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Bergmann MP 18,I - the "first" submachine gun

Maschinenpistole Bergmann MP 18,I

(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The Bergmann MP 18,I is the submachine gun that is often credited as the very first, as some sources discount an earlier Italian gun, the twin-barreled Villar Perosa, on account that it was originally fielded as a light support weapon fired from a mount. But whether it was actually the first submachine gun, as is generally believed, is up for debate. In fact, several submachine gun concepts came earlier. In October 1915 the Austro-Hungarian Standschützen-Battalionen conducted trials of a miniature, man-portable machine gun chambered for a pistol cartridge (8x18mm Roth), known as the Maschinengewehr Hellriegel. This was tested in the role of both a light machine gun fired from a prone position, and an assault weapon fired from the hip. A year later, in late 1916, the Military Aviation Corps of the Italian Army created the first official demand for a submachine gun when they requested the development of a single-barreled version of the Villar Perosa with a detachable buttstock. A weapon of this design was made in early 1917 and would later be adopted by the Aviation Corps as the Carabinetta Automatica OVP, with a small total of 500 guns being issued as personal defence weapons for observation crew. In fact, the designer of the Villar Perosa, Colonel Bethel-Abiel Revelli, had already conceived the principles of the submachine gun as early as September 1915, when he wrote that his gun could be made in a single-barreled version that "may be mounted in the manner of a rifle so that it may be fired from the shoulder".

Based on the available evidence at hand, it seems clear that Bethel-Abiel Revelli was the first to actually come up with the idea of the submachine gun. It remains a matter of controversy as to whether he had made a weapon matching this description before anybody else, but it is proven anyhow that the MP 18,I was merely one of many submachine gun concepts that were developed during the First World War, and that it cannot be referred to with any certainty as the first. While this particular area of research is still being studied, there appears to be no evidence that work on the Bergmann MP 18,I had commenced prior to the development of these aforementioned weapons. What is certainly the case, however, is that the MP 18,I was the first mass-produced submachine gun to see extensive use in an infantry assault role in warfare.

Influence of the Villar Perosa on the MP 18,I?

Left: Three infantry-pattern Villar Perosa submachine guns, likely captured at Caporetto in 1917, fitted to a German aircraft using improvised mounts.
Right: Austro-Hungarian Sturmtruppen training with a captured Villar Perosa in March 1917. The Central Powers were first exposed to the concept of
the submachine gun through samples of this weapon obtained from the Italian Front.

The Germans were in fact familiar with the Villar Perosa prior to the development of the MP 18,I. The Austro-Hungarians had captured quantities of the Italian weapon over the course of 1916, and by March of 1917, the Austrian Sturmbataillons - trained by German instructors - were training with Villar Perosas. From here, it seems quite likely that the Austrians would have introduced the Germans to this weapon. Additionally, the capture of some 2,200 Villar Perosas at the Battle of Caporetto, where German troops played an instrumental part in decimating the Italian 2nd Army, furnished both the Austro-Hungarian and German forces with a large pool of submachine guns to study and, in fact, issue to their own troops. While the Austro-Hungarians certainly made great use of captured Villar Perosas, even going so far as to manufacture a copy known as the Sturmpistole, details on the German issue of this weapon are still vague. It is known anyhow that at least some Villar Perosas were issued to the Luftstreitkräfte (the German Air Force) and were fitted onto aircraft. Since the Villar Perosas that the Germans had captured at Caporetto were actually infantry-pattern models designed to be fitted to a terrestrial mount, the Germans had to adapt these weapons to fit on aircraft using special mounts of their own manufacture.

German assessments of the Villar Perosa appeared in Die Technik im Weltkriege (1920) and Die militärischen Lehren des grossen Krieges (1923). No solid connection can be made between the Villar Perosa and the MP 18,I, but we must keep in mind that the Germans were certainly aware of this Italian submachine gun, and were also presumably aware of the efforts that their ally Austria-Hungary had made to replicate the Villar Perosa since the beginning of 1917. Therefore it is entirely possible that German studies into the submachine gun concept during the First World War were actually inspired, at least in part, by the use of submachine guns by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies prior to 1918.

The development of the MP 18,I

The design process under which the MP 18,I was developed has never really been explained, owing to the lack of available documents. A common narrative is that the MP 18,I was made in response to a request from the Preußisches Gewehr-Prüfungskommission (Prussian Rifle Testing Commission) for a portable machine gun in a pistol calibre, dating back to 1915. A requirement for a weapon of this type was supposedly decided after the Committee observed the test of a Luger P08 pistol converted into a machine pistol by Georg Luger. Another Luger machine pistol, designed by Heinrich Senn of the Waffenfabrik Bern in Switzerland, was also submitted to the Committee in 1915 and was tested by the Luftstreitkräfte in 1917 as a potential armament for aerial observation crew. The narrative goes that, after the development of a submachine gun was commissioned in 1915, design work on the MP 18,I began in 1916 under the name "Bergmann Muskete".

