The Weapons of D-Day: An Overview of the Overlord’s Small Arms

This year marks the 80th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the D-Day landings in Normandy, France. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, including five naval assault divisions. It began the liberation of France and the rest of Western Europe while laying the foundations of the Allied victory on the Western Front.

D-Day is also noted for a distinct mix of small arms, including bolt-action rifles, submachine guns, anti-tank weapons, and more. As a lover of all things military history, I’ve put together an overview of the small arms used in Operation Overlord.

Main Battle Rifles of D-Day

German Karabiner 98kurz (Kar98k or K98k)

The standard service rifle of the German Wehrmacht during the Second World War, the Kar98k, was the final development in a line of Mauser military bolt-action rifles going back to the late 19th century. Chambered for the 7.92x57mm cartridge, it was adopted in June 1935, and while supplemented by more modern firearms, it remained in use to the end of the war – making it one of the most widely used firearms during the conflict, only surpassed by the Soviet Mosin Nagant.

A World War II reenactor with a German Kar98K. It was a well-engineered rifle that saw service around the world after the war.

It was designated a “carbine” – at least in the native German – but it was still a full-sized rifle with an effective firing range of 500 meters with iron sights and a maximum firing range of 4,700 meters. Versions were fitted with a telescopic sight, which doubled its effective range.

The Kar98k was a reliable weapon, so much so that it was used in countless wars well after the defeat of Nazi Germany – including with the Israeli Army! The weapon’s biggest downside was it held just five rounds, and the bolt-action design yielded a slower rate of fire than more modern firearms.

British Short Magazine Lee Enfield

The Germans weren’t the only power to still rely on a bolt-action rifle during World War II. As noted, the Soviets produced more than anyone, but the British military continued to rely on its Lee-Enfield, which was a redesign of the earlier Lee-Metford. Reduced in size as the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield, it saw use from 1904 until 1957, making it one of the most widely used firearms in world history.

Short Magazine Lee Enfield
The Short Magazine Lee-Enfield was introduced in 1904 and was still among the best bolt action rifles in service during World War II

The SMLE featured a 10-round box magazine and was chambered for the .303 British cartridge. It fired a similar-sized round as the German Kar98k while holding double the ammunition. The weapon was given a makeover in the 1940s, which made it easier to mass-produce. The iron sights were redesigned and calibrated for 274 meters, and this version featured a heavier barrel. The other significant change was the type of bayonet that could be used. Instead of the long sword-like bayonets that had been a staple of the First World War, the new Rifle, No. 4 MK I version of the SMLE, utilized a spike bayonet that earned the nickname “pigsticker.”

American M1 Garand

Here is where American ingenuity shined in World War II – the M1 Garand was the first standard-issued semi-automatic rifle and the most widely used semi-automatic of the Second World War. General George S. Patton infamously described it as “the greatest battle implement ever devised.”

M1 Garand
The M1 Garand may not have been the greatest battle implement ever devised – but it was the best rifle of WWII, hands down!

It fired the .30-06 Springfield round used in the Springfield 1903 bolt-action rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle, and M1919 .30 caliber machine gun. It was a gas-operated rifle with an eight-shot clip-fed magazine. This provided the American GIs with more rounds than the German counterpart Kar98K, but it also meant that it was difficult to “top off” or add bullets until all eight were fired.

While movies and video games suggest there was a loud audible “ping” when the en bloc clip is ejected, that is pure fantasy. If it did make the sound it is unlikely anyone would hear it above the other sounds of combat!

Sub-Machine Guns

German MP40

Thanks to movies, TV shows, and video games, you’d think every other German soldier must have carried a “Schmeisser” – the erroneous nickname of the MP40. First, German gun designer Hugo Schmeisser wasn’t involved in the design or production of the firearm, and second, only 1.1 million were produced compared to 14.7 million Kar98Ks.

This WWII reeanctor is a little too old to fit the part, but the equipment and MP40 are accurate!

The MP40 was also an update of the MP38, a revolutionary submachine gun that was as German as it got. It was made of machined steel, which meant it was time-consuming and expensive to produce. The MP40 used the basic design but simplified the production process by utilizing stamped steel and electro-spot welding the weapon where possible.

The MP40 proved reliable, durable, and accurate. It fired the 9x19mm Parabellum (9mm Luger) round – the same as the Luger and P38 pistols – and had a rate of fire of 500-550 rounds. It used a straight blowback action but was controllable under most conditions. Due to production shortages, the MP40 was typically carried by platoon and squad leaders. Its design featured a forward stick magazine, later copied by countless small arms in the early Cold War era.

