Weapons Law Encyclopedia

Sub-machine gun

World War I marked the advent of the machine gun, which by then had been miniaturised and was used to deadly effect in trench warfare. But the machine gun was firing rifle ammunition, and therefore remained a rather heavy weapon, which could not be easily transported by infantry. Germany fielded its first submachine gun, the MP-18, during World War I. Efforts were underway in the United States to develop a similar weapon that would fire .45 calibre pistol ammunition, making the gun both smaller and lighter. Developed for trench warfare, the Thompson sub-machine gun was commercialised in 1918.

The sub-machine gun was designed for close-quarter combat, and initially marketed as the ‘trench broom’. Of course by that time, World War I was over, and military budgets had shrunk drastically. So its marketing strategy was quickly adapted, and it was offered instead to police forces as a more humane way to track bandits, given its less powerful ammunition.J. Ellis, The social history of the machine gun, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975, p. 150. Ironically, it is not the police forces that provided for the gun’s fame. Affectionately nicknamed the ‘Tommy gun’, it quickly became a favourite with the gangsters of the Prohibition era, immortalised in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and later. By 1934, the United States had passed the National Firearms Act to stem their proliferation.Chivers, The Gun, p. 236.

The gun would be a commercial flop until World War II, when it would be ordered in the tens of thousands. As German troops approached Moscow, Stalin realised he had almost no submachine guns to issue its troops for the city's defence.Chivers, The Gun, p. 168. Thankfully, the gun was easy to manufacture. It was neither handsome nor refined, but it did the job. After 1940, scores of PPSh sub-machine guns came out of Soviet factories.

But the sub-machine gun had its limitations: its short barrel made it unsuitable for long-range shooting. It would soon be eclipsed by the assault rifle. The experience the Soviets had gained with smaller ammunition would give them an edge in this next era.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

Common types
 Country  Company  Main types
Israel IMI 9mm Uzi
UK Sterling Armament 9mm Sterling
Germany Heckler & Koch MP5 (also MP-18, MP7)
Russia   PPSh
US Colt Colt 9mm SMG

Last updated on: 08 February 2014

This section details the intended effects of sub-machine guns. Their humanitarian impact is addressed in the entries dealing with small arms ammunition (health impact of penetrating trauma), as well as in the general entry on small arms (aggregate humanitarian impact).

With its short range and small-calibre ammunition, the sub-machine gun is used in close-quarters combat. It does not have legitimate civilian uses (see Intended effects of small arms for a general discussion of civilian uses of firearms).

See the weapons entries on small arms ammunition for the health impact of penetrating trauma, and on small arms for the aggregate humanitarian impact.

Last updated on: 08 February 2014