The MG42 7.92mm machine gun Maschinengewehr was perhaps the best support weapon that the Germans had in Word War Two, and was a much feared weapon to be on the receiving end of.  In fact the Allied infantryman found the MG42 to be one of the most terrifying weapons to encounter in the European arena of conflict in WWII.  Read on to discover why.

The MG42 machinegun was developed by the Germans in 1942 to replace the older MG34 that was first manufactured eight years earlier in 1934.  The  companies that manufactured the MG42 were Gustloff-Werke in Suhl, Mauser AG-Werke in Borsigwalde,  Steyr in Vienna, Grossfuss in Döbeln, and Maget in Berlin and between them, they were making MG42's at the rate of around 129 a day up until the end of the war in 1945.

The MG42 was issued to the Wehrmacht in the same year but soon after the SS, Luftwaffe ground support units and the Kriegsmarine were also found using them.

The MG34 had to be replaced as it was more expensive to manufacture than the MG42, it had more working parts and a slower rate of fire, it also took one hundred and fifty man hours to produce whereas the MG42 could be manufactured in seventy five man hours.  Lets not forget the cost, the MG42 cost two hundred and fifty Reichmarks whilst the MG34 was around five hundred Reichmarks...twice as much and even in wartime, business and commerce is still the same as in peacetime.

Below is a photo of the MG34, easy to distinguish by its elliptical heat dispersing shroud with the round cooling holes clearly visible.  

On the MG42 the shroud was more square, as were the cooling holes, the right side of the gun the barrel was not shrouded at all, as seen in the image below. This was so that the barrel could be changed and in only seconds to do so.

The MG34 was a bit more versatile in that it could fire a single shot at a time, whereas the MG42 could only fire bursts.

However, the MG42 had proved itself to be ultra reliable, robust and as easy to maintain as it was to shoot.  The entire function and overall design delivered an unequalled and effective solution for all conditions of warfare, be it rain, mud, sand, snow or ice.  The MG42 proved its capabilities on every front that the Germans fought on, its dependability was second to none and every unit of the German army was equipped with this weapon.

The MG42 had a very quick method of changing the barrel, a lever on the right-hand side near the breech was pulled back and it disconnected the barrel so it protruded out of the side of the shroud, it could then be easily extracted and a new barrel inserted. 

This operation was accomplished  in three to seven seconds depending on the experience of the operator, the barrel and whole lock assembly could be changed in twenty five seconds.  The MG42 utilized a fifty round belt feed or seventy five round snail drum magazine, the snail drum magazine is depicted below.

This method of feeding the MG42 was for use on motorcycle sidecar's or inside vehicles where a long dangling belt of ammunition wasn't practical.  A full fifty round belt of 7.92mm ammunition would be depleted in a two and a half second burst and the seventy five round drum in just under four seconds.

MG42 squads would nearly always link together several fifty round belts to enable longer bursts of fire.   The ammunition was supplied in boxes that held five separate belts equalling two hundred and fifty rounds per box. This was the equivalent of just under thirteen seconds of continuous fire or twenty to thirty seconds of quick burst fire, either way the barrel would get mightily hot.

The ability to rapidly change the barrel meant that a single MG42 could keep up a sustained fire on an enemy position for much longer when compared to Allied weaponry.  The reason being is that machineguns fire so many bullets that the barrels  wear out and also warp with the heat, so the ability to change barrels is important.  German machine gun crews often carried several barrels with them into combat.

The machinegun was air-cooled and used recoil for its operation, the mechanism was a new innovation in that the breech where the bullets were engaged and fired was on rollers, this reduced friction and was overall more efficient.  The ammunition belts of Mauser 7.92mm was fed in from the left to assist the loaders who were invariably right handed.

The most distinguished feature of this gun was its extraordinary high rate of fire of one thousand two hundred rounds per minute which was twice as fast firing than any guns that the Allies had.

The rate of fire was also dependant upon the weight of the bolt that was installed by the firer, a heavier bolt gave nine hundred rounds per minute whilst the lightest bolt gave one thousand five hundred rounds per minute.  The most popular bolt amongst the German machine gun crews was a medium weight bolt that resulted in one thousand two hundred rounds per minute, this also gave better control but more importantly didn't use up all the ammunition quite so fast.

This super high rate of fire gave the MG42 a very distinctive muzzle report that could be determined by an observer as to what gun was being fired over a mile away.  It sounded more like a baaaark sound rather than the more traditional rat-a-tat sound, not that it mattered, as when this gun was used on the battlefield, the war was well under way! German soldiers often called the MG42 Hitlersäge or Hitler's buzzsaw as the gun did indeed sound more like a chainsaw than a machinegun.

MG42 machinegun squads could keep a large contingent of enemy soldiers pinned down for quite some time, enough for the Germans to get reinforcements, usually by bringing up a reserved armored division or to try to out flank them.  

It may seam a little bit exuberant having a machinegun that fires at such a tremendous rate, after all it only needs one bullet to kill or incapacitate an enemy soldier.  The Germans however came to the conclusion that a soldier in combat only fires when he sees the enemy and has but a few seconds to do so, taking this as a medium for all combatants they deemed it was he who fired an increased amount of bullets had an increased chance of a kill.

Below are the best YouTube  videos I can find of the MG42 in action.

Just like a new car, the MG42 was actually issued with an owners handbook and in it, it stated that no more than two hundred and fifty rounds be fired in a single burst and that heavy sustained fire should be kept at a controlled rate to preserve barrel life.  Machine gunners are always taught to fire in short bursts as this decreases the chance of the gun jamming up.

