By Anthony G. Williams
Author’s Note: Regarding terminology, some will argue that because the term “assault rifle” (or rather, Sturmgewehr, which literally translates as “storm rifle” in the sense of “storming a defended position”) was devised for the StG 44, no earlier weapon can be called an assault rifle. To avoid such a debate, I will clarify that in this article I am only using the term “assault rifle” as a convenient, well-understood shorthand for “selective-fire military rifle designed around a cartridge intermediate in power between pistol/SMG and full-power rifle/MG rounds.”
The development of the assault rifle, and in particular the relationship between the AK-47 and the StG 44, is always a popular subject for argument. Such debates usually pay little attention to the development of the ammunition and, when they do, they often contain inaccuracies and misunderstandings. This article is an attempt to redress the balance by focusing on the development of the assault rifle cartridge, leading up to the StG’s 7.92×33 Kurz and the AK’s 7.62×39 M1943.
The concept of such a rifle goes back to the start of the 20th century. The Italian Cei-Rigotti was developed between 1900 and 1905 around the 6.5×52 Carcano cartridge. A decade later, the Russian Colonel Federov produced his Avtomat, originally in his own purpose-designed 6.5mm caliber. However, as the Great War was then underway there was no chance of a new cartridge being adopted, so he modified his gun to use the Japanese 6.5x50SR Arisaka cartridge; large quantities of the guns and ammunition having been acquired by Russia to meet a shortfall in their supply of rifles. A few thousand Federov Avtomats were produced and entered service, and these reportedly saw action as late as the Winter War with Finland in 1939-40.
It can be argued that neither the Cei- Rigotti nor the Federov Avtomat used “intermediate”cartridges, as the 6.5mm Carcano and Arisaka were the front-line rifle/MG rounds in the Italian and Japanese armies respectively. This is true, but it is worth bearing in mind that, in terms of caliber and muzzle energy, they were in the same class as the present-day 6.8×43 Remington SPC and 6.5×38 Grendel, which are today regarded by many as ideal cartridges for assault rifles.
An equally early attempt to produce a carbine firing an intermediate round was the Austrian Mannlicher Self-Loading Carbine in 7.65×32 caliber. This was an improved and enlarged version of their Model 1901 pistol carbine chambered for a lengthened version of the 7.65×25 pistol round, and was made in about 1904. It never went past the prototype stage and its ballistics are not known. However, the cartridge case is similar in length, as well as calibre, to the US .30 M1 Carbine’s, but slightly fatter as it is bottle-necked.
The next country with a claim to contributing to the development of the assault rifle is France. During the Great War they made some use of Winchester self-load-ing carbines: the Model 1907 in .351 SL and the Model 1910 in .401 SL. In 1917, France placed an order for 2,200 of an automatic version of the Model 1907 for arming special assault soldiers. At the same time, they were modifying the .351 case by necking it down to accept the heavy 8mm bullet from the Lebel rifle/MG round, thereby creating the 8mm Ribeyrolle – arguably the first purpose-designed intermediate military cartridge. The war endedbefore anything came of this, but it is not hard to see that had it lasted for another year or two, French troops would have been equipped with an assault rifle. As it was, neither the Ribeyrolle, nor a 7mm version designed in the 1920s, made further progress.
Next in the frame is Switzerland. Their prolific gun designer Furrer produced a short-recoil carbine with a new bottlenecked 7.65×35 cartridge in 1921. We are now getting very close to the concept – except that the cartridge had a round-nose rather than pointed bullet. A year later a modified 7.65×38 appeared which did have a pointed bullet. Swiss sources indicate that data from the tests of these rounds were passed to DWM in Germany, where they may have influenced later developments. Other pre-Second World War Swiss short-case ammunition designs included a different and rather mysterious 7.65×38 round for which unloaded components were made in some quantity, for an unknown destination, just before the war.
In 1925 Kynoch of the UK proposed a “7mm light automatic rifle cartridge” intended for BSA. The factory drawing shows a bottle-necked case with a length of 41mm and a round-nosed bullet. It is not clear whether the cartridge or gun were ever built.
