August 12, 2021
By Joe Engesser
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Developed in 1941, the FG42 paratrooper rifle stands as one of the most distinctive firearms of World War 2. Manufactured by the Heinrich Krieghoff company of Suhl, these high-powered select-fire weapons were a stunning example of the advanced German engineering the Allies repeatedly encountered on the battlefields of Europe.
With only an estimated 5,000 FG42s manufactured, and most destroyed after the war, the few surviving examples of this compact German battle rifle are supreme rarities in gun collecting.
The FG42 assault rifle was developed in WW2 at the direction of Herman Goering and specifically issued to the Fallschirmjäger, the Third Reich's elite paratrooper division. Combining the function of the long-range infantry rifle with the suppressing power of fully automatic weapons like the Bren and the BAR, the FG42 was intended to handle all the combat roles required of a paratrooper in a single lightweight design.
After WWI, rapid advancements in both aviation technology and low altitude parachute design allowed for the development of effective airborne infantry. Inspired by Soviet efforts, Hermann Göring oversaw the creation of a German paratrooper program, and the Fallschirmjäger (translated as “parachute hunter”) was established in 1936 as a branch of the Luftwaffe.
The Fallschirmjäger were outfitted in splinter camo and initially equipped with conventional weapons like the bolt-action rifle, submachine gun, and light machine gun. Since the German RZ parachute harness didn’t allow for much weight to be safely carried during jumps, most of the unit’s arms were dropped in separate containers and had to be retrieved by the airborne troops after landing. This limitation had dire consequences for the Fallschirmjäger during the Battle of Crete.
After Greece was invaded by the Germans in April of 1941, Hitler set his sights on the island of Crete, a vital Allied naval port and airbase. The Luftwaffe commanders saw the upcoming invasion as an opportunity to demonstrate the potential of the Fallschirmjäger in a leading combat role, a significant force of paratroopers dropping behind the lines to secure strategic airfields and capture anti-aircraft guns ahead of a larger naval invasion.
The Invasion of Crete, codenamed “Operation Mercury”, began on the morning of May 20th. This was Germany’s greatest airborne offensive to date, and the first time in history parachuting forces composed the bulk of such a large-scale invasion strategy. It would also prove to be the Fallschirmjäger’s greatest defeat.
Upon landing on the island, the Fallschirmjäger found themselves under immediate fire from Allied defenders as they scrambled to recover their support weapons from the separate drop canisters. Jumping without a reliable battle rifle made it impossible to establish fire superiority, and the German paratroopers were robbed of operational momentum and suffered massive causalities as a result. The need for a versatile rifle that could be carried during the drop became quickly apparent.
The Reich Air Ministry desired a universal shoulder-fired rifle that could replace the Fallschirmjäger’s varied arsenal and simplify logistics for future airborne operations. The requested weapon would include the street-fighting maneuverability of a sub-machine gun, the suppressive power of a light machine gun, and the long-range precision of a marksman rifle. In short, an all-in-one miracle weapon.
The proposed features were ambitious to say the least, as was the requirement for the rifle to be shorter and no heavier than the standard KAR98. The German Army Ordnance Department dismissed what they saw as an unrealistic undertaking and offered the Fallschirmjäger the G41 semiautomatic rifle instead. Undeterred, Hermann Göring ordered the Luftwaffe to independently continue what would eventually become the FG42.
The concept of a lightweight, select-fire assault rifle was leagues ahead of its time, and a gun design with the potential to outclass other commonly carried paratrooper rifles of the era. The British Lee-Enfield and Japanese Nagoya were fine bolt-action distance weapons, and the American M1 Carbine delivered a relatively high rate of fire, but the ambitious FG42 was intended to rival the best qualities of all these rifles while offering the option of fully automatic fire.
The Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 is a gas-operated, select-fire weapon that can quickly switch from a closed-bolt semi-automatic rifle to an open-bolt full-automatic machine gun, permitting increased accuracy in the former role and greater volume in the latter. Chambering the powerful 8mm Mauser cartridge in a 20 round side-mounted box magazine, the FG42 packed a wallop and could even double as a marksman rifle with the addition of a scope.
