By Leszek Erenfeicht
The Blyskawica (‘Lightning’, pronounced bwiskavitsa, with ‘wi’ to be read like in ‘wisdom’) was designed and manufactured fully clandestine, for the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, AK), the mainstream Polish underground movement during the German occupation of Poland during the WWII. It was the first Polish-designed submachine gun ever to be really mass-produced - and that under the most difficult conditions imaginable.
Compared with their French counterparts enjoying generous arms airdrops from Britain, Polish resistance fighters were poorly armed. Airdropped weapons were scarce and scant prior to the autumn of 1943, when airfields gained in Italy enabled a (slight at best, judging by French standards) surge in the airdropping campaign. Submachine guns were virtually non-existent in the Polish Army prior to the war. After the defeat in the 1939 September Campaign, a resistance movement called the Home Army (Armia Krajowa, or AK) was created as early as October 1939; at first under the name of the Union For Armed Struggle (Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej, ZWZ), with the aim of preparation for the general national uprising to win the independence in front of the Allied troops, rather than idly waiting for them to come and liberate Poland. The submachine gun soon proved to be a very useful guerilla weapon, and with an agenda like that, the AK simply had to devise some source of SMG supply more dependable than incidental disarming of German patrols, usually provoking bloody retributions.
Let’s Roll Our Own
In September 1942, Waclaw Zawrotny and Seweryn Wielanier, two mechanical engineers with no prior small arms designing experience, proposed to the Home Army’s Warsaw Area Command an idea of designing and manufacturing a 9mm submachine gun of their own. They studied foreign models, the MP 40 and the Sten, and found both unsuitable for copying. Although the Sten was simple enough to manufacture under the most difficult conditions (later on to be amply confirmed by a conservative estimation of 2,000 Sten copies and look-alikes made in Poland during the war), but awkward to handle and hardly concealable with its fixed stock and side-sticking magazine. On the other hand, the MP 40 handled like a dream, and was highly concealable with the folding stock, but the manufacturing technology (making extensive use of die-stamping and spot-welding methods) was far too complicated to replicate with what little machinery and tools were available for the job.
The designers agreed that the new submachine gun should combine the best features of the two, while keeping the manufacturing technology as low-tech as possible. They decided to use plumbing micro-groove threads and machine screws for most of the joints - bayonet couplings and latches of the factory-made weapons were far too advanced to replicate with the available hardware.
Gradually, by April 1943 the Blyskawica took shape and prototype drawings were being prepared. After the design work was done, it was a time to find subcontractors and organize an underground manufacturing network, supplying the parts to the clandestine assembly shop. In the harsh conditions of German-occupied Warsaw, with tight control held over all machine shops’ activity, shortages and rationing of the cutting tools, with all suitable materials put on the ‘restricted supplies’ list and sold only with a permit from the German administration, this was a very hard task, indeed. Nevertheless, bribing and stealing their way, working in Wielanier’s private flat, by September 1943 they managed to manufacture and assemble the first working model minus a barrel and a magazine - which they chose to borrow from the British Sten to overcome the unsurpassable production bottlenecks.
The gun was submitted for approval to the Home Army Ordnance Command, for test-firing in the woods around Warsaw’s suburb of Zielonka, and approval. Formal acceptance into the inventory of the clandestine army meant, among others, that the designers would be refunded their private money spent so far on the gun. The acceptance test was the first opportunity for the Blyskawica to really shoot after a Sten barrel and magazine borrowed for the occasion were installed. Problems were therefore inevitable. At first the prototype refused to fire at all, and then suffered numerous malfunctions. But Wielanier was able to rectify the situation with what simple tools were available - and jams decreased. Finally, the gun fired an entire magazine in a single burst, and the project was given a green light to start.
The Home Army HQ Diversionary Directorate’s commander, Colonel Emil ‘Nil’ Fieldorf (a brave and intelligent man, a pre-war career officer parachuted to Poland as early as 1940; after the war murdered in a courthouse farce by the Soviet-backed Polish Communist regime), was briefed of the new invention and demanded an additional live-firing demonstration. This was held in the most daring - if a little cavalier - way. At high noon on September 27, 1943, right on the painful fourth anniversary of Warsaw’s surrender in 1939, right smack in the middle of the enemy-occupied city, a party of three raincoat-clad men stepped out to the center of the crowded Theatrical Square, in front of the Warsaw City Hall. One of them reached under his coat, raised a shiny silvery prototype submachine gun and performed a classic ‘magazine dump’ into the air, to the delight of the cheering crowd around and to the horror of the two bodyguards flanking the Colonel; himself grinning like a child on a Christmas morning.
