In CNN: Not Here To Pump Up Liberty, I wrote of CNN reporter Gary Tuchman, coached in shooting a fearsome AR-15 by a retired Army General. Not only did both demonstrate poor firearms skills–actually dangerous gun handling–the General spoke of the AR-15 featured in CNN’s video as a “full semi automatic.” The General may not have been trying to trick people into thinking the most common, popular semiautomatic rifle in America is a machinegun, but that is a time-tested gun control tactic.
Upon occasion, gun banners have accidently revealed their real intentions, as Josh Sugarmann did in 1988:
The public’s confusion over fully-automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons — anything that looks like a machine gun is presumed to be a machine gun — can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.
The Parkland attack, carried out with an AR-15, has demonstrated yet again how little most Americans know about submachine guns, and their rifle caliber cousins, semiautomatic rifles that outwardly resemble assault rifles. Rifles of all action types and descriptions are used in only a tiny portion of all shootings, and AR-15-like rifles, in a tiny portion of that tiny portion. The purpose of this article is to provide a primer for submachine guns, with mention of their larger brethren.
Until 1934, Americans could own machineguns without restriction. It was Prohibition, and the organized crime it birthed, that made unlawful machinegun use newsworthy, and the 1934 National Firearms Act, enacted a year after the repeal of Prohibition by the 21st Amendment, regulated possession, imposing a $200 non-transferrable tax, government registration and background checks (fingerprinting, photographs, etc.), all of which take many months–sometimes more than a year. The same process is currently required for suppressors.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 froze the importation of any new automatic firearms for citizens, and in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act was passed, primarily to end government abuses of law-abiding gun owners. During final debate, late at night when most of the Representatives were gone, a Democrat introduced an amendment, and Charles Rangel (D-NY), the presiding officer at the moment, called for a voice vote. Even though it was obviously defeated, Rangel declared it passed, and all fully automatic firearms manufactured after May 19, 1986 became unavailable for citizen ownership (18 USC 921). One can still own a fully automatic gun, following the procedure established in 1934, but the 1986 amendment froze the number of such weapons in circulation. It’s still possible to own a machinegun, but it’s a seller’s market and they’re very expensive.
Before we go further, let’s cldearly define the weapons we’ll be considering:
Semiautomatic Rifles: A semiautomatic firearm fires one bullet for each pull of the trigger. This technology was invented in the late 1800s. The AR-15 rifles so commonly demonized by the media and anti-liberty stooges (I know, I repeat myself) are semiautomatic. Their selector switches have only two positions: “safe” and “fire.”
Anti-liberty activists avoid mentioning they have already had a federal ban on “assault weapons.” Weapons such as the AR-15, and magazines holding more than 10 rounds, were banned from 1994 to 2004 under the Clinton Administration. When the law sunset, even Democrats had to admit it accomplished nothing for public safety. It cost Democrats dearly in elections, and most have hesitated to to publically embrace gun control since, though their behind the scenes efforts never slow.
Assault Rifles: These are shoulder fired, magazine fed rifles firing an intermediate cartridge. They are not “high powered” rifles. Some assault rifles may look more or less identical to semiautomatic AR-15s, but they are available for citizen ownership only under the legal restrictions already outlined. The only way for most to tell one from the other without disassembly, is most automatic rifles have selectors with three positions: “safe,” “fire” and “auto.” Some are capable only of firing three rounds at a time on automatic, a “burst” option intended to enhance accuracy and reduce ammo waste.
Battle Rifles: These are shoulder fired, full sized military weapons firing a full-power cartridge like the .308 or 30.06. Because they are uncontrollable in full auto fire, they are semiautomatic firearms, though one can argue that some early bolt actions rifles were also battle rifles. They are generally larger and heavier than assault rifles.
Submachine Guns: These are fully automatic firearms, usually shoulder fired, which fire pistol cartridges, such as the .380 ACP, 9MM, or .45 ACP. There are, however, semiautomatic versions of some of these weapons that outwardly resemble their full automatic ancestors, except for having at least 16” barrels, another federal requirement. Pulling the trigger and holding it back will allow such weapons to continually fire until they overheat, malfunction or their ammunition is exhausted, in other words: true fully automatic fire. Like assault rifles, their selectors have at least three settings.
