The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII
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

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

USMC KA-BAR Combat Knife

With all the twentieth-century innovations in small arms, grenades, rockets, and explosives, its 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 manufactures of the knife, with the former producing over one million of the weapons and the latter trademarking the title “KA-BAR.” Other manufactures 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. Pinterest.com

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, included 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. Pinterest.com

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 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. Imgarcade.com

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. Wikimedia.org.

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 the 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. Ima-usa.com

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. Knowledgeglue.com

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 revision 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. Indiatimes.com.
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. Emgn.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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