After going through all the trials with flying colors, the gun was accepted for serial production, which meant that the designers had to prepare a complete set of drawings for the gun. These were ready in October, 1943. While en route to the Home Army Command with this complete set of drawings in his briefcase, Mr. Zawodny narrowly avoided being arrested in one of the frequent German Police raids, when a section of the street was cordoned-off, and all people rounded-up to be later sorted out by the Gestapo. Most of the people caught up in these manhunts were then deported to Auschwitz even if they weren’t suspected of anything - just to spread terror to the others. One can only imagine what would happen if he was caught with a briefcase full of clandestine submachine gun blueprints.
The name Blyskawica (Lightning) came from the three lightning bolts carved in the aluminum butt-plate. These were designed to prevent slipping of the plate but also served as a camouflage - the butt-plate’s blueprints were labeled ‘electric oven handles’ and the three lightning bolts were a trademark of the Electrite brand. The name was made official in November, when a first pilot batch of five was accepted by the Home Army Ordnance Command. To mark the unusual occasion, key personnel connected with the design and manufacturing of the first batch were presented with petrol lighters - which Wielanier was making as a business before he turned to gun manufacturing. Each lighter was engraved with two legends: ‘Polish Industry, November 1943’ on one side and ‘Christening of Blyskawica on the other.
A Lightning for the Failed Tempest
In order to avoid compromising the entire program should the Germans discover one manufacturing plant, and to speed up the delivery, parts were contracted from over twenty various manufacturers scattered throughout the entire city. A chicken-wire factory, Franciszek Makowiecki & Co., located at 20 Grzybowski Square in Warsaw, was tasked with the final assembly and test-firing of the submachine guns. The clandestine SMG plant was situated under the workshop, in the cellars of a nearby Roman-Catholic Church of All Saints. An additional concrete-lined tunnel acted as an underground shooting range for functioning tests. The walls of the tunnel were doubled, with space left between the two layers of concrete walls to suppress the report of the firing guns, and a sandpit was installed behind a wall of wooden railway ties as a bullet stop. Five people were assembling and test-firing the guns: the testing being performed strictly during the rush hours to use the street noise as means of additional sound camouflage. All through this time where people were present in the clandestine plant, there was a special look-out on duty in the official workshop tasked with switching the warning light to alarm the assembly workers if anything suspicious was going on topside. The facilities were mined with explosive charges to blow the workshop up should Gestapo raid the premises and find the camouflaged entrance.
The first pilot order was for five prototype weapons to test the cooperation network and for additional function and troop testing. Upon the trial batch acceptance, the Diversionary Directorate of the Home Army’s HQ placed the main order for an unprecedented 1,000 domestic submachine guns to be manufactured and assembled at the clandestine workshop. Close on the heels of this first order, a second one for 300 more was placed. Until July, 1944, most part kits for the 1,000 SMG order were manufactured, and as much as 600 Blyskawicas were taken over and accepted by the Home Army Ordnance Command with an additional 100 assembled in July in preparation for the uprising in Warsaw. After the uprising started, the assembling shop with most of the component stocks were evacuated to a larger armorer’s workshop, no longer secret and located in the city center. As many as 40 weapons were completed there, the main limiting factor being - ironically - the shortage of Sten barrels, which had to be left in Teofil Czajkowski’s shop at Leszno Street, in the now German-held part of the city.
