ZB26: The Best of the Light Machine Guns

The ZB-26 stands as one of the best magazine-fed light machine guns developed during the 1920s and 30s – it was a very popular gun for small military forces and many countries which did not directly buy it were strongly influenced by it. The Japanese Nambu Type 96 and 99 were heavily based on the ZB, the the British Bren was a direct evolution licensed from Brno.

The design dates back to 1921, when the Czech government began searching for a modern light machine gun. They tested pretty much all the guns available on the market at the time, and also solicited guns from Czechoclovak designers. Brothers Vaclav and Emmanuel Holek submitted their I-23 light machine gun, which would become the ZB-26 (LK vizor 26 in Czech terminology) and become the official Czechoslovak light machine gun as well as a popular commercial export for the ZB factory. More than 120,000 were made in several different calibers and sold to 24 countries between 1926 and 1939.

When the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, they seized a huge number of these guns both from the military and guns still in the factory. This particular one was part of a Spanish purchase contract, but was completed under the oversight of Heinrich Krieghoff and supplied to German forces.

Mechanically, the ZB-26 uses a tilting bolt and a long stroke gas piston, in a combination that would be copied in many later designs. It is robust, accurate, controllable, and handy – a truly excellent all-around light machine gun.

35 Comments

  1. “become (…) popular commercial export for the ZB factory”
    Which is big achievement, considered that Czechoslovakia, as state, existed from 1918, which give handicap against just established brands. With disclaimer that there was metal industry in that area, before Czechoslovakia become independent state, for example Škoda in Pilsen (produced among others artillery systems before Great War, for example 30,5-cm Mörser M.11)

    • Correct. The industrial environment in that area was fostered long before beginning of the CSR (which btw. remembers its 99. anniversary tomorrow).

  2. Best is one of those words that is overused in describing technology. There are better words. Successful is a much better word. Pet peeve of mine, sorry.

  3. It could be argued that Bohemia was the real mother of the Industrial Revolution that allows us to discuss the ZB-26 here and now. Most of Bohemia’s industrial tradition became part of Czechoslovakia.

    In 1938 Czechoslovakia was the only country in Eastern Europe, other than the USSR, that was making world beating guns, tanks, and aircraft. If Britain and France had faced Hitler down in 1938 (“I hold in my hand a piece of paper…”) the Wehrmacht would probably have lost any invasion. All the lies the British used about Britain not having enough planes &c in 1938 applied doubly to Germany.

    So Czechoslovakia’s industrial might was given away to Hitler, and Britain and France went to war after Hitler invaded a country that could make tanks about as big and strong a shoe box. It was right to go to war for Poland, but it did Poland no good. If they had stood up for Czechoslovakia in 1938 WWII may not have happened.

    • Strangely, German tank crews seemed a bit put off by the somewhat brittle Czech tank armor. Otto Carius’s radioman literally lost his left arm to shattered armor plate and rivets. He was not impressed by the Panzer 38 (t)’s lack of protection against Russian anti-tank guns.

      • “Panzer 38 (t)’s lack of protection against Russian anti-tank guns”
        This tank in its original iteration has according to https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/ČKD-Praga_TNH following armour (all data in mm):
        Hull: front: 25, side: 15, back: 15, top: 10, bottom: 8
        Turret: front: 25, side: 15, back: 15
        so is not surprise it was not immune to AT cannon, however it is also true for many other 1930s tanks of similar (~10 t) weight – tanks in 1930s were often designed to be immune to small arms (rifle) fire, so 38(t) isn’t unique in that regard.

        • While such armour limited its usefulness in combat as tank, it was used at base for various other vehicles:
          Marder III
          Jagdpanzer 38(t)
          Flammpanzer 38(t)
          Bergepanzer 38(t)
          Flakpanzer 38(t)
          Sturmpanzer 38(t) (self-propelled 15 cm howitzer)
          Aufklärungspanzer 38(t) (prototype)

    • Glyn:

      You are quite right. Germany was not so strong in 1938 as they led us to believe, and the control of the Czech arms industry strengthened them a great deal. I think about 25% of the tanks which invaded France in 1940 were Czech.

