A guest blog post by Paolo Marcenaro, amateur military historian, political analyst and freelance journalist.
Given the fact that the next Tide of Iron supplement will deal with Stalingrad I have chosen to write my first blog post about one weapon that truly did dominate the house-to-house fighting on the banks of the Volga: Stalin’s submachine gun, the PPSh-41!
Close quarter fighting in the rubble-strewn alleys of Stalingrad, not to mention among the soot-covered staircases, basements and halls of its buildings, was not the kind of confrontation where accurate, aimed projectile fire could be effectively employed.
Instead, machine-gun suppressive bursts, grenading and every kind of support weapon from flamethrower to light artillery were used to try to dislodge dogged defenders from seemingly-impregnable positions or even to try and bury them within the very turf they were clinging to.
In such a nightmarish scenario (dubbed “Rattenkrieg” or Rats’ War by the Germans), the most effective individual weapon wasn’t the rifle but rather the submachine gun. The submachine gun was introduced during the Great War to aid parties of “trench raiding” Voltiguers, Arditi or Sturmtruppen by giving each man the capability (at least on paper) to generate prodigious amounts of firepower in short spans of time.
This was meant to bridge the gap favoring the defenders, who almost always enjoyed the benefit of fixed machinegun positions. After little more than 20 years since its inception, submachine gun manufacturing was already solidly established in all of the major powers taking part in WW2 and in several of the minor ones.
Soviet Russia, always appreciating sturdy, cheap and reliable weapons, did produce one of the most iconic submachine guns ever, the one most people picture from war movies or historical propaganda posters: PPSh-41 (“Pistolet Pulemet Shpagina 1941,” named for its creator, Chief Engineer G. Shpagin).
Soviet interest in submachine guns (SMGs) was raised during the 1939-40 “Winter War,” when SMG-equipped cadres of Finnish troops often managed to defeat, rout or even annihilate Russian detachments many times their size due to their firepower.
The loss of industrial capacity suffered at the hands of the advancing German forces in 1941 also played in favor of the new weapon, since it was very easy to assemble even in improvised workshops.
Chambered to fire the Russian 7.62mm x 25 round (and also able to accept the .30 Mauser), the weapon was 82 centimeters long (less than three feet) and weighed a tad less than 5.5 kilograms (12.12 pounds) when carrying the 71-round feeding drum (otherwise it could accept a 30-round magazine).
In Stalingrad’s meatgrinder the Shpagin was often the best friend not only of the Russian infantryman but also of the German “landser” (low-ranking solder), who often had to ditch his Kar 98 or MP-38/40 due to unwieldiness or simple lack of ammunition, while the PPSh-41s and their magazines were often plentiful among captured equipment or the kits of fallen enemies.
Able to burp out 900 bullets per minute at an exit velocity of 488 meters per second (circa 1600 feet p/s) a well-placed Shpagin burst could clear a room, a corridor or a cellar or just force foes to duck down for the few crucial seconds needed to cross a street, a square or to lob a grenade down their hiding place.
Such was the appreciation of German users of the PPSh-41 that a certain number of them were modified to accept MP 38/40 magazines.
More than 6 million PPSh-41s were produced by the end of WW2, after which an even more iconic and fortunate automatic weapon model (the AK-47) pushed the Shpagin out of the limelight, into the hands of territorial units and Soviet satellite regimes.
Still, due to its ruggedness and reliability, French and even American troops fighting in Indochina kept encountering foes armed with PPSh-41s well into the 50s and even the 60s.