The Genesis of the Volkssturm Carbines. Why?

Nazis: beastly but fascinating. They caused the second most trouble and death of any revolutionaries in history (the Communists have pretty much retired that trophy for all time). They spread their evil ideology from the Pyrenees to the Caucusus. And, what’s probably the biggest source of their appeal, they had spiffy uniforms (with a tip of black hat to Hugo Boss) and terrific Teutonic technology.

Gustloff VG 1-5 - GunLab

But not all their technology was world-class. As the war ground on, the Third Reich’s foothold in Europe contracted under the relentless pressure of the USSR in the East and the US and UK in the West and South, not to mention a wide range of national resistance movements and a bothersome strategic bombing campaign. Hermann Göring had planned that Operation Barbarossa would deliver the machine tools and industrial raw materials of the vast Soviet factories into his hands; instead, the Russians’ rapid dismantling and displacement of industry — tools, fixtures, workers, and all — left him empty-handed. The new war-production overlord, architect Albert Speer, pressed every industry to do more with less. (This didn’t happen only in Germany and Occupied Europe; put a “War Finish” British revolver next to a prewar example, or for that matter, compare the beautiful, polished blue on a 1930s Tokarev pistol to a crude 1944 example).

By 1944, the Germans were running out of small arms, and they couldn’t build them as fast as they were being lost. So they began considering what were the barest minimum features a firearm needed to be militarily useful. They were losing men, as well; and desperate measures were soon in hand for personnel, as well as for armaments.

Many collectors have marveled over the crude arms issued at war’s end to the Deutsche Volkssturm, and wondered what had so depressed the abilities of the Germans, supposedly Europe’s leading technologists. But in 1945 hardened Russian, American and British forces were encountering ill-fed old men and boys armed with the military equivalent of crude zip guns. Many collectors today believe these guns to have been locally ordered and produced. But they hardly made a difference to the outcome of the war.

So, why the Volkssturm guns? Why such variety and crudity? And were they centrally planned?

The short answer is this: because they needed them, because no one source could supply enough, and yes.

The Germans were caught flatfooted by their 1943 defeats, and they were desperate to arm a replacement for the armies no longer available to defend the Reich. At the war’s outset, they did not expect or plan for continued losses and resets of small arms, and small arms planners were late to learn of the late 1944 surge plan to create a nationwide militia of 6,000,000 sort-of soldiers – who were minus the 6,000,000 arms they needed to actually be soldiers.

Japan planned from early in the war to fight with limited natural resources. That’s why, for example, Japanese rifles have chrome bores: not for the durability and corrosion-resistance benefits that have made them commonplace on modern military rifles, but because their researchers found it was a less costly substitute for expensive chrome-moly steels in increasing barrel strength. The Germans, on the other hand, did not expect to be resource-constrained. They fought the war, after all, to gain resources, including Lebensraum for the German people. Even when the war began to turn against the Axis, many German managers remained in deepest denial.

But by 1944, even Hitler had a hard time deluding himself about German expansion, and his appointed war production satrap, Albert Speer, was brutally realistic about German war production.

With entire German armies in the bag in Africa and Russia, and ongoing meatgrinders in Russia and Italy, the Germans were running short of manpower even before a second major front opened in June, 1944. The plans for the Deutsche Volkssturm, a mass-levied militia, went forward briskly. While many books seem to imply that the Volkssturm was merely a locally-raised militia beholden to regional Gauleiters, the Gauleiters were responding to a framework that was produced by Speer’s, among others’, central planning.

By November 30, 1944 the Staff Leader of the Deutsche Volkssturm (the German term is Stabsführer) envisioned a force of 6,000,000 men organized in over 10,000 battalions. The units were to be levied in four tranches and armed as shown:

There was a slight problem with this, the staff director admitted, after further breaking down the numbers by particular Gau, he found that the Gaus that needed the guns the most urgently – the ones that were already invaded by the Allies, or were about to be, which two unlucky groups he called the “threatened Gaus” — had, on paper, a potential of 1,450 Volkssturm-bataillonen, yet of the needed 871,300 small arms, they had on hand only 9,690 – about two rifles per company, then.

