Why Submachine Guns Fell Out Of Favor With The US Military

BY Herschel Smith
8 months, 1 week ago

We Are The Mighty:

In WWII, the Tommy Gun gave American troops a lot of firepower in a small package. Paratroopers could easily carry them on planes, tankers could keep them handy in case anyone got too close, and infantrymen could maneuver through cities with them with ease. It was often copied but never outdone. It and its sister weapon, the M3/M3A1 “Grease Gun,” were mainstays throughout the Korean War and into the early parts of the Vietnam War.

The submachine gun, however, wasn’t able to hold up long in the jungles of Vietnam when the M16’s durability, range, and 5.56mm ammunition outperformed it in nearly every way. This, however, wasn’t its death rattle.

The SMG’s maneuverability in close quarters didn’t go unnoticed by law enforcement — primarily by SWAT teams. Additionally, SMGs are often chambered in 9mm or .45 ACP, meaning that targets struck by rounds are more often incapacitated than killed. In the hands of law enforcement, an armed assailant could then be taken into custody.

First of all I don’t believe in SWAT teams as you know, or any kind of home invasion by law enforcement.  As a corollary, nor do I believe they should have machine guns.

But this seems like a strange argument to make.  I have to believe that many a soldier was killed by submachine guns in WWII, although I wouldn’t know how to research something like that outside of say the library at Leavenworth (US Army Command and General Staff College).  I do know that the vast majority of military deaths have occurred from crew served weapons, not small arms.

But I also have to believe that if there was any under-appreciation of the capabilities of the submachine gun in Vietnam or elsewhere for CQB, it must have been due to the fact that they were shooting ball ammunition.

I don’t have the time to research this, and hopefully some reader (more educated than I am) will help fill in the blanks, but it is my understanding that PD rounds (hollow point) are prohibited by treaties to which the US is signatory.  If so, I think that’s stupid and ignorant.

Nonetheless, I can see the submachine gun falling out of favor eventually due to the advent of the pistol caliber AR-pattern pistol.  With the necessity for protracted engagements, I can see the need to avoid wasting ammunition with automatic fire.

My son (and his fellow Marines) virtually never had their M4s in automatic.  They shot so many rounds in CQB preps that they learned to squeeze off three rounds as fast as the gun could in automatic if they needed that rate of fire.  They only time he ever shot fully automatic fire was with his SAW or M2.

I prefer the pistol caliber AR-pattern pistol because after having shot an AR pistol in 5.56mm, I consider it to be unstable with the sight picture (for rapid follow-up shots) due to recoil, at least for me.

With all of that said, I still want a Grease Gun.


  1. On May 15, 2018 at 12:07 am, Jorge said:

    I can see the military going with the AR instead of the SMG. SMGs have very limited range, ARs are great from 0-300M. You don’t get to choose when the enemy attacks when you are regular troops (even SOF sometimes), it’s best to have maximum effective firepower as the enemy will hit when they have the advantage, not you. Everybody in your squad/platoon with SMGs are useless when the enemy is shooting from 150M or more, with ARs they are less useful in CQB but more useful across a broader range of likely engagements – so in the grand scheme of things, M4s are a better option.
    I think that FOPA86 (and NFA34) killed full-autos outside of the belt-fed weapons. Your DEVGRU and CAG guys are… basically just mimicking 3gun competitors, who are limited to semi-auto only weapons. Look at the URG-I uppers that SOCOM recently ordered, what do they look like? Standard 3-gun equipment, ruggedized – midlength uppers with free float rails. The civilian shooting side is a major influence on the military, and the law is a major influence on the civilian shooters. If you could buy an AR with a 2rd burst option at 1200 RPM for the same price as a semi-only AR, how many 3gun guys wouldn’t use the burst?

  2. On May 15, 2018 at 12:47 am, Georgiaboy61 said:

    Re: “But I also have to believe that if there was any under-appreciation of the capabilities of the submachine gun in Vietnam or elsewhere for CQB, it must have been due to the fact that they were shooting ball ammunition.”

    As a military historian of many years experience, I have had the privilege of meeting and getting to know a great many veterans of wars ranging from World War One (yes, I am that old), to the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam, amongst other conflicts, including dozens upon dozens of combat veterans.

