The First Assault Rifle

By Will Dabbs, MD

All real men love guns. It’s hardwired someplace on the Y-chromosome right alongside a fascination with contact sports and the capacity to fix a broken toilet. Fighting that primal urge is just impractical.  

It is estimated that there are around twenty million AR-15 rifles in circulation in America. Nobody really knows for sure how many there actually are. More than anything else, that’s what separates us from the rest of the world.

The AR-15 is one of the sweetest-shooting firearms ever contrived. The ergonomics are arguably perfect, and the trigger breaks nicely after some trivial take-up. The gun is really, really loud, but recoil isn’t a thing. I used to be able to connect with a man-sized target out to 400 meters over open sights, but I’m old now. These days I can still do that, but it takes a little tactical glass up top.

Origin Story

It was naturally the Germans who brought us the world’s first true assault rifle. Rumor has it that Adolf Hitler himself coined the term “Sturmgewehr,” or Storm Gun. Allied intelligence folks translated Storm Gun as Assault Rifle and subsequently forever changed the lexicon. However, that first assault rifle was indeed a fascinating martial tool.

The same gun went by three names. The MP43 was introduced in 1943, and changed the whole world just a little bit. Essentially the same weapon was rechristened the MP44 and subsequently the StG-44. There were trivial differences, but none that mattered. They were all basically the same rifle. They also all fired the same revolutionary 7.92x33mm Kurz intermediate cartridge.


For starters, the MP43 is really heavy. Like 10lb 2oz with an empty 30-round magazine. By contrast, an M16A1 is 6lb 4oz. An M1 carbine tips the scales at just a tad over 5lb. The storm gun is all pressed steel with a spot of Bakelite reserved solely for the pistol grips. That made it cheap to produce in large quantities.

The magazine snaps in place from the bottom like that of your favorite M4. The bolt doesn’t lock to the rear, so you have to get serious about it when the mag is full. The charging handle reciprocates rigidly with the bolt and is accessible on the left. The fire controls consist of two disparate components. The safety is a rotating left-sided thumb lever. The fire selector is a push-button just above it. Left is semi-auto. Right is rock and roll.

The 7.92x33mm Kurz is substantially softer shooting than the more familiar Combloc M43 7.62x39mm round fired by the Kalashnikov. This combined with the gun’s prodigious weight thoroughly tames recoil. On semi-auto, the MP43 is a grunt’s dream, so long as he doesn’t have to hump it long distances.

The krauts taught their troops to run the MP43 on semi-auto. They were to reserve use of the giggle switch for truly dire circumstances. Screw that. It was just such a mindset that made those ghastly old Nazis so dreadful at parties.

Trigger Time

On rock and roll, the MP43 cycles at a positively comatose 500 rounds per minute. By contrast, an American M4 runs at around 750 and the HK MP5 about 800. The wartime German MG42 belt-fed machine gun churned along at a blistering 1,200 rpm. The synergistic result of this sedate cyclic rate and such portly dimensions is a uniquely controllable full auto experience. Even eight decades after its introduction, the argument could be made that the full auto personality of that first assault rifle has really never been bettered. Burning a couple hundred rounds through a vintage example will put a grin on your face even modern politics won’t remove.

Nothing else on the planet shoots 7.92x33mm Kurz ammo, so feeding a vintage MP43 is expensive. The ammo remains in production in Serbia, but that stuff’s not cheap. However, a little trigger time on the MP43 is a truly bespoke experience adequate to leave any real man in awe.

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