Bergmann's MP-18,I: The World's First Submachine Gun?

By W.F. Owens

Despite the fact that Bergmann designed many successful pistol models dating from the early 1980’s it was Hugo Schmeisser that designed the MP-18.

Some may argue that the Italian 1915 Villar Perosa was not actually a submachine gun due to its lack of stock. Still, it was chambered for a sub rifle round- the 9mm Glisenti. The later OVP 1918 model of the Perosa did utilize a conventional stock although retaining the odd magazine on top feature, which seemed to find favor only down under in Australia with the Owen and F1’s of later years.

The Bergmann used a less than conventional magazine also. It borrowed the Luger “Snail Drum” which fitted from the left side of the gun. The left side feed was not that widely copied except by the succeeding Bergmann’s (MP18,I and MP28) as well as the British Sten series. The feature of the 32 round capacity magazine became an almost universal feature. From an overview 70-75% of all submachine guns still use a 32 round magazine. The double barreled Italian V.P.’s actually had two 25 round mags or 50 rounds between them. The later 1918 VP models have only a single 25 magazine.

A second carry over feature from the Bergmann was the caliber and cartridge, that being the 9x 19mm Parabellum or Luger round. Certainly well over 50% of all submachine gun designs have utilized the 9mm caliber and almost as many of the 9mm Parabellum cartridge. Even the Italian VP’s Glisenti cartridge was essentially a weakened 9mm Parabellum.

Another innovative carry over from the MP-18,I was the barrel jacket. Well over a fourth of all submachine guns have utilized some type of perforated barrel jacket. The U.S. has been an exception, if you over-look the 1919 Thompson and the Smith & Wesson Model 76. Weight and compactness consideration emerged as did advanced heat resistant materials, and the barrel jacket was deleted on many later models of submachine guns. Although the MP-18,I was not the first automatic weapon to use a barrel jacket it was indeed the first submachine gun to employee one. Without overly digressing, Bergmann needed look only to its 8mm MG 15 for the barrel jacket feature.

One unusual feature of the MP 18,I which did not carry over to other designs excepting the MP 28 and the Lancaster was the use of cooling holes at the front end of the barrel jacket. Eight circular holes surrounded the actual barrel in an attempt to maximize cooling.

Another feature which the O.V.P. and most other submachine guns in-corporated was a fire selector allowing for semi-auto modes of operation. This feature was absent from the Bergmann MP 18,I. A selector system was included with the later MP 28II Bergmann. Perhaps it is worth a passing mention that the MP 18,I, MP38, MP40 and MP40 II were the only major German submachine lacking a fire select system.

The other commonly copied feature of the MP 18,I was that it used a non-locking straight blow back feature of operation. Probably nine out of ten submachine guns use this system.

The Bergmann 18,I also used a fairly simple system of manufacture, especially when compared to contemtaries such as the Mauser 71/84, 88, or 98 rifles or the POB “Luger”. The most complicated part being the 32 round magazine, but this was an already existing part which Bergmann merely procured. The Bergmann plant also utilized the very innovative process of sub-contracting the manufacture of parts. It was only in the 1980’s that an American firm fully stylized this process. The Willey .45 Winchester gas operated pistol sub-contracted all the parts, and merely assembled the guns, much as Bergmann did in 1918!

Given the comparative cost, speed, and ease of manufacture combined with its effectiveness of fire the MP 18,I was indeed the “Weapon of the future”. One soldier armed with an MP 18,I who successful survived the distance to an opposing enemy trench was more effective than an entire squad armed with five shot bolt action rifles, assuming there were no Alvin A. Yorks in that squad.

By 1918 Germany was mostly of the defensive mind set and most MP 18’s were employed to reinforce and defend MGO8 and MGO8/15 positions. Some were of course issued to Sturmabteilung or assault troops but most of the assaulting was being done by the fresh American troops given the French doctrine of “always fighting to the last American.”

The German General Staff, being safely behind the lines and somewhat out of touch, still seemed to think in terms of offensive operations. To emphasize the ostentastiousness of their offensive operations plans, a wheeled handcart of ammunition was to be provided and shared by each pair of Bergmann submachine gunners. A horse drawn cart would probably have been envisioned except most of the horses were dead by 1918!

The basic concept of armament and issuance of the MP 18,I was that each N.C.O. and theoretically about 10% of the troops were to be so equipped.

On paper each company was allocated one submachine gun squad of 12 men. Half or six men with the MP 18,I and half carrying ammo! Again, they weren’t about to exhaust the ammo supply for these guns. Also given the likelihood of the gunner being killed or disabled it was the ammo bearer’s turn to try shooting.

Weak points of the MP 18,I were the open nature of the receiver tube’s recoil slot and the ejection port. No provision was made to keep it free from dust, dirt or mud as was with the bolt cover for the Gew. 98 Mausers. Another major short-coming was the magazine, which was heavy, bulky and the bad balance it sometimes gave the gun. In addition, a special neck sleeve spacer was needed for proper feeding. Further a special loading tool was essential for reloading the drum. Given today’s cost of about five hundred and up for a snail drum and the number of anxious “Luger” collectors in the market for one, small wonder so many MP 18,I’s have no magazine. The loading tool is about $300 and up, and is also eagerly sought by “Luger” collectors. Surprisingly, the neck spacer sleeve is the cheapest of the must-have parts at $100 or less, this due to the scarcity of the Bergmann submachine guns that require them.

Without a doubt the rarest accessory item is the aforementioned ammo carts. Being of wood construction they were smashed and burned for heat during the winter months as was almost every other wooden item excepting gun stocks. Never have I ever encountered a picture of the said ammo carts.

Given the innovative designs, history and German origin, these guns are highly collectable. There was a refit to a simpler straight stick mag after the war and the original snail drum models could be compared to the 1921A Thompsons. Most were modernized or modified, increasing the rarity of the original guns.

Only two warring nations fielded a submachine gun in World War I - Italy and Germany. Although allies in World War II they were adversaries in World War I. When peace came, the Treaty of Versaille forbade the military use of submachine gun and long barreled pistols in Germany.

They were still permitted for police use and therefore bore the 1920 date common to many “Lugers” and some shortened Mauser C-96 pistols.

Given the seemingly insatiable appetite for German guns and military collector’s items both here and abroad, MP 18,I are not often encountered and expensive when found. Although essential for any meaningful submachine gun collection, due to its rarity, it is understandable when absent. Most Museums are missing said specimens. Total production was put at around 35000 in World War I. A respectable number since this was also the total production of Japanese Type 100 Nambus in all World War II. The Type 100 Nambus were the main Japanese submachine gun.

80 years of Treaties, gun laws and modifications not to mention the scrapping or destruction of these weapons at the end of World War I, make it impossible to estimate their current existence. Several thousand world wide certainly would seem an excessive estimate.

Designation: Machine Pistol 18 I
Weight: 9-10 lbs.
Loaded weight with mag: 12 lbs.
Length: 32”
Caliber: 9 x 19mm Parabellum (9mm Luger)
Firing Rate: 350-450 rpm
Type of operation: full-auto blow back
Magazine: 32rd snail drum
Sights: open flip 100-200 meter settings
Caliber velocity: 1200-1350 fps
Estimated value: $3500-$5000
Current national usage: None
Staring roles: Zeppelin, The Land Time Forgot

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N11 (August 1998)
and was posted online on February 10, 2017


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