Is the SMG dead? Not at SIG

Most of our readers know the broad history of submachine guns (machine pistols in euro-speak). A submachine gun is normally defined as having three characteristics: pistol cartridge, shoulder weapon, automatic or selective fire. The weapon rose, and fell, for reasons we’ll get into below the video as we enumerate the generations. But until very recently the pistol-caliber SMG was in the doldrums, dumped by one of the opinion-driving SOF units that once favored it after a very well-known operational failure, and replaced by ever more compact and ergonomic carbines.

Still, vendors keep introducing new SMGs. Colt even makes several awkward 9mm AR-15 variants to give law enforcement and site security customers the familiar ergonomics of the top carbine withe the ballistics of its main competitor for those roles, the MP5. Now here comes SIG with a new SMG, aimed at the MP5 rather directly.

SIG clearly borrowed both MP5 and AR characteristics liberally, whilst adding their own twists, the best of which is definitely the quick-change barrels and stocks. Anyone who’s ever changed an AR or H&K barrel knows it’s a non-trivial adventure. The weapon is more compact than the MP5, with the superior ergonomics of the AR platform. But the targeting of the weapon at the LE MP5 market is crystal clear. And it’s not subtle: SIG uses the same model suffixes as the Oberndorf outfit. About the only thing they could have done to better salt H&K’s wounds would be to make the thing accept H&K magazines (maybe they do. The magazine and its catch area look very similar).

And yes, civilians, we hear there will be a semi-auto, NFA/SBR version for all y’all, as well as a 16″-equivalent Title 1 carbine — one more thing SIG does to thumb its nose at a longtime competitor, whose disdain for the non-governmental shooting public occasionally soars into the stratosphere of outright contempt. Of course, that depends on there being a civilian market, something that’s not really a lock at this time.

One interesting fact: launch calibers are .40 and .357. No 9mm yet… just the two most popular Federal law enforcement agency pistol rounds. Interrrrresting.

SIG has been excellent at getting new products out lately… now it has to work on its quality reputation, which has been taking a beating.

History of SMGs and where this fits

In the beginning, there was steel and wood: Lanchester SMG.

In the beginning, there was steel and wood: Lanchester SMG.

The first submachine guns were created by designers frustrated by the trench impasse of World War I warfare, and who built new weapons of unprecedented short-range firepower. They adapted service pistol rounds to simple blowback actions (complicated blowback actions, we’re lookin’ at you, James T. Thompson), and used traditional gunmakers’ art. Those were 1st Generation SMGs, and many armies entered World War II with them. (Germany was a rare exception, having adopted  a 2nd-generation weapon before the war).

The Swedish M45B was copied in Egypt as the "Port Said." It is a typical 2nd-Genrration SMG.

The Swedish M45B was copied in Egypt as the “Port Said.” It is a typical 2nd-Genrration SMG.

The second generation applied automotive and industrial mass production techniques to make those SMGs faster, easier and cheaper. Instead of machined steel and walnut, we have stampings, automated-screw-machine output, and wire and tubing, The same armies that started WWII with 1st Generation guns ended it with 2nd Generation weapons. (Japan was a rare exception, which put little weight on SMGs and never got beyond a 1st-generation gun).

While the most famous 3rd-generation SMG is the UZI, the Czech Vz23-26 were arguably fielded first. This is a Vz26 (7.62x25, folding stock).

While the most famous 3rd-generation SMG is the UZI, the Czech Vz23-26 were arguably fielded first. This is a Vz26 (7.62×25, folding stock).

The third generation was manufactured like the second, but featured a bolt that wrapped around the barrel rather then sat behind. Given the large mass of the bolt on a blowback 9mm or .45 caliber gun, this made for a more compact and controllable gun. But by the time these weapons were in general use, assault rifles which offered most of the portability, all of the selective fire, and much greater range than the best previous SMG were in common use. Armies often specified, when contracting for new rifles, that they replace both battle rifles and submachine guns, and in influential armies like America’s and Russia’s, that’s exactly what happened.

H&K's most common MP5 variant, the MP5A3.

H&K’s most common MP5 variant, the MP5A3.

Some people consider the H&K MP5 a fourth generation. It was actually more like the term the British used for their Sten and Lanchester SMGs: a machine carbine. While a few armies adopted it, mostly armies that clung to a full-power rather than intermediate-cartridge rifle, it quickly found a niche in police and hostage rescue operations. This was somewhat unexpected for H&K, but they went with it, even making .40 caliber versions for American police. (The customer is never wrong when he approaches you with buckets of currency).

Suppressed MP7s and pistol abandoned by French SOF, along with their casualties, in a failed hostage rescue Somalia.

Suppressed MP7s and pistol abandoned by French SOF, along with their casualties, in a failed hostage rescue in Somalia this weekend.

Some further argue that there is a fifth generation — weapons like the FN P90 and H&K MP7 that are meant to be intermediate weapons between the pistol and the intermediate-cartridge assault rifles. Thee weapons are designed for bespoke cartridges that are not exactly (or not normal) pistol rounds, thus failing one of the SMG tests (pistol round, shoulder fire, auto capable). They’re more realistically descendants of the M1 carbine, and they’ve found market acceptance hard to come by. The MP7 has a small niche in special operations, but one wonders if it hasn’t been largely a cool-factor thing, like Chippewa boots in the 70s and 80s or a Suunto watch today. There just isn’t much it does that an AR doesn’t do better — a 416, if you’re one of the fanjugend. 

So what killed the SMG, and will the SIG MPX succeed?

What killed the SMG is simple: AR-platform carbines began to approach the MP5 in size, while being miles ahead in capability.

This came home to the special operations community in October 1982, when the invasion of Grenada marked the high water line of SOF’s love affair with the H&K MP5. One special operations  element found itself pinned down by a pesky sniper, armed with nothing but MP5s, and badly outranged. Indeed, to call the enemy shooter a “sniper” probably exaggerates his capabilities, as he didn’t kill any of the friendlies. He was just some Grenadan or Cuban schmo with an ordinary rifle, but if a guy 250 yards away from you has you under accurate rifle fire and all you have to shoot back at him is an 8″ barrel 9mm, that’s sniper enough to keep your head down. No SOF element ever again hit a target, beach, DZ or LZ without an answer for that 250-yard ‘tard.

The versatility of the AR platform truly threatens several specialist platforms. But with the MPX, SIG is betting that “horses for courses” will still animate special operations and police gun buyers. We don’t have pricing information yet, but we’ll bet that with production in the USA (likely in SIG’s new factory in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, not far from where this video was shot) they’ll be very tempting, especially for police agencies looking to replace worn MP5s. They’re clearly aiming at an MP5 replacement with better adaptability (convertible barrels, stocks, even calibers), better ergonomics (how long were the thumbs on the guy that designed the awful CETME selector the MP5 still has, anyway?), and better training commonality with carbines — all for less money than Brand H. We’ll see if law enforcement agencies are tempted.

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