However, there is - to the author's knowledge - no documentary evidence whatsoever to prove that the MP 18,I was undergoing development as early as 1916. The earliest known record of the MP 18,I first appears in the German patent DE319035, applied for by Theodor Bergmann on the 30th of December 1917. This protected the bolt and mainspring design of the new weapon. A second patent, DE334450, was applied for by Bergmann on the 26th of April 1918, which protected the tipping receiver assembly. These patent application dates do not necessarily indicate when exactly the gun was actually designed - no doubt work had been actively undertaken for at least a few months prior - but it does give a rough idea of the timeframe under which the MP 18,I was completed, in absence of any other reliable primary sources. The period of late 1917 is consistent with the development of the MP Schwarzlose (described below), built to meet the same requirement as the MP 18,I; Schwarzlose reported that design work on their gun had finished in November 1917. It does not seem likely that any active work on submachine gun prototypes was being carried out in 1915 or 1916. Furthermore, any record of a "Bergmann Muskete" during the period probably refers not to the MP 18,I but to the Bergmann MG 15 n/A light machine gun, which was issued to the Musketen-Bataillonen (machine gun battalions who were equipped with light machine guns, primarily Madsen guns). In contemporary German military parlance, "muskete" was a term occasionally used to refer to light machine guns, not submachine guns, which were known as the "maschinenpistole".

Cross-section diagram of the MP 18,I's operating mechanism. The bolt travels on a straight blowback
principle in which it is unimpeded by any sort of locking mechanism. It has no mechanical safety.

It is well-known by now that the design work on the MP 18,I was headed by Hugo Schmeisser, the son of the famed German arms designer Louis Schmeisser. The younger Schmeisser was, at that time, an employee of the Theodor Bergmann Abteilung Waffenbau in Suhl. Prior to the development of the MP 18,I, Schmeisser had experience designing pistols and rifle calibre machine guns for Bergmann. The MP 18,I was essentially an exercise in combining elements of both. It employed a straight, open bolt blowback action in which the bolt, forced back by the pressures exerted by the discharge of the cartridge in the chamber, traveled unimpeded through the tubular receiver and was actuated by a thin recoil spring coiled around a guided buffer rod at the rear interior of the receiver. The cycling of the bolt, at a rate of approximately 550 rounds per minute, continued until the trigger was released and the trigger sear was raised. This action was of great mechanical simplicity and required few moving parts, however it also had a major safety flaw associated with it, in that an uncocked MP 18,I with a loaded cartridge in the chamber was susceptible to accidental discharge if the weapon was dropped. If the bolt was disturbed while sitting in the closed position, it could potentially be knocked open, causing the chambered cartridge to fire and setting off a chain of shots. To prevent this, a hook-shaped catch was cut into the rear end of the cocking slot which was intended to keep the bolt held in the open (cocked) position when loaded. There was no mechanical safety.

The MP 18,I's distinctive detachable drum magazine, the TM 08 'Trommelmagazin', with loading device. This was originally developed by Austro-Hungarian
engineers Edmund Tatarek, Franz Kretz, and Johann von Benkö. The TM 08 magazine was issued with the LP 08 'Artillery Luger' pistol, and was selected
as the standard feed system for the maschinenpistole in 1918 as pre-existing stocks were readily available.

It was recalled in secondary sources, written in the years following the war, that Bergmann submitted four different versions of the MP 18 for evaluation by the German Army, known as the models I, II, III, and IV. All of these variants were essentially the same in their basic design but exhibited differences in the magazine feed arrangements. The first model, the MP 18,I, used a TM 08 Trommelmagazin, a special type of 32-round drum magazine that was originally developed in Austria-Hungary but was adopted by the Germans for the Lange Pistole LP 08 carbine. The TM 08 (sometimes called the "Snail Magazine" due to its distinctive shape) was temperamental and not particularly reliable; additionally, since it was originally designed to load into the Luger pistol's distinctive grip, there were some difficulties in adapting it to load into the MP 18,I's magazine feed and a special sleeve had to be designed to prevent it from overfeeding out of alignment with the cartridge chamber. No details are available concerning the MP 18,II, however it is known that the MP 18,III and the MP 18,IV both fed from a straight, 90° magazine feed which took Mauser pattern box magazines, of the same type used in Mauser's experimental C06/08 pistol and C17 'Trench Carbine' (the latter of which was, itself, a probable rival to the MP 18,I as it was designed to meet a similar requirement). The Mauser magazines, which were made in 10, 20, 30, 40, and 50-round capacities, were double-stacked with a double-position feed opening, which reportedly gave a very reliable transfer of cartridges into the receiver. They were undoubtedly superior on a technical basis to the TM 08 Trommelmagazin, however the TM 08 was ultimately preferred, probably on both the basis that a large pool of Trommelmagazinen were already available from leftover stocks of the Lange Pistole, and also because the German Army were apparently already quite set on the MP 18,I before the MP 18,III and MP 18,IV were submitted.

Mauser pattern magazines of varying capacities, originally designed for the experimental C06/08 pistol and C17 carbine (left), were used in the later prototypes of the
Bergmann submachine gun, the MP 18,III and MP 18,IV. In 1923 the German Army officially recommended that all future submachine guns in service should use this
type of magazine, including the Dreyse (Rheinmetall) model that was slated to be a potential successor to the MP 18,I.

