After World War 1 (1914-1918), the Treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans in developing or manufacturing any important war-making equipment including tanks, submarines, and automatic weapons. However, with the rise of the Nazi Party throughout the 1930s and the re-emergence of the German Army, much of the restrictions within the Treaty were skirted by German authorities as it rearmed for a new World War in Europe. By this time, German warplanners were entertaining the concept of a portable, lightweight machine gun an brought its usual companies into the plan.
For a time, the MG13 was its light machine gun solution. Introduced in 1930, it was a reimagining of the World War 1-era water-cooled Dreyse Model 1918 now modified for basic air-cooling. It fed from a 25-round box magazine or a 75-round saddle drum and was adopted by the German Army as its standard light machine gun for the foreseeable future. The weapon was eventually installed in tanks and on Luftwaffe aircraft but, on the whole, proved expensive to produce and offered a rate-of-fire of just 600 rounds per minute. As such, this model was pulled from frontline service as soon as 1934 and sold off or set into storage.
The relative failure that was the MG13 as a "do everything" machine gun prompted additional work to continue on a long-term product. Rheinmetall-Borsig, longtime German military industry player, arranged for a shadow company to be set up in neighboring Switzerland under the "Solothurn" name to circumvent the Treaty's limitations and pursue work on a new air-cooled machine gun design. During World War 1, machine guns were typically water-cooled which complicated their operation and transport unnecessarily. As such, tests were handled throughout the early 1930s which would soon reveal the perfected child of all of this development work.
The first true product to emerge from this initiative was the Solothurn MG30 (Model 1930) appearing in 1930. The gun was adopted in some number by neighboring Austria and Hungary as well as Germany but German authorities still held out for a more streamlined and portable weapon system, prompting continued development of the line. Within time, this produced the MG15, an air-cooled machine gun that proved highly suitable as a defensive aircraft weapon and went on to see large production orders after being officially adopted by the German Luftwaffe. The further evolution of this line then begat the storied MG34 - known by its long-form name of "Maschinengewehr 34" - and combined the best attributes of all preceding models including the MG30 and MG15 lines. The resulting system was so revolutionary that it produced the first true instance of a "General Purpose Machine Gun" - a category of machine gun detailing its multi-role battlefield functionality, the weapon capable of adapting to several roles without change to its core design. The gun was attributed to engineer/gunsmith Heinrich Vollmer.
The German Army moved quickly on adopting the new weapon and it entered service during 1936 in time for the German military buildup that would lead into World War 2 (1939-1945). Its original manufacturer was Mauserwerke AG but they were soon joined by the facilities of Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG, and Waffenwerke Brunn. Production eventually reached 577,120 total units from the period of 1935 to 1945.
At its core, the MG34 was chambered for the proven 7.92x57 Mauser rifle cartridge. The base gun system weighed 26.5lbs and featured a running length of 48 inches with the standard barrel measuring 24.7 inches long. The action utilized a unique short recoil-operated arrangement with rotating bolt action and recoil impulse added via a gas trap at the muzzle. Rate-of-fire of these early-form guns reached between 600 to 1,000 rounds per minute with select fire (single-shot, full-automatic) available on the basic models. Muzzle velocity reached 2,500 feet per second giving good penetration values at ranges out to 1,200 meters and this was increased some through use of specially-developed tripods for the heavy machine gun role. Sighting was through a typical iron setup which ranged out to 2,000 meters through 100 meter increments.
The MG34 featured an "inline" design meaning that the shoulder support, receiver/action, and barrel was all fitted along an imaginary line. This served the purpose of providing for a more stable, contained firing platform but that was not always the case. The shoulder stock was an ergonomically-shaped extension at the rear of the receiver with the receiver itself being slab-sided with a slim profile. The feed and ejection ports were easily identified ahead and the trigger group/pistol grip were underslung in the usual way. Ahead of the receiver lay the heavily perforated barrel jacket encasing the barrel assembly within. A conical flash hider was fitted over the muzzle. When used in the infantry support role, a folding bipod was affixed under the barrel jacket and hinged at the connecting point to allow the legs to be brought down. Such a long gun required this sort of frontal support, particularly when the firer lay prone.
Air-cooled machine guns held one inherent flaw in their design - their reliance on natural cooling by the air circulating around the barrel during firing. As such, barrels were usually shrouded within a perforated jacket to allow for such cooling to occur but the method was not a perfected solution for long, sustained firing - particularly of a support/suppression-minded weapon like the MG34. As such, short, controlled bursts were typically the call of the day regarding air-cooled machine guns. A 250-round limited was set on the barrel of the MG34 before changing was recommended and barrels held a lifetime reach of about 6,000 rounds fired. To facilitate this, German engineers developed a "twisting" action in which the receiver was unlocked and twisted away from the barrel jacket (while still connected along a hinge point). The operator could then access the barrel within the jacket through the exposed rear end of the assembly and pull out the barrel for replacement. A new, cool barrel (carried into action through a special protected tube) could then be inserted, the gun latched closed, and firing resumed as normal.
Firing was actuated through a two-part trigger arrangement that allowed for single-shot fire or full-automatic fire. The upper section was branded with the letter "E" ("Einzelfeuer") to indicate single-shot fire while the lower section was marked as "D" ("Dauerfeuer") for full-automatic fire. In this way, the operator could control both his ammunition supply and barrel heating.
