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Bergmann M.P.18,I - the "first" SMG

Maschinenpistole Bergmann 18,I

(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The Bergmann M.P.18,I is the SMG that is often credited as the very first, as some sources discount the earlier Villar Perosa on account it being fielded as a light support weapon. But whether it was actually the first submachine gun, as is generally believed, is up for debate. By 1916 the Italian engineer Abiel Revelli had already devised a shoulder-fired, single-barreled adaptation of the Villar Perosa, and the Austrians had not only tested the unusual Hellriegel submachine gun but they had also fielded their own assault SMG - the Sturm-Pistole. Both Italy and Austria-Hungary had been studying the submachine gun concept long before Germany produced any M.P.18,Is and, although it is impossible to know who came up with the idea of the submachine gun first, there is no documentary evidence that proves that the M.P.18,I was being worked on prior to 1917.

But regardless of whether it was actually the first SMG, it cannot be denied that the M.P.18,I was certainly the model for most later submachine guns. The concept for this gun was conceived after the German Army's Rifle Testing Commission observed the demonstration of a Luger P08 pistol converted to full-automatic. This inspired them to put out a request for a portable, pistol-caliber automatic weapon for trench use; when this request was actually made is not known, but was probably around 1916. By the end of 1917, Hugo Schmeisser, then working at the Suhl factory of Theodor Bergmann, had developed the first prototypes of what would become the M.P.18,I submachine gun and the first patent was filed on the 30th of December 1917.

The details surrounding the trials that presumably followed the Germany Army request for an SMG-type weapon are now lost. However it is known that several firms developed prototype weapons that were almost certainly designed for these trials, including submissions from Mauser, DWM, Walther, Schwarzlose, Rheinmetall (as "Dreyse"), and of course Bergmann. The Schwarzlose, Walther, and Bergmann guns were definitely made. The Mauser submission was probably their 1917 "Trench Carbine" which was little more than a modified Mauser C96 with a detachable box magazine and rifle stock. The DWM gun may have been the aforementioned Luger machine-pistol, which was tested again in 1917; there also exists drawings of a "Hoffmann" submachine gun which may have been designed by DWM's Heinrich Hoffmann, however there is no evidence that this gun was ever actually made. The Rheinmetall/Dreyse gun was designed by Louis Stange and existed only as a patent, however physical prototypes were constructed after the war in 1919. There has also been reference of a Simson-designed SMG that was built from a Gewehr '88 stock, but no details are available.

From what is known of the all these submissions, it is no surprise that it was the Bergmann gun that was favoured, as it was by far the simplest and most efficient design. It consisted of a tubular receiver mounted to a wooden half-stock, with a horizontal magazine feed and a barrel shrouded by a perforated jacket. The receiver housed a basic straight-blowback action in which the bolt acted against a thin-diameter recoil spring coiled around a guide rod. The bolt had a fixed firing pin and fired from the open position. The gun fired only in full-auto with no selective-fire function, and there was no mechanical safety, the only safety provision being a catch in the rear of the cocking slot that forcibly held the bolt back. A flip-up rear notch sight sat on the top of the receiver aligned with a fixed post front sight on the muzzle.

Diagram of the M.P.18,I's components and operating mechanism.

The magazine feed of the Bergmann submachine gun was designed to take the TM08 Trommelmagazin, a 32-round drum (or "snail") magazine originally designed for the Artillery Luger. However the TM08 had to be modified with a collar around the feedway in order to reliably fit into the Bergmann magazine well. To accommodate the unique shape of this magazine, the magazine well of the Bergmann gun was canted 45° to the rear. The magazine release catch was on the top of the magazine well. Some experts have suggested that the M.P.18,I was originally designed to feed from a box magazine, and that the Trommelmagazin feed was imposed upon Bergmann in order to make use of existing supplies of TM08 magazines; there is no evidence that this was actually the case.

The exact circumstances surrounding the adoption of the Bergmann submachine gun are not well-recorded, and questions still remain as to when it was officially approved. The German writer Joachim Görtz even suggested that it was never officially accepted into service at all. In any case it is known that production went ahead in around April 1918, when the first manuals were printed. The gun became officially known as the Bergmann M.P.18,I for Bergmann Maschinenpistole, 1918.