    In all of those conversations, I really can’t recall any Marine or GI expressing dissatisfaction with his Thompson submachine gun or M3 Grease Gun. I have read a few accounts of troops who, for one reason or another, did not find them suitable (usually because of weight or mission requirements), but not many.

    At the beginning of WWII, there persisted in some quarters of the British Army, for example, the notion that the Thompson was a weapon suitable only for gangsters, and not professional soldiers. That notion was put paid by the elite commandos, whose men loved their Thompsons – which quickly became highly-sought after as perhaps the ideal weapon for the clandestine raider.

    During the early years of the war, there weren’t enough Thompsons to satisfy demand – and the British commandos had them only thanks to the personal interest of Prime Minister Churchill in these weapons and his insistence that his men get them.

    Even when firing FMJ (ball) ammunition, which is to say a lead core surrounded by a gilding metal (copper) jacket, the .45 Auto (.45 ACP) is a highly-effective cartridge, thanks to its bullet weight (typically, 230-grains), substantial cross-sectional density, and relatively low muzzle velocity.

    Unlike higher velocity 9mm Parabellum rounds, for example, like those fired from many European pistols and SMGs, the 230-grain .45-caliber slug tends not to over-penetrate, instead depositing most of its kinetic energy inside the target where it has the most terminal effect. Since the bullet is large and heavy, it tends to cause fractures more-easily when hitting bone than its smaller and lighter counterparts.

    Ask any combat medic or FMF corpsman about treating GSWs – gunshot wounds – and they’ll tell you that bullets often break bones as well as destroy/disrupt soft tissue.

    Remember, the history of the .45 Auto cartridge is that it was developed specifically because the pistol cartridges then in use in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps had proven inadequate to the task of taking down charging Moro tribesmen during fighting in the Spanish-American War and Philippine Insurgency.

    In those less politically-correct times, recall also that it was very common for the military to test prototyped ammunition on live targets, i.e., pigs and cattle, in order to assess terminal effectiveness.

    Even firing FMJ, the venerable .45 ACP/.45 Auto is a potent man-stopper in combat, which is why some of our special ops guys still choose to carry weapons chambered for it.

    Re: “I don’t have the time to research this, and hopefully some reader (more educated than I am) will help fill in the blanks, but it is my understanding that PD rounds (hollow point) are prohibited by treaties to which the US is signatory. If so, I think that’s stupid and ignorant.”

    The Geneva (1864, 1906 1929, 1949) and Hague Conventions (1899, 1907) were treaties to which the major western nations agreed, which specify the agreed-upon conduct of wartime combatants under international law. Amongst the rules to emerge from these negotiations were a prohibition on the use of hollow-point or expanding ammunition in wartime.

    To modern sensibilities, many of the rules agreed upon seem illogical and inconsistent, if not ridiculous. The conventions and treaties banned the use of hollow-point/expanding ammunition, but saw nothing wrong with canister rounds fired from field artillery, or incendiary weapons, or landmines, or barbed wire. And so on.

    These rules have governed the conduct of land warfare for most of the major western nations since that time, i.e., the signatories to the treaties – and with some exceptions, they have been followed. On the western front in WWII, the intentional targeting of medics and aid men was frowned upon by both sides, but on the Ostfront (eastern front), no quarter was asked or given by either the Germans or the Russians. The Japanese, since they were not signatories to the treaties, and had a different moral tradition than the West, did not adhere to the guidelines. They taught their troops to target the medics and corpsmen preferentially – which is why most of them quit wearing identifying insignia and began carrying arms, at least in the Pacific Theater.

    Historically-speaking, these agreements date from a time when it was thought that warfare could be conducted honorably by gentlemen. The Great War put paid to that notion, for the most part, but the rules persisted out of inertia and tradition, as they have down to the present.
    We still adhere to these antiquated treaties despite the fact that our enemies in the so-called “global war on terror” spit in the face of such niceties. That is, when they aren’t laughing themselves silly at how foolish we are.

    Maybe one of your other readers can explain to me how using HP/expanding ammunition when taking a deer is consider the most-humane and ethical way to harvest the animal, but when it comes to humans fighting one another, only FMJ will do.

    I can think of one reason soft-point ammunition isn’t used that has nothing to do with ethics or the law, and that has to do with its tendency to foul weapons quickly, i.e., gas systems, bolt-bolt carrier, etc.

