The semi-automatic submachine gun: a fun oxymoron!

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Some years ago a local company was producing very nice semi-auto reproductions of the British Sterling submachine gun, like the one in the picture. I didn’t buy one, and I’ve kicked myself ever since. But why?
The submachine gun made its debut with the trench fighting of World War 1. The idea was to give a soldier the rapid fire capability of a machine gun with the portability needed to move in and around trenches. The result was a short rifle that fired a pistol cartridge; rapid fire, but controllable in tight quarters.

While invented for the Great War, it was World War 2 which saw the greatest use of the subgun, as it’s often called; in fact, there is a line of thought which says that the assault rifle was conceived as a way to increase the power and range of the submachine gun, as opposed to attempting to downsize the battle rifle. In any event, the subgun was a pivotal development in small arms history.

As it happens these pistol-caliber carbines are a lot of fun to shoot, but with the price and availability of actual submachine guns constrained by law owning one is limited to those with large amounts of ready cash. It didn’t take long for manufacturers to come up with what sounds like a contradiction in terms: the semiautomatic submachine gun.

The semiauto pistol caliber carbines are made in the form factor of, and usually taking the same magazines as, their fully automatic cousins. The semiauto versions give anyone the opportunity to own and shoot a subgun but without the cost (or licensing requirements.)

Mild recoil, decent accuracy, and relatively low shooting cost makes the semi-subgun an ideal training tool for new rifle shooters, a great plinking arm with more “oomph” than a .22 rifle, or possibly a home defense arm for someone who is extremely recoil sensitive. Oh, and they’re just a lot of fun to shoot!

Though I’ve never owned one of the breed, I’ve shot my share and occasionally pined for one. Every time I get close to putting down the cash, though, I ask myself “why am I paying this much for a really big, heavy pistol?” That usually causes me to back away from the deal at the last moment. Then, the next time I go out and shoot one, the lust begins anew (did I mention that they’re just a lot of fun to shoot?)

I’ve considered several over the years. Of course the semiauto Israeli UZI is very popular and widely available, and there has been more than one maker reproducing the British Sterling submachine gun (including the very well-made local version mentioned at the top.) Auto Ordnance still makes the iconic Thompson gun in semiauto trim for those who are a fan of American iron (and given the weight of the things, you’d think they were made of iron!)

At a gun show some years ago I was offered a Spectre-HC, the semiauto version of the Italian Spectre submachine gun using their unusual quad-stack magazine, but turned it down because I didn’t have a good feeling about the seller (sometimes you’ve got to pay attention to your gut!) I’ve even toyed with the notion of buying an HK 94, the semiauto version of the MP5 (though with a long barrel as required by law.) Yes, I actually contemplated owning an HK product; that is the seductive power of the semi-subgun!

There are lots of choices in this genre, but if I were to buy one this moment I’d like it to be chambered in 7.62×25 (also known as the 7.62 Tokarev.) Why? Well, I have a lot of unfired brass for that cartridge, of course! (Oh, and I like the idea of a .30 bullet coming out the barrel at around 2,000 fps. Might make a dandy varmint round!)

It was with interest, then, that I recently read an article over at the Gun Digest site. Phillip Peterson penned a great piece on the semiauto subgun, and it’s worth reading about his time with a semiauto version of the Finnish Suomi and Russian PPSh-31 (the latter in 7.62×25!)

I shouldn’t have read that article, because I want one. Again. It’s only money, right?

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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