A Brief Look at the MG42

mg42-1s

As firearms go, few have been as influential – and yet seldom seen by the general public – as the MG42 machine gun. While the 1911 pistol and the Mauser bolt action rifle influenced countless other firearms, they or their descendants are ubiquitous. The MG42 and its assorted descendants? Other than those who served in combat arms units of major Western militaries, not many people get a chance to see what a general purpose machine gun (GPMG) is like.

So when I had the chance to not only poke one, but shoot it, I was truly excited to go to the range. I probably hadn’t been that excited since the last time I shot my Marlin Papoose, which was actually the week before, but I digress. This particular MG42 is a non-transferable post sample machine gun property of Piece of History Firearms, a Class 2 SOT, or federally licensed manufacturer of machine guns. Now – on to the weapon itself.

Before you ask - yes, I did fire all of this ammo.

Before you ask – yes, I did fire all of this ammo.

The MG42 was the standard GPMG of the Wehrmacht – the German Army – during World War II. While many things went wrong in that country during that time, one thing the Germans (unfortunately?) got very right was the MG42. Firing belts of 8x57mm at a rate of over 1200 rounds per minute, the weapon acquired a fearsome reputation due in part to the sound it made during firing. A byproduct of that high rate of fire is that individual shots are nearly impossible to pick out. It simply sounds like a ripping, tearing saw, earning it nicknames such as “buzzsaw.”

chrmg42-2s

My girlfriend’s little brother had never fired a gun before. Needless to say, he had a good time (under the supervision of Mario from Piece of History Firearms, seen here, and myself).

I had previous experience with the FN M240G from my time in the military. As the 240 is derived from the FN MAG which derives some elements of design from the MG42, it wasn’t terribly difficult to adapt to the older machine gun. There are minor differences in materials and major differences in design – it’s not as if parts will swap between the two – but loading and firing procedures were remarkably similar.

Top cover open, machine gun ready to load.

Top cover open, machine gun ready to load.

A latch at the rear of the top cover/feed tray cover allows it to rotate up, exposing the feed tray as well as the feed lever inside the top cover. With the bolt forward, a fresh belt is put in place, then the top cover closed. The bolt is pulled to the rear with the charging handle, which is then pushed to the forward position. Push the safety off, and the weapon is ready to fire.

We had a few hiccups at first, in part because it had been a while for both of us, and in part because the weapon was pretty dry. A decent amount of FP-10 from my range bag went onto the bolt, and then, other than a few malfunctions due to pressure on the belt, the “buzzsaw” lived up to its name.

Mario of POHF demonstrates proper use of the MG42.

Mario of POHF demonstrates proper use of the MG42.

Naturally, with no staff NCOs around to berate me, one of my first inclinations after familiarizing myself with the weapon was to attempt to fire it from the standing position. To my surprise, it was actually fairly easy to control from both “the hip” and the shoulder while standing. Now, it’s important to understand that control is relative. All of my rounds impacted the berm or the ground in front of the berm. However, I cannot guarantee that I would have been able to hit a point target past, say, 10 yards.

As you can see in the video, it was a bit demanding – the weapon weighs about 25lbs with bipod, and I was already a bit dehydrated when I hit the range. Still, it was really a lot of fun to shoot, and now I can say that I’ve fired a belt fed machine gun from the hip while wearing flip flops and Ray Bans.

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this little look at one of the 20th century’s most infamous firearms. Thanks for reading!

Andrew Tuohy joined the Navy but never saw a ship. He likes guns, has no regrets, and blogs at Vuurwapen Blog.


Andrew Tuohy

Andrew Tuohy was a Navy Corpsman with the 5th Marine Regiment. He makes a living by producing written and visual content within the firearm industry, and he also teaches carbine courses. He prefers elegant weapons for a more civilized age, and regularly posts at Vuurwapen Blog.


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  • Doom

    was the bolt the original or was it heavier for a slower RoF? It was pretty easy to hear each shot.

    • Andrew Tuohy

      Regular bolt…and I couldn’t hear every single shot.

  • Nathaniel

    I MUST DEFEAT IT

  • Robert

    Interesting. Any info on why the designers thought they needed 1200 RPM, other than “we can build an MG that will do that”? IIRC, the Browning 1919 runs at about 550 RPM. For aircraft use a high rate of fire is great, for infantry I’m not sure the high rate of ammo consumption is an advantage.

    • flemgunner

      The Germans primarily wanted the higher rate of fire as they used the weapons in an anti aircraft roll too.

      • schnuersi

        That is not the actual reason but a mere byproduct.

