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The MG42. A very iconic machine gun built during World War 2. Known for its high rate of fire, three man operating squad and its ability to suppress advancing troops, was built by Metall und Lackierwarenfabrik. However, up until this point, Metall und Lackierwarenfabrik was a company that just stamped parts out of sheet metal. They had no prior experience creating weapons and I have been trying to find documentation as to why they were asked by the German government in the late 1930s to submit a design for a new machine gun. Up until this point they basically built nice furnishings for houses.

I know that Werner Gruner was an engineer, and my thought was that he or the father/son owners of the company were part of the Nazi rank and file, but I can't seem to find anything that even hints at that or how they were even part of the bidding process.

I do understand how they got the contract in the end. Their operating mechanism was superior, their lack of tight tolerances made for a more reliable machine, and the cheaper stamped parts proved more rugged in testing. I am just at a loss for how they were asked to bid on the project.

Out of the companies in Germany that produced weapons, how was a non-weapon producing company asked to design a new machine gun?

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    The real manufacturers were busy with tanks, aircraft, artillery...? – Tomas By May 10 at 18:11
  • I thought that could be a potential but really, they only designed and produced the first 1500 or so. Based off what I am seeing Mauserwerke AG, Whilhelm-Gustloff-Stiftung and Steyr-Daimler-Puch did the mass producing. These companies were all arms producers during the war. I want to know how they got in on the design bids. – EvanM May 10 at 18:26
  • Expertise in producing high quality stamped parts was very valuable then. – Schwern May 10 at 19:08
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After the MG 34 was introduced in 1935, the Wehrmacht almost immediately wanted improvements. The MG 34 was milled from specially alloyed steel which is slow and expensive. Stamped parts could make a lighter, more reliable, cheaper to mass produce gun using lower grade steel. However, getting stamped parts to work at the tolerances and stresses of a firearm was tricky. The German firearms industry did not have expertise in stamping, so they looked for firms which did.

In February 1937 Heereswaffenamt (HWA, German Army Ordinance) put out a request for an experimental stamped Einheitsmaschinengewehr (Universal Machine Gun) easier to make and with a higher rate of fire than the MG 34. Metall- und Lackwarenfabrik Johannes Großfuß (Johannes Großfuß Metal and Lacquerware Factory), or simply "Großfuß", was invited because they had experience making stamped parts. Werner Gruner, an engineer with Großfuß who had experience with sheet metal production, was assigned to the task (possibly with the help of firearms experts).

Großfuß's short-recoil prototype went against Rheinmetall's gas-operated prototype. Rheinmetall was a traditional arms manufacturer. According to Forgotten Weapons, in April 1938 the the Rheinmetall prototype "shot the living daylights out of the Großfuß" (meaning their prototype functioned better with less malfunctions), but its gas-operated system meant drilling a hole in the barrel to tap some of the expanding gas to operate the bolt. Drilling a hole in a barrel was heresy to the German military at the time (see the saga of the Gewehr 41(M) rifle for more about that) and despite its flaws Großfuß's MG 39 prototype won. With HWA's firearms expertise the issues with the prototype would be developed into the MG 42.

References

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    a slight nitpick. the Forgotten Weapons article re. MG39 is not crystal clear where they stand. It starts out by saying that the Grossfuss prototype had clear deficiencies which were later corrected. But it also says re the Rheinmetall gun the belt-feed and piston pivot were really the most promising (one could even say: ‘the only useful’ or even ‘the only redeeming’) features of this long-forgotten, but nevertheless interesting gun. That doesn't sound like full-on endorsement, even if it goes on to say the weapon likely got incorporated into later Warsaw Pact designs. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica May 11 at 16:47
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica My read is that the RM prototype was a more finished product which ran better in trials, being a firearms company this isn't surprising, and objectively should have won the trial. They're not commenting on the design. I'll clarify. – Schwern May 11 at 17:33
  • It's funny (in an ironic sense), when I think of Nazi Germany my first inclination is to say, ahead of their time technologically, but prehistoric socially, yet we come across instances like this that show they were really "stuck in old ways" they just sometimes found a way to get stuck in a better position with the same old tech. Now you look, and find that (made up number) 90% of machine guns/sub machine guns and assault rifles are gas operated with bored holes in the barrel. – EvanM May 11 at 20:13
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    @EvanM "Why were the Germans during the Nazi era so inventive?" covers this somewhat. Increasingly squeezed, Germany banked on experimental wonder weapons. A lot of them did not work (V-3), or were expensive, unreliable, and too late (Panther, Type XXI submarine, rocket planes), or did work but were a waste of resources (V-1, V-2). The Allies, not being so desperate, iterated on force-multiplers: VT fuse, advanced radar, air/ground coordination, universal self-loading rifles. – Schwern May 11 at 20:31
  • @Schwern thanks for the read. Don't get me wrong, I didn't think of them as "more inventive", however, the article on forgotten guns paints an interesting internal struggle to adopt different tech based on previous thought patterns rather than having true science behind the assertion. – EvanM May 11 at 21:19
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It is hard to fathom nowadays with decades-long "jobs for the boys" projects like the F35, but weapon making, especially in wartime, can be greatly accelerated and benefit from skunk projects carried out by small teams. (note however that the inherent difference in complexity between a major weapon system - a fighter or tank - circa 1940 and 2020 is massive).

