Discover the History of the Submachine Gun

Automatic Success: A Tactical Employment History of the Submachine Gun

by Leroy Thompson

Combat swimmer units found the MP5

Combat swimmer units found the MP5 very effective in the Maritime Anti-Terrorism role. Shown is a member of FORMOZA, the Polish Naval Special Forces unit. This operator’s MP5 has collapsible stock, EOTech optical sight and an undergun white light illuminator. (Marynarka Wojenna)

Ever since German Storm Troopers first deployed the Bergmann MP-18 for trench raiding in the waning days of World War I, the submachine gun (SMG) has continued to evolve. And, although raiding remains in the SMG’s job description, the missions it is used for have evolved and expanded as well.

Between the world wars, SMGs were viewed as useful for everyone from armored troop crews (who did most of their fighting from vehicles) to airborne forces (because they could be readily carried while jumping). Once World War II began, however, the submachine gun became even more valuable because it could be produced inexpensively, providing governments the opportunity to arm large numbers of troops. The British Sten Gun and Soviet PPSh-41 and PPS-43 were good examples of this factor. In the United States, the M3 “Grease Gun,” developed to replace the Thompson SMG, was also designed for easy mass production.

Following WWII, the development of the assault rifle, which combined the range and striking power of the rifle with the large magazine capacity and full auto capability of the SMG, marked the decline of SMG use in many armies. A few popular World War II designs, however, remained in service for many years. The American military, for example, continued to use the M3 in armored vehicles into the 1990s. USMC Recons also used it in Vietnam, and when Delta Force was formed, they used the M3 as well.

The side view of the HK53

The side view of the HK53. Note the markings for single shot (semi auto) and 25-round full auto.


In some countries, the SMG was widely used by police or military security units to guard critical installations. Its pistol caliber cartridge penetrated less deeply than that of other weapons (of high value around critical installations or in areas with barracks or civilian dwellings nearby). The formidable firepower of the SMG also discouraged those considering attempting to rob or sabotage an installation. Of course, there were occasional exceptions: the IRS broke into British armories and stole Sten Guns, for example, and insurgent groups sometimes managed to steal other SMGs. Terrorists and insurgents liked SMGs for the same reason their military counterparts did: they threw out a lot of bullets fast, and could be concealed relatively easily.

Into the 1960s, select airborne units continued to arm themselves with SMGs, and Military Police used them to secure prisoners or installations. The SMG proved very useful in counterinsurgency warfare as it could be deployed quickly in close quarters and deliver a stream of bullets on a target encountered in tropical jungle or urban jungle. A major use of the SMG among military units since World War II has been for “silent killing.” Suppressed SMGs, such as the British L34A1 Sterling, offered special operations troops a quiet method for eliminating sentries or taking out lights.

Submachine guns also proved useful for military and non-military close protection teams. The typical SMG isn’t perfect for close protection teams—I’ll mention what I consider “near perfect” later—but it is very good. It’s concealable (thus not attracting attention to the principal and his or her team), it can fired with good control in well-trained hands, it has a high magazine capacity, and can be used to sweep a path through multiple attackers or force them to keep their heads down while the rest of the team evacuates the principal.

Several iterations of the Heckler & Koch MP5 have been used by close protection teams through the years. The MP5K without a stock was the standard configuration, but many teams used the MP5A3 model with a collapsible stock, or the MP5K, which is much shorter and, hence, much more concealable. With all permutations, a front foregrip allowed a two-hand hold, and a sling attached to the receiver’s rear plate helped control the MP5K on bursts when it was thrust forward against the tension of the sling. Of course, great care had to be taken when firing the compact HK on full-auto, especially on early versions of the “K” which lacked the protruding flange at the front of the receiver to keep the hand from slipping forward in front of the muzzle. Later, a good-sized protruding flange/stop kept the hand from going forward.


The 1954 introduction of the Uzi via the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was the first step in post-World War II rise in popularity of the SMG. It is a very sturdy SMG and very reliable, designed to keep operating in the dust and sand of the Israeli environment. It is compact with a folding stock that allows it to be fired quite well wh

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