It’s a weapon that earned the honor of being the first zombie apocalypse gun. Charlton Heston packs one in the 1970s cult classic The Omega Man. After bio-warfare wipes out most of the world’s population, Heston’s character Col. Robert Neville sprays deranged nightwalkers with automatic fire.
And speaking of deranged, Heath Ledger’s Joker wields one against Batman in The Dark Knight as he stumbles out of a wrecked van screaming, “Come on, I want you to do it, I want you to do it. Come on, hit me. Hit me!”
But before it was a movie gun, the Smith & Wesson M76 submachine gun was a weapon for those who those fought in the shadows.
The M76 was a replacement for another weapon popular with American clandestine operators and special forces during the 1950s and 1960s—the Carl Gustav M/45, a 9-by-19-millimeter submachine gun with a 36-round magazine manufactured in Sweden.
The M/45 was the main submachinegun of the Swedish army from 1945 until it phased out in the 1990s, but reserve units carried it until 2007.
The Americans who used the weapon began to call it “the Swedish K.” Light, rugged, capable of firing 550 rounds a minute and unfailingly reliable, Swedish Ks soon became a weapon in the arsenals of covert forces, particularly those operating in Southeast Asia as the United States became more and more involved in what became the Vietnam War.
Journalist Michael Herr in his memoir Dispatches describes “Ivy League spook” CIA agents who carried the Swedish K as their preferred weapon as they drove near the Cambodian border.
SEALs and Green Berets liked the Swedish K because much of their fighting was in the narrow confines of a jungle environment, where firepower and maneuverability were more important than range and accuracy.
SEAL team members also liked the fact the Swedish K is an open-bolt weapon, which allows a frogman to fire it almost immediately after a crossing the beach.
“You could see why it would be preferable to the U.S. Thompson or M3 submachine gun,” Alan Archambault, former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History, tells War Is Boring.
“A friend of mine who served with Special Forces in Vietnam relatively early on told me that by using foreign weapons like the Swedish K, it also helped to conceal the U.S. presence a bit,” Archambault continues. “I also think that Special Ops men tend to like unusual weapons rather than using standard U.S. issue weapons.”
“I know my friend was proud of using a Swedish K in Vietnam,” Archambault adds. “It was one more way the Special Forces were set apart from the typical ‘line doggies.’ It goes along with the Green Beret and other elite designations.”
There was just one problem—Swedish politics. In 1966, the Swedish government adopted the position of officially opposing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Pacifist Sweden placed an embargo on military supplies exported to the United States, including the Swedish K.
The decision particularly troubled the U.S. Navy SEALs, who decided to turn to a domestic supplier for a copy of the Swedish K. The Navy approached Smith & Wesson and by 1967 the company produced a clone, the M76.
It had all of the good qualities of the Swedish K as well as few refinements including a higher rate of fire—720 rounds per minute. It was also compatible with the SG9 suppressor.
In addition, Smith & Wesson experimented with a version of the M76 that electronically fired caseless ammunition. The gun actually worked well, but the caseless ammo couldn’t take rough handling, so the company scrapped the project.
M76s found their way into the hands of SEAL team members and some Green Berets, who carried them in many successful covert operations. But as the Vietnam War began to wind down, demand for the weapon decreased. More powerful weapons soon replaced it.
In 1974, Smith & Wesson ceased production of the M76. However, the weapon remained in the Navy’s arsenal for SEAL teams and helicopter pilots.
Law enforcement agencies also purchased the weapon. In fact, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center destroyed a cache of M76s maintained by New York state law enforcement agencies.
There was even an attempt to revive the weapon during the 1980s. In 1983, Mike Ruplinger and Kenneth Dominick started a company called MK Arms after acquiring the rights to the M-76 from Smith & Wesson. The company manufactured both new weapons and replacement parts for existing M76s that were still in military and law enforcement inventories.
The M76 enjoyed new life as a movie weapon, featuring in Magnum Force, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Dog Day Afternoon and Black Sunday.
But it’s in The Omega Man that the M76 gets the most screen time.
Not only does a leisured-suited, eight-track-tape-playing Charlton Heston have one in hand during almost every scene, the weapon in the film introduces an innovation—a tactical light.
In several scenes, the movie’s armorer used C-clamps to attach a flashlight to the gun’s barrel so Heston could hunt the film’s nightwalkers more efficiently.