Best SMG of World War Two: The Beretta M38A

The Beretta Model 38A was one of the very best submachine guns of World War Two. Designed by veteran Beretta engineer Tullio Marengoni (who designed most of Beretta’s pistols as well as the Beretta M1918 SMG and 1918/30 carbine), it was the first Italian weapon to use a cartridge equivalent to 9x19mm Parabellum instead of 9mm Glisenti. Development began in 1935, and the final version entered production in January 1938.

The change from the Model 38 to 38A is unclear, but seem most likely to be the change from the top ejection of the prototypes to the left-side ejection of the production model. The 38A was formally adopted by the Italian Army in July 1938, but issue was delayed until 1940/41 because Beretta first produced a 20,000-unit order for the Romanian military.

By 1941, the basic design had been significantly simplified, and the Model 38/42 would significantly reduce production cost by removing the magazine well cover, barrel shroud, and removable firing pin. Simplified 38/42, 38/43, and 38/44 models would enter production, but original 38As were also manufactured until 1944 (this particular example is dated 1943). The gun was very popular with both Italian and German troops, and production continued under German occupation late in the war. Total numbers are unavailable, but are probably in excess of 500,000. The gun was so popular that Beretta was able to restart production after the war and continue selling them until the early 1960s.

26 Comments

  1. hey ian, i think you had a bit of a fruedian slip in the first paragraph. i think you meant “as” instead of “ass”

  2. “… why the extraction port was moved …” (C)

    It’s just that simple.
    When the port was located at the top, when firing at significant elevation angles, loot fell on the head and by the collar of the shooter.

    • And if you ask “why to the left, instead of to the right.”
      That would be more convenient to visually monitor the state of the feeding unit and easier to eliminate delays. For example, shaking out the brass that has fallen into the port.

  3. I presume the Allies happily used captured examples of this item. A curiosity: If you remember “The Rat Patrol” (ABC 1960’s series), the lead American character carried what looked like a Beretta 38. Turns out it was “played by” a Star Z45. The Germans had MP28 look-alikes played by the SIG equivalent. The first season of the series was filmed in Spain, the second in the USA. Aficianados could tell because suddenly the cast was equipped with Thompsons and MP40s. One remembers the non-Hollywood look of the first season.

    • In one episode of “Voyage to the bottom of the Sea’s” second season, “Deadly Creature Below”, two escaped convicts from a Devil’s Island-type prison boarded the Seaview, and commenced to cause problems. They broke into the armory and armed themselves, and one of them (played by Nehemiah Persoff) came out armed with a Beretta M38A.

      I conjecture that in keeping with its often covert mission profile, the boat had an inventory of “sterile” foreign weapons for that reason.

      More to the point, since the show was shot entirely in California, it shows that Twentieth Century Fox’s prop department (or maybe Stembridge Gun Rental)had some very interesting things in their inventory.

      cheers

      eon

  4. Back in 1981/82 the Canadian government brought in a surrender plan for illegal weapons. A nice OPP officer who was helping me get my dads legally registered sten mk111 neutrilized after his death let me see some of the guns that had been turned in.He actually let me play with a Beretta 38/42 for about 10 minutes

