The Second World War was the greatest, bloodiest conflict in human history. Millions were killed, empires rose and fell, and no corner of the planet was spared the destruction, fire, and death it left in its wake. Although it is often remembered as the first technological war, many of the battles of WWII were fought by nothing more advanced than men and their weapons. Weapons they carried, relied on, and cared for as they trudged across the burned out cities of Europe, the deserts of Africa, and the sweltering jungles of the South Pacific. Weapons that gave them a sliver of advantage over their enemies. Weapons that saved their lives and ended those of their enemies. Weapons that defined the iconography of a global struggle. These are the Top Ten infantry weapons of the Second World War.
10. The Karabiner 98K
The Second World War was the swansong for the bolt action rifle. They had dominated armed conflict since the end of the 19th century, and were still used by some armies after the war, but never again would a major nation’s army enter a battle armed with bolt action rifles as standard issue. Based on the military doctrine that armies primarily fought each other at long distances across open terrain, rifles like the Karabiner 98k were designed for a kind of war that was rapidly fading into history. Still, the Karabiner 98k was a stalwart of the German Army and remained in production right up until the German surrender in 1945. Of all the bolt action rifles that saw service during the war, the Karabiner 98k is considered to be the best. Even after the introduction of semi-automatic and automatic weapons, the Germans stuck with the karabiner 98k, partly because of tactical reasons (they based their squad tactics on light machine guns rather than riflemen) and partly because as German loses mounted, they couldn’t produce anything else. They did develop the world’s first true assault rifle at the end of the war, but it never saw widespread use. The Karabiner 98k remained the weapon that most German soldiers fought and died with.
9. The M1 Carbine
As reliable and useful as the M1 Garand and The Thompson Submachine Gun were, they each had one serious drawback. They were extremely difficult for support soldiers to use. The Garand was long and difficult to access quickly if surprised. The Thompson was a little easier to get at, but it was still heavy for its compact size. For the ammunition bearers, mortar teams, artillery crews, and other frontline troops, neither were very effective in keeping them safe when they were directly attacked. In need of a weapon that was easily stowed and easily accessed for these soldiers, the U.S. Army settled on the M1 Carbine. It wasn’t the most powerful firearm in the war, but it was light, small, accurate, and, in the right hands, just as deadly as a more powerful weapon. U.S. Paratroopers also appreciated the M1 Carbine for its ease of use, and frequently jumped into combat armed with the folding stock version. The U.S. government ending up producing six million M1 Carbines in the war, more than any other U.S. firearm. Variations of the M1 are still manufactured and in use today by militaries and civilians.
8. The MP40
Although it was never issued in large numbers to infantrymen, The German MP40 has become a ubiquitous symbol of the German World War 2 solider and Nazis in general. It seems like every German in every war movie has one, but the MP40 was actually never standard issue for the common foot soldier. Usually used by paratroopers, squad leaders, and commandos, the MP40 saw service all over the war. It was especially useful in the Eastern Front against the Russians where the accuracy and power of long rifles was mostly wasted in the block by block street fighting. In fact, submachine guns like the MP40 were so effective that they made German planners rethink their reliance on bolt action or semi-automatic weapons, leading to the development of the first assault rifles. Still, the MP40 was one of the great submachine guns of the war, and became a symbol for the ruthless efficiency of the German soldier.
7. The Grenade
Not all the great weapons in WWII were rifles or pistols. Infantrymen also relied heavily on their grenades. Powerful, light, and the perfect size for throwing, grenades were an invaluable tool for assaulting positions. Just pull the pin, chuck it in, and suddenly storming a machine gun nest or bunker was a lot easier. From the iconic American “pineapple” grenade to the German stick grenade (nicknamed the “potato masher” due to its long handle), each nation relied on theses small, but deadly explosives to clear positions and generally scare the hell out the enemy. A rifle can do a lot of damage to human tissue, but the wounds caused by a fragmentation grenade are something else all together. Grenades were a very brutal weapon used in a very, very brutal conflict.
6. The Sten Gun
After the disastrous defeat and withdrawal from Dunkirk in 1940, the British army was facing a severe shortage of military equipment. Forced to leave most of their equipment on the beaches as they fled, the British armed forces took the opportunity to upgrade their standard issue weapons. They tried to use Thompson Submachine guns, but demand in the U.S. limited the supply. The answer was to come up with a British submachine gun. That was the Sten gun. Several models saw action in the war, but they all shared a unique side mounted magazine and slim profile.