It makes the 1942 Russian forces in Enemy at the Gates look positively lavishly equipped: why, every other or every third man had a rifle! Whether the real situation in Stalingrad got as bad for the Red Army as Enemy at the Gates’s Hollywood version portrays, the situation for the Wehrmacht and especially for the Volkssturm by the late fall of 1944 was substantially worse.

By this point, facing a deliberate attack by an American mechanized battle group or a Soviet motorized infantry battalion was hard enough for fully-equipped, valiantly-led first-line German formations. For second-liners and militiamen, it was the equivalent of suicide-by-cop. But for them to even serve as speedbumps or to fill in inactive sectors of a defensive line the Volkssturm’s old men and boys needed something.

That was the genesis of the Volkssturm arms program: to produce rapidly enough weapons to put one in the hands of each of six million cannon-fodder Volkssturmmänner.

Six German firms responded, offering nine different models, of four general types:

  • Single-shot guns that used the normal German 7.92 x 57mm cartridge. There were four of these, from: Appell; Bergmann; Gustloff-Werke; and, Walther.
  • Repeaters that used the 7.92 x 57mm round. There were two of these: one from Deutsche Industrie-Werke, which used the 10-shot detachable magazine of the K.43, and one from Röchling, which used 5-round stripper clips to reload.
  • Repeaters that used the 7.92 x 33mm short cartridge. Deutsche Industrie-Werke offered two different versions.
  • One semi-auto rifle that used the 7.92mm short cartridge. This came from the Gustloff-Werke, who hedged their bet with the single-shot turnbolt gun mentioned above. This is the famous VG 1-5, whose picture (from GunLab, where reproductions are underway) graces the top of this story.

Every one had a rough-hewn stock and rudimentary, usually fixed, sights. These rifles were demonstrated to Adolf Hitler (or maybe they weren’t, actually) in the first week of November, 1944; and Hitler reportedly made his comments, issued his guidance, and selected the weapons to be produced.

To be continued.

9 thoughts on “The Genesis of the Volkssturm Carbines. Why?

  1. neutrino_cannon

    I tallied up all the monthly production of 7.92x33mm ammunition as reported in the German industrial records and reprinted in Collector’s Grade’s Sturmgewehr. It totals to about 600 million rounds.

    Considering that they made about 400,000 MP-43/STG-44s, and some small number of expedient carbines, that totals to less than two thousand rounds of ammo per rifle.

    This, combined with the iffy German supply chain by that point in the war, meant that any given 7.92x33mm weapon had a good chance of being a useless boat anchor for which no ammo could be found. Indeed, Speer discovered substantial Volksgrenadier formations about to go into battle with new STG-44s, but no ammunition or magazines during a tour of the front.

  2. Nathaniel

    I would add that the emphasis on doing more with less did come earlier for Nazi Germany than 1944. Both the StG-44 and Panther tank were designed in 1942, and both had the use of fewer strategic materials as a requirement.

    This is why the StG-44 is such a heavy gun for what it does; it’s using positively crappy steel, which could bend or dent easily. Even so, the Germans did not up until this point seem to feel that labor was a problem; the process for creating one StG-44 receiver is extremely involved, taking twenty something steps to assemble a single trunnion with its upper and lower (N_C will be along shortly with the exact number of steps; he has the book, not me). Compare with an AK, which takes only a few steps to assemble.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If you’re following GunLab, you see that Chuck’s VG project is quite involved and fairly demanding tooling-wise. Indeed (to tease a bit of the follow-on), the reason the VG 1-5 wasn’t selected as the preferred model is that it didn’t really spare resources or speed manufacture vis-a-vis the StG/MP-44. The MP-45 might have done that: as we’ve seen from its HK descendants, the machined parts are pretty simple to mass produce. But it just wasn’t far enough along.

  3. Y.

    They were not planning on getting Soviet factories. Remember, Barbarossa was supposed to be quick. Also, UK was supposed to agree to peace..and had it not been for Churchill’s attitude, Hitler’s gamble would have paid off.