Production numbers are the subject of a heated debate. The approximately 755 completed SMGs number has been based on the actual Home Army units’ materiel reports, some of which might be missing. There could have been instances wherein the assembly shop workers, devoted people as they were, may have had various favors to pay for and could have stashed several guns for their own use, or hand over some of the Blyskawicas to friends in the other factions of the Polish underground, thus making the overall number slightly higher. But even if these reports are inflated (which is highly unlikely) and the number was, say 655 instead of 755, this is still a fantastic achievement. To invent, design, series-manufacture in clandestine shops of the occupied city and then assemble in several hundred units, test-fire and issue an entirely original model of a submachine gun to the underground army is still a marvel of organization. Only Sten look-alikes manufactured all over Europe could compete in numbers with the Blyskawica, but none of them was of original design. The relatively high number of the surviving Blyskawicas, some of which even got abroad (at least one as far as Prague in the Czech Republic, where for decades it was mislabeled as a German Sten copy, and another reported as far as Italy) coupled with a multitude of photographs, and even movie footage showing this little gun in action, supports the high production number. The Uprising newsreel had a feature showing the assembly workshop at Boduena Street during the insurrection with row upon row of receivers in various stages of completion. Unfortunately, the majority of the guns assembled prior to July were transferred to the Eastern provinces, where units were readied to stage the aborted Operation Tempest in front of the Red Army, and subsequently lost.
Ready weapons were smuggled out of the factory, 10 guns at a time, inside hollowed wire-mesh rolls. Initially, the new weapon was restricted for the general uprising mobilization storage only, and any use of them closer than 100 km from Warsaw was strictly forbidden in order to camouflage the manufacturing area. The overall Burza (Tempest) plan written in the winter of 1943/44 called for a general uprising rolling gradually throughout the country in front of the Soviet offensive, to disrupt German transport and defenses by tying up German forces away from the front thus helping the Soviet push - while at the same time showing the Soviets that the Polish Underground State led by the London-based Polish government-in-exile is a force to reckon with. These plans generally came to naught, because the Soviets were unwilling to make any use of the proposed help, and treated all non-communist armed outfits in their front zone as hostiles.
The Home Army’s zeal to help the Soviet offensive petered out after the Vilnius liberation on July 13, 1944. It was the first major pre-war Polish city in the path of the Red Army, and it was liberated by the joint Home Army and Soviet forces. The liberation festivities lasted no longer than three days, after which the Soviet front troops were replaced by the NKVD who arrested all AK soldiers and deported them to Siberian prison camps.
Plans were also drawn up to liberate the capital of Poland, Warsaw, in front of the Soviet offensive, as part of the Burza. The Blyskawica production was thus intensified in June and July 1944, with a daily output in the last days of July, reaching up to 25 submachine guns assembled, checked, and shipped to mobilization storage. After the Vilnius fiasco, the issue of the Warsaw uprising was temporarily put on hold, but on July 22, 1944, the Soviets installed a puppet government in Lublin, the first major Polish city behind the 1939 Soviet-German demarcation line, thus clearly signifying, that they intended on permanently severing all the Eastern provinces (54% of the pre-war territory) from Poland. This was a major threat to the survival of the nation, and a symbol was needed to mark the presence of the Underground State and boost the nation’s morale. The uprising plans were reinstated and thus on August 1, 1944, the Warsaw Uprising broke out.
On the evening of the first day of the Uprising, parts and unfinished guns remaining at the plant were transferred to a reserve workshop, due to the heavy fighting around the original site, which became a no-man’s-land for weeks to come. The production recommenced on August 4, and lasted till August 20, when the assembly workshop was bombed. The last Blyskawicas made there were often lacking the aluminum barrel jacket, replaced with a simple steel threaded plug securing the barrel.
Blyskawica from Muzzle to Stock Plate
The Blyskawica is a straight blowback submachine gun firing from an open bolt. It has a folding stock, a vertical magazine well and is chambered for the 9x19 mm Luger round.
The Blyskawica SMG’s main component groups are: upper receiver, barrel, lower receiver, magazine well group, breechblock group, return springs group and the magazine. The design kept complicated machining to a bare minimum with most component parts turned rather than milled and most connections made by fine-threads and machine screws, to avoid troublesome welding.
The manufacturing technology, governed by availability of the tooling and production methods, was very primitive and crude even by 1940s standards. The guns were made mostly of the machined tubing with as few soldered sheet-metal parts or aluminum castings as possible. Components were connected mostly by means of threads and screws, which made field-stripping a time-consuming procedure.
The upper receiver is made of the length of seamless plumbing tube, with retracting handle slot, ejection, magazine well and sear openings. The barrel supporting plug is bolted inside the front end, while the rear one is threaded for the end cap.
The lower receiver group includes a folding stock pivot, trigger mechanism, trigger guard and a wooden grip. The trigger mechanism is a self-contained entity, inserted as a whole into the lower receiver - exactly like in HK weapons.
