Unexpected Excellence:The Italian Modello 38/42 Submachine Gun
By Will Dabbs, MD

In European heaven the Italians are the cooks, the Germans are the engineers, the French are the lovers, and the English run everything. In European hell the English are the cooks, the French are the engineers, the Germans are the lovers, and the Italians run everything.

It is a fun and interesting exercise to compare and contrast the salient features of the various submachine guns produced and used by the diverse combatants in World War II. And after taking a look at all things considered, the results were surprising.

In keeping with the old joke related above, the Germans, for all their historical geopolitical foibles, are some absolutely superb engineers. Their designs in small arms as well as aviation, submarines, rocketry, and a hundred other military disciplines that the Germans created in the first half of the twentieth century went on to chart the course for military developments around the globe for decades to come. However, in a little practical side-by-side comparison, the German designs did not fare as well as might have been anticipated.

The MP-40 is the archetypal World War II submachine gun. Historically mislabeled as the "Schmeisser," the MP-40 does indeed enjoy a butter smooth action thanks to its telescoping recoil assembly; but it still weighs in at around nine pounds and is fairly front-heavy in action. It is all pressed steel and Bakelite and represents a classic second-generation design that lends itself to mass production. The folding stock, while compact and ingeniously designed, is not as stable or comfortable as a comparable fixed wooden variant. MP-40 magazines are also all but impossible to load without a dedicated magazine loader.

American submachine guns from World War II reflect the general American mindset of the time. They are big, robust, reliable, and heavy. They also hit like a freight train on the receiving end. The various Thompson models in particular all weigh in at more than ten pounds and launch those enormous .45 ACP projectiles from double stack twenty and thirty round magazines as well as, in the case of the 1928 variant at least, fifty and one hundred round drums. While undeniably effective, these guns are an absolute boat anchor to carry around for long periods and can be awkward to utilize tactically. While the controls are nicely arrayed for right-handed shooters, these guns are a bit of an armload to maneuver in confined spaces.

The British were desperate in World War II and their submachine gun reflects this desperation. The Sten guns were cheap and fairly reliable but ergonomics and tactical functionality in combat took a back seat to expense considerations and the capacity for volume production. As such, while the Sten was certainly the right gun for the British at the time it will never be anybody's first choice for a combat weapon if there is any significant selection from which to choose. Additionally, like the MP-40, Sten magazines taper from double stack to single stack and will not be loaded in a hurry without a dedicated tool.

It could be argued that the Russians raised the employment of the submachine gun to its zenith in World War II, eventually equipping entire regiments solely with weapons such as the PPSh 41. More than five million of the PPSh guns were eventually produced in addition to other designs such as the PPD and PPS 43. While the PPSh is a robust and well-balanced firearm, its 900 rpm cyclic rate makes it an effective but less than elegant weapon on the range.

It may be an unfair characterization to denigrate the Italians for their martial performance in World War II but our grandfathers did seen a bit more keen to go toe to toe with Italian combat formations than, say, the Waffen SS. In the grand scheme of things, from the historian's perspective at least, the Italians did not exactly set the world afire militarily when they threw their lot in with the Axis powers. Their standard submachine gun, however, was a piece of work.

The original Beretta model 1938a was designed by the prolific Italian arms designer Tullio Marengoni and embodied the classic fit, finish, and workmanship that characterized first-generation submachine guns. The Beretta 1938a falls into the same broad category as the German MP-28 and MP-35, the British Lanchester, and the American Model of 1921 Thompson. These guns were expensive to produce, heavy to carry, and slow to manufacture. While beautiful to behold, these guns were impractical for the planetary conflict that was World War II. The Beretta Modello 38/42, however, was a magnificent and practical wartime design.

The Beretta 38/42 was the successor to Marengoni's original 1938a and it went through several iterations as it was being produced in wartime Italy. Original models were designated the Modello 38/42 and came equipped with a truncated wooden stock that terminated at the magazine well in addition to a fluted barrel and a simplified muzzle brake. The complex machining of the 1938a gave way to steel pressings, rough wood, and spot welds. Magazines came in twenty and forty-round variants. Eventually the barrel flutes were deleted and an awkward vertical foregrip added. In the rush of wartime production there was some overlap of features and ambiguity concerning model designations. The weapon eventually went on to be designated the 38/43 and 38/44 depending upon its specific set of characteristics. The Germans used thousands of the Beretta 1938 series weapons in their own units under the designation MP.738. The specific weapon tested for this article has a smooth unfluted barrel and is marked 38/42.

A detailed engineering analysis of the 38/42 is a study in contradictions. The first impression one receives upon hefting the weapon is that it is delightfully lightweight and almost perfectly balanced. It is short, handy, and compact while weighing in at nearly a pound and a half lighter than the MP-40, itself a relatively lightweight piece when compared to some of its contemporary competition. The 38/42 points naturally, feeds from a double stack forty-round magazine that is painless to load with nothing more than your fingers, and enjoys a sedate full auto rate of fire that makes that forty-round magazine seem to last all day long. It incorporates a double trigger arrangement that allows instantaneous selection between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes of fire without any extraneous switches or dials to manage. The forward trigger fires semiautomatically while the rear trigger fires bursts. The stock is short but entirely adequate for superb control when firing from either the shoulder or the hip. The muzzle brake is easy to manufacture and very effective in practice, graphically demonstrating its ability to redirect muzzle blast in a useful direction when fired at dusk. Those are the good things.