British STEN Gun

After the successful German Blitzkrieg that saw the complete defeat of France in the spring of 1940, the British Army was desperately short on small arms – having abandoned vast quantities of weapons on the continent during the Dunkirk evacuation. One solution was to develop a submachine gun to supplement the stocks of SMLE rifles. The result was the STEN Gun, named after its chief designers, Major Reginald V. Shepherd and Harold Turpin – along with EN for Enfield, which produced the weapon.

Sten Gun
The British STEN Gun was crude, but it was what the British Army needed at the time.

The British military took a novel approach to one aspect of the design: It was chambered in the 9x19mm round, which ensured that British soldiers could use captured German ammunition. It had a muzzle velocity of 365 meters per second but an effective range of just 100 meters.

The STEN Gun was nothing if not simple in design. It was little more than a tube with a firing mechanism, meant to be simple and cheap to produce and, most importantly, could be quickly put into soldiers’ hands. It gave effective short-range firepower to soldiers. The STEN went through several design updates and at D-Day, the British were mainly using the MkII and MkIII versions, while a variation of the MkII was produced in Canada with a different type of removable stock. Finally, the MkV version, with a wooden stock and the ability to mount a bayonet, was introduced in 1944, and many of these were issued to paratroopers.

American Thompson M1A1

Known as the “Chicago Typewriter,” “Tommy Gun,” and other colorful monikers, the Thompson submachine gun was developed during the First World War but arrived too late to see action. The final version was introduced in 1921 and was an immediate failure. Without a war, its makers at Auto-Ordnance sold Thompsons to the Post Office and marketed them to ranchers—but they found use by gangsters and lawmen during prohibition.

M1A1 and M3
The M1A1 Thompson submachine gun (bottom) was an effective weapon, but it was expensive to produce – leading to the development of the M3 “Grease Gun” (top)

By the outbreak of the Second World War II the Thompson M1928A1 was in use with the U.S. Army and United States Marines Corps, but it was found the 50-round drum magazine was prone to jamming and too heavy and bulky. By D-Day, the U.S. military adopted the M1A1, which utilized a 20- or 30-round box magazine.

All military versions of the Thompson fired the .45 ACP cartridge, and the M1A1 version had a rate of fire of 625 rpm and an effective range of 165 yards. Much like the MP40, the M1A1 was carried by platoon and squad leaders.

The Automatic Weapons at D-Day

German FG42

The German military saw the need to replace the aging Kar98k, while also offering more firepower to certain units. The result was not one but two different note-worthy rifles. The first was the Fallschirmjägergewehr 42 or “paratrooper rifle 42” (FG42), a selective-fire automatic rifle. It was developed specifically for the German Fallschirmjägerger airborne infantry, which saw action as elite infantry in the Normandy campaign. Two different models of the FG42 were produced, and it was considered one of the most advanced weapon designs of WWII – and elements of the weapon were copied during the development of the U.S. Army’s M60 machine gun.

Two models of the FG-42 were produced during WWII. The select-fire squad weapon was issued to the German Fallschirmjägerger airborne infantry.

M1918 American Browning Automatic Rifle

The American military was so worried that the Germans would copy the BAR that it feared even introducing the weapon into combat – that was in 1918, however, but even in 1944, the weapon still offered “walking fire” that few other weapons could provide. It is true that the BAR never fully lived up to the original hopes that it could fill the gap between a rifle and a machine gun, but at D-Day, the BAR was still the right weapon for the job of providing automatic fire for advancing troops.

Louis Suciu with a BAR
Corporal Louis Suciu – great uncle of the author – at the end of World War II, carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle. He always said, “It was too damn heavy.”

Machine Guns Used at Normandy

German MG34 and MG42

At D-Day, Germany had two excellent machine guns in service. These included the MG34 (Maschinengewehr 34), a recoil-operated, air-cooled machine gun that was developed even before the Nazis took power. It introduced a new concept in machine guns, becoming the first general-purpose machine gun. This meant it could operate as a medium machine gun in a fire support role with just its built-in bipod, or when used with a Lafette tripod, could be used as a heavy machine gun. With a rate of fire of 800-900 rounds per minute, an effective firing range of 2,000 meters, and a maximum firing range of 4,700 meters, it could take command of the battlefield.

If the MG34 had an issue it was that it was expensive and time-consuming to produce – a trend that the German military needed to overcome. The result could have been a lackluster gun, but instead, it gave the world the MG42, one of the most lethal machine guns of the Second World War. While it used stamped parts instead of the machined ones of the MG34, this new weapon proved reliable and easy to operate. It had a high rate of fire of 1,200 rounds per minute – and the sound of it being fired led to the nickname “Hitler’s buzzsaw.”

German soldier with a MG42
During a D-Day reenactment, a “German machine gunner” is seen armed with an MG42.