      The Czechs had a good, well equipped army, and had built very strong defences. The Germans would have had a fight on their hands to take Czechoslovakia. We now know that if Britain and France had stood by Czechoslovakia, the German generals planned to depose Hitler, because they knew they could not withstand an Anglo-French attack whilst they were committed to an invasion of Czechoslovakia.

      Of course, once the Sudetenland was ceded to Germany in 1938, the Czechs lost all their border defences, and the subsequent German takeover in 1939 could not be resisted.

      If Britain and France had held their nerve and stood by Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hitler would be a footnote in history and World War II would never have happened. Another of history’s great “what if’s”.

      • Poland was not as weak as many believed. It fell after a month of getting shot by two invading countries. And remember that Polish armored trains were nightmares for German tanks of the period in that the former had bigger guns with longer range! The panzer units literally had to beg for air support after getting shelled, and Goering was less than happy to find his bombers (without escort at the time) getting shot down by very angry Polish fighters half a generation out of date.

    • That industrial capacity you talk about was based on previous developments in second half of 19. century during Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czechs for variety of reasons were able to develop strong industrial base. When comes to armaments, for example Pilsen’s Skoda Works (comparable with Krupp) were makers of all artillery pieces for A-H Marine and costal emplacements.

      In 1918 all this capacity became ownership of new state. It certainly was a winning prize for Germany in 1939.

  4. The first ZB-26 LMGs arrived in Spain during the Spanish Civil War when 1.000 were purchased by Republican Government. After the war there was a motley collection of LMG, including Spanish O.C. (Hotchkiss) in 7mm, Italian Breda and FIAT in 6.5 mm, soviet DP-26 and Maxim-Tokarev in 7,62, German Dreyse MG13, Czech ZB-26 and Polish BAR in 7,92 mm. The Army need a new standard LMG as the O.C. was not very well liked. Finally an agreement was made to buy 5.000 ZB-26 and the manufacturing license in 1943. But only 100 were delivered before the French-Spanish frontier was closed in 1944 and there was no technical assistance for manufacturing in Spain. Spanish Oviedo Armory without technical assistance managed to put finally the gun, known as FAO (Fábrica de Armas de Oviedo), in production in the early fifties, and manufactured it until 1958.

    • Thank you Carlos. The information you have given is, as far as I can tell. simply not available on the english speaking internet!

      It must be heartening for Ian and http://www.forgottenweapons.com that I have learned more about Spain between 1938-49 off this site in the last week or so than I ever did from many years of mild curiosity about Spanish history.

  5. The Chinese were another user of the ZB26. During WWII when supplies from Czechoslovakia were cut off, Canada supplied China with 7.92mm versions of the Bren Gun.

  6. FYI: a picky point, and I am not an expert, but I think it should be pronounced VATSlav and not Vatklav. “c” in Czech and Slovak is pronounced as “ts” in English and the stress is always on the first syllable. Another very good presentation.

  7. “The Japanese Nambu Type 96 and 99 were heavily based on the ZB”

    Not entirely true. While their layout with the top-mounted box magazine was probably at least partly ZB-inspired, their operating mechanisms, like those of earlier Japanese MGs, were mainly based on the Hotchkiss system, due to a licensing agreement between Hotchkiss and the Japanese government in 1922.

    Most of Japan’s WW2 MGs, from light to heavy, followed the Hotchkiss pattern for this reason, although sometimes it was hard to tell just by looking at them. For instance, the Type 93 (1933 model) HMG in 13mm also fed from 30-round top-mounted box magazines, and it was a more-or-less direct copy of a French Hotchkiss HMG intended for aircraft use.

    Interestingly, the license agreement between the Japanese government and Hotchkiss specifically enjoined the former from developing or using this weapon as an aircraft machine gun, which is why it ended up as a twin-mounted AA ground gun for the most part.

