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

Bergmann MP18I

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 stocked, single-barreled adaptation of the Villar Perosa, and the Austrians had not only tested the unusual 9mm Hellriegel machine gun but they had also fielded their own assault SMG - the Sturm-Pistole. Even if we judge the first SMG as that first fielded in combat, it is still a source of contention - it is reported by some that the Italians had issued the Revelli-Beretta automatic carbine before the Germans received their first batches of M.P.18.Is.

But regardless of whether it was actually the first SMG, it cannot be denied that the M.P.18.I was certainly the prototype for most later submachine guns. The concept for this gun was conceived in 1916 by Hugo Schmeisser, then working at the Suhl factory of Theodore Bergmann. The German Army were interested in developing a light pistol carbine that would be suited to an assault role and the possibility of making such a weapon fully-automatic was floated. Several firms were commissioned to research such a weapon and Bergmann was one. By 1918 physical prototypes from various designers had been built and they included entrants from Mauser, DWM, Simson, Walther, Schwarzlose, and of course Bergmann. It should be noted that not all of these guns were fully-automatic and some were semi-auto carbines.

Schmeisser's design for Bergmann was by far the most practical of the weapons tested. It was an unsophisticated and simple design employing a straight blowback action through a tubular receiver, partially encased in a wooden stock. The forward part of the receiver was built onto a hinge, and removing the end cap would allow the receiver to hinge upward and allow easy access to the bolt and return spring. A 32-round "Trommelmagazin" drum, originally designed for the Artillery Luger, was fed into a tilted magazine port, set at 45° angle, on the left side of the receiver; it is said that Schmeisser originally wanted the gun to feed from a more basic straight box magazine, but was pressured into using the Trommelmagazin on the preference of the Army, as it was readily available and they did not want to complicate ordnance by ordering the production of a new type of magazine.

The M.P.18.I featured no form of fire selector, and fired only in full-auto. There was also no safety switch, with the only safety provision being a catch in the rear of the cocking slot into which the bolt handle could rest while the weapon was cocked, theoretically preventing the bolt from coming forward. This did not always hold up in practice; dropping the gun could cause the bolt to release from the catch and trigger an accidental discharge.

MP18.I Sectioned
Sectioned view of the standard M.P.18.I submachine gun.

Unsurprisingly, the decision was made in 1918 to adopt the Bergmann SMG over the other entrants. It received its official designation - Maschinenpistole 1918, or M.P.18 - and was approved for full production at the Bergmann factory. The official factory name was actually M.P.18.I, with the "I" at the end denoting that it was the first revision of the design. This would be followed exactly a decade later with the M.P.28.II, denoting the second revision, and later in 1936 with the MK36.III, denoting the third and final revision to the Schmeisser design.

The M.P.18.I first arrived on the Western Front in the early Summer of 1918, during the later stages of General Ludendorff's major "Kaiserschlacht" offensive, during which the Germans employed effective shock tactics against the Allied lines using elite "Storm Troopers". It was issued exclusively to officers and NCOs, with six men in each company receiving an M.P.18.I and six more men designated as ammunition carriers (who themselves were armed with the standard Gewehr 98 rifle). A company would also received three hand-pulled carts of ammunition. This practice of having ammo carriers as a crew-served weapon would was very similar to the way in which the Italian Army issued the Villar Perosa and its ammunition. As the offensive progressed, many of these assault troops were issued with M.P.18.Is, some of which were captured and studied by the Allies. One such example - serial No.214 - was tested by the Small Arms Committee in Britain on the 12th of September 1918 and the resulting report was sent to the British General Headquarters in France. Their response was telling of the early Allied attitude towards this innovative new weapon:
"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."

The total wartime produce of the M.P.18.I is not definitively known. A common figure stated is 35,000 units, although this number takes into account post-war models; the actual number of M.P.18.Is that were issued during the war is closer to about 3,000 units. Either way, it was produced in great quantity considering the short production life, and its high demand demonstrates the German's early enthusiasm for weapons of this type.

In 1919 the Treaty of Versailles was signed and Germany's arms industry was heavily regulated in keeping with the conditions agreed upon in the treaty. The production of machine guns within Germany was banned and many German arsenals, including the Bergmann factory, were closed. The number of machine guns that the German Army was allowed to stockpile was significantly reduced. There was no specific clause in the treaty that stated that SMGs were also outlawed, as they were barely a classification of weapon at the time; however, it was assumed that, as automatic weapons, they came under "machine guns" and therefore, the M.P.18.I was retracted from service. Most of them were given to the police, who were issued them at a rate of 1 gun per 20 men. There can be little doubt that these guns saw use during the political violence that marred the post-war Weimar Republic, including by Freikorps militias.

In 1920 many police-issue M.P.18.Is were converted to feed from a straight box magazine by replacing the standard magazine housing with a new one with a 90° feed. The type of magazine used by this model was designed by Schmeisser himself and was apparently the magazine he had always intended to use for the gun. It came in 18-round or 32-round variations and gave a more reliable feed than the Trommelmagazin. The box magazine conversions were performed by Schmeisser's new employer, the C.G. Haenel factory in Suhl, and several thousand units were converted.

MP18 Police
Police-issue M.P.18.I, modified by Haenel to feed from a box magazine. This gun is NOT the same as the SIG Model 1920.

Due to the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, German firms could not produce their own SMGs and had to outsource to another country. This is exactly what Theodore Bergmann did in 1920 when he transferred the production rights to the M.P.18.I to SIG in Switzerland. SIG made their own modifications to the design, including a new magazine feed taking 50-round box magazines, and exported their version - known as the SIG Model 1920 - internationally during the 1920s. It was particularly popular in China and Japan.

In 1928, Hugo Schmeisser, while working at Haenel, developed further improvements to the M.P.18.I design in the form of the M.P.28.II. This new gun featured a fire selector and a redesigned bolt. Versailles was still in effect in the late 1920s so initially the production rights were outsourced to the Pieper factory in Belgium. After the Nazis took power in 1933, however, Versailles became redundant and production was moved back to Germany under Haenel. The M.P.28.II expanded on the success of the MP18.I, achieving sales not only domestically but also various export sales around the world. It saw extensive use in the 1930s and 40s, ensuring that the legacy of the M.P.18.I lived on well into World War II.

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