Photography and Story by Will Dabbs, MD
The Polymer Firearm Revolution Births a Truly Radical Submachinegun
The man leaned back comfortably against a low wall, enjoying a respite from the piercing Montenegro sun. He had chosen the spot carefully, ensuring that he could not be seen from the expansive crushed stone drive. He had hidden his Aston Martin in an olive grove behind the palatial home where the car, too, was out of sight. He cradled the suppressed German submachinegun in his lap and let his thoughts drift.
The one woman he had ever truly loved died in his arms mere hours earlier. He had retrieved the submachinegun from the corpse of one of the operatives who had killed her. He let his mind play on that for a moment. There was none of the expected ache or yearning. He had walled that part off, sealed it away. What took its place now was cold and dark.
He needed the gun to shoot straight. He had paused his Aston on the drive up long enough to ventilate an unfortunate rubbish bin. He could cover the three 9mm holes with a golf ball, but they were indeed an inch up and right from his point of aim. This was not unusual in his experience with muzzle-mounted sound suppressors.
He could feel the tires crunching the gravel before he heard the car’s exquisite engine. The man likely drove German, a 7-series BMW or perhaps a Maybach Mercedes. He waited until the target left the car and began walking up his sidewalk. He then stood up, centered the gun’s sights and shot the man in the thigh with a single 9mm ball round. At this range the heavy subsonic bullet sounded like a hammer hitting meat.
His target dropped unceremoniously to the ground with a groan. Before the wounded man could retrieve his own sidearm he had his shoe over his forearm, pressing it into the gravel somewhat harder than was necessary.
He cocked his head ever so slightly to meet the agonized man’s gaze and stated flatly, “The name’s Bond, James Bond” before cracking the tiniest smile.
Mr. White had a date with an MI6 interrogation team. White was the key that would ultimately unlock Spectre. Now Bond had only to keep him alive long enough to take him apart.
State of the Art Hardware
Ian Fleming drew from his own wartime experiences as a spymaster during World War II to craft James Bond, the world’s most well-known secret agent. Fleming pirated the name from an esteemed ornithologist of the day, admitting that he thought James Bond was the most drab and unremarkable moniker he could conjure. Through 14 books and now 25 films, 007 has consistently travelled the globe, gotten the girl and saved the world.
Bond’s weapons typically become icons. While the timeless Walther PPK owes much to most of its post-war commercial success to Bond’s unflagging affection, when 007 needed a subgun the movie guys naturally issued him a Heckler & Koch (HK) UMP. The UMP is lightweight, rugged, adaptable and plastic. In the modern world of pistol-caliber submachineguns, nothing else even comes close.
Gaston Glock won the contract to arm the Austrian Army with a new handgun in 1982. His polymer-framed pistol revolutionized the way the world made guns. While the weapon was ignorantly derided on this side of the pond when it first debuted, nowadays everybody who makes guns makes their own polymer pistol. Once the trend caught on our Teutonic friends at Oberndorf tried their hand at something a bit spunkier.
The Universale Machinenpistole first hit the streets in 1999. Intended as a lighter, less-expensive alternative to the MP5, the UMP currently defines the state of the art in Information Age submachineguns. Employing a polymer receiver, stock and magazine, the UMP is nearly half a pound lighter than an MP5.
The UMP is available in .45ACP, .40S&W and 9mm chamberings. Swapping between calibers on a common receiver requires nothing more than exchanging the bolt, barrel and magazine. To aid in controllability, the gun sports a relatively slow rate of fire. The 9mm is published at around 650 rpm. According to HK the .40 and .45 cycle at around 600.
There are mounting points at 3, 6 and 9-o’clock up front for picatinny rails. There are also two mounting points for an optics rail on top. The front and rear sights are non-luminous polymer. The rear sight is flip-adjustable between a standard peep and an open groove. The UMP eschews the traditional HK diopter rear sight.
The polymer charging handle is located in the same spot as that of the MP5. There was a recall early on wherein HK upgraded these items to make them more rugged. The charging handle on the gun we tested seems nice and robust.
Unlike the MP5, the UMP sports a last round bolt hold open in the same location as that of your M4. The magazine release is a polymer flapper behind the magazine. 9mm magazines are curved while .40 and .45ACP boxes are straight. All magazines incorporate a transparent section to help keep track of rounds remaining. The magazines incorporate steel feed lips for durability.
