The Maschinengewehr 34, or MG 34, is a German recoil-operated air-cooled machine gun that was first tested in 1929 and was introduced in 1934, and first issued to units in 1936. It accepts the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge.
The versatile MG 34 was arguably the most advanced machine gun in the world at the time of its adoption and deployment with the German Army. It entered service in great numbers following Hitler’s repudiation of the Versailles Treaty in 1936 and was first tested by German troops aiding Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. The MG 34 combined two then-rarely combined characteristics into substantial advantages over other machine guns:
- Mobility, being light enough to be carried by a single soldier;
- A high rate of fire of up to 800 to 900 rounds per minute.
As such, it can generally be considered to be the world’s first general-purpose machine gun.
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After World War I, the German military faced restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty restricted the German Reichswehr (Realm Defence) to maximally stockpiling 792 heavy (bulky hard-to-maneuver water-cooled) machine guns and 1,134 light machine guns with the actual production of machine guns and development of sustained fire weapons were prohibited. From 1933, Nazi Germany was committed to repudiating the Treaty of Versailles and its restrictions. As part of a clandestine military revitalization program, the German military sought avenues to get around restrictions imposed by the treaty by resorting to innovative weapon design and engineering, German arms designers working abroad and other foreign assistance.
The MG 34 was based on a 1930 Rheinmetall design, the MG 30. The Swiss and Austrian militaries had both licensed and produced the MG 30 from Rheinmetall shortly after patent. In the spring of 1931, the development of the Einheitsmaschinengewehr (Universal machine gun) started. The MG 30 design was adapted and modified by Heinrich Vollmer of Mauser Industries. Vollmer originally designed the feed mechanism to accept MG 15 inspired 75-round Patronentrommel 34 spring-loaded saddle-drum magazines. The Patronentrommel 34 was a rather complex magazine for which a filling device existed and requiring ordnance personnel and a special tool to optimize the spring tension for reliable feeding. Users were ordered not to adjust the drum spring tension.
In 1937, the feed was redesigned to use reusable non-disintegrating Gurt 33 and Gurt 34 metal belts and a 50-round Gurttrommel 34 belt drum. The Gurttrommel was designed to be clipped to the left side of the gun and was not a true magazine but held a curled 50-round belt and corresponding starter-segment preventing it from snagging, twisting and getting stuck during mobile assaults. Vollmer also increased the rate of fire. The MG 34’s double crescent trigger dictated either semiautomatic or fully automatic firing modes. The capability to use the previous 75-round Patronentrommel 34 saddle-drum magazines (with a simple change of the feed cover for a Trommelhalter magazine holder) was retained. All 75-round Patronentrommel 34 fed MG 34s had been withdrawn from infantry use by 1941, with some remaining in use on armored personnel carriers.
As the MG 34 was technically based on and featured design elements of several other machine guns, the German arms industry negotiated and worked out complex royalties and patents matters regarding the MG 34 to every involved side’s satisfaction.
In the field, the weapon could operate in offensive or defensive applications. The offensive model, with a mobile soldier, used either a 50-round Gurttrommel or a 75-round Patronentrommel 34. In a stationary defensive role, the gun was mounted on a bipod or tripod and fed by a non-disintegrating metal ammunition belt. Belts were carried in boxes of five. Each belt contained 50 rounds. Belt lengths could be linked for sustained fire. During a sustained fire, barrels would have to be changed at intervals due to the heat generated by the rapid rate of fire. If the barrels were not changed properly, the weapon would misfire. Changing barrels was a rapid process for the trained operator and involved disengaging a latch and swinging the receiver to the right for the insertion of a new barrel into the barrel shroud. Accordingly, stationary defensive positions required more than one operator.
The MG 34 was the mainstay of German Army support weapons from the time of its first issue in 1935 until 1942, when it was supplanted by the next generation Maschinengewehr 42 or MG 42. Although the MG 34 was reliable and dominant on the battlefield, its dissemination throughout the German forces were hampered due to its precision engineering, which resulted in high production costs and a relatively slower rate of production. For its successor, the MG 42, the Germans instead used mass production techniques similar to those that created the MP 40 submachine gun. The Germans nevertheless continued widespread production of MG 34s until the end of the war.