The magazine well is welded of the two halves, with a magazine catch assembly screwed to the back of the housing. A projection of the magazine catch external frame extends inside the receiver to serve as an ejector. The magazine well is fastened to the receiver with two bolts.
The barrel is 197 mm long, patterned after the Sten and made fully interchangeable, having six lands and grooves with a right hand twist. It is inserted into the barrel plug and then secured by screwing an aluminum barrel jacket on top of the barrel retaining collar. The Sten type barrels were mass-produced by the Teofil Czajkowski’s workshop in Warsaw, along with other 9mm barrels. The quality of Czajkowski-made Sten barrels was dependant on available steel grade, but manufacturing standards were usually better than the original - especially the two-groove Mk 3 barrel.
Blyskawica has a heavy (720 gram), massive breechblock with the feed/extractor channel and sear notch cut in the underside, and a hollowed-out rear, where a driving spring with its guiding/dividing tube fits. The firing pin is rigidly installed in the bolt-face, as in the Sten. A dove-tailed channel for the retracting handle base is cut on the outside of the bolt. The breechblock is machined out of solid steel rod with driving ribs machined along it to ease friction and channel the dirt, much like in post-war George Patchett’s Sterling SMG. The ribbed bolt is in fact a reversal of the MP 40 layout, whereas the bolt is cylindrical, and the receiver tube is corrugated to form the ribs for the bolt to glide along. This feature was very highly rated by the Polish designers examining the captured German SMG, but limited production resources prevented copying that. With no sheet metal die-pressing technology at their disposal, Polish designers had to devise something ingenious to retain the useful feature, while at the same time keeping the technology as simple as possible. Blyskawica receivers were made out of length of seamless tubing, much stouter than sheet-metal, so the pressing of the ribs was out of question. Wielanier then proposed a logical alternative: if we can’t groove the tube for bolt interface, let’s groove the bolt for tube interface. And so the designers reversed the procedure. After turning the breechblocks on the lathe, these were moved to a milling machine and ribs were machined along it, resulting in a ribbed breechblock and a smooth inner receiver.
There is another feature also strikingly resembling the Sterling: a dual concentric return spring dubbing as a buffer. The longer (320 mm) outer spring of 22 mm diameter acts as a main driving spring, while the much shorter (110 mm) bumper spring of 15 mm diameter cushions the bolt in the rearmost position and helps it gain initial momentum for the next cycle. The bumper spring is inserted inside the guiding tube of the receiver plug, dividing it from the return spring resting on the outside of it. As with the bolt ribs, the dual springs arrangement was also a part of the MP 40 legacy rather than having anything in common with the Patchett, whose development was completely unknown to the Polish designers at that time. The spring telescope of the MP 40 contains two springs - a longer mainspring, and a much shorter bumper spring installed into the front portion of the telescoping mainspring cover, with a bumper casing incorporated into the firing pin base. Reproduction of the spring telescope was out of question due to the complexity, and the general redundancy of it. Again, something simpler was needed, and again, the answer was to reverse the MP 40 idea. Both springs were installed in the rear part of the receiver, with the outer return spring fitted around the receiver end cap/spring guide, and the inner bumper spring inserted into it.
Making the rear surface of the barrel plug and bolt’s front facing surfaces convex is another interesting feature of Blyskawica, enabling the dirt to accumulate there without hindering the action. Both surfaces scarcely made contact except for dry-firing, as the Blyskawica employed an advanced primer ignition scheme, common for submachine guns firing from an open bolt. In connection with the bolt ribs, it proved especially useful in urban warfare during the Warsaw Uprising when there was plenty of rubble and tons of brick dust in the air, enough to jam most other, more renowned submachine guns. Breechblock cylinders were turned on a lathe in pairs, disguised as shafts. Then ribs were machined into these, and spring channels drilled into either end. After these operations, the ribbed hollowed ‘shafts’ were cut in two on a lathe, using a triangular-shaped cutter tool, then all other openings (for the extractor claw, dovetailed cocking handle slot, bolt face with a firing pin shaft) were executed.
