During World War II, American G.I.s called the German MG42 machine gun “Hitler’s buzz saw” because of the way it cut down troops in swaths.
The Soviet Red Army called it “the linoleum ripper” because of the unique tearing sound it made—a result of its extremely high rate of fire. The Germans called the MG42 Hitlersäge or “Hitler’s bone saw”—and built infantry tactics around squads of men armed with the weapon.
Many military historians argue that the Maschinengewehr 42 was the best general-purpose machine gun ever. It fired up to 1,800 rounds per minute in some versions. That’s nearly twice as fast as any automatic weapon fielded by any army in the world at the time.
“It sounded like a zipper,” Orville W. “Sonny” Martin, Jr., who was a second lieutenant with the U.S. Army’s 13th Armored Division, said in an oral history of infantry and armor operations in Europe. “It eats up a lot of ammunition and that makes for a logistical problem, but it eats up a lot of people, too.”
When the war began in 1939, the Germans had a solid, reliable general-purpose machine gun—the MG34. But it was expensive and difficult to manufacture.
The German high command wanted front-line troops to have more machine guns. That meant a weapon designed to deliver a high rate of fire like the MG34, but which was cheaper and quicker to produce.
Mauser-Werke developed a machine gun that fired a 7.92-millimeter Mauser cartridge fed into the gun from either a 50-round or 250-round belt. What’s more, the company manufactured the machine gun from stamped and pressed parts, welding the components together with a technique that reduced production time by 35 percent.
The MG42 had an effective range of up to 2,300 feet and weighed 25 pounds. A gun crew could change its barrel in seconds.
True, the machine gun had its weaknesses. It used ammunition like crazy, possessed no single-shot capability and could quickly overheat. But its raw firepower did ghastly things to Germany’s enemies.
The mere sound of an MG42 firing took a psychological toll on troops. The situation became so bad the U.S. Army produced a training film intended to boost the morale of U.S. soldiers terrified of the machine gun’s reputation.
In one of the film’s dramatized scenes, a green replacement gets pinned down by MG42 fire while the narrator says that nobody else in the platoon seems particularly bothered by the sound—nobody but the raw G.I. who “can’t get over the fast burp of the German gun.”
“Well, so it does have a high rate of fire,” the narrator continues. “Does that mean it is a better fighting weapon than ours?”
What comes next is a “shoot off” between various U.S. machine guns and the MG42, along with other German automatic weapons. The narrator of the training film soberly describes the accuracy and slower-but-steady rate of fire of U.S. weapons.
“The German gunner pays for his impressive rate of fire,” he intones. “But you get maximum accuracy with a rate of fire that isn’t just noise! The German gun is good—but ours is better. Their bark is worse than their bite.”
But the reality is that the MG42 bit hard, killing or grievously wounding many thousands of Allied soldiers. James H. Willbanks, author of Machine Guns: An Illustrated History of Their Impact, describes the MG42 as being nearly everywhere on the European battlefield, either in gun emplacements or vehicle-mounted on everything from halftracks to Panzers.
“The MG42 was deadly and effective in the hands of German infantry,” Willbanks writes.
The deadliness of the MG42 even shaped German infantry tactics during the war. U.S. and British tacticians emphasized the rifleman, with machine guns simply supporting infantry assaults.
Because of the MG42’s devastating power, the Germans chose the reverse. The Wehrmacht placed the machine gunner in the central infantry role, with riflemen in support.
Each MG42 ideally had a six-man crew—a commander, gunner, a soldier who carried the weapon’s tripod and three additional troops who carried spare barrels, additional ammunition and tools.
When Allied troops attempted infantry assaults against positions protected by an MG42, the German gun crew would lay down withering suppressive fire. In most cases, all the attacking infantrymen could do was wait for a barrel change, for the gun to run out of ammunition or for a tank to show up so it could blast the machine-gun nest to oblivion.
The MG42 continued to serve in the post-war West German Bundeswehr. Rechambered so it would fire the NATO 7.62-millimeter cartridge, the Germans designated the weapon the MG3. It kept its blistering rate of fire.
Today Germany and 30 other countries still use Hitler’s buzz saw.