        The basic idear is to increase burst density to deliver the maximum volume of fire on a target that only presents itself for short amounts of time…
        while this is also true for aircraft the target actually meant is an infantry man (lMG mode) or group of infantry men (sMG mode) advancing by dashing from cover to cover.
        It works really well. If fired from the field mount a huge amount of bullets can be sent down range before the targeted soldiers can effectively react. The density of bullets in the beaten zone is really tight.

        Ammo consumption is not so much of an issue as you would think it is just by looking at the theoretical ROF. German soldiers are trained to fire short, aimed and controlled bursts. The trigger is only squeesed gently for fractions of a second. A propper burst from an MG42 (or MG3) is about five shots long. A common exercise during machine gun training is trying to shoot single shots…
        and yes it is possible. But most recruits only manage two shot bursts.

        • S O

          No, you got it the wrong way around. There are plenty documents dating back to late 1930’s pointing out the desire for a higher MG 34 rate of fire specifically for defence against strafing aircraft. The Spanish Civil War saw a lot of strafing, especially by obsolete fighter types. Return fire was not prohibitive, and the Heer didn’t like this.

          Furthermore, MG 42 training included both short and long (~50) bursts.

          • schnuersi

            And the ROF of the MG34 was made as high as possible why?

            The starting point was to produce a weapon with high volume in short bursts. By the time the developement of the MG42 progressed and the gun started to take shapes it was clear that rifle caliber fire against aircraft was ineffective. No point in optimising a GPMG for that.
            In the late ’30 the army was satisfied with the MG34. While there was still research done they didn’t want a new gun until they realised that the MG34 was to expensive to mass produce.

            Long bursts only in sMG (HMG) configuration if fired from field mount. Wich is an entirely different story to lMG use from bipod. Wich was taught to every soldier while proper use of the field mount was a specialist task.

          • lal

            Can you name some of these “plenty documents”?

    • hi

      I don’t know for sure, but can you think of any german heavy machine guns used by the infantry? I’m guessing they tried using just one machine gun design to perform all roles(cheaper/easier on logistics), so that’s probably the primary reason why they ended up with a machine gun that fired at roughly twice the rate of other machine guns in similar calibers.

      • schnuersi

        I can think of several types of MGs used by the german infantry in the heavy role during WW2. They used the MG08, czech ZB53 (named MG37(t)) and lots more. Basically any decent or better weapon the german war machine could lay its hands on was used.

        “just one machine gun design to perform all roles”
        That is the idear behind a GPMG. And the intention was for the MG34 to be that. But it never worked out since there have never been enough of them.

        After the WW2 the new formed german army mamaged to implement the MG3 as the one and only MG in active service.

        • hi

          I should have said widely used. :p

          But the ones used were generally in 7.92, so my point stands.

          • schnuersi

            Oh, by heavy machine gun you meant one larger than rifle caliber…
            the german army never really believed in these. In WW1 they developed such a weapon as automatic anti tank and anti aircraft “cannon”. But the idear was given up soon after.

            A heavy machine gun in german thinking is a rifle caliber machine gun fired from a mount. A light MG is one fired from bipod. A larger than rifle caliber MG is an üsMG = über schwerers MG = super heavy MG.
            For applications for wich a rifle caliber MG is insuficient there is the 20 mm autocannon.

      • n0truscotsman

        None.

        The British Vickers 50, Soviet Dskh, and US M2 were part of a trend that never became popular with the Wehrmacht for some reason…

        Excellent question though

    • Kzrkp

      The high rate of fire was chosen because it was determined that it would give a statistically guaranteed hit on a target running from cover to cover perpendicular to the shooter at a certain range. Given a steady aim it would be statistically impossible for the runner to avoid all of the burst.

  • Pete Sheppard

    It sounds to me more like other (slower RoF) MGs. I’ve seen other videos of MG42s, and the sound was more like a harsh ‘buzzz’. My guess is that the gun was slowed down both to preserve the gun and to save on ammo.

    • gunslinger

      wasn’t the MG42 nicknamed “hitler’s buzzsaw”?

      • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Phil W “Senior Writer TFB”

        Yes as well as Hitlers zipper and a couple of other names I shouldn’t type:-)
        That one is the most often used.

  • Zak

    The lack of snark… I couldn’t tell Rick Taylor wrote it at all. And no accuracy from the hip? John Basilone you ain’t.

  • snmp

    FM Mag come from the Browning BAR with MG34/42 feeding mechanism with a belt.

