WW2 reenactor with FG42 at the ready.
By Oleg Volk
The FG42 rifle from SMG Guns is a unique design. A semiautomatic rifle modeled on a World War 2 selective fire rifle, it follows the original as faithfully as the American federal laws permit, actually improving on the original in certain respects. The rarity of the FG42, of which only 9,000 were manufactured, and the restrictive regulations governing ownership of automatic weapons, added up to keep the market price of the few transferrable examples very high, recently approaching $100,000. Since the weapon is also eminently functional, it remained an unreachable object of desire for many collectors and recreational shooters until SMG Guns stepped up and began producing accurate reproductions. Their FG42 variant was several years in the making and had to live up to high expectations and turned out very well.
Greatness sometimes rises from overcoming adversity. In May 1940, the Fallschirmjägers – German paratroopers – had plenty to overcome as they were dropped onto the British-held island of Crete. In part due to the limitations of their parachute design and in part due to the preference for low-altitude drops, most of them jumped with only pistols for firearms and had to scrounge for the separately dropped containers with machine guns and rifles. About a quarter did have MP38 submachine guns, but their effective range proved insufficient for countering rifle fire from the defenders. The disjointed but spirited defense of Crete eventually failed, but not before inflicting such heavy casualties on the German paratroopers that no large scale airborne invasions were ever attempted by them again.
From this Pyrrhic victory, the Luftwaffe made the obvious conclusion: the troops should be armed immediately upon landing, preferably with a weapon that matched the range of the enemy rifles and bested the arms of the foe in firepower. The Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 – paratrooper rifle 42 – was specified in 1941 to that end. The proposed weapon was to combine traits of a rifle and light machine gun, being lightweight and able to shoot fully and semiautomatically with the standard 7.92x57mm Mauser service round. The genius of the FG42 was that it came very close to fulfilling several apparently incompatible roles.
The FG42 is a 20-shot select-fire weapon, operating from a closed bolt in semiautomatic mode and from an open bolt in full auto. This expedient permitted better cooling in rapid fire while retaining good accuracy for slow, longer range engagements. To achieving this unusual arrangement, the gun dispensed with a firing pin spring entirely, using the return spring of the bolt carrier also to fire. As a result, the entire long stroke gas system makes a perceptible jump of about one quarter inch on firing. Considering the sheer mass involved, there’s no such thing as a light primer strike with an FG42. While it evolved gradually, firearm historians recognize two main models (as opposed to about 8 sub models). The first is easily visually distinguished by a sharply backward-raked pistol grip angle, a bipod mounted under the front of the gas tube and a stamped metal buttstock. The second reverts to a more conventional grip angle, a more forward-mounted bipod and a hollow wooden stock that substantially improves the shooter’s comfort in cold weather. The relocation of the bipod reflected the growing realization that the ten-pound weapon was too light to produce acceptably low dispersion or high enough density of fire to be a successful light machine gun. The short 38-inch weapon fits a 20-inch barrel by locating the magazine on the left, in line with the pistol grip. Short compared even to the 98k carbine with its 24-inch barrel, it was fitted with a muzzle brake that did little to reduce muzzle flash. The innovations of the FG42 were several: a straight stock to reduce muzzle climb, the concomitant tall folding sights so common now, a mechanical buffer in the stock that permitted the entire action to enter the stock on recoil, and the rotating thumb safety that also lives on in many later weapons. Standard load-out of an FG42 gunner was eight 20-round magazines in chest pouches.
The downfall of the FG42 in real-world use was the manufacturing cost. The extensive precision machining and the high quality materials required were quite beyond the German capability by the time all the design bugs had been worked out. The far cheaper STG44 was preferred for mass production. Like the Wheelock rifles of the 16th century, FG42 was too expensive and too much of a specialist’s weapon for a mass war of peasant levies. Like the rare rifled Wheelock’s that often sported range-adjustable sights and set triggers, the FG42 was studied closely after the war and influenced the M60 machine gun and the M14 doctrine of use. Aside from that, it remained largely unavailable to the civilian shooters of America until SMG Guns brought out the semiautomatic clone; first in 8x57mm and later in the more available 7.62×51.
