The Best SMG of WWII Was Italian? The Model 38A

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The Best SMG of WWII Was Italian? The Model 38A

November 2nd, 2021

6 minute read

At first light on 20 May 1941, Hauptmann Dieter Linz sat, lost in thought alongside his 16 fellow paratroopers inside the belly of a noisy Junkers Ju 52 transport. His Auntie Ju was part of the first wave of Unternehmen Merkur, or Operation Mercury, the German airborne invasion of Crete. Linz’ Fallschirmjagers had acquitted themselves well during the recent conquest of the Low Countries. Now they formed the backbone of the largest airborne assault in military history to date.

Man dressed as German paratrooper with Model 38A
German Fallschirmjagers and Waffen SS troops coveted the Model 38A for its controllability, prodigious magazine capacity and innate accuracy.

The jumpmaster had Linz and his men up and ready before the planes cleared the coastline. Linz knew that the Luftwaffe pilots were doing the best they could, but he could feel that they were both too low and too fast. Flak erupted all around the plane, sounding like so much gravel thrown against the Ju 52’s corrugated skin. The jump light flashed from red to green and Hauptmann Linz leapt headfirst into hell.

Man dressed as German SS trooper with Italian 38A SMG
The long ventilated barrel shroud/bayonet lug is one of the gun’s most distinctive features.

The parachutes used by the Fallschirmjagers attached at a single point behind the neck and were in no way steerable. They jumped without reserve chutes. At these altitudes, there would be no time to deploy one anyway. This equipment necessitated a dive out of the aircraft and a harsh face-first landing. It also meant Linz and his men had to jump without their primary weapons.

Model 38A SMG with WWII equipment
The Italian Model 38A was an elegant and effective 9mm submachine gun. German Fallschirmjagers and the Waffen SS used thousands of the weapons during WWII.

They called it jumping naked, and it left them utterly vulnerable once they hit the drop zone. Linz carried a gravity knife, his Luger pistol, and a pair of stick grenades. In the unfettered chaos that was the DZ, he was one of the precious few to find his fallschirmbombe. This was the weapons canister that was dropped from the belly of his Junkers alongside his stick of paratroopers.

M38A muzzle brake
The well-designed muzzle brake helps keep recoil and muzzle climb in check.

Linz popped open the canister and retrieved his 9mm Italian Model 38A submachine gun. Though a bit longer and bulkier than the more common German MP38 or MP40, Linz loved his 38A. He had traded a drunken Italian officer out of it during a joint training exercise six months earlier.

Charging handle of the Model 38A
The charging handle on the Model 38 is located on the right and includes a sliding dust cover.

Linz took cover in a shallow ditch to avoid the incoming fire that crisscrossed the drop zone and blew his whistle. In clots of ones, twos and threes, the surviving paratroopers rallied to his position. By the time they got their weapons sorted and established some kind of organization, he had already lost half his strength. Regardless, he reached over the top of his subgun and jacked the bolt to the rear. Ready or not, this war started right here.

Model 38A Origin Story

The Italians are typically known for pretty girls, great food and a plethora of moldy old ruins. The exhaustive list of modern Italian war heroes is undeniably brief. However, the 38A submachine gun in 9mm shines on its own as a stellar exception. I’ve run them all, and the 38A is my favorite WWII-era subgun.

Model 38A safety lever
The safety on the Model 38A is a pivoting lever on the left.

The Model 38A was originally designed in 1935 by famed Italian small arms designer Tullio Marengoni. An evolutionary development of the WWI-era Villar Perosa pistol-caliber light machinegun from WWI, the Model 38A features a rigid wooden stock and open-bolt operation. The 38A also includes several uniquely superb features.

The safety on the gun is a sliding lever on the left aspect of the receiver. This appendage is readily manipulatable by the left hand when shooting right-handed. The fire control system is built into the dual trigger assembly. Pulling the forward trigger produces semi-auto fire; the rear, full-auto. Nothing is faster.

40 round magazine Italian SMG
The 40-round double column, double-feed magazine on the Model 38A is one of its strongest attributes.

The gun feeds from 10, 20, 30 or 40-round magazines and includes an efficient muzzle brake and bayonet lug. Oddly, the weapon charges on the right and ejects to the left. That means that to charge the piece, a right-handed shooter must reach across the gun to access the charging mechanism. This knob does not reciprocate with the bolt and includes a sliding sheet steel dust cover. The leather sling attaches on the left side of the weapon as it should.

Man holding Model 38A
While the MP40 got all the press, the Italian Model 38A was a popular weapon among specialist troops.

How Does She Run?

In a word, swimmingly. The long 12.4″ barrel yields superlative accuracy in semiauto mode. Switch to the rear trigger, and the gun runs at a published rate of 600 rpm. In my experience, it seems slower than that. Doubles and triples are easy for the disciplined trigger finger, and you can put all forty rounds inside a pie plate at 20 meters without trying too hard. The magazine release is small but is located behind the magazine for easy access with either hand.

Dual triggers of the Model 38A
The front trigger provides semi-auto fire. The aft trigger is full-auto.

The rigid wooden stock means that the gun is tougher to pack than a comparable MP40, but the practical result is a superbly stable firing platform. The Model 38A runs much like the rifles of its day. Additionally, the standard 40-round magazine seems to last about forever, particularly in comparison to the 20 and 32-round mags used by competing subguns.

Target after shooting Model 38A on full auto
At 20 meters the Beretta 38A groups beautifully on full-auto.

The Rest of the Model 38A Story

Operation Mercury was an unprecedented slaughter. While the Germans did ultimately wrest control of the island from the Commonwealth troops who defended it, they did so at a simply breathtaking cost. The 3d Battalion of the German 1st Assault Regiment had 400 of its 600-man complement killed in the first day of the operation. One of its subordinate companies had 112 killed out of a total of 126 on the rolls. Though successful in meeting its military objectives, the invasion of Crete was such a bloodbath that Hitler refused to authorize any further large-scale airborne operations for the rest of the war. The Fallshirmjagers fought on until the bitter end as elite Infantry.

Model 38A left ejection port
For reasons known only to its designer, Tullio Marengoni, the Model 38A ejects out the left.

In addition to their unique stubby helmets and baggy “bone bag” jump smocks, the Fallschirmjagers wielded some unique weapons. The FG42 paratroop rifle represents the golden ring for the most rarefied of military weapons collectors. Additionally, the German paratroops were fairly prolific users of the Italian Model 38A submachine gun. Smooth, accurate, handy, and just a little bit weird, the Model 38A was, surprisingly, one of the finest weapons of the war.

Special thanks to World War Supply for the cool-guy gear used in the preparation of this article.

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Will Dabbs, MD

Will Dabbs, MD

Will was raised in the Mississippi Delta and has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After eight years flying Army helicopters, he left the military as a Major to attend medical school. Will operates an Urgent Care clinic in his small Southern town and works as the plant physician for the local Winchester ammunition plant. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three adult children, and has written for the gun press for a quarter century.

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