The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII

Robert Ranstadler - July 11, 2017

World War II still holds the ominous distinction of being the deadliest conflict in human history, with official estimates placing the overall death toll anywhere from 60-80 million losses worldwide. Most of these fatalities stemmed from technological advancements in the tools that men used to wage war. Mid-century small arms could deliver sustained and accurate fire over great distances, explosives were portable and lethal, and new twists on old ideas gave rise to some truly deadly implements of destruction. The following is a list of weapons that drew both the fear and admiration of WWII infantrymen during the Second World War.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 MK 3*. The Canadian War Museum

Lee-Enfield Rifle

The Lee-Enfield rifle, along with its many variants, was one of the most versatile and dependable weapons of WWII. Based upon the earlier Lee-Metford rifle, the Lee-Enfield was the British Army’s standard service rifle for over 60 years. Beginning its lengthy manufacturing run in 1895, the rifle’s creator, James Paris Lee, oversaw the first several years of production at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, a small borough in northern London. Lee’s greatest contribution to the firearm industry was his spring-loaded, column-fed, centerfire magazine system, which was a vast improvement over older tubular systems and still featured many modern rifle designs.

Chambered in .303 British, a skilled marksman could typically deliver 20-30 aimed rounds with the Lee-Enfield over the span of one minute. This high-powered rifle cartridge was manufactured in several varieties, including tracer, armor-piercing, and incendiary ammunition. The most popular variant was the 174-grain Mark VII cartridge, which achieved a maximum range of approximately 3,000 yards. The Japanese, in recognizing the soundness of the round, patterned a direct copy of the British cartridge (7.7×56mmR) for use in their rifles and machine guns. Time-tested, the .303 British is one of the few bottle-necked, rimmed centerfire cartridges still in use today.

During WWII, the British produced and refined several versions of the Lee-Enfield. The No. 4 Mk 1 debuted in 1941, being much stronger and easier to manufacture than earlier versions of the weapon. The No. 4 rifle employed a fearsome spike bayonet, which soldiers dubbed the pigsticker. A No. 5 “Jungle Carbine” variant of the Lee-Enfield saw limited use near the end of the war, but was discontinued due to recoil issues. By far, the deadliest model of the Lee-Enfield was the SMLE No. 1 Mk. III (HT), which featured improved ergonomics and a sophisticated telescopic sight.

Three interesting versions of the Lee-Enfield included the Charlton Automatic Rifle, the De Lisle Commando Carbine, and the Howell Automatic Rifle. The Charlton and Howell were similar in design, but filled two very different roles. The Charlton was used as a light machine gun by Aussie and Kiwi allies during the war, while the Howell was employed by the British Home Guard as an antiaircraft weapon. The De Lisle carbine, on the other hand, featured an integrated suppressor, fired lethal subsonic ammunition, and is still one of the quietest combat weapons ever produced. Regardless of configuration, the Lee-Enfield was deadly in battle.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Radom Vis 35.

Radom Vis 35 Combat Pistol

The Polish Radom Vis 35 is quite possibly one of the world’s finest combat pistols… that you’ve never heard of. Radom is a city in central Poland, a country all too familiar with war, and home to the factory that produced the pistol over many years. In the wake of the First World War, Twentieth-century Polish policymakers resolved to outfit their soldiers with a domestically produced sidearm. As was the case with a majority of Poland’s arsenal, troops traditionally used a variety of second-hand pistols purchased from other nations, such as the Austro-Hungarian Roth-Steyr M1907 and the Rast & Gasser M1898 Army Revolver.

The Radom is a hybrid of the P35 and 1911, respectively referring to the Browning Hi-Power and Colt M1911, two preeminent combat pistols of the twentieth century. Designed by Piotr Wilniewczvy and Jan Skrzpinski, the Vis (Latin for “power”) is a magazine-fed auto-loader and widely considered one of the best pre-WWII pistols ever made.

Even the Germans, who already had a variety of advanced weapons, forced the Radom factory to supply a variant, the P35 (p), to the Nazi war effort. Reliable and accurate, recovered Radoms are highly collectible and still capable of holding sub-3-inch shot groups at distances up to 25 yards.

