September 21, 2018 — Submachine guns reached their peak use in the armed forces during the Second World War. Fully automatic weapons that fired pistol ammunition, they provided heavy firepower at close ranges and were popular with airborne and assault troops. The other automatic weapons of the day were mostly full-sized machine guns or heavy rifles like the Browning Automatic Rifle that were large and unwieldy in many combat situations.
Submachine guns allowed one soldier to deliver a fast and heavy barrage of fire, and many of the WW2 submachine guns are legendary.
The American M1 Thompson, the British Sten, the German MP40, and the Soviet PPSh-41 are all famous guns that made quite an impression on enemy troops across the globe. Even the M3 “Grease Gun,” developed as a lighter and cheaper alternative to the M1 Tommy Gun, earned a place in history. A buddy of mine carried an M3 in Desert Storm, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that some poor U.S. soldiers somewhere have still been issued a Greaser.
After 1945, submachine guns began to fall out of favor as the new-fangled “assault rifles,” fully-auto rifles firing intermediate cartridges, added a lot of range, accuracy, and hitting power to what a submachine gun could deliver with its pistol cartridges. Submachine guns never disappeared, though, and they continued to be used by tactical law enforcement and special forces operators. The Israeli UZI and the German MP5, both utilizing the 9mm Parabellum, are the two most-famous post-WW2 submachine guns.
Despite the utility of the assault rifle, the military always has a need to effectively arm non-infantry troops. A pistol, while certainly effective in some situations, is not as easy to master and lacks the range and stopping power that military forces usually require. In WW2 this problem was solved by issuing the M1 Carbine, a light rifle that, while not nearly on par with real rifle firing real rifle cartridges, was simple to shoot and accurate enough on the battlefield when needed.
Today, even as the U.S. military fields the M4 carbine almost across the board, the Army is searching for a “highly concealable SCW [subcompact weapon] system capable of engaging threat personnel with a high volume of lethal force while accurately firing at close range with minimal collateral damage.” The Army specifies that submissions to the SCW program must fire 147-grain 9mm and use 20- and 30-round magazines.
Clearly, the Army is looking for a small, lightweight weapon that can be carried easily but deliver heavy fire when needed. Like the submachine guns of the old days, these weapons could perform both as personal defense weapons for non-infantry troops and as lethal close-quarters guns for “high speed, low drag” operators in tight environments.
The 9mm requirement might seem like an odd choice, given the recent development of other light rounds optimized for armor penetration, but the Army’s specification calls for “minimal collateral damage,” so overpenetration is not wanted. Also, ammo communization with current M9 pistols and the incoming M17 Modular Handgun System will be a bonus.
Six companies have entered the SCW competition: Angstadt Arms, B&T USA, Global Ordnance LLC, Shield Arms, Sig Sauer (maker of the M17 pistol), and Trident Rifles LLC. Notably absent from the list is H&K, which means that a weapon based on their famous MP5 will not be among the contenders.
How common could this new breed of submachine guns be? It’s hard to say at this point, but the initial requirements call for the ability to supply up to 350 units immediately and possibly up to 1,000. Considering that 622,000 Grease Guns, 1.1 million MP40s, and a staggering 6 million PPSh-41s were produced, the requirements for the SCW appear tiny by comparison. But the subgun is on the verge of a comeback.