Rival entrants

Several other submachine guns were designed in Germany in 1918, which opens up the question as to whether comparative trials between the MP 18,I and other submissions were ever conducted. One of the main competitors to the MP 18,I was a design by Andreas Schwarzlose of Berlin. Schwarzlose's submachine gun was, in effect, a scaled-down Maxim with a high-capacity strip feed mechanism, somewhat similar to that of the Fiat-Revelli machine gun. Though it has been suggested by some writers that direct trials between the Bergmann and Schwarzlose designs did take place (with some even placing these trials as early as 1916!), Ernst von Wrisberg, writing in 1922, begged to differ, attesting that the adoption of the MP 18,I was decided "after the completion of a model of an excellent Maschinenpistole Schwarzlose, suitable for mass production, had not been finished in time". This seems to directly indicate that the Schwarzlose gun was not even in fit state for trials by early 1918 and therefore was a competitor to the MP 18,I in concept only. This is corroborated by archive documents uncovered in Austria by Mötz & Schuy, which reveal that the planned production of 100 trial samples of the Schwarzlose encountered serious difficulties and may never have been completed. There was, understandably, no longer any interest from the German Army in the Schwarzlose gun after the MP 18,I had been approved for service in April 1918.

The Maschinenpistole Schwarzlose, an abortive design made in 1918 as a competitor to the Bergmann MP 18,I.
(Tula State University)
Additionally submachine gun concepts are known to have been designed by Fritz Walther and Carl Hoffmann. Prototypes of the Maschinenpistole Walther were built, though the timeframe of this gun's development is uncertain; the first patent protecting its operational mechanism was applied for on the 25th of May 1918, five months after Bergmann's first patent for the MP 18,I. Nevertheless it seems almost certain that the Walther gun was intended to meet the same requirement as the MP 18,I, and may have been tested around the same time. The Maschinenpistole Hoffmann, on the other hand, appears only on paper and it is not known whether a prototype was ever made. Mention has also been made of a prototype submachine gun by Simson, converted from a Gewehr 88 stock, but no further details of this model have been forthcoming.

The MP 18,I's use in the First World War

There is a great amount of mythology surrounding the MP 18,I and its combat use in the First World War. It is commonly perceived, both in expert histories and popular culture, that the MP 18,I was deployed in great numbers by German Sturmtruppen throughout the last year of the war. But this does not appear to be true. Contrary to popular belief, the Bergmann MP 18,I did NOT reach the front in early 1918, and no MP 18,I submachine guns whatsoever were employed by German Sturmtruppen during the Spring Offensive. This is a rather persistent myth; the available evidence in fact gives clear indication that the MP 18,I did not see issue in any major German offensives at all, and was instead only fielded during the second half of 1918 when the Germans were firmly on the defence, struggling against a major Allied counteroffensive which would become known as the "Hundred Days Offensive".

The first German unit to receive the MP 18,I was the 119. Infanterie-Division, specifically the 237. Infanterie-Brigade, constituting the 46. & 48. Infanterie-Regiments, the 46. Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment, and the 119. Sturm-Abteilung. The 237. Brigade received 216 MP 18,I submachine guns for field trials in July 1918 - after the Spring Offensive had ended. Very soon after reaching the front, the MP 18,I received its baptism by fire at the Battle of Amiens, the opening move in the large-scale Allied counteroffensive that would last until the end of the war. Canadian troops of the 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders were photographed observing a captured MP 18,I from the German lines on the 11th of August. So contrary to the popular perception that the MP 18,I was primarily used as an assault weapon by German Sturmtruppen, we can see even from its earliest battle that the MP 18,I was being employed in a defensive role, as by August 1918 the German Army was almost completely burned-out and no longer had the operational strength to launch any major offensives.

The Canadian War Museum today holds some eight examples of the MP 18,I, including serials 193, 235, 242, and 266. The close serial number ranges of these guns indicates that they may have been captured from the same battle, probably at Amiens. These guns may even be part of the original batch of 216 guns that were undergoing field trials with the 119. Infanterie-Division, who were in fact present at Amiens. There can be little doubt that the guns in Canada today were some of the earliest captures of the MP 18,I from the front. Additionally the Imperial War Museum in London also holds ten MP 18,I submachine guns that are thought to have been sourced from the battlefields of France. These guns exhibit a rather wider serial range, the lowest being 146 and the highest being 3495. These are outliers; the majority of examples in the IWM collection share a relatively close serial range, including 1601, 1702, 1781, and 1865. These guns were captured on or around the Battle of the Selle on the 17th of October 1918, including one gun obtained by the 1st Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry, and another by the South Staffordshire Regiment.

None of the trophy MP 18,I submachine guns in the collection of the Canadian War Museum or the Imperial War Museum bear serial numbers higher than 3,500. This goes some way to showing how small the number of MP 18,I submachine guns that verifiably saw combat against Commonwealth troops actually was. The French Army undoubtedly captured many more additional examples but the serial number ranges of these guns cannot be commented on at this time.

Brigadier-General Victor Odlum observes a captured MP 18,I at Amiens, 13th August 1918. This was
probably one of the first examples ever issued, and more guns would be obtained by the British and
especially the Canadians during the Hundred Days Offensive.
(Library and Archives Canada)

Additionally, first-hand accounts of the MP 18,I in the recollections of German soldiers seem extremely rare. The author could only find one explicit mention of the MP 18,I in a wartime German memoir, which describes the gun being used in a skirmish by Lieutenant Eugen Rettenmaier of the 119. Infanterie-Division (who, as mentioned earlier, had received the first batch of these guns) against a British machine gun nest during the Battle of Cambrai in October 1918:

"Then he had the nest continuously fired by two heavy machine guns to hold down the crew, borrowed a maschinenpistole [MP 18,I] from one man, took the volunteers Kurt König (5. Kompanie) and Sergeant Valb with him and sneaked up on the annoying nest. When he got close enough, he waved his handkerchief. The machine guns stopped. Rettenmaier and his brave companions rushed at the enemy in one long, swift leap. How astonished he was when, instead of the one Englishman, he saw six tree-tall guys in front of him! Two wanted to defend themselves and took aim. Only one fired a shot. A pistol round shattered his arm. The others raised their hands and Rettenmaier, with 6 Canadian Highlanders and 3 Lewis guns, retreated to the battalion, safe and happy. The regiment held its position, but the losses were heavy. 9. Kompanie was mostly missing, 11. Kompanie still had 7 men and was integrated into 10. Kompanie."