    In fact, the MG42 is an MG34 build with metall sheet and rework bolt with Roller locked of the pattent n° US2089671 (july 8, 1933) of the polish Edward Stecke (Panstwowe Wytworine Uzbrojenia – RANDOM) => http://www.freepatentsonline.com/2089671.html

    => Mauser prototype MG42V / MG 45 (delayed blowback)
    => MG42/58 (or MG1A1) (spain conversion 7,62NATO by )
    => MG42/59 (or MG1A2) conversion 7,62NATO in Grece by & Iran
    => MG1 (MG42/58 and MG42/59) first version 7.62 NATO for the new Bundeswehr, production licence to POF for the Pakistan (MG1A3 P).
    => MG2 (MG1A3 )second version in 7.62 NATO for the Bundeswehr,
    = > Rheinmetall MG3 third version in 7.62 NATO for the Bundeswehr & Production licence to MKEK (Turkish firm)
    => MG74 Autrian version of the MG3 (build in west germany)
    => M53 yougoslavian version in 8 mm Mauser by Zastava Armes ( there is an export version in .30-06)
    => MG51 Swiss version in 7.5mm (and after in 7.62 NATO) with modified locking system
    => MG55 or SIG MG 710-3 lightweigh version of the MG 42V / MG 45 with locking system/delayed blowback is based on the SIG Stgw.57 (STG45)

  • schnuersi

    Another video with an MG42 or MG3 where the guys shooting are not doing it right… ;)

    Maybe they should have looked the offical user manual and SOP up on the net first.

    If you shoot prone from bipod you push the gun forward by lodging your right foot into the ground so you can use you righ leg to push your shoulder and the gun forward to brace it against the bipod.

    Firing from the hip should be done with the carring strap around the neck. So the strap carries the weight of the gun and the gunner can focus his arms strength on recoil controll.

    And most important allways try to keep the burst as short as possible…

    I know it is less fun but otherwise the result will be not really comparable enough for a propper review.

    • Andrew Tuohy

      Well, that’s why I didn’t call this a review. I said it was a “brief look.” Also, do you see a carrying strap in any of these photos? I didn’t.

      • schnuersi

        The point I wanted to make just was that if you don’t use this gun as it is supposed to be used the results will hardly be comparable.
        Not so much to criticise your video. I really envy you for the fun you most likely had. But to forestall any criticism in the lines “because of its high ROF the gun is uncontrollabel”. These usually follow a video featuring the MG42 or MG3 right on the spot.
        I have seen people using the wrong stance to hip fire an MG3 (wich you do right in the video) wich allmost made them drop the gun and because it they conclude the gun is uncontrolable.
        After all you fire it from the shoulder and my guess from looking at the footage is you scored hits and were able to controll the gun. During my service time I did this on a regular base and more than once won a box of beer from someone who claimed it could not be done.
        To put it short I didn’t mean to offend.

    • Brick

      Just wanted to write that myself. Only one thing to add IMO. It is really easy to fire short 3-4 shot bursts, by positioning the trigger finger so it glides off. Takes getting used to but once you have the hang of it you can be both precise while prone and very economical with your ammo.

  • Ian

    Love the range flip flops!

  • S O

    The use of the bipod in the 3rd photo is wrong because the surface is hard. Correct is to press the MG 42 (or MG 3) forward. The recoil will then in part be transferred into the ground via the bipod.

    The MG 42 was never truly the standard GPMG of the Wehrmacht. MG 34 production continued in parallel, since different and new machines were required for production of many parts of the MG 42.

    Production of machineguns by Germany (this may include MG 17, MG 81 and MG 131, too):

    1941: 85,510

    1942: 85,150

    1943: 169,855

    1944: 276,639

    1945 1st quarter: 30,693

    Production of MG 42:

    1941: 0

    1942: 17,195

    1943: 119,875

    1944: 215,297

    1945 1st quarter: 25,573

    source: Michaelis/Schraepler (historians)

    A few remarks about the MG 42 / MG 3:

    (1) The quick change barrel mechanism was great for its time, but still requires gloves. A thermally insulated grip on the barrel would be desirable.

    (2) The general layout makes it very difficult to install an optical sight that keeps its zero. The Norwegian army did install an optic on MG 3, though.

    (3) The high rate of fire was not meant for lethality in ground combat. Most machinegun fire in ground combat is for suppression, not killing. The high RoF doesn’t help. It was instead meant for defence against strafing aircraft, a purpose for which such machineguns proved to be too weak since some armour and self-sealing tanks were added to combat aircraft during the late 30’s till about 1944.

