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Hellriegel submachine gun

[DE] Maschinengewehr des Standschütze Hellriegel

(Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

Appearing in photographs dated to October 1915, this experimental machine-gun was apparently the invention of an officer of the Standschützen-Bataillonen named Hellriegel. The Standschützen were Austria’s home guard; a volunteer force that originated from rifleman’s guilds in the 16th century. During the First World War, they were called up to the Isonzo Front to defend against the Italian offensives on the Austrian border. Most of their ranks were made up of those too old, too young, or too infirm to be conscripted into the regular Army. The identity of this Herr Hellriegel, however, has not yet been fully established; currently the only Standschütze volunteer of that name known to the author was Dr. Richard von Hellriegel, the medical officer of Standschützen-Bataillon Kitzbühel. Other soldiers bearing the Hellriegel surname are recorded to have served in the Kaiserjäger but none of them can be definitively linked to this weapon. Dr. Hellriegel (sometimes rendered 'Hellrigl') survived the war and was ordained as a priest in 1928. During the Second World War he was twice arrested by the Gestapo for acting against the state but none of the charges stuck. He retired in 1946.

Documented data on Hellriegel's gun itself has proven similarly elusive, as no contemporary records pertaining to it have yet been found. In the absence of this information, the only details that can be gleaned about this weapon come from conjecture based on the available photographs. Several things can be gleaned from this. For one, it is apparent in the photos that the Hellriegel submachine gun was a lightweight, miniature, handheld machine gun of a type scarcely seen before. The method of operation was probably a straight blowback type, and notably there is a pair of rods protruding from the end cap of the receiver which very likely house a pair of buffer springs. The overall receiver length is actually very short, but is quite wide in circumference; it may be that the short bolt travel is offset by the large size (and therefore mass) of the bolt, combined with the resistance generated by the twin buffer springs. An open cocking slot is visible on the right side of the receiver, with a long knob-shaped cocking handle. There is no locking catch in the cocking slot and it is unknown whether the weapon had any form of mechanical safety. The barrel is long in length and is jacketed by a water cooling jacket, which is entirely redundant on a submachine gun. The water jacket bears a tube running across its underside which was probably to assist water circulation, but is shown in the photos as being used as a rudimentary grip for the gun. The Hellriegel employed an adjustable ladder sight which seems to graduate far beyond the effective range of a submachine gun.

What makes this weapon historically significant is that it is clearly chambered for a pistol cartridge, and therefore may be considered to be one of the first submachine guns ever made. By this point, the Italians already had the twin-barreled 'Villar Perosa' submachine gun, though its classification as an SMG remains contentious as it was designed to be fired from a mount. Discounting the Villar Perosa for the sake of argument, the Hellriegel is certainly the first known submachine gun to have been designed with a buttstock, and therefore intended to be fired from the shoulder - three years before the more famous Bergmann MP 18,I submachine gun developed in Germany towards the end of the war. But which cartridge did the Hellriegel submachine gun actually use? Many sources have speculated that this was probably 9x23mm Steyr, the standard cartridge used in the Austrian service Selbstladepistole M.1912, and while this is a creditable guess, the cartridge casings far more resemble the 8x18mm Roth cartridge as used in another Austrian self-loading pistol, the Repetierpistole M.1907. If this is the case, then the Hellriegel submachine gun may have been the only submachine gun to have ever been designed for this cartridge.

The Hellriegel submachine gun held at the hip, feeding from a single-stack box magazine that is set at a canted
angle. An ammunition carrier, wearing a special apparatus, carries several drum magazines for the gun.

(Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

The feed system of the Hellriegel submachine gun appears to have been a fixed, clamp-like opening forward of the receiver in which the magazine would have been slotted in laterally (front to back); there is even a cut-out in the rear part of the water cooling jacket which seems to be intended to accommodate space for the magazine to slide backward into the feed opening. In the photographs, the Hellriegel submachine gun is depicted as feeding from two different types of magazine. The first is a high-capacity drum with a winding follower; this drum is not attached to the gun itself but instead attaches to the feed opening via a flexible, segmented chute (often mistaken for a belt) which transfers the cartridges from the drum into the receiver. Because of this, the drum cannot be used when the gun is fired from a standing position, as it needs to rest on a solid surface. To this end, a special cradle mount for the drum, intended to keep it upright, was designed. The second type of magazine was a more conventional straight box magazine with a spring follower, which appears to have been offered in at least two different capacities. These magazines were single-stack and of very basic design. The magazine feed was canted slightly to the right, likely so as not to bend the feed chute from the drum magazine (which would be standing to the right of the weapon) too much. Consequently, the box magazines were also canted at a roughly 60
° - 70° angle when loaded into the weapon.

The photos show that the Hellriegel submachine gun was intended as a crew-served weapon, with a gunner and an ammunition carrier, who wears a magazine rack on his back that appears to hold up to five drum magazines and has two small drawers which may have stored either box magazines or a cleaning kit for the gun. The gunner himself wears a harness belt, though it is unclear what this was intended to do. The application of the Hellriegel submachine gun as a crew-served weapon was not unusual for this time period. The Italians fielded their Villar Perosa submachine gun in a very similar manner, and the Germans also made use of ammunition carriers for their MP 18,I submachine gun later in the war.

The Hellriegel gunner aims the weapon from the prone position, with the drum magazine resting to his right in a
cradle-like mount. In the photos, the gun is shown doubling as a support weapon and an assault weapon.

(Österreichische Nationalbibliothek)

All technical data pertaining to the Hellriegel submachine gun, such as length and weight measurements, rate of fire, and exact magazine capacities are totally unknown as no prototypes of this gun are known to have survived. It may be the case that only one prototype was ever built. Additionally, there have of yet been no records or documentation relating to this weapon. Because of this, the details of the trials that are depicted in the photographs are unknown; in any case, it seems clear that the design was not successful, and there was no interest in taking it into service. The photos that were taken during the tests were later sent to the K.u.K. Press Office in 1918; it is recorded that they were taken in Tyrol.

Clues in the mystery

There are no known patents protecting the Hellriegel submachine gun; this is quite curious, as the weapon concept was clearly new and innovative, and one would think that Herr Hellriegel would have wanted to protect his invention. But there is, in fact, a patent protecting a very similar weapon, dating just a couple of years earlier. Austrian patent № 65557 of 1913, entitled 'Gasdrucklader' ('Gas pressure loader', the German term for gas operation in firearms), describes a self-loading breech action that operates by a system of direct blowback on the bolt. The bolt is carried by two adjacent buffer springs, almost identical in arrangement to the buffer seen on the Hellriegel gun. This patent was obtained by one Dr. Friedrich Ritter von Visini of Vienna. Dr. Visini was an officer and lecturer of the Landwehr reserves.

Contemporary military journals shed further details on Visini's rifle, which is described as the 'Visini-Fuchs' system; it was offered as a conversion for existing bolt-action service rifles, such as the Mannlicher M.1895: "the Visini-Fuchs system is individual and can fire 50 to 60 rounds per minute. The increase in weight resulting from the adaptation of this mechanism to the ordinary Mannlicher does not reach 500 grams, can be done in a few hours and at the expense of only seven crowns." Some reports indicated that Germany had expressed interest in adopting it, alongside the Mondragón self-loading rifle. But despite the publicity, it does not appear that the system attracted much commercial interest, especially after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 which hampered any progress that could be made in exporting it.

Austrian patent No 65557 of 1913, protecting Friedrich Ritter von Visini's blowback-operated rifle conversion using a wide diameter
bolt with two spring buffers at the rear end of the receiver. This system appears to be quite similar in design to that of the Hellriegel
submachine gun, and appeared only two years earlier.

A French report from October 1915 claims that a few Mannlicher rifles converted to the Visini-Fuchs system were captured by the Russians during fighting on the Eastern Front, which may have been a batch of rifles going through field trials with the Austro-Hungarians. Equally, however, the French may have been mistaken as it is not known that there are any other known reports corroborating the use of this rifle by German or Austro-Hungarian troops. By this time, Dr. Visini himself was already dead; killed in action on the 5th of April 1915. This probably marked the end for the Visini-Fuchs rifle.