Small-scale skirmishes and counterattacks such as this are probably typical of the engagements in which the MP 18,I was deployed. It is interesting to note that Lieutenant Rettenmaier is described as borrowing an MP 18,I from one of his men; it seems logical that the weapon should be allocated to men whose immediate duties required the use of a submachine gun, rather than it remaining strictly in the hands of the NCO who had been issued it. This demonstrates that some troops had a clear appreciation for the MP 18,I and adopted a rather fluid approach to its distribution, allocating it to the troops whose situation most required a submachine gun, somewhat foreshadowing the methods in which submachine guns would be distributed in the US Army during the Second World War.

German troops train with MP 18,I submachine guns late in the war. The MP 18,I was distributed to
assault troops of the 119. Infanterie-Division in July of 1918 but a full rollout did not commence
until several months later, meaning only a few guns actually reached the front.

The Small Arms Committee in Britain made tests of a captured MP 18,I (serial 219) on the 12th of September 1918. This was described as "a German Machine Pistol firing a .35in pistol cartridge". A full report of the "German 1918 Pattern Automatic Pistol-Gun" was published by the British General Staff on the 7th of October 1918 which not only went into great detail on the working of the MP 18,I, but also provided technical illustrations of it. However there was no interest from the British Army in adopting a similar weapon, evidence by the response of the General Headquarters on the 21st of July 1919 which gave a rather dismissive opinion of the MP 18,I:

"A really penetrating bullet is necessary to ensure to ensure that the enemy's problems in regard to protection shall remain difficult, to prevent the successful use of body armour, to force the enemy to keep thick heavy armour on his tanks, etc. A heavy high velocity bullet of small calibre (in fact a penetrating bullet) is also required to obtain a flat trajectory; this is necessary to increase danger space and minimise the importance of errors in range. It follows, therefore, that no weapon of the pistol nature can replace the rifle as the infantry's main arm. Its issue will accordingly be limited to those who for some reason or another cannot carry a rifle. This will give pistols a footing in the Army and a chance, if they show themselves worth it, of issue on a larger scale. No "pistol gun" resembling this particular German weapon is required therefore in the British Army, since it is apparently designed as a substitute for rifles and auto rifles, and this violates the principles already stated in this minute."

The French did not publish a report on the MP 18,I until the 18th of October 1918, when the General Headquarters described in a bulletin the emergence of a "Pistolet automatique 1918 I". This information was extracted from a captured German officer under interrogation, who claimed that the MP 18,I was made from "parts copied from existing weapons", including the magazine of the Lange Pistole. This officer also gave information to the effect that the German Army was intending to issue the MP 18,I at a rate of two guns per company, beginning in October; it appears by this point that the field trials stage had ended and a full rollout of these new weapons had commenced. The GHQ bulletin ends on the note that "it is highly important to secure specimens of it at the earliest moment possible", indicating that this weapon was not yet familiar to the French General Staff, though the British had, of course, already captured several examples and the details of the tests they conducted were probably shared with the French.

Alleged export? An MP 18,I claimed to have been used in the Turkish War of Independence, raising
the question of whether Germany supplied the Ottomans with a small number of these guns. This
is unlikely as there is no documentation supporting it, but nonetheless remains a possibility.

Sarsılmaz Museum)

As far as is known, no MP 18,I submachine guns were supplied to other countries in the Central Powers, as the gun was probably never exported during the war. The MP 18,I was of high priority for the German Army and they could spare no guns for their allies. The Austro-Hungarians did express some small interest in German submachine guns, specifically the Schwarzlose rather than the Bergmann, but they in fact had their own submachine gun programme that had been ongoing since early 1917 and were also far more interested in the Italian submachine gun, the Villar Perosa, than they were in the Bergmann. However the presence of an MP 18,I submachine gun at the Sarsılmaz Museum in Düzce, Turkey, which is said to trace its provenance to the Turkish War of Independence (1919 - 1923), raises the question of whether some of these guns were supplied to the Ottomans at the end of the war, possibly arriving in the same batches as the Bergmann MG 15 n/A light machine gun which is known to have been supplied to Ottoman forces by the Germans in 1918.

The total number of MP 18,Is manufactured during the war, and the number accepted by the German Army, remain controversial, as no definitive figures exists. Generalmajor Ernst von Wrisberg, the director of the Preußisches Kriegsministerium (Prussian War Ministry), wrote shortly after the end of the war that some 17,000 MP 18,I submachine guns had been delivered by October 1918. Von Wrisberg's estimate is backed up by the military acceptance stamps of guns reaching into the 17,000 serial mark. The existing serial numbers bear greater numbers still, reaching into the 30,000 range. A common estimate, based on the serial numbers of surviving guns, is about 35,000 units made in total during 1918 and possibly into 1919, after the armistice had been signed. Certainly the vast majority of these were never actually accepted into service and likely remained in the factory until a new demand for them was created in the interwar years. According to a French report made after the war, the Germans produced a total of 50,000 units in 1918, but only 8,000 - 10,000 were delivered.

