Book Review: The Fighting Submachine Gun, Machine Pistol, and Shotgun

The Fighting Submachine Gun, Machine Pistol, and ShotgunI’ve really enjoyed spending this summer shooting some unusual old guns in “practical” type matches, both because it’s simply a lot of fun to do, and because I think it can really help give some insight into how those older guns actually performed in combat. Well, it turns out (not very surprisingly) that I’m not the only person who had that idea – TJ Mullin was working on that idea years ago, on a much wider scale and the result a trio of books. Today I’m taking a look at Fighting Submachine Gun, Machine Pistol, and Shotgun.

The premise is pretty simple – first figure out what elements the “perfect” SMG ought to have, then test a whole boatload of them based on those criteria, and put the conclusions on paper. Mullin’s credentials to do this sort of thing include 7 years in the Army (first as an infantry officer, and later with the JAG), time in various law enforcement agencies including developing firearms training programs, and hanging around people like Kent Lomont, John Miller, Leroy Thompson, and John Ross. This is definitely going to be a book informed by a lot of trigger time.

Before I get into discussing Mullin’s actual writing, I want to point out that the range of weapons tested for the book is quite impressive. Because of the NFA, lots of SMGs and machine pistols are very rare in the US – getting to examine and fire as many as Mullin did is no mean feat, and required access to some pretty nice private collections (see above list of folks he hangs out with). The subguns covered include things like the UD-42, Star Z-70, MP18/I, Owen and Austen, Chinese Thompson in .30 Mauser, plus more modern guns like the Calico, Ruger MP9, and Walther MPK/L.

So, what does Mullin think a good SMG should be? Well, obviously it depends on the role intended for the gun. An urban police unit will have different needs than a jungle guerrilla force or a conventional military force using SMGs for groups like vehicle crews. But some things are universal – a ballistically effective cartridge, high-visibility sights, a barrel length neither so short that is compromises cartridge power nor so long that it might as well be a rifle, and controls that are simple to use and unlikely to be inadvertently engaged. With that in mind, Mullin proceeds alphabetically be country, starting with Australia and going through to the United States. I won’t go into too much detail on his assessment of each gun, but I’m pretty confident that anyone who finds my 2-gun match videos interesting will thoroughly enjoy this book, even when they disagree with Mullin’s opinion on a particular point. Overall, I was happy to find that he shared some of the opinions I’d come to independently, like the quality of the Owen and Beretta 38/42, and the pros and cons of the MP5.

The machine pistols are mixed in with the SMGs, but they deserve some separate discussion. Like most people, I have had very little actual trigger time behind a true machine pistol, and zero serious training with one. Mullin, on the other hand, has made machine pistols something of a point to address and has had a lot more time with them. He covers the Glock 18, Beretta 93R, Star MD, HK VP-70, Stechkin, Mauser Schnellfeuer, vz.61 Skorpion, and Micro-Uzi. His approach to these guns is that they are the most effective type of individual weapon for ranges 5 yards and under, with the shooter using controlled short bursts and delivering multiple simultaneous impacts like a shotgun, but with more energy per projectile. I can’t make an informed comment on whether he’s right or not, but reading his discussion of these machine pistols definitely opened my eyes to the idea, and I am looking forward to my next opportunity to try out one of these guns to try out the methods he talks about. Very few people can write about machine pistols from firsthand experience, and I very much enjoyed those parts of this book.

The shotgun section I found to be something of a letdown, unfortunately. Again, the shotguns are mixed in with the SMGs (alphabetically by country), and only a handful are included. These are the Benelli Super 90, USAS-12, Mossberg 590, Winchester 97, Browning Auto-5, and Winchester M12. On the one hand, this leaves out a lot of guns that have been designed and used by martial groups over the past 100+ years, although on the other hand mst of them are basically the same for the shooter. I found the USAS-12 review interesting, but the others more or less obvious – 12ga shotguns are a handful to shoot with heavy loads, slow to load, and (historically) have pretty lousy sights if you’re not shooting aerial targets. Interestingly, the shotgun Mullin describes as theoretically idea has in fact come onto the market since the book was published: the 20ga Saiga. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on that weapon – but otherwise the shotgun section seems unfinished. Or maybe I just found it uninteresting because I’m really not much of a shotgun guy.

