The Sturmgewehr 44 (StG-44) in the Movies

It was during the Second World War that an innovative firearm was developed by Nazi Germany. It was designed around a new intermediate caliber round that was larger than the pistol cartridges used in submachine guns, but smaller than a rifle cartridge. However, as a long-told story tells, German dictator Adolf Hitler didn’t see a need for a new class of weapons so the designers originally designated it a submachine gun — to conceal their deception — and called it the MP43/MP44.

After hearing of the praise for the new weapon, Hitler had a change of mind and gave the weapon the name Sturmgewehr, which translated to “storm rifle” and in turn gave birth to the mainstream media’s favorite term “assault rifle.” More importantly, the Sturmgewehr 44 (StG-44) has the distinction of being the first mass-produced assault rifle.

German StG-44 Assault Rifle
The world’s first mass-produced assault rifle, the StG-44. It was developed during World War II by German gun designer Hugo Schmeisser (Public Domain)

Much has been written about the firearm, with countless authors singing its praise. The select-fire rifle has even earned a reputation for being a “superweapon,” despite the fact that it was made of poor quality materials and lacked the refinement of the post-war firearms to come. However, it certainly influenced modern firearms design and led to the development of the AK-47 among others. It has become a favorite of video gamers in recent years, and thanks to a wave of appearances in recent movies, it remains something of a legend.

Yet, the StG-44 was largely absent from Western pop culture for decades, appearing mostly only in foreign films — including some made in the Soviet Union where, interestingly, the rifle stood in for the American M-16! There is some irony to that fact, as the StG-44 also served as a stand-in for the Soviet’s AK-47 in some Western-made films.

The Arrival of the StG-44 on the Big Screen

Though the StG-44 arrived at the tail end of the Second World War, it wasn’t actually until 1948 that the rifle made its big screen debut. Its earliest appearances were actually in a number of films made in former Czechoslovakia, all of which were “patriotic” in nature, chronicling the aid from the Soviet Red Army and helping to present the new Communist regime’s ties to Moscow in a positive light.

The rifle could be seen in a pair of films made just three years after the war ended, and each depicted the Slovak National Uprising in 1944 — films that offered a somewhat revisionist history to the fact that the Slovak Republic had been a pro-Germany satellite state during the war. The first was the Czech-made ‎”Bílá tma” (“The White Darkness”) which was followed by the Slovak film “Vicie diery” (“Wolves’ Lairs”).

German soldier in the film "Vicie diery"
The Slovak film “Vicie diery” (“Wolves’ Lairs”) is one of the first appearances of the StG-44 in a film (IMFDB)

Several Czechoslovakian films followed in the late 1940s while a few more were made throughout the 1950s. Nearly all are notable in that the majority of the equipment, uniforms, and of course small arms were surplus from the war, with few props being produced. It’s likely that the StG-44s seen in those early-post war films were captured stock that may have even been produced in the occupied Czech territories during the conflict.

The StG-44 further appeared in a number of Polish, Bulgarian, and East German films. Few of these movies were likely seen by Western audiences until after the end of the Cold War, but today these serve as an example of early Cold War propaganda that existed behind the Iron Curtain.

The First Western-Made Films with the StG-44

Likely the first time any Western audiences would have seen the StG-44 in a film was in the West German-American 1951 war film “Decision Before Dawn.” Like the Czechoslovakian-made films, it relied on authentic German wartime equipment and firearms while it was filmed in the ruins of buildings that had been damaged during the war. That level of accuracy wouldn’t be seen again for decades in an American production set during the Second World War!

Actual surplus StG-44s were seen again in the 1959 West German film “Die Brücke” (“The Bridge”), which tells the story of a group of conscripted German teenagers who are abandoned by the retreating German Wehrmacht at the end of the war. The youths, still believing in the Nazi cause, opt to defend what is essentially a worthless bridge from the advancing U.S. Army. Considered to be among the best German-made films about the war as well as a powerful anti-war film, it has earned a cult status among WWII buffs. It was remade as a TV movie in 2008, and this version still managed to capture the idealism of the young soldiers and the futility of their cause. While the equipment and weapons (including a few StG-44s) in the version for television look the part, the original is the superior version.

In 1958’s “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” — based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque (author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”) — StG-44s are present in the scenes on the Eastern Front. It is historically accurate for the film’s setting in late 1944. In addition, a single StG-44 is also seen in the “Battle of the Bulge” (1965), the all-star Hollywood spectacle about the infamous late-war German offensive. The film has been heavily criticized for everything from being filmed in the high desert of Spain rather than in the Ardennes Forest, and for its use of post-war M47 “Patton” tanks standing in for German Tigers. However, it was noteworthy for including a scene where a captured StG-44 was inspected by U.S. officers. The assault rifle had been largely employed with units on the Russian Front at that point in the war, but it was reported to have been used by a few German units in the actual Battle of the Bulge, and certainly would have caught the attention of U.S. soldiers who encountered it.