As for the number that actually reached the front before the end of the war, we must assume that the number is far lower. It is impossible to gauge accurately but the best indicator we have is the serial number range of the examples captured by the Allies in the second half of 1918. All M.P.18,Is that were captured on the battlefield were low serial numbers, typically in the hundreds, and a reasonable estimate is that no more than around 4,000 guns verifiably saw combat.

The myth of the MP 18,I's impact - outlawed by Versailles?

Part of the myth of the MP 18,I is the idea that the gun proved so effective in trench combat during 1918 that the Allies, fearful of this new German weapon, immediately pressed for it to be banned from both production and military issue when they negotiated the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. This claim is almost ubiquitous with every history of the MP 18,I written. But despite this, there appears to be no documented proof that it is true. First it is useful to actually examine the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, as both described in the original document and in contemporary German reports. The treaty itself never mentions submachine guns or machine pistols whatsoever. Restrictions on the issue of military armaments to the post-1920 German Army are laid out in Tables No. II & No. III of the treaty which gives the number of rifles, carbines, heavy machine guns, and light machine guns as follows:

Material Infantry Division (1) For 7 Infantry Divisions (2) Cavalry Divisions (3) For 3 Cavalry Divisions (4) Two Army Corps Headquarters Staffs (5) Total of Columns 2, 4, and 5 (6)
Rifles 12,000 84,000 0 0 This establishment must be drawn from the increased armaments of the divisional infantry. 84,000
Carbines 0 0 6,000 18,000 Per above 18,000
Heavy Machine Guns 108 756 12 36 Per above 792
Light Machine Guns 162 1,134 0 0 Per above 1,134

There is no mention whatsoever of submachine guns, machine pistols, automatic pistols, machine carbines, or any terminology that could be equated to the submachine gun. The closest reference to submachine guns in the Versailles Treaty is a clause that appears in some copies that reads "Automatic rifles and carbines are to be counted as light machine guns". This is probably intended to mean self-loading rifles, such as the Mondragón or the Mauser autoloaders, but it may also have encompassed submachine guns like the MP 18,I. Nevertheless this is never explicitly specified, and even taking it into account, this does not constitute a ban, but rather a restriction to 1,134 guns. This number is so low that, in effect, it would have completely stunted the German Army's distribution of weapons of this type, but it must be stressed that nowhere does Versailles say that the MP 18,I would be banned from military issue.

Regarding the production of submachine guns, again there is nothing in the treaty that says that Germany was not allowed to manufacture these weapons. Article 168 reads that "The manufacture of arms, munitions, or any war material, shall only be carried out in factories or works the location of which shall be communicated to and approved by the Governments of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, and the number of which they retain the right to restrict". This indicates that manufacture of submachine guns would have been permissible in factories which were given approval from the Inter-Allied Commission. According to the research of author Paul Cornish, the Bergmann company was not named in the list of establishments that were prohibited from manufacturing war materials (though in any case, the Bergmann arms factory ceased operations after the war).

The idea that the MP 18,I was immediately banned from military issue is not backed up by the official bulletins issued in the days and months following the Treaty of Versailles coming into effect. On the 11th of January 1920, the Reichswehrministerium instructed that troops would continue to be trained with the MP 18,I, and the training schools would continue receiving these guns. On the 22nd of January, comment was made on the need for these weapons amongst specialist troops such as engineers, scouts, and line-of-communications personnel. Finally, in August, the Reichswehrministerium ordered that "The machine pistols, anti-aircraft rifles and infantry ammunition that are used [in these guns] remain with the troops of the Reichswehr until further instructions are given", confirming that the MP 18,I had not been banned from issue as other weapons mentioned in the orders had been, though casting some ambiguity on the future of the gun in military service. By June 1921, it was declared that both the LP 08 and the MP 18,I had been "discontinued"; this likely marks the point when the MP 18,I began to be retired from Reichswehr service. The LP 08 was not banned under Versailles so its retirement from service here, along with the MP 18,I, could have simply been a decision made during the reorganization of the Reichswehr during this period. We must consider that the submachine gun rapidly lost tactical relevance after the end of the war, and that the Reichswehr may have abandoned the MP 18,I to allocate more resources to light machine gun sections.

The belief that the MP 18,I was banned from military service after Versailles seems to stem from a later outline of restrictions to the Reichswehr published in 1924, called The Treaty of Versailles and its Implementation, in which the weapon is excluded from the list of accepted ordnance. However, the maschinenpistole does not appear on the list of prohibited ordnance either, leaving its legality quite open to interpretation. The MP 18,I had already been retired from service by this point so perhaps it was simply overlooked by the authors, who did not consider it relevant enough to warrant clarification. One article published in Militär-Wochenblatt (Germany's leading military journal at the time) in 1924 commented that "the maschinenpistole has so far been a weapon of the Schußpolizei, not the Reichswehr". While this does not provide confirmation one way or the other, the wording does appear to indicate that the allocation of the MP 18,I to police forces was a choice rather than an imposition, as it does not exclude the possibility that submachine guns could be issued to the Reichswehr in the future.

