Semiautomatic-Only Colt MG38
by Mark Genovese

This beautiful belt fed gun first came back to life in early 1996, as a so called hybrid 1917A1 manufactured by DLO of Arcadia, Florida 34266 (phone: 863-491-8622). To get this old Warhorse to run properly I had to step back to the time of washboards, vacuum tube radios and cast iron. The gun arrived without being headspaced and with no manual or instructions. Long Mountain Outfitters (Dept. SAR, 631 North Stephanie Street, #560, Henderson, NV 89014; phone: 702-564-0948; fax: 702-558-1728; email: LMO4MGS@aol.com; website: www.lomgmountain.com) came to my rescue with a copy of Ordnance Maintenance TM9-1205. After much time and many frustrating attempts, the gun started to reluctantly rise from the dead and sputter along. Once it was up and running properly, I took the time to deal with the manufacturers shortcomings. The front cap/sight was a 1/2-inch off center, the trigger group would only trip seven out of ten times, the breech lock cam came off, the receiver was not square and the finish was unacceptable. I decided to send it off to Ohio Ordnance Works (Dept. SAR, P.O. Box 687, Chardon, OH 44024; phone: 440-285-3481; fax: 440-286-8571. Yopu can visit their website at: www.ohioordnanceworks.com) and let Bob Landies do what he does best. The work done on this piece was outstanding. However, still not satisfied with the trigger and its pull I replaced the original with the a unit by Valkyrie Arms (Dept. SAR, 120 State Ave NE, No. 381, Olympia, WA 98501-8212; phone: 360-482-4036; website: www.valkyriearms.com). After that, the gun ran hard and fast and you just had to keep it filled with water and .30/06 ammunition. This year, I put it up for sale on the Internet with a thorough description within ten minutes I received an email from Bob Naess of Black River Militaria Vermont 05142 (phone: 802-226-7204). He graciously informed me that what I was describing was not a 1917A1, but a far rarer Colt MG38. The most obvious distinctions are the front water packing gland, which is larger in size, and the 1917 trunnion and front cap which are male threads while those of the MG38 are female threaded, while its water jacket is male threaded. The MG38 is provided with large 1½-inch brass fittings and chained caps on its water jacket to which a hand operated water circulating unit can be attached. The purpose of this circulating pump is to afford a means for having a constant flow of water passing through the jacket while the gun is firing. The trunnion and end cap are of steel, permitting use of either fabric belts or metallic links. A spring is provided to return the belt feed lever to its normal left position when the top cover is open, so when you close it, you’ll engage the cam groove in the top of the bolt. The breech lock cam has a threaded stud to receive a nut opposite from the current part, in assembly the cam/stud is passed through the hole in the bottom plate and a nut is then screwed on with a cotter pin securing the assembly. The elevating bracket formerly secured by screws is riveted to the bottom plate, an improved bolt handle is provided and it has at one end a projection that can be used to dissemble the main portions of the mechanism from the breech casing. The top cover latch is improved with a hook type handle fitted for positive locking. The belt holding pawl split pin is provided with a knurled head and the cover pin is retained by a cotter pin. In the Colt 1928 this cover pin had a spring lock attached. The MG38 could also be ordered from the factory with a double grip back plate instead of the usual pistol grip, this model was called the MG38B. Regular equipment supplied with each gun as follows: four cloth 250-round ammunition belts, four wood ammunition boxes, one extractor complete, one driving spring, one firing pin complete, one bolt handle, one pawl split pin, one water and one steam plug with chain and a complete set of springs. Accessories: three yards of asbestos packing, oil can with oil, combination wrench, leather case for spare parts and accessories, leather water filling cup, drift tool, ruptured case extractor and cleaning rod. This gun could be provided with area-type anti-aircraft sights and a flash hider at extra cost. Approximate weight of the gun with water is 421/4 pounds, loaded 250-round belt weighs 151/4 pounds and the M35 tripod tips the scales at 68 pounds. This is by no means a complete list of the differences between the 1917 and MG38 but only the most obvious.