    Re: “The submachine gun, however, wasn’t able to hold up long in the jungles of Vietnam when the M16’s durability, range, and 5.56mm ammunition outperformed it in nearly every way.”

    This remark just makes no sense to me. SMGs were highly-prized weapons in the Island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific during WWII, including the campaigns in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, to the Philippines, to action in CBI (China-Burma-India) theater.

    Those heavy 230-grain slugs had sufficient power to penetrate dense foliage and still take the target down, and in close quarters battle, the ability to lay down a lot of fire in a short amount of time and space was highly-prized. On patrol, the point man was often armed with a Thompson, or at least one of the first men in the column behind him. Some squad and platoon leaders preferred to have two or three man teams armed with Thompsons or Grease Guns, paired with a BAR man.

    The performance of SMGs in Korea and Vietnam probably had a lot to do with the age of surplus weapons, plus the difficult environmental conditions – jungles are hard on all weapons, corrosion is ever-present and weapons must be cleaned and serviced diligently to remain operational. That was Vietnam. In Korea, the cold hard winters were very tough on equipment, and the small arms were no exception.

    In my view, what spelled the end of the era of submachine guns was the invention of the assault rifle, a weapon which was intended to replace the SMG in most (if not all) missions – and did so, in large extent.

    Second, if you are ever fortunate-enough to handle and perhaps fire a Thompson, you will immediately recognize that this is a weapon from a bygone era when firearms were designed and manufactured by skilled craftsmen using only the finest-quality materials and methods. They’re heavy, build like tanks, and are precision instruments not unlike a fine watch in execution if not purpose.

    The sheer complexity, cost and time it took to manufacture these fine weapons was what did them in – that and the British and Germans proving that serviceable SMGs could be mass-produced mostly out of stamped metal components. The gun which replaced the Thompson, the M3 “Grease Gun” in .45 ACP, was inspired by the British STEN – cheap, roughly-finished, and not intended to last – but serviceable and effective in combat.

    Grease Guns, by the way, tended to be of higher quality in materials and workmanship than STENs, especially the earlier STENs, which were thrown together under near-panic conditions early in the war. The very first time I tried a STEN, it jammed before even firing. It was a piece of crap, pardon my language, but perhaps that particular example had just been worn out.

    The MP38/40, on the other hand, Germany’s most well-known SMG of the Second World War, was an extremely well thought out design, which proved to be highly-effective in combat. They were not only highly sought-after by the Germans and their allies, but by Allied troops and by resistance fighters and partisans across Europe and into the Balkans and Russia.

    According to small arms experts, there are still places in Africa and the Middle East where it isn’t uncommon to run into a STEN or MP40 in the hands of some elderly collector, or the hands of the local warlord or terrorist!

  3. On May 15, 2018 at 1:16 am, Dan said:

    While hollow points are commonly used by police and civilians, they are banned in international warfare under the 1899 Hague Convention’s early laws of war that the United States has followed even though the U.S. government never ratified the agreement.

  4. On May 15, 2018 at 7:18 am, Frank Clarke said:

    I once read an article focusing on Brooklyn, my hometown, that claimed the first prototype M3 was created in a Brooklyn basement largely using old Contadina tomato paste cans. I don’t care if it’s not true; it sounds like a great story.

    P.s.: I’m with you. When NFA-34 is repealed, my first purchase will be an M3. At 350rpm I can’t afford to actually — you know — fire it, but it will look great on my wall.

  5. On May 15, 2018 at 7:25 am, Gryphon said:

    I’ve come across some Mil-Spec Hollow-Point Ammo in 7.62, M-118 (? I think)
    and it is labeled “Long-Range, High-Accuracy” or some such… Clearly, those “Geneva Rules” are just a Suggestion these Days.

    FWIW, I never signed that Treaty, so both 2- and 4-Legged Varmints get Hollow-Points…

    Having Friends (who can Afford ’em) I have Shot both Thompson and H&K Subguns- both are very Finely-Made Weapons, but I think the AR Pistol covers that Usage just as well, even on Semi.

  6. On May 15, 2018 at 8:28 am, ragman said:

    I would like to add the M2 carbine to the list of neat guns to have. I shot a Thompson a while back and after a few rounds I was able to squeeze of a burst of 4 or 5 with no problem at all. NFA34 is illegal and unconstitutional, along with GCA68 and the rest of the garbage coming out of Washington and the state houses. Any law abiding Citizen should be able to go to our LGS and buy a select fire weapon for no more than an AR15 costs.

