History Lesson: 5 Best WWII Guns

5 best guns of WWII: Literally tens of millions of firearms were produced during World War II. Some of the designs performed better than others, while a few stood out as masterpieces. Of these, five were truly the best of the best.

5 Best Guns of WWII – Best Bolt Action Rifle: Mosin Nagant Model 1891 Rifle

Arguably one of the most produced firearms of all time (with the possible exception of the much later AK-47), some 37,000,000 were manufactured between 1891 and 1965. The rifle showed already its age at the time of the First World War, when millions were produced. However, with the establishment of the Soviet Union, the production of the Mosin Nagant increased and the barrel underwent some modifications. The basic M1891/30 saw the barrel shortened approximately 3.5 inches to the length of the “Dragoon variant”. It would be the standard weapon of Soviet troops when the nation was invaded by the Germans in 1941.

Millions of rifles were produced during the war, and it remained the primary small arm of the largest mobilized army in history with some 17.4 million produced from 1941 to 1945.

This entry might seem controversial because the German Kar98K and the British Lee Enfield were much more refined. However, the Mosin Nagant was a rifle well suited to an ill-educated army of conscripted peasants and factory workers. It could be dragged through mud, it worked in extreme cold, and the rifle was reasonably accurate. Due to its 7.62x54mmR cartridge it had serious kick but also serious stopping power.

5 Best Guns of WWII – Best Semi-Auto Rifle: American M1 Garand

Here is an example of where American ingenuity shone during WWII – the M1 Garand was the first standard semi-automatic rifle, and it went on to become the most widely used semi-automatic of WWII. It received praise from those who wore it, while General George S. Patton even described it as “the greatest combat tool ever devised”.

M1 Garand. Image credit: Creative Commons.

M1 Garand

M1 Garand. Image credit: Creative Commons.

It fired the .30-06 caliber cartridge that had been used in the Springfield 1903 bolt-action rifle, Browning automatic rifle, and M1919 .30 caliber machine gun. It was a gas-powered rifle that featured an eight-round clip-fed magazine. This provided American GIs with more rounds than their German Kar98K counterpart, but it also meant that it was impossible to “top off” or add rounds until all eight had been fired. Despite the slight setback, the M1 Garand was a perfect weapon for the GI, and it was widely used in all theaters of operation with great success.

5 Best Guns of WWII – Best Submachine Gun: PPSh-41

The Mosin Nagant was an example of Imperial Russian ingenuity – with the help of a Belgian designer – but the Pistol-Pulemyot Shpagina was truly a Soviet marvel. It was already in development when war broke out in June 1941, as the submachine gun was a follow-up to Russian weapons designer Georgi Shpagin’s PPD-40, which, oddly enough, was first designed in 1934 but did not saw widespread production until the Winter War with Finland (1939-40).

This weapon turned out to be reliable enough, but an easier-to-produce variant was needed – and the result was the PPSh-41. Some six million guns were produced during the war, compared to about 19,000 from the PPD. Thus, the PPSh-41 was the most widely produced submachine gun of World War II (compared to the million MP-40s Germany was capable of producing).

The PPSh-41, like the PPD, fired the 7.62x25mm pistol cartridge that was developed for the TT-33 Tokarev pistol. The weapon was originally fitted with a 71-round drum magazine, which gave the gun its distinctive silhouette, but later a 35-round curved box magazine was made available. In an interesting twist, the drum magazine was a copy of the Finnish KP/31 Suomi magazine, which also contained 71 rounds.

The PPSh-41 was durable but rudimentary. But appearances could be deceiving, as the weapon could fire 900 rounds per minute. Due to its reliability, it was often used by German soldiers, especially in the latter part of the war.

5 Best Guns of WWII – The World’s First Assault Rifle: StG44

The Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44) was arguably the gun that changed everything. A passing glance might mistake it for an AK-47, a weapon it also no doubt influenced, but the era of the assault rifle began with the StG44. Its development is almost legendary. Originally designated MP-43, then MP-44, it was developed as a hybrid between the main battle rifle and submachine gun. The original name was due to German leader Adolf Hitler not believing a new rifle was needed. After the dictator saw the weapon’s potential, it was renamed Sturmgewehr, which means “storm rifle” or in English, “assault rifle”.

It was well suited to a new era of warfare, as German military thinkers noted that combat took place at ranges less than 300 yards, and much took place even closer. The standard 7.92x57mm cartridge was excessive, but the MP-40’s 9mm was determined not to be effective at this range. Thus, an intermediate cartridge 7.92 × 33 Kurz, also known as 8 mm Kurz, was developed, which was used with the rifle.


Image: Creative Commons.

The StG44 offered selective fire and featured a double-row magazine of 30 rounds. All of this made for a fairly heavy firearm, but deemed to be quite effective. It should also be noted that Hugo Schmeisser was the main designer of the StG44 and after the war Schmeisser was “detained” by the Soviets, where he was instrumental in aiding the armament program of the Red Army. For years Mikhail Kalashnikov said the StG44 had nothing to do with his design of the AK-47, but in 2009 he admitted that Schmeisser had ‘helped’ with the development!

5 Best Guns of WWII – The Heavy Machine Gun: M2 .50 Caliber

The Soviets may have designed the best submachine gun, while the Germans created the first true assault rifle, but leave it up to the Americans. The basic design principles of John Browning’s M1919 .30 caliber machine gun were used to “oversize” the weapon, resulting in the M2 .50 caliber machine gun.

It was mounted on tanks, planes, ships and other vehicles during the war. He then served in the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Even now, while the other guns on this list have long been retired from front-line service, nearly 90 years after its introduction, the M2 .50 caliber still remains the big workhorse of the US military, and it not coming out for pasture anytime soon.

An editor since 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He writes regularly on military hardware, the history of firearms, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing author for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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