  5. Why the 38A and 38/42 (not to mention the Tipo I hybrid) were manufactured side-by-side? Simple: the 38/42 was actually a German model, designed for the German allies in 1942, while the Italian Army’s standard model was still the 38A. The most important difference between the 38A and 38/42 was not even the obviously shorter bbl (250 vs original 320 mm), but a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT receiver, a sheet-metal rolled one, instead of original milled receiver. Those sheet-metal receivered Berettas were roll marked not Mos.[chetto] Aut.[omatico] Beretta Mod. 38A in Italian, but M.P. Beretta Mod. 38/42, in German. A tell-tale sign to look for is the sight – a tangent leaf on Italian milled receiver and flip-flop on the German sheet-metal receiver. Italian attempt of making advantage of the German modification was the hybrid Tipo I, sporting a short fluted bull-barrel (visibly thicker profile than the German pencil bbl) in a milled receiver, with a shortened, simplified wooden stock. These were manufactured for the Italians in 1943, parallel to the both MAB38A and MP38/42. Then the MP38/43 came, with German receiver, plain pencil bbl, old-style bolt and spring, but already with fixed firing pin. Next step was the MP38/44, which contrary to the number was manufactured post-war, which made another series of design changes: new-style bolt, shorter, with no internal bore, fitted with Sten-like rear tail part, onto which a new, large-diameter return spring was fitted. A new end-cap was made to fit the new innards: closed, with no central opening for the old-style return spring tube plunger. These were made for the Italian armed forces, and used by the Air Force until 1990s, while the Navy still uses them (last seen on TV in 2018 migrant crisis, wielded by a San Marco Marine aboard the Naval vessel fishing migrants out of the sea).
    These were then paired-off with an odd throw-back, the MAB38/49, being a new-style Beretta SMG (new bolt, new spring, new end-cap, sheet-metal receiver) mated to a long bbl in perforated bbl-jacket, fitted with bayonet lug! These oddies were made for Egyptian order in 1949, along with M938-style folding bayonets (a tell-tale sign for that second run was the brass, not blued steel, bayo handle frame). Then came another MP38/49, aka Modello 4 vel MP1, which was as close as possible to 38/42 or 43 with plain pencil-bbl, but with a cross-bolt safety, and was manufactured for the Bundesgrenzschutz (BGS), the German covert proto-Bundeswehr in 1951.
    The last iteration of the MAB family was the MAB Mod.5, designed for the Carabinieri police, actually by Domenico Salza who by that time took over from Tullio Marengoni. It was ALMOST identical to the Mod.4, but the cross-bolt safety was replaced with an automatic grip safety on the right side of the lower handguard. A nightmare idea, if you ask me – no way you can fire it single-handed. Another interesting throw-back feature of the Modello Cinque was the fluted bull-bbl of the Tipo I, but mated to a sheet-metal German-style receiver, with a fixed 100 m notch instead of the flip-flop sight. The M5 is usually referred to as the Carabinieri model, but mine is actually stamped PS on the stock, for Polizia del Stato, State Police. Right on the heels of the Mod.5 came the Beretta’s next generation SMG, the Mod. 12 by Salza. Interesting feature: all MAB family and M12/M12S/M12SD2 Beretta SMGs use the same magazine, interchangeable between them all. Ian, the original magazines came in three sizes at the same time: 10, 20 and 40 rds. 10s and 20s were preferred by Police, but you can find a photo of US 10th Mountain Div troops examining an Italian soldier’s MAB 38A with a 10-rd mag, so these were used by the Army as well. The Army magazine pouch and 1942 model assault vest, the so-called Samurai vest with 5 horizontal pockets front and 7 rear were all tailored for the 40-rd long sticks. Then, after the war, something strange happens: nearly all post-war MAB magazines are 40-rd length, but fitted with an elongated base plate, allowing only 30 to be loaded (with corresponding 3 witness holes at the back). It could have been worse – I have a magazine which has even longer spring rod inside, allowing only 20 rds to be loaded into the 40-rd stick, and fitted correspondingly with 2 witness holes! With the M12 there came another style of the magazine, still interchangable with the rest: a 32-rd magazine, with 4 witness holes, of intermediate length between the 20-rd and the 40-rd sticks.
    OK, enough is enough 🙂

  6. Agreed. It’s an excellent SMG. Well-designed, well-made, good safety features. And it handles really well. Bit heavy, bit long, but one of my top five WW2 SMGs, at least for a knowledgeable individual user (for an army, something like the Sten or M3 made more sense).

    • Well, there’s the trade-off. The MAB 38 was well finished, but let’s think about it. The thing was made mostly of solid forgings, with each component having to be individually hand-fitted. That is NOT going to make for good availability. In contrast, the Sten and the M3 were made mostly from stampings welded together. Sure, they were probably not very well liked, but they were available in bulk. I could be wrong.

      • Almost any WWII power started the war with SMGs with similar level of machining complexity (Thompson, MP35, Lanchester, KP31…) and often kept on manufacturing them till the end of the war, or near to the end. At the end of WWII there still were three Thompson for any M3 in US inventory. There’s a cost in retooling.
        Obviously there’s a trade-off. The soldier prefers the gun that handles better, is more reliable, is more stable… The army often required those charateristics in the pre-war years. An “optimal” weapon in any respect. But, when the reality of mass warfare kicked in, it preferred to have two soldiers armed with SMG instead of one.