I shouldn’t finish the review on that note, though, because the shotguns account for only a small part of the book, and the SMG and machine pistol coverage was surprisingly thorough and quite enjoyable to read. The application of the “Sten test” is particularly illuminating with some more recent guns – if your design does not work objectively better than a Sten MkII or MkIII, then what’s the point? So, if you’re interested in practical use of subguns or machine pistols, this is a great book to add to your library.

The Fighting Submachine Gun, Machine Pistol, and Shotgun, by Timothy J. Mullin
Published 1999
214 pages


  1. Over the decades, I’ve spent a lot of time in places where I couldn’t shoot, or couldn’t take guns, so I’ve spent a lot of time reading about them instead.

    I came to the very jaded opinion that I could count the worthwhile books about guns (and especially gunsmithing) on my fingers

    You’re leading me to question that conclusion, and I think I will be checking Mullins out, especially when his book is available for fewer pounds sterling than the American dollar price (book depository has a v good price)

    and I really can count the examples of that on my fingers

  2. Foryears I have had Nelson abd Musgraves books onthe subjekt, they are always fun to look in but I miss one the Bergmann Bayard in a full auto version. it was developed at shults& Larsen in Otterup by Hugo Smisser, who worked there from 1919 to 1926, therecoyl system on MG 17 was developed there too, so Hans Smeisser proberly spent some time there too

  3. If the 20 gauge Saiga is the world’s ideal shotgun, then I am in good shape.

    I have had mine for several years now, finally got the folding stock on it. While intriguing, I find it quite a way from ideal. I would much prefer my Benelli.

    Though it would help if some one would load 20 gauge #1 buck 8 pellet loads, buffered, and cheap. Good cheap magazines would also help.

    • Best gun in 20gauge I recall was Franchi; very handy and almost no recoil to speak of. I shot quite a variety including Beretta, Remington and Winchester. Really sweet gun.

      • Would that be the AL-48? I think I recall it receiving some praise. I’ve only handled the SPAS 12, which I found to be quite unwieldy.

        • I do not recall recoiling barrel, but it might have been. I shot it just thru one session and it was quite fast paced. I was someone else’s gun and they all wanted to feel it. The type you mention is well acclaimed and probably most known. Now they are part of Beretta, of course.

          The civilian guns may not be as rugged as their military versions but they are much nicer for handling; this probably applies for all guns in general. I like shotguns, they are like large displacement torquey engines. The kick is bit of issue though.

  4. TJ Mullin has two other books out in similar format, one on military handguns or 20th century and the other on military rifles. His takes on both are refreshing and thought provoking.

  5. Interesting observations and evaluations. Personally, I think that the book would have been improved had he consulted the manual for each of these weapons to see how these were intended to be used and deployed, etc. The author stated that it was a sort of academic archaeology of the guns, which have largely been passed by and fall into specific operation-driven niches. An example of how I think his hands-on evaluation was good, but may have benefitted from consultation of the manual, is the review of the Beretta M38/42 9mm SMG. He complains about the location of the safety lever on the left side of the receiver in a position where the firing hand cannot reach it without breaking the firing grip. But the safety is just above the stock finger grooves behind the magazine housing, which indicates that the thumb of the support hand was to sweep the safety forward as the SMG was shouldered…

    I suppose that the shotgun section was weak because so little has gone into the fighting shotgun since the introduction of the pump action and the semi. His review essentially states that the Mossberg 590 is not really all that different from the Winchester M1897. I thought the omission of the Rem. 870 was strange given its combat usage in U.S., British, and presumably some other nation’s service…

    Hard to quibble with many of his findings:
    Best “First generation” SMG: Suomi M31 and Erma 35 “honorable mention”
    Best “Second Generation” SMG: Australian 9mm Owen gun
    Best “Third Generation” or post-WWII SMG: Star V70 insofar as it has the finish of the Sterling, the simplicity of the Uzi but with a more comfortable grip, and something of the trigger of the M38–top for semi-auto, bottom for automatic fire without a selector switch…

    Personally, I think the book would have been greatly improved by more inclusion of police usage of the guns rather than the exclusive military approach, particularly given the blurred lines between military and police operations selected by the author for examples… Thought provoking and interesting. Somewhat iconoclastic to declare the SMG obsolete after the 1940-1944 introduction of the M1 carbine and MP43/StG44!

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