The Assault Rifle

Ralph Zuljan

The MP-44 was the first operational assault rifle and its introduction influenced the development of small arms in all of the armies that encountered its firepower. Its introduction during the Second World War caused a debate about the what kind of rifle constitutes the ideal infantry weapon that continues to this day.

Combat experience on the Eastern Front during 1941-42 caused the German Army to reconsider the basic armament of an infantry soldier. Analysts discovered that it was rare for a soldier to engage the enemy with a rifle at distances greater than 400 meters. They also found that automatic weapons were more likely to be used and were deemed to be more practical (even though the troops only had 9mm submachine guns which lacked satisfactory combat range). The Germans concluded that, in place of the standard long range rifles in service, what was needed was a rifle that had the automatic fire attribute of a machine pistol but somewhat greater range.

What the German engineers eventually produced was the MP-44 (there were a couple of intermediary weapons developed and tested, one of which was actually initiated by the Luftwaffe for its paratroopers). The MP-44 used a shortened version of the standard round used at the time and it had the ability to fire automatic or semiautomatic. It had a 30-round clip. Overall, it satisfied the conditions set out perfectly and it was extremely popular at the front.

In principle, arming infantrymen with assault rifles provided each individual with substantially greater small arms fire. On any given length of front, they are able to put up literally a wall of lead compared to an opponent armed with one of the period's standard bolt-action or semiautomatic rifles. Consequently, troops armed with assault rifles were theoretically more likely to force their opponent to ground and win an engagement, all other factors being equal. The basic idea behind the assault rife is that on the typical battlefield, the probability of hitting (or grounding) the enemy is greater with a lot of bullets fired relatively inaccurately than with a few bullets fired accurately.

Hitler is said to have been opposed to the assault gun philosophy. He felt the lack of long range firing ability, the reputed tendency to not aim properly, etc., were serious conceptual flaws. The German Army, aware of the Fuhrer's opposition, hid development and production of the assault rife from Hitler by designating it a machine pistol; Hitler liked and supported the production of the submachine guns. The secret was accidentally revealed to Hitler when an officer, visiting the headquarters from the Eastern Front, asked Hitler about the MP-44 requested more of them. Hitler was furious. However, the evidence from the front spoke for itself and Hitler finally approved its production. He designated the new weapon the assault rifle (Sturmgewher 44).

The Germans intended to re-equip all of their infantry with the MP-44 (as a replacement for both the submachine guns and bolt-action/semiautomatic rifles). Since the rounds were smaller (shorter) than the standard German rifle round, many more could be carried. Period photographs of German infantry equipped with the MP-44 suggest a soldier carried three additional clips in a standard carrier. Thus, the "ideal" German soldier in 1944-45 would be going into combat with 120 rounds. That represents a lot of "punch" for an infantryman of this period. Of course, the Germans never got close to that ideal.

An analysis of combat behavior by the US Army after the war showed that the willingness of soldiers to even fire their weapon decreased proportionately with the distance from a machinegun. Part of the rationale for equipping the troops with an assault rifle was that it gave everybody a machine gun of sorts. The German introduction of the MP44 effectively altered the dynamics of infantry combat since it combined the (useful) range and (most of the) accuracy of a rifle with the raw firepower of the submachine gun. Perhaps possession of an assault rifle got more of those terrified soldiers to fire in the direction of the enemy. To some extent the probability of causing enemy casualties is determined by the number of rounds directed towards the enemy and in so far as soldiers are directing rounds towards the enemy they are contributing to the battle. (Of course, firing with some amount of aim will increase a given soldier's contribution.)

I have never encountered any studies of the actual impact of the MP-44 on the battlefield. It would be interesting to find out how many units were equipped with it and how they performed relative to units armed with the regular assortment of rifles and submachine guns. Perhaps they performed rather well on the Eastern Front because the Soviets adopted the concept of the assault rifle many years before the US and UK did (even though they had all the pertinent data). The US did not produce a real assault rife until the adoption of the M-16 in the 1960s. Did the MP-44 cause a significant (noticeable) change in the combat performance of German infantry? Would its use help to explain the rather definite qualitative advantage the German units had in combat against the Allies (even later in the war when Allied training and experience were comparable and sometimes better)?

Originally published in "World War II" at on November 1, 2002.
Revised edition published in "Articles On War" at on July 1, 2003.

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