The Guns of D-Day
On its 75th anniversary, we remember the Invasion of Normandy along with the guns with which it was fought, while weighing their pros and cons.
The exact makeup of the troops at Normandy on June 6, 1944 will likely be discussed and dissected for years to come. The Germans relied on a mix of battle hardened veterans, conscripts, and even soldiers pressed into service from captured armies—there were even a few Koreans who had been conscripted by the Japanese, captured by the Soviets in the brief 1939 border war, captured again by the Germans, and then sent to Normandy!
The British, Canadian and American soldiers—as well as some units of Free French—were also a mixed bag. Some had seen action in North Africa and Italy, while others would have their baptism of fire at Normandy.
A similar conversation can be extended to the guns used at Normandy. Each side had some advantages and disadvantages, both working with some guns that represented the cutting edge of firearms technology of the day, and others that were aging leftovers from the First World War.
Here is a breakdown of the main small arms that were used during D-Day by the British, American, and German troops:
MAIN BATTLE RIFLES
Karabiner 98kurz (Kar98k or K98k), bolt action – Germany
The Kar98k was the standard service rifle of the German Wehrmacht during World War II. It was the final development in a line of Mauser military bolt action rifles going back to the late 19th century.
Chambered for the 7.92x57mm cartridge, it was adopted in June 1935 and, while supplemented by more modern firearms, it remained in use until the end of the war, making it one of the most widely used firearms during the conflict. It only surpassed in use by the Soviet Mosin Nagant.
While it was designated a “carbine”—at least in the native German—it was still a full sized rifle and had an effective firing range of 500 meters with iron sights and a maximum firing range of 4,700 meters. Some variants were fitted with a telescopic sight, which doubled its effective range and allowed it to function as a sniper rifle.
The Kar98k was a reliable rifle, so much so that it was used in countless wars well after the defeat of Nazi Germany, including with the Israeli Army. The bolt gun’s biggest downside was it held just five rounds—and, of course, the bolt action meant a slower rate of fire than more modern semi-auto firearms.
Short Magazine Lee Enfield, bolt action -Great Britain
The Germans weren’t the only power to still rely on a bolt action rifle during the war. As noted, the Soviets produced more than anyone, but the British military also relied on its Lee-Enfield rifle. In fact, the SMLE, which was a redesign of the earlier Lee-Metford, remained in use from 1895 until 1957 making it one of the most widely used firearms in world history.
It featured a 10-round box magazine and fired the .303 British cartridge, essentially offered a similar sized round but holding double the ammunition of the Kar98k.
The rifle was given a makeover in the 1940s, which made it easier to mass-produce. The iron sights were redesigned and calibrated for 274 meters and this version featured a heavier barrel.
Another significant change was the type of bayonet that could be used with the rifle. Instead of the long, edged, sword-like bayonets that had been a staple of the First World War (though ultimately proving through combat to be ineffective) the new “Rifle, No. 4 MK I” version of the SMLE utilized a spike bayonet only intended for stabbing that earned the nickname “pigsticker.”
M1 Garand, semi-auto – USA
Here is where American ingenuity shined in World War II – the M1 Garand was the first standard issued semi-automatic rifle and the most widely used semi-automatic of the Second World War. General George S. Patton described it as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”
It fired the .30-06 round, which was already used by the Springfield 1903 bolt action rifle, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and the M1919 .30 caliber machine gun.
It was a gas-operated rifle that featured an eight-shot clip-fed magazine. This provided the American GIs with more rounds than the German counterpart Kar98K, but because ammo had to be loaded in eight-round en-blocs, it also meant the gun was impossible to “top off” until all eight were fired and the gun was fully reloaded, though there was a way to quickly unload the rifle.
While movies and video games suggest there was a loud audible “ping” when the en bloc clip is ejected that could be heard through the noise of combat is highly unlikely, but you’ll see it depicted in many modern WWII films and TV series and rumors continue to be spread to this day that enemy soldiers could hear that ping and know the shooter was out of ammo.