The trigger mechanism is of very simple, bordering on crude, design but nevertheless fitted with an advanced automatic trigger safety. The spring-loaded safety forms a part of the trigger linkage. The safety lever extends into the trigger guard, while the nose of the safety is inserted into a notch in the trigger mechanism casing, thus immobilizing the trigger. To operate the sear, the shooter has to insert his finger between the safety lever and the trigger to unblock the latter. There is no means to make the gun safe with the bolt closed or retracted - in fact, apart from the automatic trigger safety; there are no further safeties at all. This was infamous as a very failure-prone safety, though, and many accidental discharges were noted after bumping the stock on the rubbles in a ruined city. There is no fire-selector either, but the heavy bolt kept the rate of fire low enough to make squeezing-off single shots relatively easy.
The stock is folding, twin-strut, with struts made of steel flats with a cast aluminum stock plate. The stock is folding underneath the receiver, and its length of pull is governed by the measurements of the receiver, which makes it a little short for the average shooter. A different butt-plate, hollowed to clear the magazine (like in AKS-47) would have helped to lengthen the stock. Here again the influence of the MP 40 is obvious - it folds under the receiver, even though a top-folder like the Soviet PPS 42/43 or a side-folder, like Reising 55 or Sten Mk IV, would enable to use a longer, more comfortable, stock.
The sights were rudimentary, with a peep rear sight and an inverted V, very low front post, difficult to shoot precisely at anything more than possibly 30 yards away. These are clearly patterned after the Sten sights, but reveal precious little experience with the peep sights on part of the designers. This is hardly surprising, as these were a novel feature for the Polish military weapon - in fact Blyskawica was the first and only Polish peep-sighted martial firearm until the advent of the PM-84P of 1990s. The peep itself was much too wide, of almost ghost ring proportions, while the pyramid front post was way too small, making it almost impossible to aim precisely. The peep is located on the receiver plug stop, on top of a dovetailed projection of the lower receiver, while the post is situated on the barrel plug, bolted to the receiver. The placement of sights on separate parts with a degree of play between them made precise aiming difficult, because it was possible to assemble the SMG with sights out of the line.
The magazine is of typical Schmeisser staggered-row, single-position system, widely employed for the German (MP 28, 38/40/41), as well as the British (Sten, Lanchester), the American (M3 Grease Gun) and the Soviet (PPSh 41) SMGs of the era. It has a wide body, containing a staggered row of rounds, culminating with a conical upper part, channeling the two rows into a single position feed. Inside the body runs a sheet-metal follower, actuated by a follower spring. The magazine is closed with a magazine bottom plate, locked by a projection of the spring pressure plate inserted into the bottom plate opening. Most reliable and coveted were the airdropped originals, as the Polish copy thereof often lacked in quality, mostly because of the follower springs made of improper - but readily available - wire.
Elementary Disassembly Procedure
- Unload, clear, check and double check the weapon.
- Unscrew receiver end plug bolt.
- Unscrew the lower receiver retaining screw, then slide down the lower receiver until it separates from the upper. NOTE: the actual Blyskawica in the photos was shrapnel-damaged and the field-repair includes replacing of the torn-off retaining screw bracket with a curved brace held by two side screws. Check the cross-section drawing for correct shape and position of the retaining screw.
- Unscrew the upper receiver end plug and withdraw the springs.
- Unscrew the cocking handle retaining screw, separate the handle from the bolt and remove, then withdrew the breechblock.
- Unscrew the barrel jacket and pull the barrel out of the receiver.
- If necessary, unscrew the trigger pack retaining screws from the lower receiver and take the mechanism casing out.
- No further stripping is needed or recommended. To assemble, reverse the above procedure.
Imperfect, But Genuine
For years the Blyskawica has often been mistaken for a German gun, which it never was. Even if authors do recognize the Polish pedigree of the gun, they most often mistakenly label it as a Sten copy (see World’s SMGs and Machine Pistols Vol.2a) - which is simply not true. The only Sten parts were magazine and barrel incorporated into the design only because these parts were already being series-manufactured by the underground factories in huge quantities, and their choice was governed by logistical factors, not a need, or desire, to copy them.
