Back to database

Erma EMP submachine gun

[DE] Maschinenpistole Erma

(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The EMP submachine gun had a long development that began in the mid-1920s. The basic design of this gun was the work of the prolific armaments engineer Heinrich Vollmer, who started his own small firm after World War I. Many large arms companies were prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles from producing machine guns, although contrary to popular belief, the issue of submachine guns for the German Army was not actually banned; rather, the Reichswehr was restricted to issuing only 1,137 light machine guns, automatic rifles, and automatic carbines (SMGs likely fell under the latter category, as they are never actually mentioned in the treaty itself). However many German arms companies were restricted from manufacturing automatic weapons, with only a few exceptions. In 1925 the Reichswehr funded the development of several new submachine guns for comparative trials. Vollmer was one such recipient of this military funding and that year he demonstrated to the Heereswaffenamt (HWA) a new submachine gun which was known as the VMP (Vollmer Maschinenpistole).

The initial prototype of the VMP resembled the Bergmann M.P.18,I, with a tubular receiver, wooden stock, jacketed barrel, and small-capacity drum magazine. It was distinctive, however, by a large fore-grip built into the stock. The internal operation of this weapon was, like the Bergmann, a rather basic open-bolt blowback action, reciprocating against a thin-diameter recoil spring on a guide rod. This prototype was tested at Kumersdorf in August of 1925 and several complaints were raised against it, particularly criticisms of the drum magazine, which was difficult to load, and the recoil spring. Nonetheless, Vollmer was granted continued funding by Lt. Col. Eckardt of the HWA and development continued.

VMP 1925
The first model Vollmer, feeding from a drum magazine, tested in August 1925.

In 1926, the second model Vollmer appeared. This improved prototype established many of the design traits that would become constants in future models of the VMP. This added
a Bergmann-type bolt retaining notch in the cocking slot, and a distinctive lever located behind the trigger which, when pulled back simultaneously with the trigger, would unlock the receiver from the main body of the gun for easy disassembly. The drum magazine was, curiously, retained despite its issues, though in 1927 it would be abandoned for good in favour of a simpler 32-round box magazine. The magazine well was canted forward slightly to assist the transfer of cartridges from the magazine to the receiver.

The VMP 26 was tested, inconclusively, by the HWA, and the initial interest in Vollmer's submachine gun petered out as the Reichswehr issued no official requirement for a service submachine gun at this time. Small quantities of VMPs were delivered to Russia and Bulgaria for trials in 1927, but were not adopted in either country. Production of these early trial guns was apparently undertaken through several subcontracted companies, while the guns themselves were assembled by hand in Vollmer's own workshop. By 1930, Vollmer had developed the finalized version of the VMP submachine gun. This was essentially similar to his model of 1927 but employed a new, innovative recoil spring design. The recoil spring was housed within a compartmented, telescoping sheath which carried the firing pin. This ran through the bolt and acted as a buffer. Vollmer's telescoping mainspring system would famously be carried over into the later MP 38 and MP 40 submachine guns, however it originated here in the VMP.

An interwar Reichswehr soldier demonstrating the VMP 30 submachine gun.

The VMP 30 was marketed, and probably produced, through the Will & Köhler company in Thüringen. This small company predominantly made airguns and pocket pistols, and so was probably not subject to any of the restrictions on the manufacture of machine guns that bigger arsenals were. The VMP 30 was tested by the HWA in 1933 but again, there was little interest in adopting this weapon. Some guns were also delivered for export in Norway, though less than 1,000 guns were actually made - the total output has been estimated at 350 - 400. By 1934, Vollmer had transferred the rights of the VMP to Erma-Werke in Erfurt. The Nazis were now in power and the Versailles restrictions were all but abandoned, meaning large-scale production of machine guns and submachine guns recommenced. The deal between Vollmer and Erma was reportedly brokered on October 20th 1931, although manuals for the VMP continued to be printed by Will
& Köhler until 1933 so it must be assumed that production at Erma did not commence until 1934.

Under the direction of Berthold Geipel, Erma-Werke produced the Vollmer submachine gun for commercial sale as the EMP (Erma Maschinenpistole). This was Erma's first submachine gun. The design was essentially the same as the VMP but some slight modifications were made, including the addition of a barrel jacket with rectangular perforations, and the elimination of the monopod. Erma commenced production of the EMP in 1934 and marketed it for domestic and export sale. The EMP submachine gun was produced in two forms. The early models were made with an adjustable tangent rear sight, unchanged from that of the VMP. The first 2,000 - 4,000 guns were made in this pattern. However the later production model, which accounts for the vast majority of German-made EMP submachine guns, replaced the rear sight with a flip-up notch sight, somewhat similar to that of the Bergmann M.P.18,I. These late production guns were also fitted with forward safety switches which locked the bolt in the closed position; these were mandated by the German police for fixture on the EMP and M.P.18,I submachine guns. Some variant models of the EMP were also made, including a long-barreled export version with a bayonet catch, and a version with a flat stock, with no fore-grip. These were only made in very small numbers and were not commercially successful.