    Other examples of overconfidence – they weren’t running factories round the clock till 1943, when it was too late. Or how RLM cancelled jet fighter development in early 1942..

    1. Hognose Post author

      The 1942 fighter development call was Hitler’s. Lots of mistakes made at RLM both under Udet and his successors. And sometimes their technological edge led them too far (HE 177).

      My source on Göring and desire for the Russian plants is Vajda and Dancey, German Aircraft Industry and Production 1933-1945. Shrewsbury, England: Airlife, 1998. I’m not aware of a similar book on small arms production, or even on armor production (which has been well studied in the academy).

      Raw materials were a problem as early as 1936 and prewar planning (which was Göring’s) was that by 1939 Germany would be 100% self-sufficient in oil (thanks to Buna/Fischer-Tropf process) but only 50% or rubber and iron ore and only 30% of textiles. Germany was a world leader in aluminum production before the war, producing more than a quarter of global production (only the USA produced more, the USSR far less). In 1939 Germany was still importing aluminum. In 1940, they finally acquired enough bauxite ore and aluminum smelting capacity — by seizing Norway and France. German aluminum production peaked in 1943 at 264,000 tons, but the shortfalls were made up by increasing recycling (from 50,000 tons in 1939 to 150k in 1944) and imports (from 7k to 60k).

      “In mid-1942 the decision was taken to build only fighters in aluminum.” (p. 125). Bombers and other types were to be made of wood or steel tube.

      Here’s the bit on Göring and Russia I was thinking of, from pp. 128-129:

      There was no real shortage of general-purpose machine tools. From 1940 until 1943 Germany had a larger supply of tools available than the USA. If the existence of a large stock of machine tools did not necessarily mean an ability to produce more arms. The USA produced more arms of every category with a smaller quantity of machine tools. Mainly the American tools were more specialized. This permitted automation, advanced mechanical processes and mass production. In the aircraft industry the use of special-purpose machinery was of particular importance. the end product in the aircraft industry was more complex and sophisticated and for most other weapons. Specialized tools permitted the speeding up of production by introducing mass production methods in large factories. Supply of machine tools was completely outside the control of the our LM. It was a special commission controlling the machine-tool industry.

      In June 1941 Goering had counted on the capture of the Soviets machine tools but these had all been withdrawn or destroyed.
      From 1941 production of specialized machine tools was accelerated, but the main problem was the one delivery time: 18 to 24 months. The new tools were only available in 1943. The use of these new special tools was the main reason for the big increasing aircraft engine production output in 19 43–44.
      Allied bombing soon altered this advantage. The RLI and was obliged to re-examine it’s plans for dispersal of the aviation plants. However it was not possible to fit the large and complicated machinery in the small disbursed plants available. Only the use of smaller universal machinery was possible. This was why Hitler demanded six large bombproof underground manufacturing plants.

      I agree that Barbarossa was supposed to be quick (unfortunately for Hitler’s scheme for world domination, he had to sidetrack to unscrew his Italian allies from Balkan and Adriatic problems, and got off to a late start). But it was also supposed to be victorious. Remember, from the Germans’ point of view, previous expansions had been fairly bloodless and had delivered intact the war industries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France, all of which had been co-opted to German production. Naturally Göring expected the same from Russia. (Of course, this is just another example of the overconfidence you mention!)

      While it’s true that this book addresses the aeronautical industry specifically, it seems likely that the armaments industry felt the pull of similar tides. Note that in the USA, also, machine tool production was under the control of a centralized commission, the War Production Board. The WPB in the USA actually was cancelling machine tool orders by early 1944, and began canceling tank orders soon thereafter, as production had outstripped the ability of a 12-million-man military and the Lend-Lease program to absorb the equipment! Meanwhile, German production was still rising until they lost their factories to American, British or Russian boots on the ground.