Patton called it, and who are we to argue with Old Blood and Guts? The M1 may have a cumbersome loading method, but the benefits of an eight-shot semi-automatic over a bolt action with the power of a .30-06 and the utter reliability of the Garand are obvious!
Worthy Mention: Gewehr 43
The Germans did have a semi-automatic rifle, which has erroneously been dubbed the “German M1.”
However, the G43/K43 was actually and improved version of the Gewehr 41, which was based on the Soviet SVT-40. While it was a reliable semi-automatic firearm, it was no M1 Garand, and there were likely few in use in Normandy on June 6, 1944.
MP40 – Germany
Thanks to movies, TV shows and video games, you’d think every other German soldier must have carried a “Schmeisser” – the erroneous nickname of the MP40. Firstly, noted German gun designer Hugo Schmeisser wasn’t involved in the design or production of the firearm. Secondly, only 1.1 million MP40s were produced, compared to 14.7 million Kar98K bolt guns.
The MP40 was an update of the MP 38, a revolutionary submachine gun that was as German as it gets. It was made of machined steel, which meant it was time-consuming to produce and very expensive. The MP40 used the basic design, but simplified the production process by utilizing stamped steel and electro-spot welding the gun where possible.
As submachine guns went, it proved to be reliable, durable, and accurate. It fired the 9x19mm Parabellum round – the same as the Luger and P38 pistols – and had a rate of fire of 500-550 rounds from a 32-round detachable box magazine.
It used a straight blowback action, but was controllable under most conditions. Due to production shortages, the MP40 was mainly used by platoon and squad leaders. Its design, which featured a forward stick magazine doubling as a vertical foregrip, was copied by countless small arms in the early Cold War era.
STEN Gun – Great Britain
After the successful German Blitzkrieg that saw the complete defeat of France in the spring of 1940, the British Army was desperately short on small arms, having been forced to abandon vast quantities of firearms on the wrong side of the Channel during the Dunkirk evacuation.
One solution was to develop a submachine gun to supplement the remaining stocks of SMLE rifles. The result was the STEN Gun, named after its chief designers Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin – along with an “EN” for Enfield, which produced the rifle.
The British military took a novel approach with one aspect of the design: the gun was chambered in the 9mm Luger, which ensured British soldiers could use captured German ammunition. It had a muzzle velocity of 365 meters per second, but an effective range of just 100 meters.
The STEN Gun is nothing if not simple in design. It is little more than a tube with a firing mechanism. It was meant to be simple and cheap to produce and could be quickly put into soldiers’ hands and provide effective, short-range firepower. The STEN went through several design updates, and at D-Day, the British were mainly using the MkII and MkIII versions. A variation of the MkII was produced in Canada with a different type of removable stock. Finally, the MkV version, with a wooden stock and ability to mount a bayonet, was introduced in 1944 and many were issued to paratroopers.
Thompson M1A1 – USA
Known as the “Chicago Typewriter,” “Tommy Gun,” and other colorful monikers, the Thompson submachine gun was developed during the First World War, but arrived too late to see any action. It was a compact, full-auto submachine gun that fired the .45 ACP cartridge from an open bolt.
The final version was introduced in 1921 and was an immediate failure commercially, mostly due to its high price and the lack of necessity. Without a war, its makers at Auto-Ordnance sold Thompsons to the Post Office, and marketed it to ranchers – but it was ultimately used mostly by gangsters, outlaws, and lawmen during prohibition—but at $200 each, it was too expensive even for many of them.
By the time WWII broke out, the Thompson was adopted as the M1928A1 by the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, but it was soon discovered that the 50-round drum magazine so popular with lawmen and criminals was prone to jamming in combat conditions. Plus, it was heavy, bulky, and tended to rattle when carried—not something you want on a piece of combat gear.