Erma EMP
An EMP with flat fore-end. A single example of this exists in the US; it is
not known how many of these were produced.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the EMP was a relatively successful export. Sales were reportedly made to Mexico and Yugoslavia. The actual commercial success of this weapon outside of Germany is, however, probably overstated by most sources, as it is commonly assumed that the largest sales were made to Spain and France, which is not actually true (see below sections). Probably the first conflict in which the EMP was used in combat was the Chaco War (1932 - 1935), during which German arms deals to Bolivia resulted in the supply of small quantities of EMP submachine guns, along with the Haenel M.P.28,II and Steyr-Solothurn S1-100. The EMP was not adopted by Poland but was used as the basis for their own submachine gun, the Wz.39 Mors. Production of the EMP was suspended in 1938, when Erma introduced the cheaper MP 38 submachine gun, which was officially adopted by the Wehrmacht and given far greater priority than the EMP.

An EMP submachine gun used during the Chaco War (1932 - 1935).

Early in World War II, the EMP was pressed into military service to fill shortages of submachine guns. They were typically not issued to frontline Wehrmacht battalions but instead reserved for rearguard personnel such as military policemen. The main adopters of the EMP were the Waffen-SS, who used this gun in large numbers throughout the war. The SS most likely sourced their EMPs through existing police stocks, as the majority of their guns were fitted with the police-issue forward safety lock. It was very commonly seen in issue by the SS on the Eastern Front, and was unfortunately favoured by Einsatzgruppen death squads. Probably about 20,000 guns had been produced from 1934 - 1938, with serial numbers exceeding 17,000 having been observed.

The EMP in Spain - myths and facts

The Spanish EMP. The examples made in Barcelona were in 9mm Parabellum and
those made at
Coruña were chambered in 9mm Largo.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

The EMP received its baptism by fire during the Spanish Civil War (1936 - 1939), where it was used extensively in combat for the first time. When the Republic collapsed and the war ended in 1939, the remnants of the Republican People's Army fled to the French border where they were disarmed by the authorities there. The French arms depots collated some 3,250 EMP submachine guns from the retreating Republicans - probably the largest quantity fielded by any army in the world at this time. But how did the Spanish Republicans acquire these weapons?

Various theories have been posited. The most common assumption is that EMP submachine guns were sent by the Nazis to their Francoist allies, and some of these guns were captured in battle by the Republicans. This has, however, been essentially proven false by Spanish experts, who have found no evidence that the Nazis ever supplied any great quantity of submachine guns (estimated at 170 at the very most). Paul Preston, in his authoritative book Arms For Spain on the subject of arms trafficking during the Spanish Civil War, suggests that the EMPs were sold to the Republicans by the Polish government. But there are no records of these apparent Polish sales, and it seems highly unlikely that Poland would willingly have discarded over 3,000 submachine guns at a time when their army was considering the adoption of an SMG. Another suggestion is that they were supplied by the Soviet Union as part of their material aid for the Spanish Republic, and this theory is apparently supported by close relationship between the 'Black Reichswehr' and the Soviet Union at the time that Vollmer's VMP was being tested. But again, there is no record of any EMPs being supplied by the Soviets, and even in spite of Vollmer's dealings with the USSR, it is highly unlikely that the Soviets had such a large quantity of EMPs - at best, they have a small number of the earlier VMP that had been trialed in the 1920s and early 1930s.
The true answer is actually far more simple. These EMPs did not come from Germany, Poland, or the USSR. In fact, they were produced domestically in Spain by the Republican government. In 1937, manufacture of the EMP submachine gun was established by the Subsecretaría de Armamento y Municiones in Barcelona. These guns were very close clones of the early model EMP, with an adjustable tangent rear sight, and were probably copied from trial samples which had been sent to Spain before the Civil War. However, they also exhibited several slight deviations from the German originals which make them easily distinguishable:
Several thousand EMP submachine guns were produced by the Subsecretaría de Armamento from about 1937 - 1939. It is probable that the 3,250 guns confiscated at the French border represented the great majority of the total production output. After the fall of the Republic, the new Francoist government captured the machine tools used to manufacture the EMP in Barcelona and transferred them to Coruña Arsenal. Here, they were used to produce the M41 submachine gun, which was identical to the Republican EMP except for the chambering, which was changed to the standard Spanish pistol cartridge 9x23mm Largo. Therefore neither the Republicans nor the Francoists actually acquired a license to build the EMP from Erma-Werke - all Spanish versions were unlicensed copies. Production of the M41 submachine gun exceeded 10,000 units, meaning that roughly a third or more of the total number of EMPs manufactured are actually Spanish copies.