The ",I" suffix

A recurring question that has been debated over the years pertains to the meaning of the ",I" suffix in "M.P.18,I". There is apparently no written record of what this suffix actually means and therefore it has been open to speculation since Hugo Schmeisser's death in 1953. Various experts have proposed answers,  the most commonly-accepted being that it is equivalent to the "A1, A2, A3" system used in service rifles today, representing improvements to a specific model of gun. Going by this theory, there logically should be an M.P.28,I that preceded the M.P.28,II. However, this theory does not seem to ring true as the post-war "M.P.18,Iv" - which introduced improvements to the basic M.P.18,I design - did not warrant a ",II" suffix and therefore we know that "M.P.18,I" is not equivalent to "M.P.18A1", and similarly "M.P.28,II" must not be equivalent to "M.P.28A2".

My own research leads me to believe that the numerical suffixes employed by Schmeisser in his submachine guns did not represent improvements to a specific gun, but instead denoted which action Schmeisser employed in a given submachine gun. Schmeisser designed several types of blowback operating mechanism for his SMGs, and at least three are known to have been made:

Thin-diameter recoil spring with guide rod buffer - used in all versions of the M.P.18,I.
Wide-diameter recoil spring with no buffer - used in the M.P.28,II and the M.K.36,II.
Thin-diameter telescoping recoil spring in a tubular sheath - used in the M.K.36,III.

As we can see, each type of action that Schmeisser used in his SMGs corresponds to a different numerical suffix. Based on this, it seems reasonable to assume that the difference between Schmeisser's ",I", ",II", and ",III" suffixes lay not in improvements to a specific gun, but instead was a system he employed to easily denote which action any gun of his design used. If this is truly how the suffix system worked, it is actually quite a useful idea - it instantly tells the observer which parts the gun operates on without having to open the receiver up, and creates cross-compatibility of components between guns that share the same suffix (i.e. the M.P.28,II's internal components are interchangeable with that of the M.K.36,II).

The system as I have proposed it does not guarantee the existence of an M.P.28,I or M.K.36,I. Under my theory, an "M.P.28,I" would entail an M.P.28 with the recoil spring and bolt of an M.P.18,I, which was probably never actually made. Similarly, there is no guarantee that an "M.P.18,II" (which would be an M.P.18 using a wide recoil spring and M.P.28,II bolt) actually exists either - although I will explore the possibility of this later in the article.

The M.P.18,I's use in World War I

The M.P.18,I came into issue in around the late summer of 1918. The first recorded instance of the M.P.18,I being used in combat was at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, when Canadian troops of the 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders captured an M.P.18,I form the German lines on the 11th of August. Further quantities of the M.P.18,I were captured on the Western Front in the later months of the war and by this point the German Army no longer had the operational strength to launch any major offensives, having burned themselves out after the failed Spring Offensive of early 1918 - an offensive in which the M.P.18,I was not used in any capacity. Thus the common perception of the M.P.18,I being used by Sturmtruppen in daring trench raids is basically false; during its short service life, the M.P.18,I was almost certainly used in a predominantly defensive role.

Brigadier-General Victor Odlum observes a captured M.P.18,I at Amiens,
August 1918. This was probably one of the first guns ever issued.

(Library and Archives Canada)

The number of M.P.18,Is delivered to the German Army before the end of the war is also a matter of some dispute. Many sources claim upward of 25,000 - 30,000 guns, which is almost certainly not true and seems to account only for the total number of guns made (and even then, the number may not be that high). Others point to the fact that guns over the 10,000 serial mark have a military acceptance stamp, but these marks were added to post-war examples and are not actually indicative of whether the gun saw issue or not. The best indicator we have of the number of guns that actually saw frontline issue 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 3,000 guns were actually delivered.

The myth of the M.P.18,I's impact - outlawed by Versailles?

The M.P.18,I is universally hailed as having had a tremendous impact when it was introduced in 1918, despite there being very little evidence of it having much of an impact at all. In fact, there is some evidence of the contrary - that the Allies did not seriously value the M.P.18,I as an effective weapon, as demonstrated by the comments of the British General Staff in August 1919:

"A really penetrating bullet is necessary to ensure the enemy's problems in regard to penetration shall remain difficult and to prevent the use of body armour. A heavy high velocity of small calibre is also required to obtain a flat trajectory. It follows therefore that no weapon of the pistol nature can ever replace the rifle as the infantryman's main arm. Its issue will be limited to those who, for some reason or other, cannot carry a rifle. 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."

A common claim is that the M.P.18,I was so feared by the Allies that they wrote a clause in the Treaty of Versailles that specifically outlawed its manufacture. In reality, no such clause exists, and submachine guns (or "machine-pistols") are never even mentioned in the treaty. The closest thing that exists in the Versailles Treaty is a restriction on the number of light machine guns that the German Army was permitted to issue. They were allowed only 1,134 LMGs in total, restricted to 162 per division, with a clause stating that "Automatic Rifles and Carbines" are to be classed as LMGs (this same clause was also written into the treaties with Austria and Hungary). It is entirely possible that submachine guns like the M.P.18,I were considered "automatic carbines" and thus also fell foul of the restrictions, but there is no documentary evidence that this was the case, and even so it does not constitute a "ban" on SMGs. In fact, there is nothing in writing to suggest that the production of SMGs was actually illegal in Germany during the 1920s.