    (4) The MG 42 and MG 3 are unnecessarily heavy. There were already weight saving designs available by late WW2, but nothing was done about cutting weight ever since. The precision machined Swiss copy is even much heavier than the MG 42.

    (5) It is an art to fire single shots with a MG 3 and a fully loaded belt due to the high RoF. Most recruits cannot fire less than 4-6 bullets at once.

    • schnuersi

      “The high rate of fire was not meant for lethality in ground combat. Most
      machinegun fire in ground combat is for suppression, not killing”

      Not in the traditional german doctrine.

      Every shot is meant to kill. And the MG is the most important, most “killy” weapon of the infantry squad.

      There are two types of suppressive fire in german doctrine. „Feuerschutz“ and „Deckungsfeuer“. The former means an area is observed and uppon enemy activity fire is opened. The latter means an area is swept by fire regardless of any actual observation. „Deckungsfeuer“ is usually conducted by heavy weapons and is highly discuraged for combat elements.

      • S O

        Germany produced 4.732 billion 7.92×57 mm cartridges in 1944 alone, in addition to production in occupied countries.

        I could not with a straight face say or write that every shot was meant to kill.

        • schnuersi

          Doctrine = theory
          Most weapons are desigend to fill a certain needs in the doctrine. Training regulations are written so the soldiers can perform according to it.
          What the troops actually do on the battelfield and if or how things work out is an entirely different story.
          Even german soldiers don’t have 100 % accuracy under battlefield conditions ;)

          The 7,92*57 mm was used by all arms. Of course not every shot from an aircraft is meant to kill a soldier.

          But german soldiers used to be trained and still are to only shoot aimed shots or burts with small arms at targets they actually can see and positively identify with the intention to hit (-> kill) this target.This includes machine gun fire.

    • Brick

      1 The barrel change mechanism is still the best around. Since you do not have to expose yourself. You can stay in exactly the same position. Just pull the barrel out. A insulated grip is due to the design not possible, but you do not have to wear the glove just hold it in your hand(water is an issue if u aren’t fast). It is IMO the fastest and safest mechanism out there.

      2 True but on the tripod there is an optic.

      3 It is very easy to control the rate of fire by letting your finger glide of the trigger. In a defensive sitiation it does help and the fire is meant to kill

      4 A M60 is only 2 pouns lighter than a M42 a MG3 weighs exactly as much as an M60

      5 Yes they can. 3-4 is what one wants. It can be easily achieved.See above.

    • n0truscotsman

      I disagree and agree with several different points.

      The MG34, while a elegant piece of art, was a finely machined weapon. That meant it was hideously difficult to manufacture in a wartime environment with limited materials and time. Many that were already produced were placed in vehicles because it was generally unreliable in infantry combat situations (especially on the Eastern Front) after exposure to harsh environments.

      The MG42 was everything the MG34 was not: simple, cheap, quick to manufacture, required less materials, and was very reliable even in harsh conditions. It was also less accurate because of its higher cyclic rate of fire.

      and on the account that the infantry squad was centered around the machine gun, they were intended to cause casualties among enemy troops in addition to suppress. Suppression being key because the infantry were intended to be supported by assault guns and other branches. Unlike other nations, the Wehrmacht wasnt “infantry-centric” sort of speak. Tanks and self-propelled guns won the day on the battlefield and other nations that centered their tanks around strictly supporting infantry were smashed under the boot heel of blitzkrieg and had to quickly adapt (compare and contrast Britain from 41 to 45…the same with the Red Army).

  • http://twitter.com/jbadelaire Jack Badelaire

    Osprey publishing recently put out one of their new(ish) Weapons series books on the MG34 and MG42. Pretty interesting deep dive on both guns. Especially cool was to read about the barrel change design for the MG42 – you pull a lever, the barrel kicks out sideways from the receiver a few inches by pivoting at the muzzle, you take away the barrel while using a hot mitt, put another barrel in muzzle first, then lever it shut. Apparently trained men could do this in just a few seconds.

    They also go into how the whole Wehrmacht infantry squad was essentially built as a support and security mechanism for the MG. Reading a list of the squad members’ duties, almost half the squad’s job was essentially running the MG – everyone else was there, at least in part, to defend the weapon and serve as replacements for any crew who became a casualty.

    Pretty fascinating stuff.

    • hi

      Assuming it’s the same as MG3 in this respect: you don’t pull a lever, you just push forward on the barrel port latch, the rear end of the barrel pops out to the side and there are big holes on the barrel that you can use to pull the barrel out with a knife or whatever since the mitt is big and annoying to carry around.