Though Telly Savalas did appear in “The Battle of the Bulge,” he is never seen with the StG-44 — yet he still has the distinction of being the first Western movie star to use one on the big screen. As a Greek partisan in the 1979 action comedy “Escape to Athena,” Savalas carried the rifle, but it makes for an interesting choice by the film’s armorers. It is highly unlikely the German military would have supplied this new weapon to a remote theater of operation. Instead, rear guard troops were often employed with captured and older small arms.

Actor Telly Savalas with an StG-44
Who loves you, baby? Telly Savalas has the distinction of being the first Hollywood star to appear on screen with the StG-44 in 1979’s “Escape to Athena.” Savalas shows poor trigger discipline, however!  (ITC Entertainment)

The German-made assault rifle did see use with the East German border guards and military in the early post-war era, but it was quickly replaced by Soviet weapons. However, the StG-44 appeared in the final two Harry Palmer films starring screen legend Michael Caine and set in the Cold War. A number of East German border guards are armed with the rifle in “Funeral in Berlin” (1966), while it is seen with Soviet soldiers in “Billion Dollar Brain” a year later. In both cases, the StG-44 likely stood in for the Soviet AK-47, which would have been nearly impossible to obtain at the time the films were made. It subsequently served as an AK-47 replacement in the 1969 film “Che!”

Interestingly even as it was seen used by East German border guards on the big screen, StG-44s were seen around the same time on TV’s “Mission Impossible” — but carried by border guards implied to be from West Berlin. What is also notable is that after that one appearance in the third season of the TV spy drama in 1968, the StG-44 didn’t appear on Western TV again until 2001’s “Band of Brothers.”

The StG-44 From Soviet Cinema to a Far Away Galaxy

Though the StG-44 does resemble the AK-47 — especially to the untrained eye — during the Cold War, it was employed by Soviet filmmakers as a suitable stand-in for the M-16 and a number of other Western-made firearms. It was actually first used in the 1970 film “Chyornoye solntse” (“Black Sun”), about the Congo Crisis nearly a decade earlier, where it was modified to resemble the Belgian-made FN FAL.

It then appeared as an early model Colt 601 variant of the M-16 in the film “Ya sluzhu na granitse” (“I Serve at the Border”), and was further modified to resemble the AR15 rifle in the 1979 Polish-Soviet-Bulgarian action film “Pokhishchenie Savoi” (“The Hijacking of Savoy”), where a gang of Nazi war criminals/drug dealers hi-jack a Polish airliner.

Mock-up of AR-15
A modified StG-44 mocked up to resemble the American-made AR-15/M-16 in the Soviet film “Pokhishchenie Savoi” (IMFDB)

A similar theme about the decadent West served as the backdrop of “Piraty XX veka” (“Pirates of the XXth Century”), which featured the same modified StG-44s. That film, about a group of modern pirates (who may or may not be Americans) who steal a load of medicinal opium, was the highest-grossing Soviet movie of 1980!

The same year that modified StG-44s were used by drug-stealing pirates to resemble the AR-15/M-16, the German-made assault rifle was seen in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” serving as BlasTech A295 blaster rifle, the standard issue blaster of the Rebel Alliance ground forces.

Star Wars Rebels with StG-44
The “BlasTech A295 blaster rifle” appears as the standard issue blaster of the Rebel Alliance ground forces in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” – It was based on the German StG-44  developed 80 years ago in Germany (20th Century Fox)

Though it was the only appearance of the StG-44 in a galaxy far, far away, it continued to be employed as the AR-15/M-16 throughout the final years of the Soviet Union, and even in post-Cold War Russia.

Modern Hollywood and Beyond

Though the StG-44’s appearances were arguably sparse in World War II films, it has a number of more recent screen credits — appearing in 2004’s “Der Untergang” (“Downfall”), about the final days of the Third Reich; 2014’s “Fury,” where it was carried Brad Pitt (who might have been the first Hollywood star had it not been for Telly!); and was most recently seen in the Australian-made Vietnam War film “Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan.”

PAVN soldiers in the film "Danger Close" with StG-44
North Vietnamese soldiers are seen with StG-44s in 2019’s “Danger Close” (Transmission Films)

In that latter film, which was based on the real battle that occurred in 1966, a Vietnamese soldier is seen with the StG-44. Though it is true that North Vietnam and the Viet Cong relied on Wehrmacht-era firearms, the use of the StG-44 would seem in question as it used different ammunition than the AK-47s carried by the other People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldiers. It is possible the production had a limited number of AK-47-style weapons and used the StG-44 as a suitable stand-in. It wasn’t the first time and likely won’t be the last.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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