Another potential clue comes from an unusual source. An article written by Lothar Sengewitz in
1/1981 of the German magazine Deutsches Waffen-Journal (DWJ) claimed that development of the Steyr M.1912/P16 machine pistol was commissioned in late 1915 by Major Franz Xaver Fuchs, the commanding officer of Standschützen-Bataillon Innsbruck II. However, more recent archival research from Mötz & Schuy could find no proof of this claim, concluding based on K.u.K. records that development of machine pistols at Steyr did not begin until late 1916 and had nothing to do with the Standschützen. While Sengewitz's article is clearly flawed, his account of the M.1912/P16's development aligns suspiciously closely with that of the Hellriegel submachine gun. Was Major Fuchs the same 'Fuchs' of the aforementioned automatic rifle? Could it be possible that Fuchs' supposed 'machine pistol' was a missing link between the Visini-Fuchs rifle and the Hellriegel submachine gun?

Ultimately, no conclusions can be drawn as of yet and more research on this mysterious early submachine gun is needed.

The Hellriegel submachine gun in a video game

Shortly after photos of the Hellriegel submachine gun began circulating the internet, the weapon made an appearance in the popular First World War video game Battlefield 1 (2016). Here the Hellriegel submachine gun is fully useable by the player character as a service weapon, though in real life it was only a prototype. The game describes it as thus: "Originating from Austria-Hungary and even though the term submachine gun had not yet been coined in 1915 this beast was belt-fed from a German snail magazine, firing 9mm rounds and had a water cooling jacket. Archives indicate that this weapon was named after someone called Hellriegel."

Of course, there are several problems with this description. The claim that it was "belt-fed" is a common mistake, deriving from confusion over the flexible chute feed, but additionally the assertion that it utilized a "German snail magazine" is quite baffling; the Hellriegel did not feed from a snail magazine (the TM 08 'Trommelmagazin'), as used in the German MP 18,I, but even if it did, the snail magazine was not operated by a belt feed, nor was it even German. The snail magazine was designed by Austro-Hungarian engineers who licensed it to Germany. The description goes on to say that the Hellriegel submachine gun fired "9mm rounds", presumably meaning 9x23mm Steyr. The actual cartridge that the Hellriegel was chambered for is unknown but as I describe above, it was probably 8x18mm Roth, not a 9mm cartridge.

First-person perspective of the Hellriegel submachine gun as it appears in Battlefield 1. The left side of the receiver shown
here is completely fictional, as is the large magazine release lever and detachable 60-round drum magazine.

(Electronic Arts via

The since the developers of Battlefield 1 had only limited information to work with, a lot of guesswork has gone into the rendering of the weapon in the game; in fact, they had to model the left side of the receiver from scratch as none of the available photos show what it really looked like! But even beyond the unknowns, the depiction of the Hellriegel submachine gun in the game is not particularly accurate, and there are crucial areas where details have been missed or misinterpreted by the developers.

The main area of error is the magazine and feed system. As per the game's description of the weapon, the Hellriegel submachine gun in Battlefield 1 is depicted as feeding from a large detachable drum magazine resembling the TM 08 Trommelmagazin. In reality no such magazine was used in the Hellriegel. The photos show it feeding from either a straight, single-stack box magazine, or a flexible chute connected to a loose drum which is not mounted to the gun itself. Additionally the way in which this fictional drum magazine is reloaded is questionable. The developers imagined a lever on the left side of the magazine feed, depicted as holding the magazine in place. When the player reloads, they yank this lever, which causes the magazine to be released. This is almost certainly not how the weapon was actually reloaded, and it is far more likely that the magazines were simply slid into the feed laterally, without a release lever needing to be present. The canted angle of the magazine feed is also not represented in the game model, and instead is set at a straight 90
° angle.

Aspects of the Hellriegel's performance in the game, such as its fire rate and handling, are obviously imagined and as there are no available records to base these factors on. Overall, the depiction of the Hellriegel submachine gun in Battlefield 1 is okay given the scarcity of information on this weapon, though more attention could have been given to certain elements which are misrepresented.

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