The differences between the original and the reproduction are very subtle. Besides the obvious absence of the automatic mode, the modern gun has better fit and finish. The woodwork is crisp and the bluing is even. The first 8mm reproductions used Czech ZB26 light machine gun magazines, cheaper and more available by far than the original FG42 20-rounders. The 7.62mm version uses M1A magazines with G3 followers, though the sample I had came with re-shaped M1A followers instead. The change was necessary as the FG42 has no automatic bolt hold-open.
The rifle came in a sturdy plastic case, with a clear instruction manual, a well-made sling for carry or supported firing, and two magazines. The aperture sight was set to 300m, pressing on top of the aperture and rotating the dial spun it through the range of 100m to 1000m. The safety was quite stiff, in keeping with the original. Several users tried to open the bolt by pulling on the shell deflector. The actual charging handle is similar in shape but further forward and takes a considerable effort to operate. The handle reciprocates on firing, so the support hand should stay on the forend behind the protective ridge. While the FG42 second model comes with an adjustable gas regulator, it was found to be reliable with no adjustments between ammunition types. 120 rounds of steel-cased Tula ball, 80 rounds of Australian military surplus ball, 20 of Federal Gold Match hollow point and 20 Federal Fusion soft points were used in the test. The weapon cycled all with the same brisk efficiency, ejecting all empties a couple of feet out. Felt recoil is on par with an AR-15 carbine firing 5.56mm, so it was quite safe to let slightly-built 14-15 year olds fire it from prone position. Part of the low recoil comes from the overall mass and the long stroke gas operation, part from the muzzle brake but most from the ingenious recoil-absorbing stock. The stock is an intricately carved piece that provides an excellent cheek weld. It doesn’t have a buttpad, so should not be used for hitting doors or helmets lest it cracks.
The weapon did not heat up unduly in semiautomatic use. Vents in the forend are offset to the sides, so the hot air is channeled away from the sight picture. Others have called the pepperpot muzzle brake concussive, but it was found to be far milder than most other designs. The muzzle flash is about average for a military rifle, but thinned out and mostly below the line of sight for the shooter. The trigger is crisper than in a Mil-Spec AR-15 but heavier at about 8 pounds. It was found that the obvious forward lurch of the piston, bolt and carrier, all locked in with the firing pin when the trigger is released, does not disturb the aim.
Compared to semiautomatic reproductions of light machine guns like the Bren or DP27, FG42 is a marvel of mobility and convenience. Compared to the M14 and FAL, it gives up just a little as a CQB weapon while improving some ways in the support fire role. The rifle is fairly accurate: with iron sights and, with this author’s imperfect technique, it produced 2-inch groups with match ammunition, 2.5-inch groups with soft points and surplus ball, and 3-inch groups with the rather dimensionally inconsistent Tula plinking fodder. Based on my experience with scopes vs. un-scoped rifles in general, I suspect that the mechanical group size would be rather better. A scope mount is available but the original or reproduction optic is a bit of a hassle to put into it, according to Rick Smith of SMG Guns. The mount itself slides easily onto the receiver in a manner similar to the modern HK rifles.
For storage or navigating a hostile environment, the magazine well can be covered with protective shutters. The mechanism ran very clean and had little carbon build-up. Disassembly is pretty straightforward, but putting it back together requires attention to detail. If the charging handle isn’t inserted before the bolt carries is sent home, then the gas regular has to be removed and the piston pushed out from the front. It’s an error you make once, usually if trying to re-assemble the rifle without consulting the manual.
As a gun enthusiast, this author shoots many different weapons every year and the FG42 was one of the most pleasant ever fired or operated. It works, it doesn’t punish the shooter’s shoulder or cheek on recoil, it’s accurate enough to engage point targets and just feels like a well-manufactured sample of well-designed machinery. Everyone who tried it, from kids to World War 2 reenactors, enjoyed the experience. Since the rifle used for the test was SMG’s demo sample, several people were disappointed who had their wallets out to buy it. This rifle isn’t cheap at $4,995 but it’s a fraction of the price of the original, and it appears to be more effective in semiautomatic mode. As a historically accurate reproduction it is impeccable, and as a shooter is a delight. See SMG Guns web site (smgguns.com) for the back story on the development and also for the modernized tactical variant they recently developed.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V19N5 (June 2015)|