌsʌbməˈʃiːn ˌɡʌn] / US [ˌsʌbməˈʃɪn ˌɡʌn] noun [countable] Word forms submachine gun : singular submachine gun plural submachine guns a light machine gun that you hold against your hip or your shoulder when shooting …   English dictionary

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  • Submachine gun competition — Submachine gun and belt fed machine gun shooting competitions take place across the United States every month in many states where firearms which fall under the National Firearms Act are legal. Although submachine gun competitions have been… …   Wikipedia

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