Germans coveted the Vis 35, relocating Radom production to Austria during the early 1940s. Concerned with the potential of Polish factory workers providing weapons to insurgency efforts, such as the Warsaw Uprising, Nazi officials closely monitored all aspects of Vis 35 production over the remainder of the war. Nevertheless, covert agents did manage to smuggle several hundred Austrian-produced pistols to the Home Army back in Poland. Many of these later Vis 35s were rushed into production and made with inferior materials, degrading the overall quality of the weapon, consequently explaining why they fell out of favor near the end of the war.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
A German soldier training with a common “stick grenade.” Holocaust Research Project

M24 Stielhandgranate Hand Grenade

The M24 Stielhandgranate (“stalk hand grenade”) is one of the most iconic weapons of the twentieth century, serving the German Army, in one version or another, through two world wars. More commonly referred to as a “stick grenade” or a “potato masher”, the device consists of an explosive cylinder attached to the end of a long shaft. This unique design permitted German troops to hurl the weapon at approximately twice the range of British or American soldiers, exceeding distances of 35 yards. An additional feature of the Stielhandgranate’s lever design was a reduction in unpredictable rolls after initial impact.

Despite its advantages, M24 critics point out that the grenade lacked the punch and explosive radius of its Allied counterparts. The American Mk 2 “Pineapple” grenade could fling lethal pieces of shrapnel at distances up to one hundred feet, while the similarly-shaped British Mills Bomb boasted comparable capabilities. The M24, on the other hand, was strictly a concussive device that produced a much smaller kill radius. The grenade fit well into the Wehrmacht’s doctrine of wounding enemy personnel, rather than simply killing them, which tended to slow an advancing adversary. Nevertheless, a well-placed Stielhandgranate could kill or incapacitate multiple opponents with a single blast.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Technical drawing of a German M24 “Potato Masher” hand grenade.

The M24 underwent several production changes over the course of its development. Initially entering service as Model 1915 (M15), German designers opted for an entirely different fuse system than the percussion cap pin employed by their British counterparts. Instead, a pull cord ran through the length of the shaft that, when pulled, dragged a steel rod through an igniter, which lit the fuse.

Subsequent models, such as the M16 and M17 Stielhandgranates, incorporated safety features that prevented unintentional detonations. The greatest advancements made with the M24 included a lengthening of the shaft and a reduction in head profile, which made the device even more deadly than previous models.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Japanese Type 89 “Knee Mortar” with ammunition.

Japanese Type 89 “Knee Mortar”

The Type 89 “Knee Mortar” was one of the more unorthodox weapons of WWII, but nevertheless a lethal addition to Imperial Japan’s wartime arsenal. Part mortar and part grenade launcher, the Hachikyū-Shiki jū-tekidantō was patterned after similar devices of the period. This unconventional delivery system consisted of a long rifled tube mounted atop a curved butt plate (giving the appearance that one could brace the weapon against a bent knee). While the weapon could be fired by an individual soldier, it was more often handled by a pair of men, who typically steadied the launcher against a nearby tree stump or rock.

The Japanese recognized the inherent value of hand grenades during the late 1920s, but were unsatisfied with the relatively short range of the weapons. The “knee mortar” was intended to be held at a 45-degree angle, thus propelling a specially-designed 50 mm explosive in a high arc, reaching distances of over 700 yards. Ammunition types included HE (high explosive), fragmentation, smoke, and incendiary shells. The knee mortar proved particularly effective in the jungles of the Southern Pacific, where it claimed thousands of Chinese and Allied lives over the course of the war.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
U.S. Marine with a captured Japanese “knee mortar.” Diesel Punks

Coincidentally, the Type 89 could not, in all reality, be safely fired from the knee. While instances of the weapon being used as a direct-fire weapon were reported, a heavy recoil dictated that the device be braced against a solid object, such as a wall or tree.

In his book, Infantry Mortars of World War II, author John Norris recounts the fact that several soldiers and Marines suffered bruised thighs or broken femurs from firing the Type 89 off a cocked knee. Despite this, the “knee mortar” was still a devastating weapon that sent enemy troops diving for cover at the sound of its distinctive and foreboding “pop.”

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
USMC KA-BAR combat knife with sheath.

