In 1941, the German Luftwaffe, just as the Army, began to see the need to develop a weapon to take the place of the bolt action rifle and the gun. But, whereas the Army sought to develop a new cartridge along with their weapons, the Luftwaffe chose to stay with the standard full-sized 7.92 mm X 57 mm rifle round to meet a requirement for long-range capability and to enable the weapon to act as a light machine gun. What resulted was the most unique and advanced combat arm to see action in the Second World War. And yet, one that few people have ever heard of.
In the beginning, the Luftwaffe wanted a rifle that could be carried by their paratroopers instead of landing separately in containers. Up until then the MP-38/40 submachine guns and pistols were the only small arms their parachute configurations would allow a safe jump with.
The specification, known as LC-6, called for a design that weighed approximately the same as the bolt action K 98, but shorter, to where it was not to exceed 39.4 inches. It was to be select fire, firing single shots from a closed bolt for better accuracy, and open bolt for automatic fire at 900 rpm enabling better cooling. Magazines were to be detachable, holding from 10 to 20 rounds. A scope mount was desired, along with folding front and rear backup iron sights that could be used by sighting underneath the optic. Finally, the weapon needed to be able to fire the full inventory of rifle grenades.
Anyone reading over the specifications could tell it would be a tall order for any manufacturer to achieve, but several did and, even though the road was paved with lots of redesigns and malfunctions, a working weapon emerged ready to be sent down the pipeline. It was type designated FallschirmJaeger Gewehr 42, or FG42. Informally as production improvements were made, the term ‘Model 1’ was added.
The gun looked space-age for its day. Operating by a long stroke piston method, it was 37.2 inches long, and weighed 9.3 pounds empty. It had a large baffled muzzle break attached to the end of the barrel intended to tame recoil, though with automatic fire using a full size cartridge its effect remained marginal at best.
To further help controllability, it incorporated a straight-line layout, meaning the buttstock was level with the bore to help minimize muzzle rise. Atop its receiver was a detachable scope of either the ZFG or ZF-41 series, while attached and riding below the barrel was a folding bipod. Ammunition was fed from the right side in a box magazine and perhaps the most unusual feature of all was its firing grip which was sharply angled like no other weapon during the conflict.
In early 1943, Rhienmettal-Borsig began production of the first 2,000 for combat testing, until another company, Heinrich Kriegoff, took over after Rheinmettal proved incapable of mass production. Paratroopers generally favored the design and used it in its first famous combat action during the glider assault in the mountains at Gran Sasso, Italy to rescue deposed dictator Benito Mussolini from a partisan group. Subsequent photographs show paratroopers carrying the weapon which, strangely, never fired a shot during the action, nor did any other firearm. The next few months saw it deployed in small numbers in Italy, until its most famous battle at Monte Cassino.
From January 17 to May 18, 1944 a group of paratroopers, many of them armed with the FG42, fought a cycle of vicious battles from the ruins of an old monastery atop a hill called Monte Cassino, which overlooked a solitary road which led to Rome. Despite withering battles to dislodge them, the Paratroopers held their ground and only gave it up when ordered to evacuate. The FG42 gave a good account of itself as more new models of the 2nd and 3rd editions arrived, featuring small refinements such as an increase in weight to 10.9 pounds, reduction in cyclic rate to750rpm and a standard shaped grip.
The next widespread use of the FG42 was in the hedgerow battles and fighting retreat from Normandy after the D-Day invasion in June. It remained in combat wherever the dwindling numbers of paratroopers were employed, right up to Germany’s surrender on May 7, 1945.
Surrendered examples were looked upon with curiosity by the Allies, who tested them to learn about their salient qualities. The United States for example, made a prototype called the T44 belt-fed light machine gun, and used a few of its features for coming designs, such as the M60. Apart from that, the weapon quickly faded into history, mainly because it was expensive and never intended to fill a requirement beyond the airborne forces. In all, only about 7,000 rolled off the production line.
A special weapon intended for special men, the few in private hands today command a premium of tens of thousands of dollars when they (rarely) come up for sale. Museums hold the handfuls other specimens, giving curious onlookers a glimpse at one of the most remarkable weapons ever made, forever just a footnote in the world of combat arms.