By D-Day, the U.S. military adopted the M1A1, which utilized a 20- or 30-round box or “stick” magazine. Additionally, the gun had been redesigned to lower its production costs from nearly $210 per gun to $45 a piece.
Visually, the biggest change was the swapping of the Tommy Gun’s distinctive vertical foregrip for a straight wood stock and a non-removable wooden buttstock. The charging handle was also moved from the top of the receiver to the side.
All the military versions of the Thompson fired the .45 ACP cartridge and the M1A1 version had a rate of fire of 625rpm and an effective range of 165 yards. Much like the MP40, the M1A1 was carried by platoon and squad leaders.
M3 “Grease Gun” – USA
As noted, the cost of the Thompson was high and the gun was difficult to build. Even though the gun was redesigned to cost a fraction of its original price, the U.S. military sought to lower the per unit cost of submachine guns even more by developing a new, simpler firearm made mostly of stamped parts rather than machined components.
It was the M3, which soon had the nickname “Grease Gun” due to its appearance that was similar to a mechanic’s grease gun.
It had a slow rate of fire for a sub gun of just 450 rounds per minute, and it utilized stamped parts. It was cheap and looked cheap, but it was also reliable and durable. It remained in use as a defensive firearm for vehicle crews until the 1990s!
In its World War II combat debut, the “grease gun” armed paratroopers and the crews of armored vehicles during the Normandy invasion.
The MP40 has clear advantages over the Allies’ weapons. The Thompson, developed during the tail end of WWI, was showing its age. While the M1A1 variant solved many of its problems and significantly cut down on production costs, it was still not the right gun for the job.
The MP40 offered a high rate of fire, was accurate in close quarters and was reliable even in rugged conditions.
SQUAD AUTOMATIC WEAPONS
FG42 and StG44 – Germany
The German military saw the need to replace the aging Kar98K, while also offering more firepower to certain units. The result was not one but two different noteworthy rifles.
The first was the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 or “paratrooper rifle 42” (FG42), a selective-fire automatic rifle. It was actually developed specifically for the use by the Fallschirmjägerger airborne infantry, which did see action as elite infantry in the Normandy campaign.
Two different models of the FG42 were produced, and it was considered one of the most advanced gun designs of WWII – and elements of the firearm were copied during the later development of U.S. Army’s M60 machine gun.
The other was the MP44, later designated the StG44 or Sturmgewehr 44, roughly translated to “assault rifle 44.”
This was the first successful gun design to utilize an intermediate cartridge, the key element of an assault rifle. It was more compact than a battle rifle and offered a quick rate of fire with a more powerful round than a submachine gun while still being controllable. The StG44’s influence can be seen in many post-war guns, mostly notably the ubiquitous Soviet AK-47.
M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) – USA
The American military was so worried that the Germans would copy the BAR that it feared even introducing the firearm into combat—that was in 1918. But even in 1944 the BAR still offered “walking fire” that few other firearms of the day could provide.
Chambered in .30-06 Springfield, the M1918 BAR was designed by John Browning and designed to be carried by infantrymen during an assault. The BAR would be fired from the shoulder or from the hip with support from a sling (the gun weighed a backbreaking 16 lbs.) while moving through a trench—hence, “walking fire.”
The gun that got the most use in WWII and likely was most present on the beached or Normandy was the M1918A2, which was adopted in 1938.
It featured a rate-of-fire reducer that provided two selectable rates of full-auto fire only, activated by engaging a selector toggle. A skin-footed folding bipod was added to the muzzle and magazine guides were added to the front of the trigger guard to facilitated easier reloading. The handguard was shortened, a heat shield was added, a small, removable monopod for the buttstock was added and the role of the gun was pretty much morphed into a squad light machine gun. It also had a new flash suppressor and fully adjustable iron sights.
Because of budget limitations initial M1918A2 production consisted of conversions of older M1918 BARs
Later in the war, a carry handle was added to the barrel, but they weren’t around for D-Day.
