The Forgotten MG 39 Rh

Over at Forgotten Weapons, Leszek Erenfeicht and Jan Skramoušský write about a forgotten German machine gun designed by the prolific gun designer Louis Stange.

It was fascinating to learn that the German military in the 1920s and 30s had an irrational fear of gas operated guns …

The German military of the 1920s and 1930s was irrationally prejudiced against drilling bores – gas-operated automatic firearms were a major no-no. Up until the time of introduction of the G.43 rifle, German military scientists and technicians held that drilling bore would obligatory and unfavorably influence the internal ballistics of the gun, ruining accuracy and service life through erosion and corrosion.

It took a major generation change in the Germany’s firearm’s industry’s main client, the re-born German Wehrmacht, to tumble down the walls of prejudice. The older generals, dyed-in-the-wool theoreticians, were now phased out by young practitioners, who all-too-well remembered from their own first-hand experience on the wrong side of the muzzle, that the French gas-operated air-cooled Hotchkiss machine guns were every bit as deadly, accurate and dependable as the German recoil-operated water-cooled Maxims.

It was not earlier that Hitler gained power and renounced Versailles Treaty in March 1935, that the Wehrmacht was re-born and these young lions could seize power in the rapidly growing organization. It was only then, and still with great deal of trouble, that the gas-operated automatics started to compete for the major military contracts. There still was a long and bouncy way ahead of them – as attested by the ordeal of the G.41. It was the first ever gas-operated gun to enter Wehrmacht armament – but alas the military forced upon the Mauser company that even though it was gas-operated, there dared not be any openings drilled in the bore, and the gases were vented from the muzzle, using the Bang principle which unreasonably complicated the already not entirely straight forward mechanism.

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Jon

    The same prejuice is now with bullpup rifles.

    • denny

      Bullpups are still unresolved issue. In spite of their advantages and there is dozen of militaries who use them, they have plenty of retractors. The Russians for example, in spite of early demostrators in this configuration, reverted to conventional layout. I heard a tech-director of one European company claiming that “… they are unsuitable for left hand users”. Of course, nothing can be more erroneous than that. So here you have it, pick what you like.

      • Esh325

        This doesn’t mean bullpups are better, but you can find many more examples of armies moving from conventional rifles to bullpups. When it comes down to it, every army has different needs and some times a bullpup better suits them than a conventional rifle, where others might prefer a conventional rifle. As far as being able to shoot from the right or left shoulder on the fly, such as around corners, I believe most designers figured that most soldiers have a difficult time hitting their target in combat conditions even with their dominant shoulder.

      • denny

        I concurr with what you say Esh. Just my own observation based on my perception is that with ever improving collapsible/ adjustable stocks the argument for bullpups is loosing ground a bit. Yes, BPs are handy in tight space, but conventional layout is super for manufacture, hadling and maintenance. Do you think U.S. services would consider BPs eventually? U.K. talks of future replacement of current SA85 time to time, but what it will be… ? Same with France.

      • Esh325

        A M4 with the stock fully collasped might be as long as a SA80, but most people wouldn’t be able to shoot it that way. Shorter LOP’s can’t replace a bullpup.

      • W

        i think many of the issues of bullpups have been resolved (such as the left hand firing problem) and the ergonomics have improved significantly with the Tavor and new improvements to the AUG.

        With that being said, I dont think they are groundbreaking enough to completely replace conventional layout rifles yet. They have unique advantages in certain situations and perhaps the evolution of existing technologies will make them more advantageous in the future.

      • Esh325

        This is very true, bullpups have matured and improved. Perhaps should caseless ammo ever become viable, you might bullpups become popular then.

    • Jay

      Actually bullpups have certain shortcomings that make regular carbine more atractive for many. it’s not prejudice. It’s simple balace of advantages and disadvantages.
      I’m lefty. There are three bullpups that actually work for me. F2000, P90 and RFB. They fixed the abi issue. All the others are made for right handed shooters.
      Only one of this would work as general issue/ standard assault rifle. The F2000.
      If I’d have to equip an army, I wouldn’t want to be limited to a single choice, or get another bulpup that’s not compatible with 15% of my troops.

      • snmp

        With the French FAMAS, you could switch ejection side in fews seconds: Open the rifle, rotate the Bolt (Mikey mouse head), close the rifle & change of side of the check piece.

        Other hand, manies Bullpud rifles have baricenter near the grip

      • Jon

        You forgot the A-91 rifle.

        It would be great to see that ejecting mechanism in a weapon like the tavor or AUG, with a weapon butt plating like in the SAR-21.

  • Lal

    The fear about drilled bores wasn’t that irrational at all. Barrel erosion at the orifice was (and sometimes still is) a problem. Beside throat erosion it’s the second biggest factor of barrel wear in modern guns.

    • denny

      That is absolutely true and German military tech-personel knew it. Unless you have seen sliced up barrel after prolonged test you will not believe it. There are 2 most vulnerable areas for wear: just in front of chamber and in gas tap area. It gets pretty burned out there.

    • Esh325

      I don’t think the article said it wasn’t a problem, it just meant that they overstated how big of a problem it actually is. The Pros to gas operation far out weighed the cons and they didn’t seem to realize that.

  • gunslinger

    but isn’t there something to be said about advances in technology in the last 80 years?

  • Ian

    Actually I believe the FG-42 was the first gun to break this rule in Hitler’s Germany. The Luftwaffe decision makers outright said that they did not care about the detriments as gas operation can create a significantly lighter and/or more reliable weapon.

  • Brandon

    Could the fear of drilling into the bore be related to the corrosive ammo of the era?

    • Esh325

      That could be a reason. Chrome lined bores weren’t as technically feasible and/or as inexpensive back then as they are today.

  • Mike Knox

    Kind of looks like a PKP Pecheneg doesn’t it?

  • Leszek Erenfeicht

    No, it’s not so easy with the Famas – you don’t “rotate” the bolt, you have to strip it down into small pieces, take the bolt face (face of the Mickey) out, and then replace the extractor and filler (the ears of the Mickey). It’s not a “few seconds” – the first time it took me over three minutes, then with practice I was able to cut a minute out of the process. On the other hand, the new Polish rifle, Radon aka MSBS-5.56 has got a rotatable bolt and the ejection direction is really switchable in seconds (under 30, and could be less with some practice).