Germany’s MG-42: 15 Fast Facts About Hitler’s Buzz Saw By: Jim Davis


Without a doubt, Germany was an innovator when it came to weaponry in WWII, pioneering a number of enduring concepts. The MG-42 was one such weapon, and we still see its influence in today’s weapons. Tune in to learn some (possibly) new things that you never knew about the MG-42.

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German trooper armed with MG-42.
A German SS trooper carries an MG-42, seen here with a drum. (Photo: Paul Richard)

1. What’s in a name?

The designation MG-42 is short for Maschinengewehr 42, or “Machine Gun” 42. The “42” indicates that it was adopted by the German military in 1942.

2. The MG-42 was intended as a replacement for the MG-34.

While the MG-34 was an excellent GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun), it was complex and required extensive machining to produce. This made it costly, and Germany could scarcely afford to produce labor-intensive weapons. The MG-42 largely made use of stampings, so it could be produced more quickly and with less labor, which equated to lower costs. Interestingly, both weapons were produced until the end of the war.

MG-42 photo.
Made mostly of stampings, the MG-42 was easier and cheaper to produce than the MG-34. (Photo: Sony Alpha 16000)

3. It was reliable, even when it was filthy.

While the MG-34 was a high-quality machine gun, it was built to close tolerances. This made it susceptible to dirt in combat, which could cause stoppages. The MG-42, on the other hand, was built with looser tolerances, which meant it would continue to operate in filthy conditions. In combat, reliability means life, so this was a popular thing with the troops.

4. It had wicked firepower.

While the MG-34 fired at a rate of around 850 rounds per minute, the MG-42 had a much higher rate of fire; around 1,200 rounds per minute. It was chambered in 7.92×57, which was the standard round for the M98 Mauser rifle that was standard issue. Accounts from those who faced it in combat compared it to the sound of canvas ripping. Rather than individual shots being heard, it sounded like one continuous noise. Because of this, it earned the nickname, “Hitler’s Buzz Saw” from the troops who faced it.

5. The MG-42 had some downsides.

While the high rate of fire made it feared by those on the battlefield, it had some downsides. First, it ate up ammunition at an obscenely high rate. Second, the barrel heated up very quickly, necessitating frequent barrel changes. The last thing you want to have to do with waves of enemy troops advancing on your position is to have to shut the gun down and change the barrel.

6. The MG-42 was belt-fed.

The MG-42 was fed by either a 50-round belt (that could also be fed via a drum) or a 250 round belt. The belt was of the metallic variety. Reports indicate that the 50-round belt was standard, but that they could be linked together to form longer belts (typically 250 rounds).

German paratrooper with MG-42.
German paratrooper with the MG-42. The ammo belt can be seen here, as can the telescopic sight that is affixed to the tripod, which allowed long-range fire. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

7. During WWII, Germany produced over 400,000 MG-42 machine guns.

There were produced right up until the very end.

8. The MG determined squad size.

A German infantry squad was comprised of ten men. The machine gun was the basis for the squad, and the role of the infantry was to support the machine gun by offering covering fire and carrying spare ammunition. A standard machine gun crew consisted of three men: the gunner, the loader/assistant gunner, and the ammunition carrier. The squad carried 1,800 rounds as a standard armament for the machine gun. Ideally, the gun crew would be six men, with the additional three carrying ammunition, the gun’s tripod, entrenching tools, and other gear.

A gun crew fires their MG-42 using a telescopic sight.
A gun crew fires their MG-42 using a telescopic sight. (Photo: Historical Firearms)

9. The MG-42 was specially designed so that the barrel could be changed quickly.

This was very innovative for the time. Allied infantry were trained to wait until the German crew had to change the barrel after it heated up so that they could rush the gun and take it out during the lull in fire. Since changing the barrel on the MG-42 was supposed to take ten seconds or less, this was not a lot of time to act. And we can’t forget that, during that barrel change, German squad members were firing their rifles to cover the machine gunners.

Gunner's-eye view behind MG-42.
A gunner’s view from inside a Sd.Kfz. 251 half-track. The gun shield offered some protection from small arms fire from the front.

10. It had varying roles.

The MG-42 could be used as a light machine gun when fired from the bipod or even fired when carried by a soldier. The recoil was substantial, though, which made offhand firing a real challenge. In addition, it could serve as a heavy machine gun when mounted on a tripod (it used the same tripod as the MG-34). There was also an optical sight that could be mounted for tripod use, enabling long rage fire.

MG-42 with tripod mount.
Here the MG-42 is seen in the Lafette 42 tripod mount, which served well for defensive positions. (Photo: Cobru)

11. Lessons learned on the Eastern Front.

Both the cocking handle and the catch for the top cover could be manipulated by a soldier wearing heavy mittens. This lesson was learned from the Eastern Front because of the numbingly cold temperatures faced by the soldiers. In those conditions, when flesh touched metal, it was so cold that the flesh would suffer instant damage.

12. Frequent barrel changes extended barrel life.

After firing 150 rounds, the gun crew was supposed to change the MG-42’s barrel so that it would not overheat. Barrel life was rated for between 3,500 and 8,000 rounds if this precaution was observed. If 500 rounds were rapidly fired through the gun and the barrel overheated, it was basically rendered useless thereafter.

13. The US Military actually produced a special film for training US soldiers.

The film reassured our soldiers that the MG-42’s “bark is worse than its bite”, and that they could knock out the gun by waiting for that barrel change that we talked about. The film’s value was rather dubious, in that it did not seem to reassure anyone who faced it on the battlefield. Let’s face it, 1,200 rounds per minute coming at you is terrifying, regardless of how reassuring the film might be.

14. The MG-42 weighed approximately 25.5 pounds.

While this is lighter than many other machineguns up until this time, actually being considered “lightweight”, it was still a handful to carry. Add to that the weight of spare barrels, ammo, tripod, and other equipment.

15. Several countries used the design well after WWII had ended.

Several countries used the design well after WWII had ended. Included are the German Army (known as the MG-3 in 7.62 NATO), Italy (MG 42/59), and Austria (MG 74). Additionally, the design also had a strong influence on the machine guns of several other countries. In fact, America’s M-60 is largely based on the MG-42, having many distinctly recognizable features from it. The straight line stock is not only in use with other machineguns, but also other rifles and weapons around the world.

MG-3 diagram.
A diagram of the MG-3, used in modern times by the German Army. It is essentially an MG-42 in 7.62 NATO. (Photo: German Armed Forces)