The FG42’s folding bipod, on-board spike bayonet, and flip up front and rear sights follow the compact design of the rest of the rifle and make it easy to carry during jumps. The rifle's streamlined profile is a distinct departure from more traditional German long arms of the era and was also intended to reduce muzzle rise during automatic fire, while a prominent muzzle brake was used to tame the recoil.
A single gun that needed to be both a submachine gun and a squad automatic weapon meant inevitable compromises on both fronts, and the FG42 was no exception. Without belt feeding or interchangeable barrels, the prolonged fire was limited compared to a specialized machinegun like the MG34, and running full power rifle ammo through a lightweight gun made control difficult. The weapon’s complex design was also was costly to produce and required heavy maintenance in the field.
While the Fallschirmjaeger were never used for another large-scale parachute drop after Crete, the German paratroopers continued to fight as elite infantry and served in special commando missions. The FG42 was first fielded during the rescue of Benito Mussolini, and served on the Western Front for the remainder of the war.
The early model Type 1 FG42 is as unique as it is rare, with a number of distinct differences from the later production Type 2 paratrooper rifles. The three most notable aspects of the gun’s silhouette are its stamped metal stock, the elaborate flash hider threaded to the muzzle, and the extreme sweep of the pistol grip. Intended to reduce the chance of snagging during a jump, the angled grip was changed to a more conventional design after complaints from troops in the field, and the bipod mount was moved closer to the muzzle to decrease dispersion.
Type 1 vs Type 2 FG42 paratrooper rifle. A Type 2 FG42 previously sold at Rock Island Auction Company for $241,500.
Other changes were made as a result of Germany’s limited resource issues, such as the choice to move away from the Type 1 FG42’s intricate forged steel receiver in favor of a more cost-effective stamped receiver that helped speed up production. Some of the lessons learned in building and fielding the FG42 would be applied to the StG44, which is widely regarded as the first true assault rifle.
The Allies encountered the FG42 on the Western Front and took special note of the impressive weapon. Multiple rifles were captured by American forces and studied at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Military engineers concluded that the FG42 was an interesting rifle “which should be studied with future weapons in view” but that it was “produced with apparently little thought as to the difficulty and the cost involved in the manufacture.”
The FG42 and its advanced operating system went on to influence the T44 prototype, and the M60 machine gun. The high tech German Rifle would also serve as the spiritual father to the full-powered battle rifles that dominated the early phases of the Cold War and eventually became the de-facto standard Western infantry weapons until the rise of the intermediate caliber assault rifle. Today, even FG42 repro rifles are extremely desirable with gun collectors.
The skyrocketing popularity of World War 2 gun collecting has seen a heightened interest in the FG42 today. The weapon has also been featured in a number of popular video game series in recent years, introducing a whole new generation to the famous German paratrooper rifle and its notable development history. Rock Island Auction Company has a consistent record with finding the right buyers for the FG42. World War II machine guns have seen a steady rise in value, with the FG42 comfortably topping the sales charts.
The FG42 headlining Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premier Firearm’s Auction is only the second time in company history a Type 1 FG 42 rifle has been offered. Notes from the consignor indicate this weapon was added to the U.S. NFA registry during the 1968 Amnesty, which suggests that it was brought home by a GI as a war trophy and then subsequently stashed for many years. Needless to say, this rifle is a historic treasure and one of the top-tier pieces in firearms collecting.
Rock Island Auction Company’s September Premier Firearms Auction featured a wide range of rare and desirable historic military arms, including an impressive selection from the Second World War. With the finest offerings from legendary collections such as Dr. Robert Azar, George Moller, and Putnam Green/Sycamore, September’s auction promises to be a can’t miss event for firearms fans of every collecting aspiration.
The FG-42's legacy runs deep, it's "all-in-one", universal style inspiring designs like the M14, the follow-up to the M1 Garand rifle. The Rock Island Auction newsletter provides firearms fans with weekly gun blogs and gun videos on German military weapons like the Mauser C96, the Walther PP pistol, the MP40, and more, and similar transitionary firearms designs are explored in articles like the revolver vs the pistol, the development of the Uzi, and the innovative flintlock repeater assault weapon designs before the Second Amendment.
Anyone thinking about dipping their toe into the world of firearms collecting should visit one of Rock Island Auction Company’s Sporting & Collector
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