Machineguns: These are much larger and heavier weapons firing full power cartridges, and tend to be crew-served weapons, requiring a gunner, and one or two loaders to feed ammunition on linked belts and to carry them and the gun’s tripod. To save ammunition and to avoid overheating, they are usually fired in 3-5 round bursts. Some modern machineguns–such as the M249–are light enough to allow a single soldier to carry and fire them, but this class includes weapons so large and heavy they are commonly vehicle mounted, even miniguns, modern, electrically driven versions of the Gatling Gun, which can also fire cannon rounds. Such weapons are used to fire a great many rounds at fast moving targets, such as aircraft and missiles attacking naval vessels.
As to my background to discourse on this subject, regular readers know of my general firearms, military and police background. Those experiences, as well as an interest in firearms have allowed me many opportunities to study, fire, and to clean and examine many of the submachine gun designs currently on the market. I’ve a reasonable amount of practical experience with common general purpose (AKA light and medium), and a few heavy machineguns. I also hold an instructor’s certification for submachine gun from the American Small Arms Academy.
Most of what the public thinks it knows about submachine guns from TV and the movies is wrong. Unlike the shoot from the hip and spray and pray methods Hollywood favors, and unlike the unlimited magazine capacity full-auto shoot fests often portrayed on the silver screen, submachine guns are most effective when fired from the shoulder, when the sights are used, and when fired in two to three round bursts. There are potential uses for extended fully automatic fire, but they are relatively uncommon, particularly in police work.
Submachine guns may be generally understood to be relatively compact, short barreled, shoulder fired small arms firing pistol cartridges, and are capable of semi and fully automatic fire. There are various subcategories and variants of this description. Some weapons add burst capability, or substitute it in place of fully automatic capability, and there are even a few fully automatic pistols, such as the Glock 18–which is virtually outwardly identical to the Glock 17, and the Beretta 93R.
Because they fire pistol cartridges—most commonly the 9mm and .45 ACP—and because they generally have short sight radiuses and short barrels, effective submachine gun range is usually considered to be no more than 100 yards, and optimum employment is at common–25 yards and less–pistol ranges. Various red dot or laser sights may be helpful with submachine guns, as they are with many firearms, but most submachine guns, particularly first and second generation models, were not designed to be equipped with this sort of accessory, and require modification to accept them.
First generation submachine guns employ old-world manufacturing methods and materials. They tend to be time and labor intensive, therefore, expensive. Perhaps the best-known first generation submachine gun is the Thompson in its 1928 incarnation, and later, in the WWII era M1 version. Prior to WWII, the 1928 version cost over $3000 dollars in 2017 equivalent dollars. While the M1 was still too costly, it was cheaper than the 1928. It saved money by omitting bluing, an adjustable rear sight, the compensator, the ability to mount drum magazines, an easily detachable butt stock, the finned–for cooling–barrel, and the internal Blish lock, a device that was said to reduce recoil and smooth the action. Having owned a model 1928, and fired others, including M1 Thompsons, I’ve never been able to detect any difference in performance or feel.
Despite what some might consider flaws, the Thompson was prized by combat troops. It is still in use around the world. Its relatively slow cyclic rate of around 600 RPM is considered ideal by many and makes firing bursts of two and three rounds easy by trigger manipulation alone, which is how professionals fire such weapons.
Second generation submachine guns make use of tubing and stamped and welded metal rather than machining, using machined parts such as the bolt only when absolutely necessary. This greatly reduces manufacturing time and costs. They require little or no hand fitting. Common examples of second-generation weapons are the British Sten and Sterling (a more sophisticated weapon), the US M3 “Grease gun” and the Smith and Wesson M76. These weapons tend not to be pretty, but they function reliably.
Another feature of second-generation weapons is the suppressor, usually not as an integral part of the design, though some integrated designs were produced. Keep in mind there is no such thing as a “silencer.” Suppressors merely reduce the decibel level of firing to less than hearing damaging levels.
Third generation submachine guns continued the trend of second generation weapons in using folded, stamped and welded metal, but added a telescoping bolt that when closed encompassed some length of the barrel. This allowed a much shorter, lighter and more compact weapon while maintaining a reasonable barrel length. Folding and/or retracting stocks also contributed to shorter weapons, but often at the expense of proper stock length. This is not such a problem for people of small stature or those wearing thick tactical vests or body armor. Common third generation weapons are typified by the excellent Uzi and its several variants. The iconic H&K MP5 combines features of second and third generation guns.