The chief disadvantage, especially in the dusty urban warfare conditions, was a time-consuming and complicated field-stripping procedure, calling for driving out numerous, small, easy to loose screws. The micro-grooved threads were vulnerable to dust, often jammed and got torn-off during field-stripping or reassembly by use of the excessive force. The worst idea of it all was the aluminum barrel jacket. In theory, it was designed to transfer and dissipate the heat from the barrel, but in practice no one in the underground had enough ammunition to make the barrel glow. The downsides of the aluminum barrel jackets were many, but two should be enough to get rid of it. First, it was left “in the white” and shined on, prematurely warning the enemy of the shooter’s position. This is confirmed by the original Warsaw Uprising photos - in most cases a shining barrel jacket is the first thing enabling us to recognize the Blyskawica submachine gun held by an Uprising soldier. Second, it was held by the same micro-grooved thread that secured all other components, and thus - if the dirt was enough to jam and damage the threads cut into steel components, then steel thread was sure to wear and tear the aluminum barrel jacket. These were frequently damaged, and after the threads were obliterated, the gun could be thrown away as well since it was the barrel jacket that held the barrel inside the receiver and took the hammering from the heavy bolt if dry-fired. Some late September and early October 1944 photos show at least one Blyskawica fitted with an exposed barrel and a short steel plug screwed into the receiver instead of the aluminum barrel shroud.
The abysmal sights could have been easily rectified by placing both sights onto the upper receiver. The sighting radius would be shorter by no more than an inch, and both would be finally placed in line. With a smaller peep and higher, pillar-contour, shrouded front sight, the Blyskawica would be very nice to shoot and a lot more accurate gun. When I fired a rare shootable survivor (held at the Police HQ Forensic Lab, unfortunately not allowing any photography) I found it a real pleasure to shoot, well balanced, and grouping nicely - even if a foot up and to the right off the aiming mark at 15 meters.
For no obvious reason the cocking handle of the Blyskawica was a very complicated affair, set into a dovetailed machined channel on the outer surface of the bolt and screw-retained there, with no provisions for securing the cocking handle in front or retracted position to preclude accidental discharge (AD) incidents. This is unreasonable at best, especially as the Sten with its rod-like cocking handle was one of the ‘organ donors’ - by copying of the Mk 5 push-thru handle with its projection inserted into the receiver hole, many later accidents could have been avoided.
But generally speaking, for the first gun ever designed by the two men never even remotely connected with the firearms industry, this is a remarkably original and successful design feat. Despite the primitive technology, surviving examples seem to be of exceptionally good workmanship and standard of fit and finish.
These guns were not enough to win the victory for the insurgents, who fought a 63-day long gallant and deadly battle after being left to their own devices by the approaching Soviets, who were watching idly the city’s ordeal from the other side of the Vistula River. Stalin ordered his huge summer 1944 offensive to a screeching halt, in order to let the Nazis sort out the Poles before he occupied their capital. Betrayed insurgents paid a tremendous price for their audacity, as the Germans pummeled the city with shells, bombs, arson, and controlled demolition (often on top of the inhabitants herded into cellars prior to explosion). Around 200,000 people died, 90% of them civilian non-combatants, caught between the rock and the hard place. The Western Allies were unable - or unwilling - to make Uncle Joe change his mind and save Warsaw. About 700 submachine guns, be it even of the most technically advanced mode, were not enough to secure the victory against such tremendous odds.
Weapon designation: Blyskawica
Country of origin: Poland
Caliber: 9x19 Luger
Type of operation: Blowback
Type of fire: Fully automatic
Length w/stock retracted: 556 mm (21.89 in)
Barrel length: 197 mm (British Sten barrel)
Weight, unloaded: 3.22 kg (7.1 lbs)
Cyclic rate of fire: 450-500 rpm
Length w/stock extended: 730 mm (28.74 in)
Weight, loaded: 3.83 kg (8.44 lbs)
Type of feed mechanism: Stamped sheet metal box magazine, staggered row, single position feed
Magazine capacity: 32 rd (British Sten magazine)
Weight of loaded magazine: 0.615 kg (1.355 lbs)
Number of lands and grooves: 6
Rifling twist direction: RHS
Approx. muzzle velocity: 360 mps (2067 fps)
Sight, front: Blade, inverted V
Sight, rear: Fixed aperture, set for 100 m (110 yd)
Safety arrangements: The spring loaded safety lever blocks the trigger unless rotated forward by a finger reaching for the trigger. No other safety arrangements.
Means of controlling operation: The retracting handle is located on the right side of the receiver.
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