This is a topic I was pondering the other day. I thought to myself “is there any one role where a submachine gun stands out among the rest as the best firearm for any given situation?”
And I couldn’t think of one. Not one. They are much bigger than a pistol, and thus too big to conceal yet they use the same ammunition. The barrel lengths are often comparable as well so the performance increase of the round from an SMG is negligible (in most cases). They do not have the effective range of an assault rifle, and their cyclic rate is comparable. I believe they are not as efficient as a shotgun in close quarters for some type of entry type situation either, albeit I guess this is somewhat debatable.
In the early part of the 20th Century, an era where small arms issued to troops consisted mainly of breech loading magazine fed rifles that required manual cycling after each shot, the submachine gun was a Godsend; Instead of hauling around that Maxim or Vickers gun to get some suppressing fire you could equip a man with a pistol caliber automatic weapon that was light, compact, mobile, and the sub-gun was used with great success almost immediately upon its introduction. On into World War II, both sides used sub-guns alongside their standard infantry rifles and out of this conflict the Germans realized that they had a problem that needed addressing; The era of trench warfare was over and most engagements now occurred within 300 meters… so they arrived at a solution. After the advent of the assault rifle however (an idea that those crafty Germans came up with; Small arms firing an intermediate cartridge and thus bridging the gap between rifle and pistol rounds and that are capable of both semi and fully automatic fire) the beginning of the end of the SMG was near. The assault rifle concept took a while to really catch on in the West, and sub-guns hung on for a while longer as NATO stuck with hard hitting battle rifles like the M1, M14, G3, and FAL rifles until 5.56 was standardized. Even during the battle rifle era, it made sense to supplement the battlefield with some SMGs. However in the East, the Kalashnikov rifle was quickly adopted and the Russians were the first to really utilize and field assault rifles on such a massive scale. Indeed it took the West a while to catch up. It wasn’t until well into the Vietnam War that the Pentagon decided to allow the proliferation of the M16 rifle. Now I don’t want to get into an AK versus M16 debate here (there are plenty of those on the internet already), but the fact of the matter is that the M16 being newly adopted was plagued with a few problems not limited to the lack of cleaning kits being issued and a magazine capacity of twenty rounds compared to the AK’s thirty (Eugene Stoner was asked to correct this “error”).
One by one the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (and some non-members) began to field rifles firing the 5.56x45mm round. The most popular ones out there include the American M16/M4, German G36, Belgian FNC, Israeli Galil, British SA-80, Austrian AUG, and many more. It was during this era that the world began to see the SMG being utilized less and less by armies across the globe. It seemed that the assault rifle had eliminated the need for pistol caliber automatic weapons and rifles firing a full powered cartridge by compromising and finding the middle ground.
Now I have quite a lot of experience with submachine guns. I bought my first selective fire Powder Springs M10 .45acp at the age of 21 for the price of $3,000. The photo you see above is one of me punching some holes in paper with it equipped with a Lage Max-10 slowfire upper. This gun made me fall in love with pistol caliber long guns, and it has been my go-to hog eradicator since I bought it. Let me tell you, there is nothing like spotlighting hogs from the back of a truck on a warm Texas night and letting a few magazines rip into the pack (**graphic image of a slain hog here**). After a few years I also bought a registered receiver Vector Uzi as well, and I must say that both guns are incredibly fun to shoot. I have also built a few semi automatic only pistol caliber SBRs, including my little UMP and an SP89:
Now what I can tell you based on my experience about the benefits of an SMG are that they are generally compact, light, have low recoil, are easier to suppress, may produce less penetration/collateral damage, and are easier to stay on target with than an assault rifle. However shortened assault rifles such as an M16 or g36 variant will be comparably light, produce marginally more recoil, produce an incredible amount of sound (even when suppressed, as most suppressor companies will void warranties if your barrel is too short), and whip a new shooter around a little more. From a logistical standpoint however it makes sense to ditch the SMG; If your Colt Commando can run the same magazines and ammunition as any other guy in your unit then that is a definite plus. The manual of arms also carries over so you need not train your soldiers on more than one weapon system.
It really is a bit sad that the SMG is going away. I have a friend involved in base security who said he used to see a lot of MP5s in use with military PSD teams moving in up-armored SUVs and such, but that was mostly back in 2006-2008. It seems that the SMG is also slowly leaving police armories as the AR15/M16 variants trickle in and replace the aging MP5s. So is that it for the SMG? Is the SMG a concept of a bygone era or does it still fill a niche roll in certain situations? You be the judge in the comments section!