You may have seen this photo before. It shows Volksgrenadiers fighting in the Ardennes offensive by Germany in WWII. Like most people, I wondered what kind of rifle the grenadiers are using. It’s a Sturmgewehr 44 (storm rifle 1944), and it’s considered by many to be the first true “assault rifle”.
As the war dragged on, and Germany’s prospects of winning started to fade, the German army ordered a new type of rifle. Rather than the typical carbine used by infantry forces worldwide, this rifle would combine attributes of a carbine with those of a submachine gun and automatic rifle. Thus was born what we today call the “assault rifle”. Legend has it that Hitler himself named the new rifle the Sturmgewehr because he envisioned it allowing his armies to storm enemy placements and turn the tide of the war once and for all in the Third Reich’s favor.
Despite criticism from the Americans and British, the StG 44 proved to be quite an effective weapon. Chambered with a smaller round (7.92×33mm Kurz) than other German infantry rifles, the StG 44 didn’t have quite the same range, but within the 200 yards or so that most infantry combat took place it was plenty accurate. A selectable semi-auto mode allowed German soldiers to conserve ammo compared to their machine gun toting comrades. It also allowed soldiers to control their fire much more effectively, while a full auto mode still game them the ability to get out of trouble.
The major drawback was that it was heavy. Weighing in at 11.3 lb. fully loaded, the Sturmgewehr was not a light rifle. The bulk of its weight is due to the decision to use heavier stamped and welded steels for the receiver while preserving lighter, stronger steels for other parts of the German war machine. Despite this flaw, the StG 44 served the German forces well, particularly on the Eastern Front.
Like many Germany innovations during WWII, the Sturmgewehr 44 would go on to change the face of weaponry. Nearly every military in the world now equips their soldiers with assault-type rifles with the same basic capabilities as the StG 44. Also like many German innovations during WWII, the Sturmgewehr 44 was too little too late.
[Image Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1985-0104-501 / Lange / CC-BY-SA]