The 9mm Carl Gustav M/45 submachine gun occupies a unique place in United States Special Forces history for, during the Vietnam War, it was often chosen over the then troublesome M-16 series by members looking for a reliable, controllable and reasonably accurate weapon at short ranges. Once they fired it, the new owners found the ‘Swedish K,’ as it was to become known, a perfect weapon for close quarters combat. More specifically, Navy SEALs preferred it for its ability to keep functioning in sandy conditions when conducting over-the-beach operations. And as the war surged on, the gun became an almost required piece of gear for those long hikes in the jungle or traipsing through muddy swamps in journeys that tested every piece of gear’s reliability.
Before it met its fame in Vietnam however, the ‘Swedish K’ found itself on a drawing board in a country neutral from World War II’s devastating effects, but not its weapons. Here is when arms designer Gunnar Johnsson studied the most popular submachine guns of the conflict and tried incorporate the best qualities of each. For example, he found the salient feature of all these weapons were in the methods used to produce them. Stamped sheet metal had turned out millions of German MP 40s, British STENs, and Soviet PPsh 41s. It was a method that allowed cheap and rapid manufacture, but maintained the reliability, accuracy and effectiveness once considered possible only with exquisitely made prewar designs such as the U.S Thompson, or early German models.
Johnsson toiled through 1944 to produce a working prototype while under employment at the Carl Gustav arms factory. In 1945, his design won a competition that featured only one other competitor. It received the official designation Carl Gustav M/45 and was quickly put in production for the Swedish Armed Forces, and offered for sale on the international arms market.
Weighing 7.3 pounds and over 9 pounds loaded, the gun was a bit on the heavy side, but typical of weapons from that era. It featured a folding stock, which shortened the length of the weapon from 31 to 21 inches. It operated by simple blowback principle, which allowed it to chug at a controllable cyclic rate of 600 rpm. Its most important feature may have been its ammunition capacity. The Swedish K featured a 36-round detachable magazine, more than most available at the time, that was double-stacked and proved far more reliable than the wartime single-stack types.
As it began to be sold and licensed abroad throughout the 50s and 60s, the Swedish K found its destiny not in the hands of its mother country, but in the hands of a country that never adopted it…the United States. This came about because the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy special operation communities, as well as the CIA, quickly warmed to its ruggedness and effectiveness. Several ended up being taken overseas to Vietnam as the preferred weapon because it simply kept working in a combat environment where reliability was proving more important than accuracy. They needed it, for the issue M-16 was proving disastrous and, apart from the Russian AK-47, reliable weapons for Special or clandestine units would be in short supply until the M-16’s problems were resolved.
These units put the little subgun on the way to stardom when they began engaging Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers along the nameless trails and backwaters where the guns slow bark sang in response to the throaty crack of the more powerful AK. More often than not, the Swedish K emerged victorious, not because it was better, but because the men using it were. Despite this, it may have gotten its best advertising not in the jungle but in the city of all places, by a future Medal of Honor recipient who found it invaluable when assaulting buildings.
During the opening of the Tet offensive on January 31, 1968, two Viet Cong battalions successfully seized the provincial capital of Chau Phu, shattering defenses and cutting off several small South Vietnamese Army units at different locations. At the time, a U.S. Army Green Beret, Staff Sergeant Drew Dix, was serving as an advisor nearby and learned of individuals, including an American nurse, trapped in house near the city center. Unslinging his ‘Swedish K’ and stuffing pouches full of magazines, Sgt. Dix organized a relief force and set off for the house. He rescued the nurse and several others, then went to a different location known to hold prisoners, which was under small arms and mortar fire. Approaching the building, he was subjected to heavy automatic weapons fire and personally assaulted it, killing six Viet Cong with his SMG and rescuing two Filipinos in the process.
On the following day, he assembled and led another relief force which attacked a hotel, theater and other adjacent buildings where he not only killed several more, but captured 20 prisoners. Not done, he moved on to the Deputy Province Chief’s residence where he rescued the official’s wife and children, plus captured 20 more enemy. In all, he was responsible for killing 14 Vietcong and possibly 25 more, capturing 40 prisoners and rescuing 24 civilians. In the end, every bit of it was done with his trusty SMG roaring.
The pale blue ribbon was placed around Dix in a White House ceremony on January 19,1969 by President Lyndon Johnson as one of his last official acts as Commander in Chief.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in the bitter sands of the Middle East, the gun marched into battle alongside the AK-47 under the designation Port Said and a simpler version called the Akaba, both of which were being produced under license by Egypt. Despite the dry climate and just like in Vietnam, the Swedish K chorused with the AK, proving itself worthy of more than a passing mention.
But it was not to be. The late 60s and early 70s were a time of legends, and from the two great superpowers came the M-16 and AK-47. Both assault rifles, it was a type which sounded the death knell for the SMG except for use in increasingly small numbers by Special Forces.
So it was that, in a few years, Gunnar Johnsson’s creation faded from the scene as better weapons replaced it, only to be fondly recalled by those few privileged to have carried it into battle and witness it save the day.