The main problem lay in the fact that German arms exports were heavily restricted and therefore there was no money to be made in manufacturing automatic weapons, unless they were for the domestic market - which itself was not profitable since the German Army was severely limited in the number of automatic guns it could possess. To get around this, some German arms companies outsourced their products to other countries, so that they could continue to sell their weapons via a foreign proxy. Probably one of the better-known examples of this was the continued development and sale of Rheinmetall's product line through a Swiss-Austrian front, Steyr-Solothurn A.G. This is exactly what Theodor Bergmann did in 1920 when he sold the production rights for the M.P.18,I to Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft (SIG) in Neuhausen, Switerzland.

The SIG Bergmann Model 1920

SIG took up production of the M.P.18,I as the SIG Bergmann Model 1920 (also marketed as the "Bergmann Machine Pistol"). Although the SIG Bergmann is described as a copy of the M.P.18,I, this is not accurate as it actually introduced several changes to the design that were not seen on any German-made M.P.18,Is. The most notable was the new magazine feed. The SIG Bergmann had its own unique style of magazine well that took proprietary 50-round magazines. These magazines were not compatible with the M.P.18,I or the later M.P.28,II. They differed from Schmeisser's later box magazine design in that they were double-feed and did not have the rectangular metal collar around the feed lips. The mag release catch was located on the underside of the SIG Bergmann's magazine housing.

SIG Bergmann M1920

NOT an M.P.18,I - a Swiss SIG-Bergmann Model 1920 submachine gun in 7.65mm Parabellum.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

Other differences between the M.P.18,I and SIG Bergmann were mostly detail. The SIG Bergmann had an adjustable tangent rear sight instead of the M.P.18,I's flip-up notch sight, plus a rounded cocking handle instead of a curved hook-type cocking handle. The barrel jacket of the SIG Bergmann had seven perforated holes per row, instead of the M.P.18,I's eight. On some examples of the SIG Bergmann, but not all, a SIG-patented heavy trigger was fitted. A large muzzle ring is also seen on some examples of the SIG Bergmann, but again not all.

The SIG Bergmann Model 1920 was primarily intended for export sale as a way for Theodor Bergmann to continue to profit from the design after its production ended in Germany. It was never made in 9x19mm Parabellum and was only offered in 7.65mm Parabellum and 7.63mm Mauser. It was sold in quantity to Finland, China, and Japan. Smaller orders were also placed by Brazil, Thailand, and Switzerland for police use, and a handful of guns were even imported to the United States for civilian sale. Based on the known serial number range, about 5,000 SIG Bergmann submachine guns were made. Production reportedly ceased in 1927, although a modified version with a right-facing magazine feed and large foregrip was briefly offered in 1930, possibly for domestic police sale.

Before the introduction of the M.P.28,II, the SIG Bergmann submachine gun was the only version of the Bergmann SMG offered for export sale. Therefore any reports of the use of an M.P.18,I outside of Germany in the 1920s is almost certainly actually referring to a SIG Bergmann, not an M.P.18,I. Most "copies" of the M.P.18,I that appeared around this period were also actually derived from the SIG Bergmann. The various Bergmann copies that appeared in China, for example, were all direct imitations of the SIG gun in 7.63mm. This includes the unusual "Tsing Tao" pattern which had a vertical magazine feed. Similarly, the 9x20mm Model 1923 submachine gun produced at Tallinn Arsenal in Estonia, while often claimed to be an M.P.18,I copy, is actually a derivative of the Finnish-contract SIG Bergmann.

The M.P.18,I in the Weimar years

In Germany, the M.P.18,I saw continued use throughout the 1920s, during the politically turbulent years of the Weimar Republic. It was adopted with some enthusiasm by Freikorps regiments, i.e. right-wing, anti-Communist militias made up primarily of ex-servicemen, and many M.P.18,Is were actually stolen from military depots. Probably the most infamous example of the Bergmann gun's use during this time was on the 24th of June 1922, when the government Foreign Minister, Walther Rathenau, was assassinated by right-wing terrorists who fired on him with an M.P.18,I.

A Bavarian Freikorps volunteer loads an M.P.18,I during a drilling exercise, 1919.