      An interesting fact that emerges from the book is that from 1942, the RLM used Waffenamts and random blocks of serial numbers to defeat Allied intelligence. The book has a list of waffenamts associated with specific plants on pp. 123-124, for example Daimler-Benz motors were coded hsq. Messerschmitt 109s made in Augsburg-Haunstetten and Regensburg had different Waa’s (bop and krj), and of course others were license built by others (Arado, maybe Klemm, etc). I didn’t know until reading this book that the LW used Waa’s.

      Last thing — in WWII, a technique was developed for estimating the total production of something from a range of serial numbers, just to try to estimate German production of tanks and artillery. It’s still taught in B-school.

  4. StukaPilot

    Hitler had no “scheme for world domination”, nor did he start Round II of the 20th Century WorldWar. A war between Germany and Poland (and Russia)…is a war between Germany and Poland (and Russia). It only became a European War when Britain and France back-knifed the Germans…this after the Brit/French plutocrats spent most of the 1930s elbowing the Germans to strike eastwards, against the Red Empire. Oddly enough, though Stalin also attacked Poland in September 1939, there were no Western declarations of war on Russia. Looks much like a repeat of the pre-1914 Encirclement. The Italian political-economist Guido Preparata, in CONJURING HITLER, is quite enlightening on these and related matters. And “world domination”? With what? A one-front tac Air Force with no strategic bombing arm? A Navy that consisted of a handful of surface units, no carriers, and two dozen U-boats? An Army whose logistics were (and remained) 90% horse-drawn? Something other than Germany forced the War. Something really intent on “world domination”. That would be, of course, Anglo-American Imperialism. Ultimately, the Empire of the Dollar. Just now beginning to unravel.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Preparata is an odd man out in the academy, which could mean he’s a genius, or could mean he’s a nutball. His website has a strikingly beautiful graphic design, marred by jarring 20th-Century “classical” music. Here’s an interesting excerpt from his writing.

      I was just beginning my second year as Assistant Professor at the University of Washington when the Twin Towers fell. I recall the shock with which I witnessed the literal metamorphosis of the public mood in the aftermath. For a day or two, timidly yet with reason, people questioned the happening, but before they all could further articulate a sensible response to it, they were swept, ravished as it were, by the civil mobilization and propagandistic regimentation of the Bush executive, which was intense, speedy and truly impressive. News—streams of combat in red sand; a monochord riff of scores to be settled by clashing civilizations; and screens zapped by holograms of beturbaned sheiks clasping AKs: a drumming so insistent that one had to march to it and believe it all. No time for an official investigation, which should have brought the culprits to justice (the “due process” of the American constitution); no time for doubts: in two weeks US troops were landed in Afghanistan—Afghanistan, of all places…And whose word were we to take for the justifiability of the deployment, and the death that would have ensued? A joint declaration of George W. Bush and Britain’s PM, Tony Blair, based on no publicly available evidence—the US—UK tandem, yet again.

      In America, the gun—wielding hordes of the backwaters were instinctively aroused, and the veterans of yesterday’s battles followed by sporting flags on their car antennae, and sticking slogans on the fenders of their Lincolns and Fords— “Freedom ain’t free”—, which not even Magritte could have imagined. But most disquieting of all was to observe how receptive the middle—class itself had become to such studied truculence. Soon enough the country was crisscrossed by professional speakers, on a mission to sell the crusade to Middle—America. I keep a distinct memory of the editorialist of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, addressing a crowd of undergraduates at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.‘ In his oration, he interspersed calls to welcome the use of “rational violence” in Afghanistan with appeals to be friendly towards the environment—so as to project abroad a responsible image of the USA. It was a success.

      He also says he envisions a world without weapons, living in small Green (his capital) communes.

      Good luck with that, Guido. But, here in the backwaters….

    2. Y.

      Hitler had no “scheme for world domination”, nor did he start Round II of the 20th Century WorldWar.

      3rd Reich re-armament was originally meant to be completed by 1945, I recall.

      Also, it could be argued that had USSR been knocked out in 1941, Germany would have had enough time to consolidate it’s newly gained industrial base and establish at least an Eurasian hegemony.

      Certainly, after that there’d be no hope for a successful landing from the UK..

Comments are closed.