USMC KA-BAR Combat Knife

With all the twentieth-century innovations in small arms, grenades, rockets, and explosives, it’s relatively easy to overlook the value of more traditional weapons, such as the fighting knife. From the crude flint tools of antiquity, to today’s CBQ blades, warriors have drawn blood with knives since the dawn of battle. Knives also proved themselves valuable tools in a variety of capacities, from clearing brush to prying open containers and cutting tangled straps. Nowhere was this more evident than in the steamy jungles and on the bloody shores of the Southern Pacific during World War II.

The U.S. Marines have a long and storied affinity for combat knives. During the early nineteenth century, Lieutenant Presley Neville O’Bannon carried a naval dirk from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. Leathernecks made extensive use of trench knives during WWI, later pioneering a stiletto-style dagger at the outset of WWII.

Their greatest innovation, however, rested with Captain Clifford H. Shuey, who commissioned and procured the first Bowie-style “K-Bar” during the early 1940s. The new, 8-inch steel blade proved indispensable in untamed Pacific island hellholes, like Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The KA-BAR has remained part of the Marines’ standard inventory for over a century and continues to be issued to infantrymen even today.

The versatility and dependability of the blade have made it incredibly popular among civilian collectors, hunters, and enthusiasts. Camillus Cutlery Company and Union Cutlery Companies were two of the original manufacturers of the knife, with the former producing over one million of the weapons and the latter trademarking the title “KA-BAR.” Other manufacturers included the Robeson (ShurEdge) Cutlery Company and the PAL Cutlery Company, both of whom were contracted by the Government to produce KA-BARs during the Second World War. Regardless of their origin, countless numbers of KA-BARs proved indispensable to sailors and Marines over the course of the war.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
MG 42 machine gun.

MG 42 Maschinengewehr General Purpose Machine Gun

According to many World War II combat veterans, one of the most terrifying sounds in the world was the distinctive “rip” of a Nazi MG 42 general-purpose machine gun. Capable of firing off over 1,200 rounds per minute (rpm), the Maschinengewehr (shortened, MG) was indeed a weapon which demanded both fear and respect.

One of the most reliable and mass-produced machine guns of the Second World War, German infantrymen regularly insulated themselves against Allied assaults by assailing enemy troops with an almost impenetrable curtain of hot lead. Its fearsome volume of fire earned the MG many nicknames, including “Hitler’s buzz saw” and the “linoleum ripper.”

The Mauser-style series of German machine guns saw extensive use, on multiple fronts, over the course of both world wars. The precursor to the MG 42, the MG 34, was introduced during the early interwar period, easily outperforming its American and European counterparts, such as the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) and the Bren gun. Subsequent models, including the MG 34S and the MG 39, eventually led to the adoption of the MG 42. Each successive revision corrected prior design flaws, such as the MG 34’s sensitivity to dirt and grit. Years of research and field testing culminated in one of the finest machine guns ever produced.

To be fair, many people have often embellished upon the MG’s cyclic rate of fire over the years. Both the MG 34 and MG 42 were issued with various firing mechanisms that dictated their desired firing rates. When configured for antiaircraft operations, the MG could be fired in bursts that exceeded 1,200 rpm. More often, however, the machine guns were employed as antipersonnel weapons, delivering approximately 950 rpm. The real value of the MG series of machine guns rested with their cooling rate and easily exchangeable barrels, which allowed for greater sustained rates of fire than Allied machine guns; a feature that undoubtedly turned the tide of many engagements.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
PPSh-41 submachine gun.

PPSh-41 Submachine Gun

Submachine guns have been around for a century, with John T. Thompson coining the term near the end of the First World War. Prior to the introduction of the assault rifle, submachine guns filled an important tactical niche. Designed to discharge pistol ammunition at a high rate of fire, they were ideal for cleaning out trenches, foxholes, or bunkers of enemy soldiers. World War II marked the apex of submachine gun production, with dozens of different models appearing on the battlefield over the duration of the conflict. By the early 1940s, millions of these weapons flooded the international arms market.