It had the same range as the MG34, but another improvement was an easier-to-change barrel—something highly desired in an air-cooled machine gun. As with the MG34, the MG42 was a general-purpose machine gun and served as both a medium and heavy machine gun on D-Day. Many Allied soldiers didn’t make it very far on D-Day because of these two weapons.

British Bren Gun

This British light machine gun was so reliable and effective that it remained in various roles until 1992 and was last used in a major combat role in the 1982 Falklands War. At D-Day, the Bren Gun offered the same “walking fire” that the American BAR provided but was more versatile. It could be fitted with a bipod or mounted on a vehicle, where it took on a medium/heavy machine gun role.

Bren Gun
The Bren Gun was the primary British light machine gun on D-Day.

The Bren was a licensed version of the Czechoslovakian-made ZGB 33 light machine gun. Unlike the BAR, it offered a quick-change barrel, and like the BAR, ammunition was fed from a box magazine—in this case, a top-loading 30-round curved magazine. The gas-operated light machine gun had a 500-round-per-minute rate of fire and an effective range of just 550 meters. So, while it did offer walking fire for assaults, it wasn’t a long-range weapon by any means.

American M1919 Browning Machine Gun

An improved version of the Browning M1917 water-cooled heavy machine, the M1919 Browning was an air-cooled medium machine gun. Its rate of fire ranged from 400-600 rounds per minute, while the recoil-operated machine gun offered an effective range of 1,400 meters. Like its German counterparts, it was belt-fed. It was used by infantry, mounted on Jeeps, tanks, aircraft, and even landing craft on D-Day.

M1919 machine gun
Developed from the water-cooled M1917 machine gun, John Browning’s M1919 proved to be the first successful air-cooled machine gun.

Anti-Tank Weapons of D-Day

American M1A1 “Bazooka”

The U.S. Army’s Rocket Launcher M1 – nicknamed “bazooka” after radio comedian Bob Burns’ novelty musical instrument – was an anti-tank weapon that first saw use during Operation Torch in North Africa to limited success. The M1A1 version, with an improved rocket, was used in Sicily to great effect, even reportedly taking out a Tiger I tank! While it wasn’t powerful enough for late-war German tanks, it did give infantry a fighting chance, and more than a few went ashore on D-Day.

British PIAT Gun

In the early stages of the war, the British developed a unique anti-tank weapon, the PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank. It was based on a spigot mortar system and fired a 2.5-pound-shaped charge bomb, and it was a vast improvement over existing anti-tank rifles and had no back-blast, but it was heavy and had major recoil. The weapon was also difficult to cock from a prone position, but it was reasonably successful. According to a British report, seven percent of all German tanks destroyed by the British forces were knocked out by a PIAT.

The PIAT is a beast of a weapon, to say the least!

German Panzerschreck

The Germans captured some American M1 bazookas in the North African Campaign, as well as some supplied to the Soviet Red Army as part of the Lend-Lease. Instead of merely copying it, the Germans increased the diameter of the warhead from 60mm to 88mm and gave the “Tank Fright” – the literal translation of Panzerschrek – greater armor penetration. Because the rounds fired from the German Panzerschreck kept burning after leaving the tube, the Germans added a protective blast shield. This increased the weight, but given the destructive capability of the weapon, it was a worthwhile tradeoff.

The German Panzerschreck was a supersized copy of the American M1 “Bazooka.”

Other Small Arms of Operation Overlord

American M1903 Springfield

When the United States entered the war in late 1941 production of the M1 Garand was only ramping up, so many American soldiers were still using the Model 1903 Springfield rifle, which had been the U.S. military’s main battle rifle during World War I. The M1903-A3 version featured improved sights, and while the rifle saw use in North Africa and notably in the Pacific, by D-Day, most GIs had an M1 Garand. However, the M1903 was fitted with a scope and used by snipers – as noted in the film Saving Private Ryan.

American M1 Carbine

Sometimes called the little brother to the M1 Garand, the M1 Carbine had little in common with the full-sized rifle. It fired a smaller .30 cartridge but offered a 15-round detachable magazine. The weapon was originally developed as a replacement for pistols and was issued to officers and vehicle crews. A version with a folding stock was produced for use by U.S. Army paratroopers.

American M3 “Grease Gun”

As noted above, the cost of the M1A1 Thompson submachine gun was considerably high, and to reduce those costs and increase production, a new submachine gun was developed for use by the U.S. Army. The result was the M3, which soon earned the nickname “Grease Gun.” It had a slow rate of fire of just 450 rounds per minute, and it utilized stamped parts. The gun was cheap and looked cheap, but it was also reliable and durable. It remained in use as a weapon for vehicle crews until the 1990s!

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 The National Interest, Forbes, 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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