    • “(…)And it handles really well. Bit heavy, bit long, but one of my top five WW2 SMGs, at least for a knowledgeable individual user (for an army, something like the Sten or M3 made more sense).”
      Yet, decision makers in Italy, apparently were able to accept next labor-intensive sub-machine gun into production, despite war in full-swing in form of FNA-B 43
      http://modernfirearms.net/en/submachine-guns/italy-submachine-guns/fna-b-43-eng/
      (…)it was built to pre-war standards of manufacturing and design(…)Most of its parts were machined from solid steel, making it quite expensive to manufacture(…)

      • FNAB is also in my top five….

        Like the Beretta, it fails the crucial WW2 mass production/cheap test. Very old school manufacture. But it’s basically an MP5 in 1943, which is more than interesting. I’ve handled a couple, but not (probably never) had the chance to shoot one.

  7. “…have two soldiers armed with SMG instead of one..”(С)

    Depends on the area.
    For example, in Africa, SMGs have had rather limited use.
    And in some places, for example in Stalingrad, units (from platoon to company) were formed, fully armed with SMGs. They were used as reserve “fire brigades” to plug holes in the defense when it was breached by the enemy.
    If I am not confused, the Americans used a similar practice of reserve “fire brigades” in the Pacific.
    Only MGs and BARs constituted the main armament.

    • There was also a practice in the USSR, when for operations in the forest (search and destruction of paratroopers and the like) in the involved subdivisions, rifles were replaced by SMGs during the operation.

      • Plus, the Russian version of “tank desant” troops, used for close assault, were generally almost entirely armed with SMGs, usually the PPSh-41;

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tank_desant

        While this may be an outmoded tactic in “well-equipped” armies as the article says, it’s still quite popular with Islamic troops virtually everywhere they operate.

        cheers

        eon

        • That’s it.
          “Russian version”.
          When the tank is used as a means of delivering infantry to the place of habitation and subsequent pedestrian escort.
          The soldiers sitting on top of the T34’s armor were practically useless on the move due to the nature of Christie’s drivetrain. As a result, the tanks could not move faster than the “landing group”. Or they were quickly burned when the “landing group” lagged behind.
          The Shermans, in this sense, were significantly more useful.

    • I think the Italians would disagree with your assessment that SMGs were of limited use in Africa. Or at the very least, that limited use was still significant enough that the MAB 38A was a highly desired and respected weapon among Italian troops.

      While SMGs have a short effective range compared to bolt-action rifles, they are still highly useful for defending or attacking trenches and other field fortifications, where the decisive phase is quite often the close combat near or at the fortifications. And while the war in Africa was quite mobile on the operational level, on the tactical level field fortifications were still used all the time. For all the tanks in Africa there were much more infantry soldiers, who would dig trenches or at least foxholes for protection against artillery and air strikes.

      • “…in Africa there were much more infantry soldiers, who would dig trenches or at least foxholes for protection against artillery and air strikes…”(С)
        …and theirs SMGs, helped them a lot in this. The fact that they did not interfere with holding the hoe. 😉

        • The desert is large spaces.
          This means that the most important thing is transport.
          Which is necessary to deliver to the place of events, in fact, soldiers, all kinds of supplies and ARTILLERY.
          The main weapons of the African campaign were aviation, artillery and minefields.
          Artillery (self-propelled or towed) played a decisive role.

        • As if you didn’t understand, the SMGs helped the soldiers to keep (or take) the fortifications they (or the enemy) had dug.

          I fully agree that logistics, artillery and aviation were deciding factors in Africa. In fact they were deciding in most other theaters of the war as well. That said, the discussion was about small arms and the pros and cons of individual soldier’s weapons, and specifically about the usefulness of SMGs in infantry combat despite the open terrain.

          • “… the SMGs helped the soldiers to keep (or take) the fortifications they (or the enemy) had dug …” (C)

            Are we still talking about Italians?
            Something I did not notice how they took something there or stormed it.
            I got the impression that they basically surrendered there, several tens of thousands at a time.

            As, however, and on the Russian front. LOL

    • Judging by the UZI itself, this magazine is not that good.
      Due to the specific shape of the sponges, there are a couple of peculiarities.
      Most importantly, they are relatively easy to deteriorate when dropped, and it is difficult to see it with the eye.

      • Sponges?
        So, these magazines are easier to damage when dropped, compared to sten or mp40 ones, are they made out of inferior sheetmetal ?
        But the thing is, reliability of brand new sten magazines varied, double feed is much more reliable, not to mention easier to load – though I suppose going with 30 instead of 40 rounds is better solution

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