The MP 18,I's real trial by fire: Revolutionary Germany

It was not on the battlefields of France that the MP 18,I earned its reputation, but really in the streets of Germany itself; after the German capitulation in November 1918, the country found itself embroiled with domestic strife in the form of the Communist-led Spartacist Uprising. One of the most notable post-war users of the MP 18,I were the Freikorps - right-wing paramilitaries formed by war veterans to combat the revolutionary forces. The Freikorps were modeled on the Army and armed themselves with weapons appropriated from military depots. Many MP 18,I submachine guns that had not been sent to the front were issued to Freikorps volunteers; the government, who collaborated closely with the Freikorps to crush the Spartacist Uprising, initially did little to stop these guns from falling into paramilitary hands. The MP 18,I proved to be particularly popular among these irregular forces, as it was ideal for short-range urban fighting and civilian policing duties.

Following the end of the war and the enactment of the Treaty of Versailles, the MP 18,I was gradually retired from military service and allocated to police forces, particularly the
Sicherheitspolizei (SiPo; 'Security Police'), a state-organized paramilitary force derived from the Freikorps and funded by the Reichswehr. The Weimar government's implementation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1924 approved the distribution of maschinenpistole by the Ordnungspolizei (uniformed police, though probably meaning the SiPo) at their own discretion, provided that they were not issued at a rate any higher than one gun for every twenty men. These weapons were stamped '1920' (the date that the treaty came into effect) to signify that they had been approved for government issue. These guns were in legal possession of the German state, but many more of the c. 50,000 guns that had been produced slipped through the government's fingers and into the hands of unofficial paramilitaries or criminal elements. The unchecked trafficking of these deadly guns soon backfired, culminating in 1923 when the Weimar government Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated by ultranationalist terrorists who fired on him with a stolen MP 18,I. During the subsequent inquiry into the murder, questions were asked about how the assassins acquired this weapon. It attracted more media attention than the MP 18,I had ever received during the war itself, and generated notoriety comparable (though not quite reaching the same levels) to the infamy that surrounded the use of the Thompson gun by gangsters in the United States.

A Bavarian Freikorps volunteer loads an MP 18,I during a drilling exercise in 1919 (left). The Freikorps were a major user of the
MP 18,I in post-war Germany, along with the paramilitary Sicherheitspolizei (right), who were permitted to use these weapons.

Second Wind: the Swiss MP 18

Having abandoned the production of armaments at his own factory, Theodore Bergmann licensed his submachine gun to Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft in Neuhausen am Rheinfall, Switzerland, in the hopes that they would be able to generate post-war sales for the gun on the international market (this would not have been possible under a domestic manufacturer, as German arms exports were heavily restricted after 1920). However the weapon that SIG manufactured was not, as is commonly reported, a copy of the MP 18,I. The exact details of the arrangement that was struck between SIG and Bergmann is not exactly known, however the presence of an MP 18,III in SIG's museum collection today indicates that Theodor Bergmann sent a sample of that gun for SIG to study, rather than the MP 18,I. This also might be an indicator that the MP 18,III was either Bergmann or SIG's preferred model of the gun.

The SIG Bergmann, as per the MP 18,III and MP 18,IV, utilized a box magazine feed taking Mauser pattern magazines. This is easily distinguishable from the feed system of the MP 18,I and the later Schmeisser submachine guns by the fact that the magazine release catch, which is rectangular in shape, is located underneath the feed housing rather than on top of it. The magazines provided with this gun were typically of the 50 round capacity, though 40 round magazines were also made for the gun. Other than the magazine arrangement, the SIG Bergmann only differed from the MP 18,I in detail improvements; the rear sight was changed from a notch sight to an adjustable tangent, graduating up to 1,000 metres; the bolt was slightly lengthened; and two locking lugs were cut into the internal chamber wall.

The SIG Bergmann submachine gun, a licensed copy of the MP 18,III made at SIG in Switzerland. This example
has had its bolt replaced with that of an MP 18,I; typically the SIG Bergmann would have a rounded cocking
handle instead of a curved lever. The magazine feed takes 50-round Mauser box magazines.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

SIG took up production of the MP 18,III as simply the 'Bergmann Machine Pistol', with no model number ever given, though it is nonetheless referred to in some sources as the SIG Model 1920. This does not appear to have been an official designation. It was offered for international export sale in the 1920s and 30s, and until the introduction of the MP 28,II (detailed below), this was the only version of the Bergmann that could be purchased through legitimate sales. Sales of the SIG Bergmann were made to Finland, Estonia, China, Japan, Brazil, Bolivia, and Thailand, among other countries. The predominant calibres in which these guns were made were 7.63x25mm Mauser and 7.65x21mm Parabellum; small numbers were made for 9x19mm Parabellum, mainly for domestic Swiss contracts, but these were not widely used. The MP 18,I was never made for any cartridge except 9x19mm Parabellum, and so any reports of an MP 18,I in the Mauser cartridge is almost certainly a SIG Bergmann.

It should also be noted that a substantial quantity of copies of the SIG Bergmann submachine gun were produced in China without license. These were made at various factories, most prominently the military arsenals at Tsing Tao, Dagu, and Hanyang. Some of these copies exhibited variations in the design, such as the lengthening of the receiver and the relocation of the magazine feed from a horizontal position to a vertical position. The standard of manufacture varied greatly depending on the factory of origin. In 1925 the Chinese Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek officially adopted a copy of the SIG Bergmann with vertical feed, designated as the '15th Year Portable Machine Gun', or Type 15. These are usually and incorrectly labelled as copies of the MP 18,I.

