German MP-40
The MP-40, relative to the state of the art of its day, was fairly compact and maneuverable. Will Dabbs MD Photo
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We humans have always venerated our weapons. This is but one of mankind’s curiously dark attributes. Some three millennia ago, the Israelite King David used the sword of the Philistine Goliath to take the terrible giant’s head. He then revered the blade in the tabernacle at Nob for years afterward. A bit closer to home, the German MP40 submachine gun became an iconic emblem of the Wehrmacht’s unprecedented battlefield successes early in World War II.

WW2 changed everything about modern life. The crucible of planetary conflict brought us such stuff as the guided missile, the modern assault rifle, the aircraft carrier, the jet fighter plane and the attack submarine. The Second World War also saw the ascendency of the pistol-caliber submachine gun.

German MP-38
The previous MP-38 was more expensive and time-consuming to produce. It differs from the subsequent MP-40 by its ribbed receiver and perforated magwell. Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions.

Origin Story

The Germans actually blazed the trail back during WW1 with their 9mm MP18. The Italian Villar Perosa was nominally the first, but it took two magazines, fired off of a bipod and was as awkward as Joe Biden at a high school cheerleader competition. That original MP18 featured a wooden stock and fed from the 32-round snail drum designed for the artillery Luger, but it spawned a genre.

The MP-28 traded the snail drum for a stick magazine. Both of these guns fired from the open bolt and were manufactured to an extraordinary standard of workmanship. The receivers and ventilated barrel jackets were milled from big chunks of forged steel. With a modest rate of fire and decent ergonomics, these early SMGs changed the way German Stormtroopers cleared trenches. However, during the chaotic interwar years it became obvious that German industry could do better. That ultimately led to the elusive MP-36.

Erma-Werke produced the MP-36 in, you guessed it, 1936 as a speculative venture. The underfolding stock did not lock in place and the gun was not really amenable to mass production, but it served as a stepping stone. The subsequent MP-38 altered the landscape just a little bit.

In the MP-38 we see vestiges of greatness to come. The receiver was milled out of steel tube stock and the fire control housing was cut from aluminum, but the gun could pass for the subsequent mass-produced MP-40 in dim light. The easiest way to differentiate the two at a glance was that the MP-38 had longitudinal ribs cut into the receiver as well as a dime-sized hole punched through each side of the magazine well. The evolutionary MP-40 was the definitive icon.

German MP-40 in Soldier's Hands
The MP-40 saw widespread issue everywhere German soldiers fought. Will Dabbs MD Photo.


The 9mm MP-40 was the first general-issue military firearm to eschew wooden furniture. The receiver and fire control housing were pressed from sheet steel, while the furniture was synthetic Bakelite. The underfolding stock was later aped almost exactly by Mikhail Kalashnikov on his folding stock AK-47. The gun fired from an open bolt via a 32-round double-stack, single-feed magazine and was full auto-only. The sole safety on early versions was a notch cut in the receiver to secure the bolt to the rear. A later modification included a redesigned bolt handle that could be used to lock the action closed.

At 8.75 pounds and 32.8 inches long with the stock extended, the MP-40 was both bulky and front-heavy. However, the gun’s sedate 500 rpm rate of fire made it eminently controllable. At a time when the industry standard was a four foot-long bolt-action rifle firing a round the size of your index finger, the MP-40 offered a quantum advance in firepower.

From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Stalingrad, the MP-40 became synonymous with Hitler’s jack-booted legions. While the tactical world has since moved on to rifle-caliber carbines and advanced electro-optics, the WW2-vintage MP-40 nonetheless earned its esteemed place in military history. As many as 1.1 million copies rolled off the lines. The German MP-40 SMG was a transitional form to greater things to come in firearm development around the world.

Special thanks to for the cool replica gear used by our re-enactor.

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  1. {The MP-40}

    “The gun fired from an open bolt via a 32-round double-stack, single-feed magazine and was full auto-only.”


    Could the design support semi-auto operation, if they wanted it to?

