As you can tell from the other coverage here on the Gun Nuts site, this week is the annual SHOT show, where the firearms industry shows off their latest and greatest wares for large buyers and the gun media. I like learning about the new stuff as much as anyone else, but I like some of the old stuff even more…especially when that old stuff is belt-fed.
In last week’s post I gave a brief rundown on the unique Lewis gun, arguably the first successful man-portable machineguns. Today let’s look at the machinegun that was arguably (because everything about history can be argued) the first to fully realize the machinegun’s potential on the battlefield and in modern warfare: The MG-34.
The Treaty of Versailles placed heavy restrictions on Germany’s manufacture of weapons after World War I, but like every other gun control effort in history it did precisely bupkiss to stop the bad guys. A resurgent Germany used every trick in the book to rebuild their war machine bigger and better than ever. One of their top priorities was developing the machinegun and though it took a bit of tweaking the end result was one of the most influential machineguns in history.
The MG-34 fires from an open bolt using a metal belt that was easier to load than the canvas belts typical for previous machineguns. The weapon itself was far lighter and more maneuverable than any of the Vickers/Maxim variations the German armed forces had previously used. Instead of attempting to cool the barrel with a large complicated aluminum jacket as used in the Lewis gun, the designers created the first really good quick-change barrel system so that a machinegun crew could rotate barrels quickly without even needing to unload the weapon first. With proper barrel rotations they could sustain very high rates of fire for an extended period of time without all the cumbersome weight and bulk of water jackets, hoses, and water tanks.
When you look carefully at the MG-34 you’ll notice it has two triggers. The top trigger fires the weapon in semi-automatic and the lower engages the fully-automatic function of the weapon. Why have a semi-automatic function on a belt-fed machinegun? Good question. The Germans must have found very little utility in the feature because they omitted a semi-automatic function from the later MG-42. The MG-34 could certainly be fired very accurately in semi-automatic mode, but nobody ever toted a belt fed for careful point of aim accuracy in slowfire. You don’t often find semi-automatic function on open-bolt belt fed machineguns these days, seeming to indicate that subsequent military forces haven’t found a lot of utility in a semi-automatic function on belt feds.
The light weight, portability, and fairly high rate of fire (in full-auto mode anyway) made the MG-34 a weapon suitable for many roles…and the Germans weren’t shy about using them. They produced as many machineguns as they could and mounted them in any way they could find.
The firepower of the MG-34 was intended to be the backbone of a military assault that relied on mobility and superiority of fire to encircle and destroy the enemy. The world would apply the term blitzkrieg to this style of warfare, and the new lightweight, portable, adaptable machinegun was at the center of it all.
Getting up close and personal with the MG-34 was a mind blowing experience. The specimen I was able to play with was manufactured in 1944, a late-war production gun made after the tide had turned against Germany. Even so, the weapon’s fit and finish were extraordinary. Pictures and video really do not do it justice. You need to be able to feel the gun’s function, to manipulate the feed mechanism with your hands, to cycle the bolt, to feel the gun fire in order to appreciate how exquisitely lavish the manufacture of this weapon is. Every single piece on the weapon moves with precision and unparalleled smoothness. Just operating the belt feed mechanism on the feed tray cover makes you think that the gun functions on ball bearings.
I don’t know Mauser’s exact production figures on the MG-34, but I’ve seen it suggested in a number of places that the weapon took twice as much machine time and twice as many man hours to produce over any comparable weapon of its day. In the ninth edition of Small Arms of the World, Smith says that captured MG-34’s were taken to various American manufacturers who concluded that the guns would require too many machine tools and would be outrageously expensive to manufacture. (Page 439 if you’re interested in looking that up) Keep in mind that these are American manufacturers who were turning out the M1 Garand, a beast of a weapon hewn from big chunks ordnance grade steel and originally stocked with some pretty beautiful walnut. It was (arguably, again) the most lavishly produced general issue rifle of its day, and the country that was turning them out by the millions looked at the MG-34 and said it was too expensive and involved to manufacture.
The tight tolerances that you note when handling the MG-34 are said to have made the weapon rather temperamental in the field. To an extent, all belt fed machineguns are sensitive to conditions and ammunition. This is one of the reasons why the USMC brought the Infantry Automatic Rifle concept into being, as even today’s belt-fed machineguns can stop working at inopportune moments…like when you’re charging into a building full of insurgents. The finicky nature of the MG-34 and the expense of manufacturing it eventually set the German army looking for a more reliable and economical replacement.
My shooting impressions of the MG-34 are not quite true to life because we couldn’t get into a proper prone position behind the weapon. When firing a belt-fed machinegun from the bipod you would ideally be laying in a prone position where you can actually dig your feet in and push back against the weapon to help control the recoil and better direct the fire on target. Without that ability the weapon tends to climb on you during a burst. The rate of fire for this MG-34 was estimated by its owner (who knows his class III weapons) to be around 900 rounds per minute. In firing the weapon I seemed to get a 4 or 5 round burst from a single pull of the trigger. Compare the rate of fire of the MG-34:
To the slower, more staccato rate of fire from the M60 machine gun:
Even with the high rate of fire and the muzzle climb due to lack of a good firing position, when firing bursts at the center of a typical steel shilouette target 100 yards away you would hear two or three pings on the steel. The sights were typical of German weapons of the period, using an absurdly thick front sight in a relatively shallow V rear notch but in the bright light of the range there was no trouble using them precisely. I could pick an exact spot on the steel, fire, and see that the first shot would hit directly at the point of aim, with the second impacting very near to the first. After that the weapon was starting to lift and it got harder to keep track of what was going on downrange. A skilled gunner in a good position could do some serious work with one of these beauties. That’s probably why Uncle Sam made videos like this:
In other footage from that video the narrarator actually says that the “bark” of the German machineguns (particularly the MG-42) is “worse than its bite.” I didn’t get that impression behind the MG-34 at all. The relatively high rate of fire certainly does eat ammo quickly and means that you launch more rounds in a burst, but for me the gun ran so smoothly I didn’t have a problem putting multiple shots on target even from a compromised position. If I were firing at opposing infantry, there would be a fairly tight cone of 7.92mm death heading for the dude in my sights. Watching the beat zone it became clear that at typical combat engagement distances whoever was on the wrong end of one of these things was going to have a very bad day.
While the later MG-42 used the newer roller locking system instead of the MG-34’s recoil operated system, much of the rest of the weapon looks very familiar. In fact, if you compare most other belt fed machineguns that came after the MG-34 to the MG-34 side by side you’ll see a great deal of commonality because some bits of it functioned so well that they’ve stuck around in more modern designs. It’s a magnificent weapon, and another shooting experience to put on your gun-geek bucket list.