While the Americans had standardized a semi-automatic rifle in 1936 being the M1 Garand, the German military kept issuing Karabiner 98k bolt-action rifles due to their tactical doctrine of basing a squad’s firepower on the general-purpose machine gun in the light machine gun role so that the role of the rifleman was largely to carry ammunition and provide covering fire for the machine gunners. The advantage of the general purpose machine gun concept was that it added greatly to the overall volume of fire that could be put out by a squad-sized unit. The German military did experiment with semi-automatic rifles throughout World War 2 and fielded the Gewehr 41 series of which less than 150,000 were built, the Gewehr 43/Karabiner 43 series of which 402,713 were built, and introduced the first assault rifle in 1943 – the MP43 / MP44 / StG 44 series, of which 425,977 were built. Due to the relatively limited production of semi-automatic and assault rifles, the Karabiner 98k of which over 14,600,000 were built remained the primary service weapon until the last days of World War 2, and was manufactured until Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
Medium Machine Gun Fire Support Role
In the German heavy machine gun (HMG) platoons, each platoon served four MG 34/MG 42 machine guns, used in the sustained fire mode mounted on tripods. In 1944, this was altered to six machine guns in three sections with two seven-man heavy machine gun squads per section as follows:
- Squad Leader (NCO) MP40.
- Machine Gunner (private) MG 34/MG 42 and pistol.
- Assistant Gunner (private) pistol.
- Three Riflemen (privates) rifles.
- Horse Leader for horse, cart, and trailer (private) rifle.
Use in Europe
The MG 34 was used as the primary infantry machine gun during the 1930s and remained as the primary armored vehicle defensive weapon as it took limited space to change barrels inside a vehicle. It was to be replaced in infantry service by the related MG 42, but there were never enough quantities of the new design to go around, and MG 34s soldiered on in all roles until the end of World War II. The MG 34 was intended to replace the MG 13 and other older machine guns, but these were still being used in World War II as demand was never met.
It was designed primarily by Heinrich Vollmer from the Mauser Werke, based on the recently introduced Rheinmetall-designed Solothurn 1930 (MG 30) that was starting to enter service in Switzerland. Changes to the operating mechanism improved the rate of fire to between 800 and 900 rpm.
The new gun was accepted for service almost immediately and was generally liked by the troops, and it was used to great effect by German soldiers assisting Nationalist Spain in the Spanish Civil War. At the time it was introduced, it had a number of advanced features and the general-purpose machine gun concept that it aspired to was an influential one. It was the standard machine gun of the Kriegsmarine.
The MG 34 was also used as a secondary weapon on several German tanks.
Use in East Asia
Imported units of MG 34s, as well as indigenous copies of the weapon, were adopted by Chinese Nationalist forces during both World War II and the Chinese Civil War. Some models captured from the Germans by the Soviets or French were supplied to the People’s Liberation Army/People’s Volunteer Army, Korean People’s Army, PAVN, and the Viet Cong during the Cold War.
Today an MG 34 can be found in the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution which was captured from the Chinese Nationalist Army during the Chinese Civil War.
The MG 34 fires from an open bolt and this format both keeps the barrel open at both ends after firing ceases, allowing airflow through it and helping it to cool faster, and meanwhile retains the next unfired bullet outside the chamber until the trigger is squeezed again; and thus the cartridges are protected from the risk of cook-offs from high chamber temperatures after long bouts of sustained automatic fire. The firearm was designed with a rotating bolt operated by short recoil aided by a muzzle booster. When the firearm is ready to fire the bolt is pulled back to the rear and is held back 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 is pushed into the chamber. As the bolt moves forward into battery, the bolt rotates engaging the locking lugs and chamber locking the bolt to the barrel. The striker strikes and ignites the primer and the round is fired. The recoil causes the barrel and bolt to move backward a short distance. The rearward movement of the barrel causes the rotating 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 position. The empty casing is ejected and the cycle can begin anew.
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