On the negative side, the gun charges on the right and ejects out the left. While this does not practically interfere with either right or left handed firing, it does necessitate either manipulating the charging handle with the trigger hand if firing right handed or rotating the entire gun over to facilitate access to the bolt knob with the left hand; an awkward and inefficient maneuver. In either case, magazine changes are not as efficient as they could ideally be. The charging handle does not reciprocate and incorporates a simple but effective dust cover. The sights are small and unobtrusive in the manner of most European subguns of the era and are therefore of limited utility in a highly mobile tactical environment. The magazine release is also fairly small and subsequently is a bit of a trick to manipulate quickly under stress.

On the range, the Beretta 38/42 is a thing of beauty. It points like an extension of your own anatomy and, even at sixty-five years old, is flawlessly reliable. Fire selection, as previously mentioned, is instantaneous and intuitive based on the twin trigger arrangement and the 550 rpm rate of fire makes burst control a joy. The gun is imminently maneuverable and the efficient and effective muzzle brake utterly negates muzzle rise even with long bursts so long as even rudimentary tactical technique is employed. The preponderance of the mass of the gun rests right above the shooter's hands so that very little of the weapon protrudes forward to catch on things while maneuvering tactically and its diminutive weight makes toting the piece over significant distances fairly painless. Overall, of all the weapons previously mentioned the Beretta 38/42 seems the most tactically practical by a noteworthy margin.

Italian military tenacity notwithstanding, that Beretta might produce a superb martial arm is no great surprise. They have had plenty of experience. Pietro Beretta S. p. A. has been described as the longest continually operating manufacturing company in the world. The Beretta company came into being in 1526 when Maestro Bartolomea Beretta of Gardone Val Trompia accepted 296 ducats for the manufacture of 185 harquebus barrels for the arsenal of Venice. Today, Beretta is still a family-run business nearly five hundred years later. That the U.S. military has filled its holsters with Beretta handguns for the past three decades speaks to the fact that they are clearly still competitive gunmakers.

When comparing and testing the various World War II guns on the range in an admittedly non-scientific manner, in effect turning ammunition into noise, the surprising thing was that the little Italian subgun so eclipsed its more famous brethren. The Thompson was heavy and the Sten crude. The MP-28 was gorgeous but bulky and the MP-40 front heavy and a bit awkward. The little Italian Beretta, however, would have been my first choice as a combat weapon even selecting among many more modern offerings that day. While it does not cut the same sexy profile as does the Thompson or MP-40, the Beretta 38/42 was an efficient and effective combat tool that was used and coveted by German soldiers throughout many Wermacht formations as well as by Allied ground troops. Picking one of these little guns up and running a few magazines through it quickly shows why.

The gun we enjoyed in this comparison had itself a fascinating story. Its owner served as a P-51 Mustang pilot during World War II, ending the war with two confirmed Nazi kills, a FW-190 and a Me-109. During the war in Europe he was assigned to a former Luftwaffe base that had only recently been overrun by ground forces. He was and is not a real gun enthusiast and was much more interested in flying captured aircraft than in collecting souvenirs. Several of the captured Luftwaffe ground crewmen stayed on at the airfield in question and helped maintain some of the liberated German aircraft. This gentleman actually logged a little stick time in a Focke Wulf FW-190 before his superiors got wind of it and prohibited the practice. After the armistice, however, several of his buddies would take a jeep out across the nearby battlefields in search of nifty trinkets. One day one of his fellow pilots walked into his tent with a matching pair of Beretta 38/42 submachine guns he had found out on one of his forays and dropped one of them off as a gift. The Mustang pilot in question subsequently disassembled the gun and mailed it back to his parents' home along with a quantity of Axis 9mm ammunition for the piece. When he finally returned to the U.S. he filled his canteen with captured 9mm ammunition as well so as to have some plinking ammo when he got home as 9mm being fairly difficult to obtain at that time stateside.

A good friend of mine was visiting with this old Air Corps veteran one day and soaking up stories of the war when the vet mentioned that he had an old gun my buddy might like to see. The gentleman had to look around a bit to find it but soon produced the 38/42. The magazine was still loaded with steel cased German 9mm ammunition from the war. As are most serious military gun enthusiasts in America, my buddy is savvy on NFA law and asked with trepidation if there was any paperwork to go along with the gun. The man said no but that he did seem to remember sending in a form of some sort about it many years ago. An FOIA request did indeed produce a copy of the original amnesty paperwork and a rare historical artifact from one of the most extraordinary periods of American history was saved from the eventual smelter.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V14N4 (January 2011)
and was posted online on November 1, 2011


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