Coruña Arsenal M41/44 submachine gun, a modified version of the Spanish M41.
Note the plunger safety in front of the trigger guard.

In 1944, an improved version of the M41 was developed at
Coruña Arsenal, known as the M41/44. This introduced a plunger-type safety located on the underside of the receiver, which, when pressed up, would prevent the bolt from reciprocating. This was designed in response to sometimes-fatal accidents involving the EMP discharging by itself. It must be remembered that, while the vast majority of German-made EMPs were fitted with forward bolt locks, this feature was not present on the Spanish EMP and therefore they had to invent their own bolt lock. The M41/44 succeeded the standard M41 in production, until the EMP was replaced by more modern submachine guns in the 1950s and 60s. Beyond the plunger safety, M41/44 submachine guns are identifiable by a unique marking - 'CAL.9L' is marked in a cartouche on the magwell, which imitates the 'ERMA' cartouche on the original EMPs.

The EMP in France

As has already been established, over 3,000 Spanish-made EMP submachine guns ended up at the French border after the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. When the Second World War broke out later that year, the French Army was lacking a submachine gun - they had adopted the MAS Mle 38 the previous year, but it was not yet in full-scale production and barely any guns had actually been issued. Thus when Germany invaded in 1940, the French Army pressed these Spanish EMPs into emergency service, predominantly with the 'Corps Francs' special commando units, however they had a disproportionally small number of magazines and therefore not all 3,250 guns could actually be used.

Although it has been claimed that the EMP was "exported" to France during the interwar period, France purchased no guns from Germany, except perhaps a small number of samples for their submachine gun trials in the 1930s. All French-service EMP submachine guns were Spanish-made, from those stocks confiscated in 1939. This is nowhere better demonstrated than in the French Army's official instructional pamphlet for the EMP submachine gun - known in service as the 'Erma-Vollmer' - which clearly depicts a Spanish clone with an oval-shaped cocking handle and 'T - A' inscribed on the fire selector. All known photographs of French soldiers using the EMP also depict the Spanish version. Thus the idea that the EMP was exported in great numbers to Spain and France is false.

Sketch from a French manual showing the 'Pistolet-Mitrailleur Erma-Vollmer'. It can
clearly be seen that this is a Spanish model, with 'T - A' on the fire selector.

After France's defeat in 1940, many of these Spanish-made EMPs fell into German hands. They were not classed simply as standard EMPs by the Germans but actually re-designated as the 'MP 740(f)'. Owing to their familiarity with the EMP, some of these guns were distributed to Waffen-SS forces to compliment the existing supplies of German EMPs. But the majority remained in France, and were used by Vichy troops, Gendarmes, and collaborationist auxiliaries in the German occupation zone such as the Carlingue. After the war, they remained in use by the Gendarmerie for a time, before fully being phased out by the 7.65mm MAS Mle 38.

The mysterious 'silent' EMP

The suppressed variant of the EMP, allegedly produced in small numbers for the Brandenburger division and Carlingue.
(Author's photo via Royal Armouries Collection)

A small batch of EMP submachine guns fitted with sound suppressors are known to have been produced, but the details surrounding these guns are obscure. According to Russian sources, these were fielded on the Eastern Front by the Brandenburger division, an elite Abwehr unit who conducted sabotage and anti-partisan operations behind enemy lines. A sample was captured and examined by the NKVD at the end of 1941. This weapon, which apparently predates the silenced Sten gun used by British Commandos, motivated the Soviets in turn to develop their own silenced submachine gun, but their efforts ended up being unsuccessful.

One of these guns also exists in Britain, and is said to have come from France where it was apparently used by the Carlingue against French resistance fighters. Examination of this sample has revealed that the sound suppressor is of poor design, as it does not actually slow the bullet's exit from the muzzle and therefore it is not subsonic - i.e. the bullet velocity is not below the speed of sound, and therefore the gunshot is still highly audible and the suppressor has no real appreciable effect. It is possible that the gun was to be issued with a modified subsonic cartridge, but again the details have been lost to time and there is no definitive provenance for the manufacture of these guns. The substandard workmanship of the suppressors suggests, though, that they were probably not made at Erma-Werke.


VMP1926 VMP1930VMP1930


Back to database