Is there such a thing as a fourth generation submachine gun? If so, the Kriss Super V may be the first of the breed, and arguably, something approaching a fifth generation, though it may be too early to declare a specific fourth generation. The Kriss employs several unique design and manufacturing features. Making extensive use of plastics, and employing a unique and effective recoil-reducing mechanism, the gun’s appearance is unlike any other submachine gun and is also designed to accept now commonly available accessories. Employing the .45 ACP cartridge, the Kriss might be considered to be a logical evolution of the Thompson, while fixing its supposed size and weight drawbacks. The Kriss is far lighter, more ergonomic, much more compact, and more adaptable to a variety of missions.
Virtually all first, second and third generation submachine guns were not designed to easily accept accessory sights. When they were originally developed, such things either didn’t exist or were in their developmental infancy. However, various mounts are now available for most popular submachine guns.
Submachine guns fire from either an open or closed bolt. An open bolt is generally considered necessary for arms intended to be used in combat and subject to sustained automatic fire. If the weapon becomes too hot–and this happens incredibly rapidly under sustained fully automatic fire–rounds can “cook off,” or detonate merely by contact with the chamber, which can be dangerous indeed if the bolt is not fully closed at the time.
A pull of the trigger releases a large and heavy bolt to fly forward under heavy spring pressure, stripping a cartridge from the magazine, guiding it into the chamber, and when the bolt is closed and locked, firing it. This movement disturbs accuracy, though with correct technique and practice, this problem can be minimized.
The MP5 uses a roller locking system and fires from a closed bolt. While this is, to the way of thinking of many, an overly complex mechanism, it is undeniably effective and tends to enhance accuracy because when the trigger is pulled, there is no heavy bolt slamming forward to disturb aim. The MP5 family can overheat if fired on automatic for extended periods, but because these weapons tend to be used in the counter-terror and SWAT roles, extended fully automatic fire is not generally an issue. The good ergonomics, high quality, and accuracy of the MP5 contribute to its popularity.
The purpose of submachine guns–and machine guns–particularly in the military context, is to provide a high volume of fire on briefly exposed targets, increasing the probability they’ll be hit. In combat, and in counter terror and police applications, submachine guns are particularly effective at short range, indoors or outdoors. In such situations, it’s important to be able to place multiple rounds of accurate fire on targets to immediately incapacitate them. Properly employed, submachine guns work well.
With few exceptions, submachine guns should be fired from the shoulder, the sights should be used, and trigger control should be accomplished not with mechanical burst regulators, but by the educated and experienced trigger finger of the operator. Movie shooting—firing from the hip, wildly swinging the muzzle with the weapon on full auto, firing one-handed—are guaranteed to empty magazines in seconds and entirely miss one’s target while ventilating the surrounding landscape to no effect, other than damaging property and hitting innocents.
Even a 600 RPM submachine gun will empty a 30 round magazine in about two seconds of fully automatic fire. A 1000 RPM gun will empty a magazine much more quickly. Bursts of two to three rounds manipulated by the trigger finger are easily achieved with proper training and practice. However, with high cyclic rate weapons, this becomes more demanding.
There are many misconceptions about submachine guns. One of the oldest tropes is that the muzzle of a Thompson on full-auto will uncontrollably climb up and to the right. Nonsense. The Thompson is an eleven-pound shoulder arm firing a pistol cartridge. While the laws of physics can’t be repealed, with proper technique, the contents of a 30 round magazine can be easily fired on automatic into a paper plate at reasonable engagement distances. The same is true for virtually any submachine gun. A Thompson is not as easy to fire this way as an MP5 or a Kriss, for example, but it is certainly not uncontrollable.
Pistol ammunition fired from the longer barrels of submachine guns tends to outperform the same ammunition fired from pistols. This, as well as a higher hit probability with multiple rounds, accounts for much of a submachine gun’s effectiveness.
It is not unreasonable to assert that submachine guns are more potentially dangerous than some other firearms. However, all firearms are potentially dangerous, and automobiles are far more dangerous than firearms. As with any firearm, this potential danger can be eliminated by proper training and practice, and since 1934, there are only three known cases of a lawfully owned machinegun being used in a crime, none in a mass shooting. By any reasonable measure, there is no logical justification for overly restrictive federal regulation.
Movie shooting is just that: an illusion for dramatic purposes. Subguns are great fun to shoot, and properly used, are no less safe than any firearm. But submachine guns do have unique qualities that require proper training and careful, focused practice.