The use of M.P.18,Is by criminal elements in Weimar Germany did not go unnoticed, and - along with the notoriety associated with the Thompson submachine gun in the United States - it contributed to a general feeling in many countries (though particularly Britain) that submachine guns were a "gangster's gun". For German ultranationalists, however, it became a sought-after weapon of particular deadliness.

The M.P.18,I also saw legitimate use in German police service during the 1920s, and was reportedly issued at a rate of 1 gun per 20 men. Police-issue M.P.18,Is were acquired from disused military stocks. Some were stamped with special markings denoting that they were police weapons.

Variations of the M.P.18,I in the 1920s?

Although the details are somewhat tenuous, there is evidence to suggest that Schmeisser developed several experimental variations of the M.P.18,I while working at C.G. Haenel in the second half of the 1920s. There reportedly exists two unusual variants, made at Haenel, marked "M.P.18,III and "M.P.20,IV" respectively. Both are very probably modified SIG Bergmann submachine guns which were imported to Germany from Switzerland. The "M.P.18,III" is currently kept at the SIG collection in Switzerland, and it seems to be a SIG Bergmann with modifications made at Haenel, although I have not been able to observe it myself. Little information is given about it although I suspect that it is probably a test bed for Schmeisser's telescoping recoil spring, which he patented in 1927. It is particularly interesting to note that in patent DE444952C, which covers a flap-type safety for the M.P.18, Schmeisser depicts a SIG Bergmann-type magazine well, which certainly indicates he was working with Swiss-made guns during this period.

The M.P.18,III? Patent DE444952 of 1927 shows that Schmeisser was working on improvements
to the M.P.18,I in the 1920s,including an early version of his telescopic recoil spring. It can also
be seen that the gun in this patent sketch is a modified SIG Bergmann (via the mag housing).

Details of the alleged M.P.20,IV are provided by Martin Helebrant in his book The Schmeisser Myth. Helebrant describes this gun has having a different type of magazine housing with a square feed opening and a release catch underneath, which he thought was unique to this weapon; it is actually standard on all SIG Bergmann submachine guns, which strongly implies that the M.P.20,IV was another modified SIG Bergmann (hence the "M.P.20" designation). He also speaks of it having a push-in safety which was seen on the later M.P.28,II. Unfortunately Helebrant does not describe the internal action of the gun, which is - in my own opinion - very likely where the reason for the ",IV" suffix lies. Helebrant also does not disclose the location of this supposed gun.

Additionally, there exists a photograph, reportedly taken at Haenel in the 1920s, showing Hugo Schmeisser himself holding an unusual M.P.18,I variant. At first glance, this appears to merely be an M.P.18,Iv (i.e. an M.P.18,I converted to take a box magazine feed), and indeed this is what it has been traditionally labelled as, including by Helebrant. But look closer and one can see that this gun exhibits elements that are not typical of the M.P.18,I, M.P.18,Iv, or M.P.28,II. The magazine feed appears to be a SIG Bergmann type, with a release catch just visible underneath the magazine well. This, in addition to the seven perforations on the barrel jacket, strongly suggest that this gun is a modified SIG Bergmann and not an M.P.18,Iv at all. There are two more features that make this gun unusual - the use of a standard M.P.18,I rear notch sight, which was not present on the production model SIG Bergmann, and an M.P.28,II-type push-in fire selector/safety button above the trigger. No known gun exhibits this exact combination of features, which means that this must be an experimental prototype developed by Schmeisser while working at Haenel. This seems to be near-definitive proof that Schmeisser did, in fact, use the SIG Bergmann as a base to make various modifications to the M.P.18,I design, eventually resulting in the M.P.28,II, the M.K.36,II, and the M.K.36,III.

The mysterious prototype SIG Bergmann, demonstrated by Hugo Schmeisser in the 1920s.
Is this gun the M.P.18,II or M.P.18,III?

Based on this information, it seems likely that an "M.P.18,II" was, at some point, constructed (and may even be the gun in the photograph), which incorporated the wide-diameter recoil spring described in Schmeisser's patent DE599202C. As we will see, this action was favoured over the ",III" and ",IV" actions and was used in the M.P.28,II.

The "M.P.18,Iv" and the M.P.28,II

Schmeisser's experiments with the SIG Bergmann at Haenel resulted in the introduction of two new variants of the M.P.18,I. One was a conversion of the original M.P.18,I to feed from box magazines instead of Trommelmagazins, which was achieved by replacing the 45° canted magazine feeds with a new straight 90° feed; this was apparently known as the "M.P.18,Iv" ("v" for "verbessert", i.e. "improved"). The other was a new product entirely, known as the M.P.28,II.