  7. On May 15, 2018 at 8:31 am, Bram said:

    Shooting pistol-caliber carbines is a lot of fun. But I assumed that submachine guns fell out of favor when body armor became standard issue in most armies. They are essentially useless against even plain old kevlar.

  8. On May 15, 2018 at 9:22 am, revjen45 said:

    For years I have thought a Vz-61 Skorpion would be the ideal HD piece. In .32ACP it would be easy for the “little lady” to control in FA, and with the new ARX type ammo it’s probably effective when you dump half the mag into the malefactor’s chest.

  9. On May 15, 2018 at 9:42 am, Herschel Smith said:


    Well, level 3 body armor stops shotgun slugs, and ESAPI plates stop most rifle rounds. There’s always more and better.

    Heads and hips.

  10. On May 15, 2018 at 9:57 am, Georgiaboy61 said:


    Re: “I’ve come across some Mil-Spec Hollow-Point Ammo in 7.62, M-118 (? I think) and it is labeled “Long-Range, High-Accuracy” or some such… Clearly, those “Geneva Rules” are just a Suggestion these Days.”

    In the early-to-mid-2000s, if memory serves, the Navy JAG corps ruled that match-grade center-fire rifle ammunition, in this case 7.62×51 NATO 168- and 175-grain boat-tailed hollow-point (BTHP) ammunition was not prohibited “hollow-point” or expanding ammunition, even thought it often functioned that way in the field, the reason being that the construction of the BTHP draws the “petals” of gilding metal up toward the tip and around the lead core of the bullet, as an artifact of the manufacturing process, and not as purpose-built HP ammunition. Get all that? Well, that’s how the JAG folks ruled, so our personnel can use the ammunition they want in the field, no legal entanglements attached.

  11. On May 15, 2018 at 12:37 pm, moe mensale said:


    The ammo you’re referring to is M118 LR. It’s a match grade ammo, effectively a highly accurate FMJ round for sniping and competition. It’s not a true expanding hollow point like we would normally think of a hollow point round. That small open tip is a result of the manufacturing process being backwards from how most FMJ ammo is made. It doesn’t expand.

  12. On May 15, 2018 at 4:56 pm, Pat Hines said:

    First, I think the surge of interest in AR-Pistols should be viewed as an interest in sub-guns, though not in an actual pistol caliber. Pistol caliber ARs are certainly available, if that’s your thing. I see no advantage in those, your mileage may vary.

    Level IIIA armor will stop standard or low recoil slug rounds, but not high velocity saboted slugs that start out at 1900 feet per second. These are readily available, all with a shotgun should have some.

  13. On May 15, 2018 at 5:12 pm, Herschel Smith said:


    There are most certainly advantages in pistol caliber carbines, three of which are: (1) Low recoil and thus quick recovery of sight picture, (2) minimizing the number of calibers in your gun safe, and (3) having a sub-gun and handguns in the same caliber, something I see as very valuable.

    Everybody has their own opinions on these things.

  14. On May 16, 2018 at 9:55 am, Gryphon said:

    Georgiaboy & Moe- thanks for the Info, had found it at a Gun Show and bought a few Boxes our of curiosity… Going to try some next Time I can get 500 Meters in the Yard without Horses.

  15. On May 16, 2018 at 11:03 am, moe mensale said:

    Level IIIA armor will stop standard or low recoil slug rounds, but not high velocity saboted slugs that start out at 1900 feet per second. These are readily available, all with a shotgun should have some.

    Federal no longer sells those. They’ve been replaced with their own Trophy Copper sabot slugs. Requires a rifled barrel.

    P152XT1 -> P152TC
    P151XT1 -> P151TC

  16. On May 18, 2018 at 2:09 pm, Larry said:

    The late, great author Fraser MacDonald was a Burma veteran who intensely disliked his issued Thompson SMG, and “lost” it at first opportunity in a river crossing in order to back his Lee Enfield. He and his mates both loathed and feared the STEN, though, as a hazard to its own side in the bush.

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You are currently reading "Why Submachine Guns Fell Out Of Favor With The US Military", entry #19220 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Firearms,Guns and was published May 14th, 2018 by Herschel Smith.

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