      • http://twitter.com/jbadelaire Jack Badelaire

        That’s it, push not pull – my bad. Still, a very handy method for fast barrel changes.

    • n0truscotsman

      Those were particularly useful tactics for blitzkrieg and holding ground until the bulk of infantry/auxiliaries arrived to secure the captured territory.

      Certainly revolutionary in a era of 50 lb machine guns and bolt-action rifles. Of course, the flexibility of modern war has made such a concept obsolete, especially with the introduction of the assault rifle, IARs, and more accurate indirect fire assets.

      MG42s were incredible weapons for their era. Then again, so were the MG34s.

  • claymore

    Everybody forgets to mention that the MG-34 has a dual trigger. You can fire it single shot OR as a continuous burst depending on which portion of the trigger is depressed. It makes a very effective “accurate” shot possible. And they are very accurate in single shot. So much for the not meant to be accurate or kill with every shot theory.

  • orly?

    People defeated men with 1200 rpm mgs with 8 round clips once.

    Apparently that’s impossible now.

    • Kevinberger

      Shouldn’t that rather be : “People defeated (about 20%, and not the better 20% neither, of a large group of very war-weary) men with 1200 rpm mgs with (about 30% of them having) 8 round clips (the remaining 70% carrying Commonwealth equipement) once (not to even mention complete air supremacy, a better artillery, and a strong numerical advantage… all this while Russians took good care of the other, better, 80%)”…????

      • orly?

        Exactly.

        Everyone keeps thinking modern warfare is all infantry on infantry warfare.

        • Kevinberger

          Maybe I’m preaching to the choir, here, but…
          IIRC, back in WWII, only about 17% of US soldiers saw actual combat, while in the European Theater of Operations, meaning that 83% “didn’t fight”. Were those 83% less important in the grand scheme? One can hardly think so. Without a proper shaft, the tip of the spear does not even make for a decent knife.
          But it’s more romantic to see industrial, peer-to-peer warfare as a venue in which the individual rifleman has a role to play, as an individual… and not as a replaceable gog in a much larger, indifferent, machinery, much bigger than the sum of any of its part, many of them not being military at all (industrial output, stuff like that) … Maybe not as much “romantic”, as just simply humanizing, though?

  • Lance

    A act of metal art I call the MG-42. It also served as the basis for the M-60 GPMG. Id say for belt fed machine guns this may be the real starter for modern MGs.

  • Cuban Pete

    Man, while cross-decking with the Spanish Navy I got to fire a couple of boxes of 7.62 from one of their twin MG3 mounts. It was literally like opening up a water hose of fire.
    BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR. Non-stop.
    Most awesome gun (after Momma-2 of course) that I’ve ever shot.

  • NorThor

    Our squad MG was an MG-3 (norwegian army 2010). Fearsome thing, One way of standing up and firing was to use one mans shoulder as support. Nice way to test the hearing aid. Glad I was a rifleman though. 6 kg hk 416 (ammo included was pretty preferable compared to the MG gunner load of 18 kg worth of gun and ammo.

  • Plumbum

    It is a devastating weapon. It is, however, a weapon that you’re going to have to push 10k rounds or so through before you can match the grouping of…say.. an m240 at a few thousand rounds training.

  • Plumbump

    Take that gun, add heavy training, and a beefy tripod, along with someone to spot/carry it….ow!

    At the time of it’s development,t Germany still had a bit of the trench-warfare mindset of ww1. As such, while it’s hard to infer, i believe it’s rate of fire is related to that old-guard war of attrition mindset. In my opinion, however, with the proper training and tactics, it’s still right the f up there. It wouldn’t be a weapon i would toss out on a squad level, though…. i imagine it would really shine defending fixed positions, and riding along with wheeled and tracked vehicles.

    Then again, i have never had the pleasure to fire one :(

  • Mazryonh

    Anyone who wants to check out this gun’s extensive media pedigree should go here and take a look:

    http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/MG42

    1200 rounds per minute really makes an impression!

  • Pikestaff

    The starter tab on the ammo belt has a hook to pull out the hot barrel to change for a cool one.

  • John Jordan

    Dad faced MG-42s at Omaha Beach in 1944. He died before I found myself on wrong end of same 50 years later during Siege of Sarajevo where lots of WW-2 weapons were floating about. Dad was right, “Good gun for guy behind it, bad news if that guy is looking at you”. Unmistakable ripping sound when fired. Locals would load it with all tracers and it looked like a damn laser beam.

  • Spart

    go watch the anime Jin Roh haha