Practically every major power held claim to a domestically produced version of the submachine gun, with several nations producing some very effective weapons. United States servicemen were armed with the iconic “Tommy Gun,” the Nazis made use of the exceptional MP 40 Maschinenpistole, while the British Sten gun became one of the premiere counterinsurgency weapons of the mid-twentieth century. Arguably the most influential of all WWII submachine guns, however, was the Soviet PPSh-41 pistolet-pulemyot Shpagina, or “Shpagina machine pistol.” Also referred to as the “papasha” (Russian, “daddy”), the PPSh-41 permeated virtually every aspect of the Soviet war effort from the early 1940s onward.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Red Army soldiers armed with PPSh-41s prepare an ambush.

Although five million copies were produced by the end of the war, PPSh-41 production got off to a slow start. Moscow factories only managed to squeeze out a few hundred of the guns, during their first run, in 1941. Only several months later, however, 3,000 of the weapons were being produced per day. Chambered in 7.62x25mm Tokarev, the PPSh-41 utilizes a relatively simple design, relying upon a stamped receiver and gas suppressor to both facilitate production and increase performance, respectively. The design was so sound that the Germans officially adapted a version later in the war, the MP 41 (r).

All said and done, the simple effectiveness of the PPSh-41, coupled with the sheer volume of copies produced, made the papasha a tactical mainstay of the Red Army. On several occasions, entire companies or platoons were armed with these weapons, who swarmed Nazi soldiers in bloody close-quarters combat. Thousands of PPSh-41s were also dropped behind enemy lines for use by Soviet partisans acting against their German oppressors. The PPSh-41 saw extended action throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, especially in parts of Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Thousands of copies remain in circulation even today, wreaking havoc in many third-world countries across the globe.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
M1 Garand with sling and ammunition.

M1 Garand Service Rifle

Few weapons have received more praise than the M1. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, and Omar Bradley all spoke highly of the battle rifle. General Samuel “Slam” Marshall, the U.S. Army’s chief historian during WWII, imagined that the Ordnance Department would never find a suitable replacement for the weapon. George S. Patton even referred to the M1 as “the greatest single battle implement ever devised by man.” Other rifles used during the war could individually challenge the accuracy, reliability, and versatility of John Garand’s creation on a case-by-case basis, but none received such high marks in all three categories across the board.

M1 development began in the early 1920s, when U.S. Army officials began seeking a replacement for the aging M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifle. The Springfield was an accurate and dependable weapon, that served American forces well, but the shifting technological and tactical nature of twentieth-century combat demanded a new type of rifle. Work thus began on what would eventually become the M1 Garand, a .30 caliber, gas-operated, clip-fed, semi-automatic rifle. A staggering 5.4 million units were produced over the course of approximately two decades. The majority of M1s were issued to U.S. troops, but hundreds of thousands of the weapons also found their way to foreign shores.

Several major variants of the Garand were produced over the years, including the M1C and M1D sniper rifles, two deadly-accurate weapons adopted by both the U.S. Army and U.S. Marines. Two other models, the M1E5 (Tanker Garand) and T20E2 (selective-fire version), never saw combat service but led to later innovations, such as the M14 automatic rifle. Foreign powers even attempted to emulate the success of the M1 by producing their own copies of the weapon. The Japanese, for example, patterned their 7.7mm Type 4 rifle after the Garand, but only 250 of the weapons were ever produced, with none of them ever seeing combat service.

Over the course of the Second World War, the Garand saw action in every major theater of operations, was carried by every branch of the U.S. military, and was even issued to several Allied nations. The rifle entered service in 1936, remained the official service rifle of the U.S. Army until 1957, and is still employed by various non-state actors around the world today. The M1 proved itself a capable killing weapon, from the beaches of Normandy to the shores of Okinawa. One would indeed be hard-pressed to find a more prolific weapon in the annals of U.S. Military History.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Panzerschreck antitank rocket launcher.

Panzerschreck Antitank Rocket Launcher

Twentieth-century infantrymen, and specifically those of the Second World War, faced challenges in adjusting to a rapidly advancing technological environment. Some of the greatest threats they faced were far more deadly and complex than other men toting rifles. Tanks posed a dire threat to unprotected or inadequately armed foot soldiers. Although tanks were originally conceived and deployed during the First World War, advancements in armor technology made them particularly deadly during WWII. Tacticians and weapon designers responded to this growing threat with the inception of specialized infantry weapons, such as the deadly and potent Panzerschreck antitank rocket launcher.