It’s true that the BAR never fully lived up to the original hopes that it could fill the gap between rifle and machine gun, but at D-Day, the BAR was still the right weapon for the job of providing automatic fire for advancing troops and laying down fairly heavy, highly mobile firepower.
The BAR was showing its age by D-Day, but it still wins the day for one major reason. There simply weren’t enough FG-42s or StG44s in use on June 6, 1944 and it is doubtful any were used to stop the initial invasion.
While a few FG-42s were in use with the German paratrooper units few of those units saw action in the first day of the invasion, and the production of the StG44 was only ramping up, and those being issued were going to the Russian Front.
MG34 and MG42 – Germany
Here, again, the German had two firearms we can choose from, but in this case, both were in use at Normandy. The MG34 (Maschinengewehr 34) was a recoil-operated, air-cooled machine gun that was developed even before the Nazis took power. It introduced a new concept in machine guns, becoming the first general-purpose machine gun.
This meant it could operate as a medium machine gun in a fire support role with just its built-in bipod, or when used with a Lafette tripod, it could be used as a heavy machine gun. With a rate of fire of 800-900 rounds per minute, and an effective firing range of 2,000 meters and a maximum firing range of 4,700 meters it could literally take command of the battlefield.
If the MG34 had an issue, it was that it was expensive and time consuming to produce – a trend that the German military needed to overcome. The result could have been a lackluster gun, but instead it gave the world the MG42, one of the most lethal machine guns of WWII.
While it used stamped parts instead of the machined ones of the MG34, this new machine gun proved to be reliable and easy to operate. It had a high rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute—and the sound of it being fired led to the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw.”
It had the same range as the MG34, but another improvement was an easier to change barrel—something highly important in an air cooled machine gun. As with the MG34, the MG42 was general-purpose machine gun and served as both a medium and heavy machine gun on D-Day. Many an Allied soldiers didn’t make it far, unfortunately, because of these two firearms.
Bren Gun – Great Britain
This British light machine gun was so reliable and effective that it remained in various roles until 1992, and was last used in a major combat role in the 1982 Falklands War. At D-Day the Bren Gun offered the same “walking fire” that the American BAR provided, but offered more versatility. It could be fitted with a bipod or mounted on a vehicle where it took on a medium/heavy machine gun role.
The Bren was actually a licensed version of the Czechoslovakian-made ZGB 33 light machine gun. Unlike the BAR, it offered a quick change barrel, and like the BAR, ammunition was fed from a box magazine – in this case a top loading 30 round curved magazine.
The gas-operated light machine gun had a 500 round per minute rate of fire and an effective range of just 550 meters. So while it did offer walking fire for assaults it wasn’t really a long range weapon by any means.
M1919 Browning Machine Gun – USA
The prolific American gun designer John M. Browning developed the excellent water-cooled M1917 .30 caliber heavy machine gun, improving on the Maxim and Vickers designs that were used during the First World War. Then he improved his own design with the M1919 Browning, an air-cooled medium machine gun.
The gun had a fairly slow rate of fire, ranging from 400-600 rounds per minute, while the recoil-operated machine gun and an effective range of 1,400 meters. Like its German counterparts it was belt-feed. It was used by infantry, mounted on Jeeps, tanks, aircraft and even landing craft on D-Day.While the development of general-purpose machine guns in the Cold War relegated the M1919 to a secondary role, even 100 years later this .30 caliber machine gun is still very much in use.
The German tag-team of the MG34 and MG42 proved to be among the best machine guns on Normandy beach.
While the Bren offered walking fire and the M1919 was a reliable firearm, the German weapons were ideally suited for defending the beaches, and both the MG34 and MG42 were versatile in the later fighting in Normandy.