It wasn’t a perfect weapon and could be temperamental, but at close range it was capable of incredible destruction. It was also very easy to assemble and disassemble, making it a perfect weapon for resistance forces and commandos. Resistance fighters in Poland and across Occupied Europe relied on air-dropped Stens to hassle and disrupt the Germans far behind enemy lines. The Sten gun worked so well as an insurgency weapon that it remained in use by paramilitary and guerrilla forces as late as 1994.
5. The Luger PO8
Every Allied soldier was on the lookout for souvenirs during the war and none was more prized than the German sidearm Luger P08. It may seem a little strange to describe a lethal weapon as “beautiful,” but the Luger P08 was truly a work of art and remains among weapon collectors the most sought after World War 2 firearm. Sleekly designed, built to incredibly high standards, and extremely accurate for a pistol, the Luger P08 was the ultimate symbol of the Nazi’s image of themselves: powerful, precise, and absolutely deadly.
Designed as an automatic sidearm replacement for the revolver, the Luger was highly prized for its unique design and long service life. Even though Germany was in the process of phasing the Luger P08 out before the war even started, it remains today the most collectable German weapon of the war. Many of the thousands that returned in G.I.’s loot bags are still in circulation today.
4. The KA-BAR Combat Knife
It’s an old military maxim that each army starts a war perfectly equipped for the last one they fought. For American soldiers, nowhere was this truer than in their service knives. The long trench knives they had, which were perfectly suited for the bloody trench battles of World War 1, weren’t going to cut it in the vastly different conditions of WWII. Enter the KA-BAR. Named after part of a barely literate trapper’s testimonial (it’s believed he was trying to write “kill a bear”), the KA-BAR quickly became much loved by every branch of the service that used it.
Besides its combat uses, it was perfect for just about everything a soldier might need a knife for out in the bush. It could dig holes, open cans, and cut through brush. The KA-BAR was originally designed for hunters and outdoorsmen, and that’s basically what a soldier is. The Marines, who spent much of the war fighting the Japanese in jungles, especially loved it. The KA-BAR is still in use today by the Marines, Army, and Navy, and is arguably the single greatest combat knife ever invented.
3. The Thompson Submachine Gun
The Second World War was the first widespread conflict where the submachine came into its own as a combat weapon. There are several on this list, but none are more iconic than the Thompson submachine gun. After first achieving notoriety in the Irish Civil War and in the hands of Prohibition gangsters and law enforcement, the Thompson was adopted by the U.S. Army just before the start of the war. Despite its weight (at over 10 lbs it was heftier than most submachine guns), it was a very popular weapon for scouts, non-commissioned officers, commandos, and paratroopers, who all valued its stopping power and rate of fire.
The weapon’s use was discontinued after the war, but Thompsons continued to pop up all over the world in the hands of armies and paramilitaries. It even saw action in the Bosnian War. For the soldiers who carried it in World War 2, it was an invaluable tool to keep them alive as they walked, ran, and fought their way across Europe and Asia.
2. The PPSh-41
Despite the vastness of their country, most of the engagements that the Russian forces were involved in in World War 2 were close quarters affairs. From the Winter War with Finland to the defence of Stalingrad, Soviet troops were much more likely to meet their enemies at closer ranges than those their Mosin-Nagent bolt action rifles were designed for. The Russians needed high rates of fire at short distances, not accuracy or power. Enter the PPSh-41. A wonder of mass production, the PPSh-41 was simple to manufacture (at the height of the war Russian factories were producing 3000 a day), and simple to use.
It could be fitted with a drum magazine holding 71 rounds, and gave the Russians fire superiority at the close ranges they were fighting. The PPSh-41 was so effective that the Russian army outfitted entire regiments and divisions with it, something that had never been done before. But perhaps the best indication of the quality of the weapon was how valued it was among German troops. If your enemy can’t wait to get his hands on your weapons, you must be doing something right.
1. The M1 Garand
At the beginning of the war, nearly every infantryman in every major army was armed with a bolt action rifle. They were accurate and reliable, but they required that after every shot the soldier manually remove the spent shell casing and reload the weapon by manipulating a bolt. This was fine for sniping and other long distance engagements, but significantly limited each individual’s rate of fire. Wanting to increase their soldier’s ability to fire as many bullets at the enemy as possible, the U.S. Army brought into service one of the most famous rifles of all the time, the M1 Garand. Patton called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised,” and it often lived up to that high praise.
It was easy to use and care for, quick to reload, and gave U.S. forces rate of fire superiority over every force they faced. The M1 became a stalwart of the U.S. military and was in active service until 1963. Even today, several forces around the world use it as a ceremonial weapon for drills and it is prized as a hunting weapon among civilians. But for the men who took on the Germans, Italians, and Japanese, it was often the difference between life and death.