Modern, shoulder-mounted rocket launcher development began shortly before the opening shots of WWII, but rocket technology has been around for approximately 1,000 years. Some historical evidence indicates that early launchers were used by warring Chinese factions as far back as 900 AD. Contemporary rocket launchers owe their development to two separate technologies, the shape-charged warhead and the rocket engine. Both innovations were primarily of American design, with the shaped-charge being born out of tactical necessity and the rocket engine the brainchild of American physicist Robert H. Goddard. American and German engineers independently integrated these nascent technologies, producing a variety of deadly weapons.

The precursor to the Panzerschreck was the (German, “armor fist”), a single-use weapon that launched an unpropelled-shaped charge at distances up to 200 feet. The Panzerfaust became the inspiration for later rocket-propelled grenade launchers, such as the Soviet RPG-7, eventually giving way to the more elaborate Panzerschreck (German, “tank’s bane”). Unlike the earlier Panzerfaust, the Panzerschreck was reusable and fired a truly self-propelled, 88 mm, fin-stabilized rocket. The creators of the Panzerschreck also owed a nod to the American Bazooka, another antitank weapon that heavily influenced the design and deployment of their own anti-armor platform.

Unlike the Bazooka, however, the Panzerschreck was very reliable, packed an incredible punch, and was capable of penetrating armor up to 160 mm thick. The American M4 Sherman battle tank, in comparison, was only protected by a paltry three-inch layer of armor (76 mm). Thus, even a rudimentary trained Panzerschreck crew could completely decimate most American armor. Finnish troops used the Panzerschreck, during the closing years of the war, to obliterate 25 Soviet tanks in a single engagement. The tactical success of the Panzerschreck was so overwhelming that it forced American weapon designers to return to the drawing board, releasing the improved M20 “Super Bazooka” just as the war ended.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
A pre-WWII Mosin-Nagant Model 91/30.

Mosin-Nagant Military Rifle

Quantifiably one of the deadliest rifles ever taken into battle, the Russian Mosin-Nagant has continuously been in service since 1891. Over 37 million units have been distributed to approximately 50 countries and used in 36 conflicts, from the opening shots of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) to the recent annexation of Crimea by Russian forces in 2014. Still in use today, the Mosin-Nagant is the most widely-manufactured bolt-action rifle in history. It was the standard service weapon of the Red Army at the outset of World War II, serving Soviet forces over the duration of the conflict, essentially arming the largest mobilized army in modern military history.

The Mosin-Nagant name stems from its creators, Russian Imperial Army Captain Sergei Ivanovich Mosin and Belgian firearms designer, Léon Nagant. The rifle underwent a series of design revisions over the years, resulting in eight separate service models, including four carbines and a dedicated sniper rifle. The Mosin-Nagant M91/30 was the most widely used version of WWII, itself undergoing a series of technical revisions to improve the production and performance of the weapon. Over 17 million copies were produced by the conclusion of the Second World War, with the M38 and M44 carbines contributing to that overall figure.

The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Soviet sniper Vasily Zaytsev posing with his Mosin-Nagants Model 91/30 PU sniper rifle.
The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
Ivan Mikhaylovich Sidorenko, a Red Army officer and one of the deadliest snipers in history, was a Hero of the Soviet Union. He amassed 500 confirmed kills over the course of WWII.

Arguably the most fearsome of the WWII Mosin-Nagants is the Model 91/30 PU sniper rifle, a modified weapon that helped turned the tide of battle across the Eastern Front. Equipped with a resilient 3.5-power optic combat sight, the sniper version of the Mosin-Nagant was produced in far fewer numbers than the standard M91/30 (perhaps a few thousand).

The weapon made folk heroes of many soldiers, such as Vasily Zaytsev. The late Soviet sniper is credited with 225 confirmed kills at the Battle of Stalingrad, including the counter-sniping of 11 Axis sharpshooters. Ivan Sidorenko, another Red Army sniper, chalked up 500 confirmed kills with the M91/30 PU. Beyond question, such incredible numbers speak to the lethal accuracy of the Mosin-Nagant military rifle.

Read Next: 7 Leading Infantry Rifles of World War II.