First, look at the genesis of the AK47, basically a "tank dude's hobby project".

Second, as per wiki, there was a competition for the MG42's design and the winner got awarded the order. It wasn't just a case of awarding the whole process to one company.

The chief engineer took non-arms metal working experience and applied it to make a better design. Between better, cheaper and less time and raw material to make it, why not pick the best entry?:

Dr.-Ing. Werner Gruner, one of the leading design engineers with Großfuß, knew nothing about machine guns when he was given the task of being involved with the project, although he specialized in the technology of mass production. Gruner would attend an army machine gunner's course to familiarize himself with the utility and characteristics of such a weapon, also seeking input from soldiers. He then recycled an existing Mauser-developed operating system and incorporated features from his experiences with army machine gunners and lessons learned during the early stages of the war.[9] Being made largely out of stamped appropriately hardened carbon steel metal, the new design required considerably less machining and fewer high grade steel alloys containing metals that became scarce in Germany during World War II. It was much simpler to build than other machine guns — it took 75 man hours to complete the new gun as opposed to 150 man hours for the MG 34 (a 50% reduction), 27.5 kg (61 lb) of raw materials as opposed to 49 kg (108 lb) for the MG 34 (a 44% reduction) — and cost 250 RM as opposed to 327 RM (a 24% reduction).

Note that the entry of highly-skilled manufacturing firms into a domain which they do not have prior experience in can be highly disruptive to that domain, c.f. the Apple iPhone, Tesla or SpaceX.

This seems to have been what happened with the MG42 and there was certainly a lot of German "pull" demand requesting new weapons from all over the German industrial spectrum. And the opportunity cost of asking a non-arms metalworking firm to bid in a design competition would have been low.

See also also Porsche, which got pulled into the tank-design business.

Finally one can't mention the MG42 without mentioning that its descendent is still getting built today.

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  • Incidentally, according to this article historyextra.com/period/second-world-war/… the Bren took only 55 man-hours to build. – tgdavies May 12 at 6:32
  • @tgdavies This article begs the question, and I'll probably ask in a different question. What was the difference in actual cost to produce the Bren, BAR and MG42? "In a long war, cheap mass-production is generally better than over-engineered, expensive equipment" – EvanM May 12 at 11:27
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    @tgdavies Never mind, ask and you shall receive. Interesting that the Bren's production cost was $180 and the MG42 was $100. That stamped metal must have made the difference. warhistoryonline.com/featured/… – EvanM May 12 at 11:30
  • @EvanM One thing to keep in mind with all of Germany's later (post-41) develipments: Any "long war" meant that Germany would lose. By the time attrition became a factor (i.e., post-41), Germany's chances at coming out on top were nil, due to geostrategic realities. – DevSolar May 12 at 18:24
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    @EvanM Errr... no. Germany got into Africa only because Italy made a complete hash out of the situation at the Lybia / Egypt border (invading with superiir force, getting stalled, digging in on too wide a front, and then getting picked off), and Hitler decided to redirect valuable resources to support his ally. Same as with Greece, actually. Italy proved to be more of a burden to the German plans than it was worth. – DevSolar May 12 at 18:53

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