Feeding of the MG34 was given special attention as well. In a stationary role, the weapon was usually fed by way of a 50-round drum or a 75-round dual-saddle drum (from the MG15 design). To lighten its load as a portable, squad support weapon, a 50-round linked belt was used. This could further be joined to other belts to produce the full 250-round count if needed. The use of the 50-round belt also weighed on the feed mechanism and slowed the weapon's rate-of-fire. Infantry appreciated this quality as it made the MG34 more controllable in the role.
Once in practice, the MG34 was quickly well-received by the various elements of the German Army - from specialist troops to general infantry. A minimum team of two personnel typically equipped a single machine gun section. One served as the firer and carried the weapon into battle while the other served as the ammunition handler and carried ammunition while also helping to feed the belts in and clear any stoppages occurring. Additional members were committed as needed - some carried extra barrels while others carried tripods or extra ammunition.
The design of the MG34 proved so tactically flexible that it quickly pushed into all conceivable battlefield roles - its primary purpose being that of infantry squad-level support weapon. In this form, it was fielded with a bipod and troopers typically utilized the 50-round belt for the role. Rate-of-fire was always a strong point of the weapon but control was such that operators favored single-shot fire or very short bursts for more accuracy. The heightened rate-of-fire did, however, play well into the role of Anti-Aircraft (AA) machine gun to which the MG34 was sat upon a spiked tripod with applicable equipment (including a large iron targeting device over the jacket) added for engaging low-flying enemy aircraft. For the Heavy Machine Gun (HMG) role - that is purposeful sustained fire in volume - the weapon was affixed to the "Lafette 34" series heavy tripod. This assembly included an integrated buffering mechanism that stabled the gun during firing. For the role, optics could be fitted over the receiver to better track and engage targets at range.
The MG34 held a quick-field-stripping capability to allow it to be cleaned, maintained, and repaired in short order. Its implementation of plastics helped to control its operating weight and these additions proved robust despite the abuses that would be inflicted upon the gun in the field. Given the MG34s precision engineering, it was prone to picking up all manner of battlefield debris which could lead to stoppages of the action/feed. As such, it was important for its caretaker to exercise a strict maintenance regimen to keep the gun free of anything that could potentially cause it to function to falter at the worst possible moment.
Another failing point of the MG34 - through no fault of its operation - was what plagued other prewar firearms: it was simply made to a high-quality standard that required much time, expense, and effort to produce. These qualities did not play well into the supply-and-demand nature of warfare once the war ramped up for Germany and the MG34 was constantly in short supply throughout the war as it was requested by every German service branch on every front. This eventually forced some five German factories to be committed just for the production of MG34 guns and additional resources, time, and energy were spent on manufacturing the various accessories and equipment fittings required of the gun to fulfill its various roles. The end result became an excellent weapon that was actually "too fine" for the rigors of war and this is what led to the development of a simplified version in the equally-storied MG42 line of 1942 (detailed elsewhere on this site).
Engineers did work on evolving the MG34 some during the war years. The MG34m featured a heavy barrel jacket as its intended use was as an anti-infantry weapon installed on the myriad of German armored vehicles in circulation. The prototype MG34s (note small "s") and its finalized form, the MG34/41, were both given shortened barrel assemblies (approximately 22 inches long) to help elevate their inherent rate-of-fire - useful in AA role - and were restricted to full-automatic fire only. The MG34/41 was intended to succeed the original MG34 model but this never occurred - curtailed largely by the arrival of the more streamlined and equally-effective MG42 series. The MG34/41 was never officially adopted into service though it appeared in some numbers.
The MG34 "Panzerlauf" was a German tank machine gun variant of the MG34. A heavier barrel jacket was used on these models with far fewer perforation apparent along its length. The shoulder stock was also removed to make for a more compact profile within the confined of German armored vehicles. However, a conversion kit was carried aboard to quickly make the Panzerlauf into the ground-based light machine gun form in the event the vehicle had to be abandoned. The kit contained the necessary bipod, shoulder stock, and sighting assembly to make the change possible.
One final MG34 form to make an appearance before the end of the war was the MG81 defensive aircraft machine gun for the Luftwaffe, replacing its aging MG15 line. The MG81Z ("Zwilling") was an offshoot of this line which essentially mated two MG34s side-by-side, their action connected by way of a single trigger unit. The breech was also modified to allow for feeding from both sides of the guns and rate-of-fire was an impressive 2,800 to 3,200rpm. Production of this series was limited as MG34s were needed along more valuable ground fronts of the war.
Despite the arrival of the MG34's successor during 1942 through the MG42, the MG34 was continually produced through the end of the war in Europe which arrived in May of 1945. While the MG42 was intended to replace the MG34 as a frontline weapon, it never reached its rather lofty goal and ended up only really supplementing the classic and excellent 1930s design throughout the conflict - although it rightly had its own story to tell by war's end.
The history of the MG34 is not restricted to German use in World War 2 for the type was widely used throughout the world during and after the period. Operators included Algeria, Angola, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Finland, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Israel, the Koreas, North Vietnam, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and Turkey. It therefore saw service in conflicts such as the Chinese Civil War (1946-1950), the Arab-Israeli War (1948), the Korean War (1950-1953), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), and can still be found in faraway places still doing battle today (2014).