Saturday, July 2, 2011

The first assault rifles

In the latter years of World War II, the German small arms industry came up with the assault rifle, which fired an intermediate round - smaller than a rifle round but bigger than a pistol. This was a weapon that would change the whole philosophy of rifle design. Meanwhile, at the end of the war, the AK-47, which would become the weapon of the late 20th century, was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Captured technology
During World War II, the Germans captured large numbers of the Soviet Tokarev 7.62mm SVT38 and 40 semi-automatic rifles. The simpler gas-operated bolt system was adapted to the Gewehr 41 and the resulting weapon, the Gew 43, was an immediate success. It weighed 4.4kg/9.6lb and at l,120mm/44in was slightly shorter than the Gew 41. It was easier to produce and incorporated features such as laminated wood furniture, simple forgings and a minimum of machined parts. The detachable magazine made loading, with two five-round clips, much easier. A bracket for the Zf41 telescopic sight was a standard fitting.

The SturmGewehr-44
In the light of combat experience on the Eastern Front in World War II, the German Army issued a specification to the small arms designers Haenel and Walther for a new machine-carbine. The two resulting gas-operated designs were refnarkably similar, using the same straight-line butt and barrel arrangement, pistol grip and curved 30-round box magazine. The Haenel-designed weapon was known as the Maschinkarabiner 42 (H) or MKb42(H) and the Walther as the MKb42(W). Both were designed to be manufactured quickly and cheaply using plastic and stamped and die-cast metal components.
A German soldier armed with a StG-44 assault rifle plods through mud churned up by tanks on the Eastern Front in the spring of 1945. The StG-44 was a remarkable and very advanced weapon.

The MKb42(H), which had been designed by the prolific Louis Schmeisser, was 94cm/37in long, weighed 4.9kg/10.81b and had a cyclic rate of fire of 500 rpm. About 8,000 were produced for troop trials on the Eastern Front, where they were very successful, and this was the weapon selected by the army.

Despite the success of the MKb42(H), Hitler decided that further development of assault rifles should be halted. Fortunately for the soldiers in the field, the German Army and Haenel changed the designation of the improved MKb42(H) to MP43 and so for documentation purposes made the weapon a Maschinenpistole, or submachine gun. In this guise it went into mass production. Further modifications to the weapon, including the facility to launch rifle grenades, produced a weapon that weighed 5.2kg/11.5lb and had a cyclic rate of 500 rpm.

When Hitler finally approved the MP43, he gave it a new name, the SturmGewehr-44 (StG-44) or "Assault Rifle". It was a name that would later be used for all post-war infantry automatic weapons designed to fire the compact intermediate cartridge. The total number of German assault rifles of all designs produced was about 500,000.

The Kalashnikov AK-47
The AK-47, in all its numerous versions, is probably the most widely used weapon in the world. The original assault rifle, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov at the end of World War II, entered service with the Soviet Army in 1951. It was l,070mm/42in long with a wooden butt. The folding metal-butt version was 870mm/34.2in long open and 635mm/25in closed. It fired a 7.62 x 39mm round weighing 122 grains and had a muzzle velocity of 717m/s/2,352ft/s at a cyclic rate of 600 rpm. The AKM, a modernized version of the AK-47, was lighter and weighed 2.9kg/6.4lb empty or 3.6kg/8lb with a fully loaded 30-round steel magazine. The effective range of both the AK-47 and AKM was 400m/437yd.
The AK-47 is an incredibly forgiving weapon that can fire single rounds or on fully automatic even if it has not been cleaned or overhauled for long periods and has been toted around dusty or muddy battlefields by poorly trained soldiers.

The AK family of assault rifles were well designed, easy to use even by unskilled men and had very few working parts. AK weapons were produced throughout the Warsaw Pact countries and in China and North Korea.
The AKM was essentially an improved lighter version of the AK-47, with the addition of a compensator that reduced muzzle climb when the weapon was fired in full automatic mode.

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