Worthy Mention: M2 Browning
The M1919 had a “big brother” – the mighty M2 Browning .50 BMG heavy machine gun. This gun was extensively used as a vehicle-mounted weapon, and on D-Day was on many tanks and landing craft. The Ma Deuce, as it came to be called, is still in service today, 75 years later.
M1A1 “Bazooka” – USA
The U.S. Army’s Rocket Launcher M1 – nicknamed “bazooka” after radio comedian Bob Burns’ novelty musical instrument – was an anti-tank weapon that first saw use during Operation Torch in North Africa to limited success.
The M1A1 version, with an improved rocket, was used in Sicily to great effect, even reportedly taking out a Tiger I tank! While it wasn’t really powerful enough for late-war German tanks it did give infantry a fighting chance and more than a few went ashore on D-Day.
PIAT Gun – Great Britain
The British developed their own anti-tank weapon, but instead of a powerful rocket launcher the PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank – was based on a spigot mortar system that could fire a 2.5 pound shaped charge bomb.
It was a vast improvement over existing anti-tank rifles and had no back-blast, but it was heavy and had major recoil. It was also difficult to cock from a prone position. According to a British report seven percent of all German tanks destroyed by the British forces were knocked out by a PIAT.
Panzerschreck – Germany
The Germans captured some American M1 bazookas in the North African Campaign, as well as some supplied to the Soviet Red Army as part of the Lend-Lease.
Instead of merely copying it, the Germans increased the diameter of the warhead from 60mm to 88mm and gave it greater armor penetration.
Because the rounds fired from the German Panzerschreck kept burning after leaving the tube, the Germans added a protective blast shield. This increased the weight but given the destructive capability of the weapon it was a worth-while tradeoff.
The “Tank Fright” – the literal translation of Panzerschreck– is the clear cut winner. The Germans took a decent weapon and made it devastating. The German Army Group B, which included the Seventh Army and was charged with defending Normandy and Brittany, was equipped with the weapon.
While only a few – if any – were likely used on June 6, the Panzerschreck did help slow the Allied breakout of Normandy.
OTHER SMALL ARMS OF NOTE
M1903-A3 Springfield Rifle – USA
When the United States entered the war in late 1941, production of the M1 Garand was only ramping up, so many American soldiers were still using the Model 1903 Springfield rifle, which had been the U.S. military’s main battle rifle during World War I.
The M1903-A3 version featured improved iron sights, and while the rifle saw use in North Africa and notably in the Pacific, by D-Day most GIs had an M1 Garand.
However, the M1903 was often fitted with a scope and used by snipers, as is famously depicted in the film Saving Private Ryan.
M1 Carbine – USA
Sometimes called the little brother to the M1 Garand, the M1 Carbine actually had little in common with the full sized rifle.
It fired the significantly smaller .30 Carbine cartridge from a 15-round detachable box magazine instead of an en-bloc clip. The compact firearm was originally developed as a replacement for pistols, and was issued to officers and to vehicle crews. It proved to be more powerful and more accurate at distance than the American’s .45 ACP submachine guns.
A version with a folding metal wire stock was developed for paratroopers. Typically, if a soldier or Marine was carrying an M1 Carbine at Normandy, they would not be carrying a pistol.
Comparing a rifle to a machine gun is truly comparing apples to oranges, but given that all the firearms had the same goal – to kill the enemy soldier before he could kill you – we can narrow down what was the best gun for D-Day.
There are several factors to consider: if you were a machine gunner you might be able to rain hell down on the invader but good luck surrendering; if you had a submachine gun you could lay down a lethal spray at close range and good suppressive fire, but at a distance, the guy with the bolt action rifle and cover always had an advantage. With those considerations we’ll return to Patton’s choice.
The M1 Garand offered the ability to hit a target at range, it held eight rounds compared to the enemy rifle’s five rounds and it was available in numbers where more advanced firearms were not.
While it could be debated today whether Patton was correct that the M1 was in fact, “the greatest battle implement ever devised” it was the best tool for the job on June 6, 1944.