In 1923, SIG introduced a new feature, entirely of their own design, to the Bergmann submachine gun which permitted the ability to fire single shots. This came in the form of a special trigger sear which gave two different fire modes depending on the pressure with which the trigger was pulled; a half-pull would give semi-automatic fire, whereas a complete depression of the trigger gave automatic fire. The MP 18,I never had any kind of fire selector and so this was quite a significant improvement over the original German design. The pressure trigger was not, however, installed as standard on all examples of the SIG Bergmann; rather, it seems to have been an optional choice that was only fitted to some guns. Most of these were sold to Finland.

As far as is known, Hugo Schmeisser had no involvement whatsoever in the development of the SIG Bergmann submachine gun, as he was no longer working for Theodor Bergmann by this point, nor did he control the patents associated with the MP 18 design. Beyond licensing the design to SIG, the extent of Theodor Bergmann's personal involvement in the project is also not known. Most of the work on this gun was probably overseen by SIG's director Gotthard End. Production of the SIG Bergmann ceased in about 1927 - 1930, but sales continued up until the Second World War.

The MP Schmeisser I & II

Back in Germany, Hugo Schmeisser continued work on submachine guns at his new employer, C.G. Haenel. This work was undertaken independently of Theodor Bergmann or SIG. At an unknown date, probably around the mid-1920s, Schmeisser built a small series of prototypes - possibly numbering no more than ten - which were known as the MP Schmeisser. These were essentially no different from the MP 18,III or MP 18,IV (and thus by extension the SIG Bergmann), except for the addition of a fire selector switch above the trigger group, which took the form of a push-in button which, when depressed, would interrupt the sear and produce only single shots. This was an improvement over the MP 18, which had no semi-automatic function. The magazine housings of these guns, which were of the Mauser type, were stamped 'M.P. Schmeisser I.'

Left: The MP Schmeisser I, an improved version of the MP 18 made at C.G. Haenel in the 1920s. It bears a Mauser pattern magazine feed and a
button-type fire selector switch located just above the trigger.
Right: Hugo Schmeisser demonstrating the MP Schmeisser I, or MP 28,I, probably
around the mid-1920s.

Returning to the point that German submachine gun development was supposedly banned in the interwar period, it is occasionally claimed that the design of the MP Schmeisser was undertaken in secrecy to evade the Inter-Allied Commission of Control, though how "secret" this process actually was is questionable as an example of a surviving prototype (shown above) is clearly marked with the C.G. Haenel factory stamp and Schmeisser was photographed holding the weapon - neither Haenel nor Schmeisser appears to have been going to great lengths to cover their tracks. Trials of the weapon were reportedly undertaken by the Reichswehr at Kummersdorf in 1925, along with a rival design by Heinrich Vollmer known as the VMP. These trials yielded no decision and there was only limited interest in submachine guns from the Reichswehr at that time.

Subsequently an improved version of the MP Schmeisser appeared in the later 1920s. This was called the 'MP Schmeisser Mod. 28/II'. The numerical suffix indicates that this was probably the second iteration of the MP Schmeisser, after the earlier 'I' prototype. The fire selector button was retained on this model but many additional improvements were also made, primarily in the magazine feed and recoil spring. This was the first model Schmeisser to abandon both the Trommelmagazin and Mauser pattern feed systems in favour of an entirely new box magazine of Schmeisser's own design. The Schmeisser magazine was double stack but, unlike the Mauser magazine, it had a single-position feed opening. The feed lips were reinforced with a strengthened bracket which was intended to prevent the deformation of the magazine opening (which was reportedly a common problem with the Mauser magazines). However the result of this change from a double-position to a single-position feed was an inferior magazine that gave a far less reliable feed, and would be the cause of many problems not just for the MP Schmeisser, but also future German submachine guns that fed from Schmeisser's magazine, including the MP 38 and MP 40.

The MP Schmeisser Mod. 28/II, or MP 28,II. Manufactured by C.G. Haenel, this gun had several new features
including a wide diameter recoil spring and a proprietary box magazine feed.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The MP Schmeisser was not adopted by the Reichswehr and so export sales were Haenel's main source of generating interest in this weapon. However prior to the Nazi seizure of power, Germany was still subject to export restrictions, and therefore Haenel came into an arrangement with two foreign companies, Pieper in Belgium and Veland in the Netherlands. Pieper ostensibly served as the "manufacturer" of these early model MP Schmeissers, which were distinguishable by their rounded cocking handles as opposed to the standard curved lever type which was typically used in the Schmeisser and Bergmann guns. Additionally, some of these early guns were "sanitized", with no markings on the magazine housing except for a serial number, and occasionally they were fitted with a special type of bayonet mount that screwed onto the ventilation holes of the barrel jacket. Later, the marking "ANCIENS ETABLISSMENTS PIEPER S.A. HERSTAL" was added, in addition to proofing stamps by Woit Nicolas Cominoto. It should be noted, however, the Pieper did not actually manufacture any of these guns. All of these supposedly Belgian-made Schmeissers were made at Haenel and the parts were simply sent to Pieper for assembly.

