The Tragic Tale of
the German Burp Gun


The man sat in Room 4. I recognized his name immediately. I had seen him as a patient many times before. His body was old, but his mind was not. He was one of my last World War II veterans.

We got the medical tripe dispensed with, and I pulled up my stool. He knew the agreement. Every time I saw him, he owed me a new war story. Now you know why the waits in my clinic might at times seem excessive.

The German MP40 is one of the most recognizable firearms to come out of World War II.

A Tidy Little Tragedy

It was 1945, and V-E Day was about a week away. Everybody on both sides knew it was coming. Nobody relished the prospect of being the last casualty of the Second World War. However, some idiot felt they needed prisoners, so my buddy and a rifle squad struck out in the darkness across some river to fetch some.

They got their prisoners easily enough — two prepubescent members of the Volkssturm who did not fancy dying for Hitler in late April 1945. They found themselves on a street in a little Belgian town as the sun was coming up. It was time to turn around and go home.

My friend’s best mate was a guy named Sol. He was on point. They hugged the edge of a building that defined a modest crossroads. Sol whispered to my buddy that he was going to take a peek around the corner before they fell back. My friend reached for the sleeve of his jacket, perplexed as to why Sol might do such a foolish thing. The mission was over. There was nothing to gain by pushing any further. Sol was a great soldier with months of combat time. He had no idea what possessed him to take this unnecessary risk.

Before my buddy could stop him, Sol had stepped around the edge of the building. At the same time, a German Landser rose from the rubble with an MP40 submachine gun. The Wehrmacht trooper triggered an accurate burst and stitched Sol in the chest with about half a dozen 9mm bullets. My friend leaned around his comrade and killed the kraut with a burst from his Thompson.

The little American patrol fell back into a nearby building, Sol keeping pace. Once they were inside, Sol fell heavily back against the wall and slid gracelessly to the floor. My buddy said he just looked surprised. He bled out into his perforated chest in moments.

The MP38 was the precursor to the more common MP40. The receiver
details and holes in the magwell tell the two guns apart.
Photo courtesy Rock Island Auctions.

The MP40 family of submachine guns was the first mass-produced
military weapon to eschew wooden furniture completely.

The Gun

The weapon the German trooper used to kill this American, in one of the final tragic exchanges of the war, began life in 1936. Designed by Berthold Geipel, the MP36 never made it past prototype stage. It nonetheless laid the foundation for the revolutionary SMG that was to come. No more than a copy or two survived the war.

The MP36 evolved into the MP38, which featured a milled steel tubular receiver and a cast aluminum fire control group. The general outline was identical to the subsequent iconic MP40. Most of the parts interchange. The MP38 can be differentiated by longitudinal ridges milled into the receiver and a dime-sized hole cut in each side of the magazine well.

The MP40 featured a pressed steel receiver and synthetic Bakelite furniture. The buttstock was comprised of a pair of steel struts and a pivoting buttplate. Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov pirated the design directly for his subsequent underfolding AKM.

The MP40 fired from the open bolt and fed 9mm Parabellum rounds from a 32-round double-column, single-feed box magazine. Like that of the Sten, this magazine design was the weakest part of the system. It required a dedicated loader and was unnecessarily susceptible to fouling. Curiously, though the MP40 was almost universally referred to as the Schmeisser, the only piece of this superlative weapon that Hugo Schmeisser actually designed was its flawed magazine.

The MP40 became symbolic of the dark Nazi regime.

The MP40 is a prized military collectible today.

The MP40 weighed 8.75 pounds and cycled at a comatose 500 rounds per minute. The curious hook-like thing underneath the barrel was a rest to prevent the muzzle from dropping into an open-top halftrack under recoil. The Germans made 1.1 million copies before the war burned itself out.

The MP40 is a staple of period war movies. Indiana Jones favored the weapon as well. While the MP40 is great fun on the range and looks just sexy cool on the big screen, it was really designed to kill good kids like Sol. And I got all of that sitting in my medical clinic one afternoon tending to an old man’s blood pressure. It’s a funny old world sometimes.

Special thanks to World War Supply for the cool replica gear used by our reenactor.

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