In Russia, Federov continued to argue for the adoption of a smaller cartridge than the 7.62x54R. In the late 1920s he recommended adoption of the 6.5mm “if not even smaller” and a rimless or semirimmed case with a length shortened by about 20% (to 40mm). His ideas were supported in 1930 by V.E. Markevich, of the Red Army’s Weapons Scientific and Research Range, who pointed out that an ideal cartridge already existed – in the .25 Remington. The .25’s bigger brother based on the same case, the .30 Remington, was of course used as the starting point for the development of the 6.8mm Rem SPC.
The US Army did indeed experiment with a .25 cartridge in the 1920s – although this was a much more powerful round than the .25 Remington – before focusing on the .276 Pedersen. This was a 7×51 cartridge that was similar in power to the 6.5mm Arisaka, and to the modern 6.8mm Rem. However, the army was still thinking in terms of long-range semiautomatic fire (a mindset which did not change until the 1960s). The .276 cartridge was rejected in 1932, partly for cost reasons but also because it did not offer sufficient longrange performance.
In the early 1930s, Denmark made limited numbers of the delayed-blowback Weibel (or Danrif) assault rifle in a 7×44 caliber. Also in the early 1930s, the US Frankford Arsenal tested an Italian Terni semiautomatic rifle in 7.35×34, but nothing seems to have survived apart from a drawing of the round, which shows it with a pointed bullet of 134.5 grains. In 1939, a light automatic weapon was advertised in Greece in 7.92×36 caliber, the cartridge apparently being based on a shortened and necked-out 6.5mm Mannlicher case.
We now turn to Germany, where in the aftermath of the Great War a Hauptmann Piderit of the Rifle Testing Commission advocated a short-cased cartridge and a suitable rifle to fire it. His was a lone voice, however. It wasn’t until 1927 that DWM (actually, the “Berlin-Karlsruher Industriewerke A.G.” as DWM was known between 1922 and 1936) carried out the first tests of short-cased cartridges, possibly as a result of the data they had received about the Swiss rounds. This had no immediate result, and the direct line of development which led to the 7.92×33 Kurz commenced in the mid-1930s. Over the next ten years, no fewer than five German companies were involved in developing short-cased cartridges suitable for assault rifles: Geco, DWM, RWS, Rheinmetall- Borsig and Polte.
Geco was the first in the field, cooperating with the gun company Vollmer- Werke Maschinenfabrik, to produce the Vollmer SL Model 35 self-loading carbine in a nominal 7.75×40 caliber (the caliber was actually 7.9mm, with a bullet 8.05mm in diameter). This was officially tested with good results, but led to no orders. In 1942 Geco produced a new cartridge also intended for a Vollmer carbine, the 7x45SR. This used a wider case and was far more powerful, with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 m/s. Another cartridge, measuring 7.92×33.5, was designed at Geco and attributed to an H.G.Winter, a director of the firm, but the date and the gun for which it was intended are not known. DWM designed a 7×39 cartridge in the mid-1930s, for which a Walther self-loading carbine was reportedly made. It was appreciably more powerful than the 7.92×33 Kurz. However, the interest of the Heereswaffenamt (HWA) was by then focused on Polte developments, so the DWM round also failed to progress further. RWS produced several short-cased rifle rounds in the 1930s, including an 8×45, 8×46 and 7×46, but these developments were taken no further. Rheinmetall- Borsig were involved in a number of prewar experiments concerning 7mm rounds in various case lengths, some of them very long, probably for high-velocity aircraft gun projects. One drawing has been found of a 7×36 cartridge which would obviously have been suitable for assault rifles, but there is no evidence that it was made. The design work may have been done by Polte on behalf of Rheinmetall-Borsig.
This brings us to Polte Patronenfabrik of Magdeburg, who made by far the most significant contribution. The HWA awarded them a contract, probably in 1938, for the development of a short-cased infantry cartridge. This resulted in several different designs of cartridge; 7.9×45, 7.9×30, two different 7.9×33 and a 7×45, all by 1940. In all of these, Polte retained the head and rim diameters of the standard 7.92×57 rifle/MG round, and in all but the 7mm the same caliber as well. This kept production costs to a minimum and no doubt helped to account for the success of their proposals. The final 7.92×33 design (which had less case taper than the first or “transitional” effort) was approved in December 1940, the only subsequent change being to the angle of the extractor groove, which was altered from 45 to 60 degrees in May 1942.