By 1933, with the Nazis gaining power and the Inter-Allied Commission of Control no longer enforcing the Versailles restrictions, the pretense of Belgian manufacture was abandoned, and Haenel was free to openly manufacture the MP Schmeisser. These guns were now stamped 'M.P.28,II', giving rise to the common name of this gun: the MP 28 (or more accurately MP 28,II). Export sales of the MP 28,II were made to Brazil, Bolivia, Finland, Romania, among many other countries. The Spanish manufactured an unlicensed copy of this gun known as the 'Avispero' and later, during the Second World War, the British produced a loose copy called the Lanchester. Although it is sometimes claimed that the MP 28,II was purchased by China and Japan, the Japanese in fact only bought a handful of trial guns and there is no good evidence of its use in China. These claims are simply suppositions based on misidentification of the SIG Bergmann submachine gun which was widely used in those countries.

Demonstration of the MP Schmeisser Mod. 28/II by German police, circa 1933. Note the special magazine pouches. A small quantity
of MP 28,II submachine guns were purchased by the police in the 1930s, though these did not replace the MP 18,I.


From the MP 28,II, a variant of the MP 18,I was born, which is sometimes called the 'MP 18,Iv' (with the 'v' supposedly standing for 'verbessent' or 'improved'). This designation appears to be unofficial as it cannot be found in contemporary documentation. The guns themselves are instead marked 'M.P.18,I SYSTEM SCHMEISSER'. The so-called MP 18,Iv was a conversion of the MP 18,I from a 45° Trommelmagazin feed to a 90° Schmeisser box magazine feed. These conversions were carried out at C.G. Haenel on the request of German police forces that retained MP 18,Is in their arsenals. It is commonly assumed that the MP 18,Iv conversions were undertaken from 1920 onward, predating the MP 28,II. This derives from confusion over the '1920' property stamps that were added after the Treaty of Versailles. In fact, the MP 18,Iv conversions were not undertaken until the 1930s. It was merely a cheap and economical way for the German police to update their existing stocks of MP 18,I submachine guns to feed from the new Schmeisser box magazine without having to purchase entirely new orders of MP 28,IIs.

The so-called "MP 18,Iv", a modified version of the MP 18,I using the 'System Schmeisser' magazine feed
and the 'Blocksicherung' safety lock. These guns were converted from old MP 18,Is in police issue.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The vast majority of MP 18,Ivs were later fitted with a device known as the Blocksicherung, which was a mechanical safety device intended to remedy the problem of accidental discharge when the bolt was in the closed position. This was a switch screwed onto the forward receiver which, when applied, would interrupt the bolt path and block the bolt from reciprocating backward, therefore preventing it from cycling. The Blocksicherung was also fitted to most Erma EMP submachine guns in German police and SS issue, and were less commonly fitted to MP 28s.

MP 18,Is distributed to Nazi allies

Under the Nazi government of Hitler, old stocks of MP 18,I submachine guns were distributed as foreign aid to allies of the Third Reich in neighboring countries. These predominantly fell into the hands of militant fascist groups in France, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Submachine guns were favoured as weapons for irregular troops since they were light, easily concealable, and did not require much training to employ effectively. In France, deliveries of the MP 18,I, MP 28,II, and MP 35/I submachine guns were made to the far-right nationalist organization La Cagoule. The so-called 'Cagoulists' acted as French agents of Hitler and Mussolini, performing favours for their governments in exchange for arms, including the assassination of left-wing political dissidents. However several Cagoulist arms dumps were discovered by the French police and destroyed prior to the Second World War, and the organization's reign of terror never evolved into a real armed uprising.

MP 18,I and MP 28,II submachine guns were distributed to the Austrian SS - an unofficial offshoot of the original German organization - during their exile from their home country. The Austrian Nazi Party was banned after their attempted coup in 1934 but many members of the militant wing of the party went to Germany to receive training by the SS. The intent was to send these trained militants back to Austria to foment armed resistance against the government, but a second coup never materialized and instead Austria was absorbed into Nazi Germany through annexation in 1938.

MP 18,I submachine guns confiscated by the Czechoslovakian police in 1938, during the Sudetan Uprising. These guns
were distributed to pro-Nazi sabotage teams operating in the Sudetenland, before it was annexed later that year.

In Czechoslovakia, the police confiscated several MP 18,I submachine guns that had been smuggled into the country by the SS to arm Henleinist (i.e. Sudetan separatist) sabotage squads. Some of these guns saw use during the Sudetan Uprising of 1938 but many were also confiscated by the Czech police before they could reach their intended recipients. These MP 18,Is were sourced from old military stocks and still had their original feed systems taking the TM 08 Trommelmagazin, rather than the Schmeisser pattern box magazine. As in France, Bergmann MP 35/Is were also supplied to the Henleinists.

There is no great evidence that the MP 18,I was ever exported by Germany to countries outside of Europe. Individual examples of MP 18,I submachine guns did reach other continents through arms traffickers dealing in leftover stocks of First World War surplus but these were highly scarce. However the vast majority of purported examples of the MP 18,I in East Asia and South America were actually SIG Bergmanns sold by Switzerland during the 1920s and 30s; Germany had no part in the sale of these guns. A story circulated by some sources that local production of the MP 18,I was established in China through assistance by Heinrich Vollmer seems to be completely bogus; the Chinese Bergmanns were reverse-engineered from examples of the SIG Bergmann that had been sold to the Fengtian Army in the early 1920s, and there is no evidence that Vollmer had any hand in this.

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