The M.P.28,II was introduced in 1928, although work on the design was apparently ongoing since 1925 (probably in the form of an "M.P.18,II" as previously suggested). On first glance, there appears to be very little difference between the M.P.28,II and the aforementioned M.P.18,Iv - both are essentially M.P.18,I derivatives with straight box magazine feeds. But internally the M.P.28,II was entirely different to the M.P.18,I. The M.P.28,II employed a new type of bolt with a separate firing pin. Instead of a thin recoil spring coiled around a guide rod buffer, the M.P.28,II used a stronger, wide-diameter spring that sat freely against the bolt, with no guide rod. Most importantly, the M.P.28,II addressed the issue of the M.P.18,I's lack of safety by adding a fire selector button above the trigger group, which gave automatic fire, single shots, and safety. The safety mode was a cross-bolt type in which a metal bar was pressed through the bolt and prevented it from moving. Therefore with the safety activated, there was less chance of an accidental dischange, as was common on open-bolt SMGs without safety.

Haenel MP28
The Haenel M.P.28,II, the successor to the M.P.18,I. Note the wide diameter recoil spring and
push-in fire selector/safety catch above the trigger.

(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

Conversions of the M.P.18,I to the M.P.18,Iv, on the other hand, were probably undertaken in the 1930s. They were often stamped "1920", however this did not denote the year of production; this was merely a government property stamp. These conversions were also undertaken at C.G. Haenel and were delivered to the German police. Most examples of the M.P.18,Iv were fitted with a police-type forward safety catch, which can also be observed on most examples of the Erma EMP submachine gun. This catch locked the bolt closed unless manually switched open. A few examples of the M.P.28,II were also fitted with this, but this was redundant since the M.P.28,II already had an in-built safety function.
It should be noted that the ",Iv" suffix is not actually present on any guns. All examples of the "M.P.18,Iv" are marked "M.P.18,I".

The so-called "M.P.18,Iv", a modified version of the M.P.18,I using a straight magazine feed.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)
Sales of the M.P.28,II were initially handled through foreign parties, such as the Dutch firm Veland. The fact that SIG ceased production of their SIG Bergmann in 1927, a year before Haenel introduced the M.P.28,II, opens up the possiblity that Haenel secured the old Bergmann production license from SIG in order to eliminate competition from the Swiss firm. When Hitler came into power in 1933 and the Versailles restrictions on exports were lifted, sales of the M.P.28,II went through Haenel directly. A production license was also granted to Pieper Etablissments Aciens in Belgium, where it was known as the Mi 34 Schmeisser-Bayard and adopted by their Army, as well as exported. The known customers of the M.P.28,II included Bolivia, Brazil, Finland, the Netherlands, Romania, and Portugal, among many others. It was offered in 9x19mm Parabellum, 7.65mm Parabellum, 7.63mm Mauser, 9x25mm Mauser Export, and .45 ACP. The M.P.28,II was copied extensively in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, at various Republican-controlled factories; it was known there as the "Naranjero" and was chambered in 9x23mm Largo. Contrary to popular belief, the M.P.18,Iv and M.P.28,II were not adopted in China or Japan - all reported sightings of these guns in use by Chinese and Japanese soldiers of the period are invariably SIG Bergmanns.

M.P.18,Is, M.P.18,Ivs, and M.P.28,IIs were also sometimes supplied to certain groups for ideological reasons; for example, the French fascist militia La Cagoule and the Czech pro-Nazi Henleinist movement both received shipments of Schmeisser-pattern submachine guns in the 1930s, probably arranged through the German government.

In Germany, the M.P.18,Iv and M.P.28,II were both taken up by police forces and, since they shared ammunition and magazines, they were used in the same roles with little distinction between them. When Germany went to war in 1939 the MP 38 and MP 40 were not yet in widespread circulation and the M.P.28,II saw limited issue to the Wehrmacht in Poland and France. But primarily the M.P.28,II was issued only to rearguard personnel such as military policemen, line-of-communication troops, and Luftwaffe airbase guards. By 1940, production of the MP 38 and MP 40 had taken far greater precedence than the M.P.28,II and Haenel moved all resources into manufacturing that gun, taking the M.P.28,II out of production.

Probably the most prominent user of the M.P.28,II during World War II was the SS, whose procurement of small arms was less strict and standardized than the Wehrmacht's. Probably the most infamous example of this was the carry of an M.P.28,II by the SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche during the "liquidation" of the Warsaw Ghetto in May 1943, who featured prominently in photographs of the event. The use of submachine guns in crimes like this was not uncommon. On the Eastern Front, the SS in fact made it a habit to issue submachine guns to SS death squads, who favoured them over rifles.

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