At the same time as the German work was reaching its conclusion, the USA was developing the .30 M1 Carbine, a light rifle chambered for a new 7.62×33 straightcased round based on the .32 Winchester Special case. This was not intended as an assault rifle but as what would now be called a “personal defence weapon” for troops who would not normally carry a rifle. However, its handiness meant that some front-line troops carried it in preference to the much bigger and heavier .30 M1 Garand rifle. The M2 version of the Carbine introduced selective fire and was close to the specification of an assault rifle, but the cartridge with its round-nosed bullet was really too small and weak to reach out to 300m (330 yards), considered the desirable effective range as some 90% of fire-fights took place within that distance. Attention now switches back to the USSR. The key date was 15th July 1943 when a meeting was held of the Technical Council of the People’s Commissariat for Armament (NKV). They had met to consider “New foreign weapons firing lowerpowered rounds” and studied examples of both the US .30 M1 Carbine supplied by the USA, and the German MKb 42 (H) in 7.92×33, which had been captured while undergoing troop trials. The meeting con tridge were important developments and decided that a new reduced-power round must be designed. Responsibility for this was handed over to the OKB-44 design bureau, which produced the first prototype of what became the 7.62mm M1943 round only a month later, with the first batch of ammunition loaded with flat-based leadcored bullets being range-tested that December. This kept the same caliber as the 7.62x54R rifle/MG round for production convenience, but adopted a new case which was slimmer than that used by the 7.92×33. A pilot series-production run began in March 1944, and before the end of the war the round was combat-tested in prototypes of the Degtyarov RPD light machine gun and Simonov SKS carbine. At that time the case had a length of 41mm, but development work continued, resulting in a boat-tailed bullet shape being adopted and the lead core being replaced with mild steel. The case neck was reduced to the final 38.7mm to keep the overall round length the same despite the longer bullets.
The story was not yet over. The old pioneer Federov, now “Doctor of Services, Professor Lt. General (Technical Engineering Branch) V.G. Federov” and serving as a senior member of the Technical Council of the NKV, continued to argue for a smaller-caliber cartridge. As a result, between 1946 and 1948 several different rounds were made and tested in 6.75mm as well as 7.62mm caliber. Despite this,the 7.62×39 M1943 cartridge was finally selected in 1948, when the AK-47 was already undergoing pre-production troop trials. One of the reasons for retaining the 7.62mm caliber was said to be that the Soviet manufacturing plants did not at that time have the equipment to mass-produce smaller-caliber ammunition and gun barrels with the necessary precision.
Some sources claim that the 7.62×39 was no more than a copy of a German Geco cartridge for the Vollmer M 35 carbine, designed in 1934/35 by the aforementioned H.G.Winter. However, as we have seen, the cartridges designed for that gun were quite different, having larger case diameters. The round often cited as the model for the M1943 is the 7.62×38.5 Mittelpatrone, but the diameter of that case is also larger than the M1943’s and, according to Dynamit Nobel (Geco’s post war parent company), it dates from 1960. There is therefore no known German cartridge of which the 7.62×39 M1943 could have been a copy. The authors of a Russian history of the M1943, who had access to Soviet archives, were unable to find reliable information as to whether the USSR had any previous knowledge of the development of intermediate rounds in the West.
In summary, it is clear that the concept of a selective-fire rifle using a purpose-designed intermediate cartridge pre-dates the Second World War, and was not invented in Germany. Several countries were involved in developing ideas along those lines, from the Great War onwards. However, the German Army were the first to put such a weapon into service, and it was this example which led to the modern military rifle. It is also clear that while the development of the Russian 7.62×39 M1943 round was inspired by the 7.92×33 Kurz, it was not a copy of any other cartridge. Finally, the true father of the assault rifle concept was Col. V.G. Federov. As well as designing the Avtomat he consistently argued, over a period of three decades covering both world wars, for the adoption of a short-cased reduced-caliber cartridge in a selective-fire rifle. If he could have seen a modern assault rifle in 6.8mm Rem or 6.5mm Grendel he would doubtless have exclaimed: “Yes! That’s what I wanted all along!”
(Anthony G Williams is editor of “The Cartridge Researcher” (the bulletin of the European Cartridge Research Association), co-editor (with Leland Ness) of “Jane’s Ammunition Handbook” and coauthor (with Maxim Popenker) of “Assault Rifle: the Development of the Modern Military Rifle and its Ammunition”. He maintains a website you can visit at www.quarry.nildram.co.uk.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V11N3 (December 2007)|