    The most obviously “Hotchkiss” MG in Japanese service was of course the Type 92 (1932)7.7mm HMG, complete to its finned barrel jacket and 30-round metal strip feed. It was known to Allied troops as the “woodpecker” due to its characteristic slow RoF, 450 R/M, considerably less than that of the Hotchkiss M1914 it resembled, and even slower than the Rube Goldberg St. Etienne M1907 Ian showed us last week (500 R/M).

    Even the huge Type 97 (1937) 20mm anti-tank rifle was based on the Hotchkiss mechanism. It would have had a recoil no soldier could possibly handle, if not that it was built similarly to the British Boys 0.55in rifle, with the entire barrel/receiver group allowed to slide on an artillery-type lower carriage at each shot, a method used by the Germans in 17cm and 21cm divisional support guns. Even so, its recoil was described to me by one of my profs (a Marine veteran of Guadalcanal) as “Holy (bleeping) (name of deity deleted)!”

    About the only MGs the Japanese had during the war that weren’t Hotchkiss type were the Type 1 (1941) aka Ho-103 12.7mm aircraft machine gun, and the 20mm Ho-5 cannon. And they were both (unlicensed) copies of the U.S. M1921 Brownimg .50 caliber HMG.

    Note that the Japanese were using this 20mm “giant” clone of the “Fifty” when U.S. ordnance experts were swearing that an enlarged Browning in that caliber couldn’t possibly work, hence the U.S. Navy’s reliance on the cranky AN-M2 and later AN-M3 20mm aircraft cannon, based on the Hispano-Suiza 404 model, which was of course developed from the Becker cannon and thus a kissing cousin of the Oerlikon;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hispano-Suiza_HS.404

    cheers

    eon

    • Technically the HS 404 was gas operated but it still had some influence from the Oerlikon. As for the Ho-5 being the giant version of the Browning M2, I’m pretty sure the Japanese gun makers were going at the project like mad scientists drunk on sake (pardon the lack of accent on the ‘e’) and high on stimulants! Don’t tell them that it can’t be done! Just look at the ridiculous number of advanced projects that could have been made reality had it not been for horrible logistics and resource limitations!

    • “(…)About the only MGs the Japanese had during the war that weren’t Hotchkiss type were the Type 1 (1941) aka Ho-103 12.7mm aircraft machine gun, and the 20mm Ho-5 cannon. And they were both (unlicensed) copies of the U.S. M1921 Brownimg .50 caliber HMG.(…)”
      Disclaimer: from my point of view 20 mm is auto-cannon not machine gun.
      Anyway, such statement is FALSE, Imperial Japanese Navy used 7,92 mm TYPE 1 machine gun, it was Japanese-made German-designed MG15, short-recoil operated with characteristic 75-round Doppeltrommel magazine, so it is impossible to be copy of Hotchkiss gas-operated machine gun.
      See 5th and 6th photos here: http://www.airwar.ru/weapon/guns/type98.html

      • Imperial Japanese Navy also used 13 mm TYPE 2 machine gun, which was Japanese-made German-designed MG131, with minor alterations (wooden elements instead of plastic) and produced only in observer variant (Japanese Navy expert don’t want fixed variant, as it has electric-trigger, which was seemed as bad idea in humid environment of Pacific), this weapon was short-recoil operated, so it is impossibly to be variant of Hotchkiss; see 1st, 2nd and 3rd photo here: http://www.airwar.ru/weapon/guns/type2-3.html
        BTW: introducing it Imperial Japanese Navy, also introduced 13×64 B cartridge, yet another ~13 mm despite 13,2×99 mm and 12,7×81 mm SR were already in production.

    • I agree, the old Hotchkiss HMG lock system had a great influence in many machine guns. But also the Berthier machine rifle stetted the standard configuration for interwar LMGs.

    • Also not related to Hotchkiss: the IJN 20mm Type 99-1 and 99-2 cannons were based on the Oerlikon FF and FFL, respectively. They were carried by the Zeros and many other Japanese Navy aircraft.

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