With this knowledge I immediately removed my “for sale” post from the Internet and made the decision to return this historic firearm to its original configuration knowing full well it would probably cost a small fortune. The one thing that will make a project like this viable is an aggressive and talented machinist. I was introduced to Mark Jacobs and his partner John Wertz of Black Bear MFG., North Jackson, Ohio 44451 (phone: 303-503-9863). The key to success would be the replication of the right and left side plates plus the bottom plate as well. Our measurements and dimensions were lifted directly from the Colt 1928 as they are identical to the MG38. These early-style side plates differ from current ones with respect to the overall height measurement at the rear of approximately 31/4 inches top to bottom and extending forward toward the trunnion 71/4 inches. Then stepping down to approximately 23/4 inches. This extra material is necessary to accommodate the twelve small button head rivets that hold the bottom plate in place. With the late-style so called “horse shoe” or wraparound bottom plate this extra material is not needed, whereas the MG38 plate mounts on the inside. Consequently, this early-style requires the milling of two 71/4-inch long grooves inside each plate. Fortunately, we were not forced to machine from scratch a new bottom plate. I was able to procure one and the proper return spring from Bob Landies. One other small detail: the MG38 return spring is not held in place by the back plate like the later-style, it has instead a small oval hole milled inside the upper rear right side plate. The return spring has at one end a projection or prolongation that corresponds with the hole. The rear of the spring just resting on the rear plate. Using this early method no screw driver or cartridge is necessary to disassemble the firearm. Mark also had the side plate serial number, model, manufacture and address deeply engraved on a CNC Mill and highlighted in white, absolutely outstanding. The lower cooling hose brass fitting had been damaged in the past and a rudimentary repair was done. We decided this would require proper attention and would entail machining a whole new bottom half including two hours of mill and lathe time for the screws alone. No easy task when you consider the contour of the water jacket.

I requested Marks father, Robert Two Bears, to build one of his military-style transport crates. It is made from solid clear pine, glued and screwed, with military hinges, latches and authentic custom oil board stencils.

The M35 tripod provided with the original firearm was the same as the 1928 Colt. In the construction of the legs of this tripod and their attachment to the brass pivot base, adjustments can be made so that the mount can be changed from an upright to a prone position. Either leg of the tripod can be adjusted separately, so that the gun can be leveled on uneven ground. The cradle has a wide range between extreme elevation and extreme depression. The traversing dial is graduated in artillery mills, which permits using the tripod for indirect fire. The cradle is graduated in artillery mills as well and an elevating screw for finer adjustments is provided. In order to convert the gun to 8MM Mauser we started with an Israeli 1919A4 barrel provided by Mr. Gary Cole of Cole Distributing Scottsville, Kentucky 42164 (phone: 270-622-3569). Turning it on the lathe to the proper Colt MG38 configuration then highly polished and blued with a new cartridge spacer as well.


Back in the early 1980s DLO was the only manufacturer allegedly in possession of a letter of release from the Department of the Treasury. Essentially this letter purportedly allowed them to make and market the first semiautomatic-only Browning-style 1919A4. In those days the BATF rules were minimal to say the least, basically a dimensionality correct automatic right side plate , bolt, sear and barrel extension. The only difference between the DLO fully automatic and semiautomatic-only versions is a disconnecting trigger lock and a thicker bottom plate disallowing the full-auto lock. Under current BATF rules no full-auto parts can fit the semiautomatic-only receiver. All plates must be permanently attached to the trunnion via welds and the trigger must disconnect after every shot. Most other semiautomatic-only conversions employ a uniformly thicker right side plate. Black Bear is different. It has five 1/8x1-inchX.050-inch raised areas, with two inside the front right side plate of the receiver and three toward the rear. They are barely even noticeable. The right side of the bolt, barrel extension and lock frame have the corresponding relief cuts. With this method of manufacture one cannot install any full-auto internal parts. The rear of the bolt has been machined to accept a sear wider by 0.125-inch than the original full-auto and has a square trigger engagement notch that cannot interface with an original angled trigger notch. It’s also too wide for the original Browning trigger to catch it. The semiautomatic-only trigger is wider at 0.225-inch than the original 0.110-inch and a two-piece design with a return spring inside it. The rear half has a hole for a pivot point and a slot milled in the top to accept the return spring and the front half of the trigger. The front half of the trigger slides forward and is pushed back by the return spring. The square trigger boss that engages the sear is angled opposite of the original and cannot be filed to engage like the full-auto. If the trigger is held back and not released , then as the bolt moves forward the sear will strike the front half of the trigger moving it forward which will not allow the sear to engage with the trigger. The weapon will not fire unless the trigger is released to allow the front half of the trigger to lift up above the sear body then the return spring will pull the trigger rearward back into the sear notch. The accelerator has been machined to allow clearance for the wider redesigned trigger arm. The trigger return is a well-thought-out spring-loaded plunger located in the back plate, on top of the trigger movement slot bearing down on the trigger. This weapon employs a manual block safety as well that will fit through a hole in the right side plate and extend through the lock frame. There is a spring-loaded plunger mounted in the right side plate, which holds the safety in place. It will also keep it in the safe or fire position. When the safety is in the fire position there is a notch milled in the safety shaft, which allows movement of the trigger. When the safety is in the safe position, it blocks movement of the trigger. The receiver is expertly riveted together and all plates are welded to the trunnion on the inside of the receiver, it cannot be taken apart to allow a switch of the right side plate.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V7N7 (April 2004)
and was posted online on August 30, 2013


Comments have not been generated for this article.