Few firearms in history have achieved the notoriety of the Maschinengewehr 42, a general-purpose machine gun designed in Nazi Germany and used extensively by the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS during the second half of World War II. Allied troops grimly branded the MG 42 “Hitler’s buzz saw” because of the seamless ripping noise it made as it went through belts of 7.92mm ammunition at 1,200 rpm. The MG 42 was an evolutionary advance from the MG 34, which was costly to produce and mechanically sensitive to dirt and debris. The MG 42 was quicker and cheaper to make, fired faster, was mechanically robust, and its interchangeable barrels could be swapped out in seconds.
More than 400,000 MG 42s were made during the war, and they literally changed the nature of infantry warfare on all fronts in the West. A two-man MG 42 team could inflict heavy casualties on an entire Allied platoon or company, pushing the unit to ground. The MG 42 was designed as an Einheitsmaschinengewehr (universal machine gun), meaning that it could change its role depending on its mount, whether the integral bipod, a sustained-fire tripod, or an antiaircraft or vehicular fitting. The gun proved to be so reliable, durable, and simple to use that it essentially remains in service today as the MG 3. MHQ
The MG 42 fired 50-round sections of belted 7.92 × 57mm Mauser ammunition, typically with a 4-to-1 ball-to-tracer ratio.
The MG 42 was a recoil-operated weapon, using the force of recoil to drive back the barrel and bolt mechanism.
The MG 42’s iron sights were graduated out to 2,000 meters (2,187 yards), although the gun could deliver indirect fire beyond that distance.
A slotted barrel cover allowed a barrel change in about four seconds in the hands of a well-trained and -prepared gun crew.
The MG 42 was hard to control on its adjustable bipod, which could be mounted to the front or the center of the gun. Mounting the MG 42 on its tripod, with a telescopic base and extending legs, provided increased ground clearance for sustained fire and allowed the gun to be used in an anti-aircraft role.
CHRIS McNAB is a military historian based in the United Kingdom. His most recent book is The FN Minimi Light Machine Gun: M249, L108A1, L110A2, and Other Variants (Osprey, 2017).
Photo: James D. Julia Auctioneers
This article appears in the Autumn 2017 issue (Vol. 30, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Weapons Check, MG 42
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