  2. Back in the 1960’s I had a almost full size plastic replica that came with a detachable single stack magazine and fired via heavy spring a plastic bullet about the size of 120 gr 9mm. Semi auto only.

    Projectiles went about 10 to 15 feet with the occasional 20 feet. Did make finding them in grass the hardest part of war games.

    Giving that to a six year old now would probably have my parents and I all in jail.

    • Jail would be the luckiest of the outcomes. Most likely the kid would now suffer the consequences of cops’ magazine dumps…

  3. Good article. A little history to break up the monotony of the fantastic plastic articles. Nice touch mentioning the Bakelite for end. A good friend has an MP-40 he uses for re-enacting. Almost every time he hands it to shoot they want to use the magazine as a grip for their weak hand. This can induce a malfunction. Apologies to Clint and Richard in Where Eagles Dare.

  4. While not the best SMG, it was good enough and better than the STEN that the British SAS used MP40s into the 1960s according to period photos.

  5. The whole idea behind civilian weapons production is to make production costs lower. And to make the gun affordable to the general public.

    Even the government wants to save money on gun production. The Thompson was very expensive to produce. That is why they came up with the Grease Gun. A $15.00 machine gun. And the germans they also want inexpensive guns for their military too.

    Devices like the bump stock the echo trigger, the glock switch, produced nearly the same results. And they are far less expensive than today’s current machine guns for soldiers.

    But the people on TTAG will tell you that “it’s just a waste of ammunition”.
    “It’s just a waste of time to have these kinds of weapons.”

    “There just range toys.”

    I’ll say this again. The “gun community” supports the National Firearms Act. Because the “gun community” does not support the general ownership and sale of machine guns, to the ordinary law abiding american citizen.

    There was a time in this country when american civilians had more and better fire power than the United States military did. And dispite all our problems, we were a much freer society back then too.

    If I lived one of those american cities that was burned to the ground. During during the “summer of love” in 2020.
    I would really be happy to have one of those “ranged toys” handy.

    Especially since the police were ordered to stand down and do nothing.

    • Anyone that’s legal can own a machinegunm. $$$$$$$$,,,,$$$$$$$$ is a little prohibiting though

      • The new glock switch costs less than $100. But I don’t see the “gun community ” supporting its ownership.

        • If it weren’t for the NFA (probably the Hughes Amendment really) I’d have one. I’m against people shooting at other people in service of the drug industry however. Willing to bet lots of others here would have them too. I mean, if no one wants stuff like this why were/are FRTs and bump stocks even a viable business model?

          I’d bet there would be a ton of SMGs too. It’s so much easier to make an open bolt 9mm whatever than it is to make a closed bolt something. Uzis, SA26es, MP40s and so on would be owned by a huge number of people.

    • “those american cities that was burned to the ground.“

      Help me out here, which American cities were “burned to the ground”?

      I’d like to go and check out the crater, so I would appreciate the info, thanks!

      • ‘Burned to the ground’ is hyperbole like ‘Streets running with blood’.

        Both sides are guilty. But you knew that.

    • I disagree. I’m not sure who exactly you’re referring to with ‘people on TTAG’ or the ‘gun community’, but the current ‘regime’ thinks it’s pretty obvious that the NFA (and every other gun law) are unconstitutional infringements. Regardless of how useful someone purports full auto functionality to be, there should still be no prohbitions (and that includes a $200 tax and artificially inflated market price due to limited supply created by legislation) on owning machine guns.

      • The 2A was written to ensure We The People had arms of similar if not better ordnance then militaries.

      • I second this. I don’t support the NFA. Prior to 1986 you could walk into a gun store and buy an automatic. And we didn’t have any of the problems of today back then. As I’ve said a million times, we don’t have a gun problem. We have a people problem. And a person that sets their mind on death and destruction will achieve that end regardless of the weapon chosen. Guns, Knives, cars, IED’s, you name it.

  6. Cool.
    That’s just like the machinegunm I bought at dacians wife’s yard sale.
    I was going to buy the gremaides too but she traded those to some Mongolian biker gang guys for some Big Frank and Tranq.

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