The side folding polymer stock is rugged and positive when extended. There is a small hook that keeps the stock in place when folded but allows instant deployment. Like everything HK makes, this appendage interfaces splendidly with the human form.
Fire control assemblies are available with semi-auto, 2-round burst and full-auto functions in various combinations. Selector switches are replicated on both sides of the gun. The weapon strips without tools, and it takes nothing more than a punch and about five minutes to swap barrels. The front sling attachment points are bilateral while the rear loop is located only on the left aspect of the receiver.
Given that the UMP operates via unlocked blowback the guts of the gun should be simple, but are not. The firing pin is spring-loaded and remarkably complicated, though I suspect this offers a great degree of safety should the gun be dropped. The extractor is a flat piece of spring steel of rather complicated geometry. Firing pins and ejectors are common between calibers. Extractors are, by contrast, unique to each chambering.
Running the UMP is a unique experience. The gun feels almost unnaturally lightweight. The firing cycle is a bit choppy compared to an MP5 and markedly slower. However, the sedate rate of fire combined with the superb ergonomics of the gun makes it imminently controllable. So long as I took my time I could consistently ring a 10-inch steel plate twice with a full-auto double tap at 60 meters.
The bolt locks to the rear on an empty magazine, so the gun is quick to reload. Magazines lock in quickly and easily. The flapper magazine release is intuitive and effective.
The in-line nature of the design makes recoil easily manageable, even in .45ACP. While the gun is more fun in 9mm, it still runs comfortably and well in the heavier calibers. The easy caliber conversion allows Law Enforcement agencies to customize the UMP to reflect the types of handguns used by their officers, even if that evolves over time.
I would rate the UMP as every bit the equal of the MP5 as regards precision and controllability while being markedly lighter and faster to reload. Simply not having to manually lock the bolt to the rear for each magazine change makes the process much simpler. Additionally, the streamlined entrails and lighter weight play in the gun’s favor.
The gun runs great with a can in place. With my Gemtech GM9 perched on its snout this particular copy does print about an inch up and right at 15 meters. As 9mm ball is naturally supersonic, you have to run heavy slow subsonic rounds if you really want to take advantage of the sound suppressor.
Spare magazines and accessories like mounting rails are all pure HK, so they are expensive. They are also executed to HK’s typically extraordinary levels of quality. The scope mounting rail will manage any conceivable optic.
The UMP was the perfect gun at an imperfect time. It is the lightest full-sized SMG ever produced. Even in .45ACP, however, it provides reliable, precision, close-range fire with minimal attention to technique. The UMP’s polymer construction makes it literally impervious to weather and external environmental insults.
The world decided some time in the past couple of decades that the pistol-caliber submachine gun was obsolete. As a result stubby rifle-caliber weapons became de rigueur in most proper arms rooms around the globe. Apparently nobody told the guys at HK, so they went ahead and designed the finest pistol-caliber submachine gun ever contrived anyway.
American gun laws are a bucket of snakes, and HK has never really bent over backwards to accommodate civilian shooters on this side of the pond. As a result the closet civilian version of the UMP is the USC (Universal Self-Loading Carbine). The USC sports an unadorned 16-inch barrel and a fixed skeletonized polymer stock that looks thoroughly lame. The gun is chambered solely in .45ACP and comes with a pitiful castrated 10-round magazine. Some really clever gun artisans have taken USC receivers and brought them up to UMP specs by adding a folding stock and bobbed barrel, but such conversions are technically challenging and spendy.
Had circumstances and timing been ever so different the UMP could have been a real player on the civilian scene. Its advanced polymer construction, HK reliability and superb ergonomics would have made for a great defensive carbine had the civilian version retained the folding stock, high-capacity magazines and easy caliber conversions. Alas, the UMP hit the streets during a fairly dry period in American gun ownership, and the lack of availability and proper marketing conspired to keep the gun out of the hands of most American shooters.
Everybody uses rifle-caliber carbines nowadays so cop-surplus, post-sample UMP machineguns trickle into that rarefied market from time to time. Parts can be tough to find, and the resale market is literally non-existent. However, pawing over one of these remarkably advanced weapons does yield insights into what might have been. This is indeed a submachinegun worthy of James Bond.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N2 (February 2018)