Weapons of Imperial Germany Part 2: Handguns and Machine Guns


While the Prussian Army, and the later Imperial Army, was very forward looking with rifles and artillery, they were slower to adopt new models of handguns initially, although they were eventually a highly innovative and aggressive adopter of semi-automatic pistols. Similarly, until the true fully automatic Maxim gun arrived on the scene, the German army showed no real interest in machine guns, but after they were one of the most prolific early adopters.



For such a technologically forward-looking nation, the German Empire was initially slow to adapt and modernize with handguns. Prior to adopting the M1879 Reichsrevolver, an overall plain and unimpressive revolver, they had continued using a single shot percussion pistol for cavalry and officer sidearm use. The 1879 is a medium size, 10.6mm 6-shot revolver; perfectly adequate for its task, but lacking a simple, fast way to eject spent casings (shells could be knocked out one-by-one through the loading gate using a separate rod). The revolver stayed in service through World War I, although it was dated when it was adopted.


By the 1890's, German industry had made great strides in handgun development, and some of the first practical military semi-auto pistols came on line. The 1893 Borchardt was first, but it was not widely adopted (although it had a noticeable influence on several later), but the 1896 Mauser became legendary in its own right. While not exactly adopted by the military, it was widely used, particularly in World War I, where the Imperial Army purchased 150,000 in 9mm. The pistol was loaded from the top using stripper clips, with a fixed box magazine, and would also attach a stock allowing it to be used as a carbine.


Hugo Borchardt, inventor of the M1893, had an assistant who took the design to the next level: Georg Luger. Luger's 1908 design was adopted as the standard service pistol, and significantly overshadowed his predecessor. The Luger is an excellent, although a little overcomplicated and fragile, early semi-auto pistol. An artillery version had an extended barrel and could mount a stock for use as a carbine. Combined with the “snail drum”, it could be used as a semi-auto PDW or assault weapon (with the storm troopers) in trench raids.

German officers purchased their own equipment, and a variety of other pistols were in use, including Dreyse and Mauser pistols, as well as early Browning designs, mostly in 7.65mm (32 auto).

Machine Guns

Interestingly, the German army was slower on the adoption of machine guns, but the first one adopted was actually the MG01, which was a licensed standard Maxim gun. The MG08 was a German modified Maxim variant, and was widely used in the German military, as well as copied by other countries (Chinese Type 24).


The MG08 was too heavy and cumbersome to be easily moved, but the German war doctrine called for movement, particularly as Storm Trooper tactics were developed. The MG08/15 is not a perfect solution for a light machine gun, but adequate and inexpensive. Spade grips were switched to a rifle buttstock and pistol grip, sled mount switched for bipod.

Water cooled guns are not suitable to aircraft, so the water jacket was switched for a perforated barrel shroud, and the fire synchronized to the propellor, lMG08. Other variations removed further lightened the design to try to get more life out of the maxim design.

The first purpose-built submachine gun, the MP18 was a 9mm blowback submachine gun, with a perforated barrel shroud and a rifle buttstock. It used the same “snail drum” as the artillery Luger, with a 32 round capacity.

The Becker M2 20mm autocannon was a heavier weapon, the forerunner to the famous Oerlikon cannon. It was used in some types of German bombers and heavy ground-attack aircraft, as well as on Zeppelins and as an AA gun. It fired a relatively slow projectile, but was comparable in capabilities to a POM-POM (large caliber Maxim autocannon).

The Empire fell in 1918, in a brief revolution after the armistice ending World War I. Imperial weapons remained in service with Freikorps and other forces fighting in the East after the Bolshevik revolution, and German pattern weapons had been exported all over the world. Weimar Republic and the Nazi Reich continued many of the designs and practices of the Empire. German weapons of World War II and later are out of scope for this episode, but will be visited in a future installment.


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