As excellent as the multi-role MG34 machine gun of 1936 was to become, it became painfully apparent to German authorities that the weapon was too fine a firearm for the continuous demand of wartime production. Couple this demand with wartime attrition and German factories simply failed to keep up with the need which led to a more streamlined solution. Work gave rise to the equally-classic German MG42 General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) of 1942 - a design that lingered far beyond its intended window in history and saw production into the Cold War years under various guises thereafter. Beyond its effectiveness in the field, the MG42 is widely remembered for its distinct muzzle sound when fired, Allied troops quickly recognizing this quality and able to identify the gun because of it.
Mauserwerke engineers began redeveloping the MG34 as early as 1940. By now, the Germans were at total war with neighbors and in far-off places like North Africa so all of her warring services (land, sea, and air) required the MG34 but even five full factories committed to its production could not eliminate the shortages of the excellent machine gun. Experience in the manufacturing of the MP40 submachine gun - a streamlined production version of the MP38 SMG - showed Mauser just how to approach a more simplified production model and this small window of opportunity also allowed its engineers time to incorporate several design changes to the internal workings of the new gun. Ideas were taken from original Czech and Polish offerings while Mauser personnel also instituted their own. The result became the MG39/41 which ultimately emerged in its finalized form as the MG42 - known by its long-form name of "Maschinengewehr Modell 42". As its designation would suggest, service entry officially occurred in 1942. Design of the gun is attributed to German engineer Werner Gruner (1904-1995).
Amazingly, Mauser found the perfected balance of cost-cutting while retaining a robust end-product. This meant that the MG42 could be made available in number within cost and not falter mechanically under the stresses of battlefield abuse. Indeed, a single MG42 weapon could be completed in half the time it took to forge an M34 system. Sheet metal stamping was used for the barrel jacket and at the receiver and reduced reliance on machining and skilled labor added more production value in the long run. The quick-barrel change facility of the MG34 was retained - a trained operator able to complete the process in under five minutes. A barrel was recommended changed every 250 rounds fired so as to keep it from overheating. Unlike the former model, which fed from 50-round belts, a 50-round drum, or a 75-round twin saddle drum, the MG42 relied solely on 50-round belts or 50-round drum within an all-new feed mechanism. It also kept the ubiquitous 7.92x57mm Mauser German rifle round as its chambering and also used the short-recoil gas function with added pressure from an integral muzzle booster. The original rotating bolt function was dropped, however, as it was now replaced by a Polish-inspired method using a recoil-operated, roller-locked action. Sighting was through the typical iron arrangement though optics could be fitted as needed.
Production of the gun from Mauserwerke AG, Wilhelm-Gustloff-Stiftung, and Steyr-Daimler-Puch reached 423,600 units by war's end (some sources go as high as 750,000 examples). Production peaked in 1944 with 211,806 units completed.
In practice, the weapon could reach a rate-of-fire of 1,200 rounds per minute - an unheard of RoF for a light machine gun of the period. The high rate-of-fire naturally had a detrimental effect on accuracy - as was the case with the MG34 - and several design initiatives were introduced to help with this issue. However, the excessive vibrations were never truly fixed by war's end. As with the MG34 before it, the MG42 was quickly a favored weapon by German troopers but was just as easily limited in its reach by the German logistical situation. It was far less prone to collecting battlefield debris so jamming/stoppages proved less of an issue than in the MG34. The gun's baptism of fire occurred in May of 1942 at Gazala during the North African campaign. Guns were then available in numbers during the East Front campaign against the Soviets that year and quickly spread to the West in France and elsewhere, giving the stellar service required of it.
As with the MG34, the MG42 was also adopted into other battlefield roles without changes required of the base system - these included mounting on German armored vehicles and service as an Anti-Aircraft (AA) machine gun (its inherently high rate-of-fire was useful here). The "Lafette 42" heavy tripod converted the MG42 for the heavy machine gun role where suppression firepower was needed. This assembly reduced the recoil action to make for a more stable gunnery platform. In the squad level, light machine gun role, a folding bipod was set under the frontal section of the gun while all other functions remained the same. However, the high rate-of-fire reduced accuracy of the weapon when in its bipod guise so short burst fire or single-shot fire was recommended. The MG42 was not featured as a coaxial tank gun (save for the Jagdpanzer IV) like the MG34 was.
A typical gunnery crew could number between two and four or five personnel while a full German heavy gun section numbered about seven members. A single operator was needed at the minimum to actually fire the weapon and carry it into battle but an ammunition handler was used to both transport the required ammunition stocks and manage the belt feeding action. Additionally, help was always appreciated when attempting to clear a stoppage. Other personnel could be brought into play - extra persons carrying extra ammunition, spare barrels, and a tripod. A SMG-armed squad leader led the group and up to three riflemen supplied cover fire. The weapon weighed 25.5lbs and featured a length of 44 inches with a barrel length of 21 inches.
While always intended to supplant the preceding MG34 design, wartime demand and production reach meant that the MG42 actually supplemented the earlier machine gun in the same role. The German war situation meant that both machine guns were often fielded on active fronts side-by-side and both managed production into the final days of the war. Engineers continued to further the MG42 and this produced the short-lived MG45 model but the endeavor as a whole fell to naught as Germany crumbled on all sides.
The Americans attempted a copy of the MG42 as the developmental T24 but the intended .30-06 cartridge was never to play well with the restrictive German design. The MG42 instead influenced the Vietnam War-era M60 GPMG for the Americans which gave a long history. The M53 was a local Yugoslavian reverse-engineered version of the M42 by the Zastava concern using the same German cartridge. These were frontline weapons seeing service into the late 1990s. The Rheinmetall MG3 was a West German post-war model largely based on the original wartime MG42 but chambered for the new 7.62x51mm NATO standard cartridge instead. The MG74 was a local Austrian Army model adopted during the Cold War years. The Spanish CETME Amerli LMG held some obvious resemblances to the German MG42/MG3 and joined several other notable Spanish-originated, German-influenced firearms emerging during the Cold War period.