There was a fair bit of recoil associated with the firing of the MG42 and the use of a bipod was a necessity, this bipod could be mounted either at the front or the center of the gun depending on the terrain it was fired on.  The shoulder stock was made of wood which had a deep curved butt with another deep curve at the front for the firer to pull the gun into his shoulder for better control.

The MG42 could also be mounted on a heavy duty tripod, the Lafette 42 mount  that weighed forty five pounds and also incorporated telescopic sights for closer grouping over longer ranges.  The tripod also gave the MG42 some anti-aircraft capability.  The German technicians who designed this gun had obviously given the project quite a lot of thought.

The MG42 itself was relatively light, weighing just under twenty five pounds.  It was made from a lot of stamped and pressed steel fittings that were thin but strong by design and this made the guns weight much easier to bear.  To keep the weight down even more the barrel itself was even lighter, this meant it wore out quicker but with the speed it could be changed as stated earlier the problem was not deemed an issue.

A full German MG42 machine gun squad consisted of six men in total, although in combat six men supporting one machinegun would rarely remain together as a close knit unit.

  • First man: Usually a junior NCO, fired the gun and had a pistol as a back up.

  • Second man: Carried the ammunition and assisted the firer by helping to load and feed the ammunition, also had a pistol as a back up.

  • Third man: Carried the spare barrels and ammunition and was also a spotter for the crew and he had a KAR98 rifle as a back up.

  • Fourth man: Carried the tripod and had an MP40 sub machine gun as a back up.

  • Fifth man: Carried entrenching tools and extra ammunition an had a KAR98 rifle as a back up.

  • Sixth man: Carried gun oil, cleaning cloths, and binoculars and he also had a KAR98 rifle as a back up weapon.

They took along as much extra ammunition as they could carry, either by wearing the belts around themselves or in the supplied ammo containers.  Sometimes the squad was reduced to only three men. The firer, loader and a spotter as seen in an actual WWII photo below, these guys are in one of the feared Waffen SS regiments.

The MG42 was quite a superb weapon and was revered on both sides of the lines.  

Specifications and quick recap of the MG42

  • Caliber - 7.92mm Mauser
  • Muzzle Velocity 2,480 feet per second
  • Rate of fire 900 up to 1,500 rpm
  • Feed: 50 round belt - 75round drum
  • Effective range 2,300 feet / 700 meters
  • Length 48 inches
  • Weight 25lbs
  • Tripod weight 45lbs
  • Needs a squad for best operation

When the Allies first got to hear about this gun, they quickly created training films as a form of pre-counselling to help soldiers overcome the immense psychological stress upon facing this ferocious weapon in combat.  It wasn't long before the Allies captured one of these guns too and proceeded to test it and indeed use it in their training films.

The Allies also trained their soldiers to recognize the sound of the MG42 and to take immediate cover, stay low and try to destroy the machinegun nest when they changed barrels.  The vain hope they would run out of ammunition probably never surfaced as a practical idea.  Below is seen a Wehrmacht squad setting up their MG42 ready to take on Allied soldiers, somewhere in Europe 1944.

The MG42 received some recent attention when it was depicted in the blockbuster movie Saving Private Ryan starring Tom Hanks.  The machinegun was first depicted in the movie when it was slaughtering the GI's as they alighted from their landing craft onto Omaha beach...

...and again later on in the movie when Tom Hanks  as Captain John H. Miller  and his team overran a machinegun nest guarding an old radar station.

WWII is much faded now and some speculative credit can be afforded to those German engineers and scientists who during the upheavals of wartime, with limited materials, bombs and loss of life all around, still created a superb weapon.

A weapon that even today in 2009, some sixty seven years after the MG42 was first produced, has many a firearms expert both military and civilian state that this is one of the best if not the  best machineguns ever made. Total production of the MG42 during WWII was a remarkable 141,965

The MG42V or version two was produced  in 1945  to become the MG45 and this gun had a rate of fire of  up to one thousand eight hundred rounds per minute  The mechanism had been redesigned but other developments made very slow progress due to the lack of materials in war-torn Germany, so it was finally abandoned.  Maybe it was fortunate for the Allies that only ten such guns were ever built.

SUPPLEMENTARY

THE MG34

I thought that I would just add a few images of the MG34 that the MG42 actually replaced.  The MG34 was actually used in full combat right up until the end of the war in May 1945.  The reason being is that the MG42, although in huge demand was is short supply due to Germanys war production being severely crippled by allied air raids.

Its quite a respectable gun and looks light and portable which it actually was at twenty six pounds and forty eight inches long. All of the holes in the shroud are there of course to assist in the cooling of the barrel whilst the gun is being fired and shortly after.  Air cooling is more efficient than water cooling, the Vickers .303 machine gun for example was water cooled.

A constant supply of water had to be siphoned into the barrel jacket from a five gallon can, this was to stop the barrel from warping and overheating.  This was due to the tremendous amount of friction that the barrel was subjected to when fired.

The MG34 like the MG42, had a quick release barrel changing mechanism that allowed the worn out barrel to be swapped for a new one. These spare barrels were always carried by members of the machine gun squad.

The rate of fire for the MG43 was around eight hundred and fifty rounds per minute, firing 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridges.  It was a very decent machine gun, but as stated earlier it was too expensive to produce, specially in the large quantities that the German Army required.

The Russians on the other hand, basically mass produced half decent guns by the million.  These were actually surprisingly reliable in battle, and as to their mass production Stalin eloquently stated " Quantity has a quality all of its own! "

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Page created June 29th 2009.   Updated November 6th 2012