MG 34 bolstered German war effort

Ivo Dimitrov

The Maschinengewehr 34 or MG 34 is a German recoil operated, air-cooled machine gun which, together with the later developed MG 42, served as the primary rapid fire items of the German Army in World War Two.

The MG 34 was introduced in 1934 and issued widely from 1936 onwards. It brought with it an entirely new concept to the machine gun world, namely the Einheitsmaschinengewehr (Universal machine gun) and is generally considered the world’s first general-purpose machine gun ,this at a time when armies fielded both light and heavy machine guns simultaneously.

Heavy machine guns being mainly of the water-cooled WWI Maxim type were primarily reserved for defence, whereas light machine guns being the air-cooled variety were meant for offence. In the case of the MG 34 the Germans decided one gun could do both jobs - when mounted on a lafette (gun carriage) it served in the heavy defensive role and on the bipod it served the light offensive task.

The lafette for the MG 34 was a sophisticated accessory with optics for indirect and direct line of fire as well as a recoil-operated mechanism which could be set to cover an area with fire by a simple pull of the trigger. In addition, the lafette folded into a backpack that could be carried by one man on his shoulders.

The versatile MG 34 was chambered for the standard German rifle cartridge (7.92x57mm Mauser) and was arguably the most advanced machine gun design of its day. It was envisaged and well developed to provide portable light infantry cover as well as anti-aircraft duties and even sniping ability since it could be single-shot in semi-automatic mode, especially when mounted on the lafette.

The double half-crescent trigger could be depressed in two different locations, giving single or full auto fire as desired, was light enough to be carried by one soldier and offered a high rate of fire (900 rounds a minute). Nonetheless the outline proved complex, expensive and time-consuming for mass production as the whole gun was practically machined, the reason it was supplemented by the more famous MG 42 in 1942. Despite that, the MG 34 remained in production until the end of the war.

After World War One the German Army (Reichswehr) was restricted by the Treaty of Versailles to 792 heavy water-cooled Maxim machine guns and 1134 light machine guns, production and development of automatic weapons also prohibited. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Germany sought avenues to skirt around the Versailles limitations with their arms experts working or cooperating abroad.

The MG 34 was based on a 1930 Rheinmetall blueprint - the MG 30 - and both the Swiss and Austrian militaries had licensed production of the MG 30 from Rheinmetall. The MG 30 look was adapted and modified by Heinrich Vollmer who originally intended the feed mechanism to accept MG 15-inspired 75-round Patronentrommel 34 spring-loaded saddle drums. These proved rather involved.

In 1937 the feed was revamped to employ the reusable non-disintegrating Gurt 34 metal belts and a 50-round Gurttrommel 34 (belt drum), feeding based on the direct push-through of the cartridge out of the belt into the chamber by the bolt. The Gurttrommel was designed to be clipped on the left side of the gun and wasn’t a true magazine but rather held the curled 50-round belt. The capability to use the previous 75-round Patronentrommel 34 saddle drum magazines (with a simple change of feed cover for a Trommelhalter magazine holder) was retained.

As the MG 34 was technically based on, and featured framework elements of several other machine guns, the German arms industry negotiated and worked out a complicated royalties system to satisfy all parties.

In the field the gun could operate in offensive or defensive roles. In offensive mode with a mobile soldier, either a 50-round Gurttrommel or 75-round Patronentrommel 34 was used, in stationary defensive role it was mounted on the lafette and fed by the non-disintegrating metal belt. Belts were carried in boxes of five, each containing 50 rounds and could be linked together for sustained fire. The MG 34 was the principal infantry machine gun until 1942 and remained the primary co-axial mounted tank machine gun.

The German tactical doctrine differed from that of their enemies in that the squad’s firepower was based around the general-purpose machine gun in the light role, so riflemen were there largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for machine gunners, the advantage being it greatly added to the overall volume of fire which could be put out by the squad. The Allied doctrine centred on the squad’s riflemen and the role of the machine gun was to provide covering fire for those riflemen.

The MG 34 fires from an open bolt and keeps the barrel open at both ends after firing ceases, allowing airflow to help it cool faster while retaining the next unfired round outside the chamber in the belt until the trigger is squeezed again. The firearm was designed with a rotating bolt operated by short recoil aided by a muzzle cone booster.

When the gun is ready to fire the bolt is pulled to the rear and held by the sear. With the pull of the trigger the sear disengages, sending the bolt forward under pressure from the recoil spring. A cartridge is stripped from the magazine or belt and the round pushed into the chamber and as the bolt moves forward into the battery it rotates, engaging the locking lugs and chamber, locking the bolt to the barrel. The firing pin strikes and the round is fired.

Recoil causes the barrel and bolt to move backwards a short distance, the rearward movement of the barrel causing the bolt to rotate back, disengaging the locking lugs and unlocking the bolt from the barrel. The barrel returns to its forward position while the bolt recoils to its rear spot, the empty casing ejected and the cycle can repeat.

The MG 34 barrel could be quickly changed to avoid overheating during sustained fire and weighed 2kg. During barrel change the operator would disengage a latch on the left of the receiver which held the receiver to the barrel sleeve. The entire receiver section could then pivot off to the right, allowing the operator to pull the barrel out. For the heavy machine gun role a larger tripod, the MG 34 Lafette 34, included a number of advanced features such as recoil-absorbing buffer springs.

Another unique trait of German World War Two machine guns was the Tiefenfeuerautomat feature on the Lafette 34 tripod. If selected, this element mechanically controlled the rise and fall of the gun, elevating it for five rounds then depressing it for four, thus walking the fire in wave like motions up and down the range in a pre-defined area. The desired scale of the sector could be set on the Tiefenfeuerautomat, sweeping of the selected zone continuing automatically as long as the gun is fired. A common accessory for the second gunner was the spare barrel container or Laufschützer (literally barrel protector), which contained a spare for changing when the barrel overheated due to sustained fire. The second gunner was also issued with an asbestos glove to remove the hot barrel.

The MG 34 was manufactured by five factories with the following approximate production figures. Factory codes found on the receivers are indicated:

• Maget (Maschinen und Geraetebau Berlin) 70,000; code: cra.

• Waffenwerke Brünn 170,000; code: dot.

• Mauser Werke Borsigwalde 60,000; codes: S/243 and ar.

• Berliner-Suhler Waffen und Fahrzeugwerke/Gustloff-Werke Suhl 131,000; codes: BSW and dbf.

• Waffenfabrik Steyr 7000; code: bnz.

The example featured here was built by Berlin-Suhler Werke (BSW) in 1939. BSW, being the old Simson factory which was the officially approved weapons manufacturer for the German Army under the Versailles Treaty, did not disguise their factory in code like other manufacturers until the war started. Being a pre-war to very early war example it is profusely serial numbered and Waffenamt marked. It is fully matching apart from the top-cover and buttstock.

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