A recently retrieved 38M semi-automatic rifle was admitted to the Polish History Museum on 8th April 2014 . The story behind the 38M will no doubt compel onlookers to ponder on the cultural significance of weapons in Polish culture.
In his book A History of Warfare, Keegan famously said "Warfare is almost as old as man himself and reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king. [...] We are cultural animals and it is the richness of our culture which allows us to accept our undoubted potentiality for violence but to believe nevertheless that its expression is a cultural aberration."
In a state where historical weapons are displayed in museums and no longer pose an immediate threat to society, what is a tool of murder is in fact also an expression of the culture of that society.
When a train with the personnel of the Polish Weaponry Technology Institute was being evacuated in 1939, it was attacked by two German war planes flying at low altitude. Travelling on-board was Józef Maroszek, a firearms engineer who had with him a 38M Semi-Automatic Rifle of his design. He shot through the window several times and eventually killed the gunner and wounded the pilot of one of the planes, forcing it to land. The film-like, historically unconfirmed event was described in Maroszek’s memories. Its the only known use of the 38M rifle.
It has become an involuntary reflex to associate Poland with WWII. Invasions, occupations, hunger, reprisals, deportations, partitions, and absence from the world map for 123 years, heroic failures and bloody insurrections - its militaristic heritage is the country's bedrock. Violence is an integral part of its culture, nevertheless, the expression of violence is still believed to be a cultural aberration. Jan Matejko's Battle of Grunwald, a representation of one of Poland's most important battles is one of the country's most important paintings. A weapon of war, on the other hand, is an item for the Army Museum, and for the military-minded.
There is one rifle that eludes this distinction. It has just become part of the Polish Museum of History collection, not the Army Museum. It's the historical semi-automatic rifle Model 38M designed for the Polish Army by firearms engineer Józef Maroszek (Model 38 M -for Maroszek). It was manufactured in 1938 in one of the two arsenals in Poland - Zbrojownia Nr. 2 (Arsenal No.2), an armaments facility in the Warsaw district of Praga. The barrels were supplied by the State Rifle Factory in Warsaw. Technologically advanced and innovative, it used a gas-operated, tilting-bolt system that was not unlike one of the most widely used rifles in history - the Belgian FN FAL, which it pre-dated by nearly ten years.
The rifle was designed as a response to a government issued competition. The winning design had to be no heavier than 4.5 kilograms, easy to use, and cheap to produce. The 38M was equipped with a detachable 10-round magazine, but like many contemporary rifle designs it was intended to be reloaded with stripper clips. Commenting on its appearance, experts say it looks like a Winchester Model 1907, but uses an action closer to that of the FN FAL and borrows heavily from John Browning’s BAR light machine gun (which saw extensive service in both World War II and the Korean War and saw some service early in the Vietnam War). To make the 38M safer, Maroszek added a safety selector above the trigger on the right side and the rear leaf sight is graduated from 300m out to 2000m.
Józef Maroszek's talent for construction manifested itself in childhood. As a teenager, he built a miniature steam engine with a boiler made of an artillery shell. The machine had a small dynamo which supplied electrical energy to a light-bulb. Working for the Military Technical Armament Institute, he was the mastermind behind a series of innovative firearms which were ahead of their times. In 1934, before his work on the 38M, Maroszek engineered an anti-tank rifle 35M "Ur". Anti-tank rifles were born during the late stages of the First World War, when German troops faced the newest British invention - the tank. Since the Germans were the first to see the "business ends" of British tanks, they were also the first to develop a practical weapon to fight the tanks - the Tank-abwehr-gewer (anti-tank rifle), which is commonly known as the Mauser T-Gewehr.
Anti-tank rifle bullets could penetrate tank hulls because they were fired at high speed. It required a calibre that was typical of rifles (7.92), not armour-piercing weapons. Maroszek's 35M had a rifle-calibre round (metric designation 7.92x107), which had a very long and slender case. In the designing process Maroszek had to work the geometry of the barrel to avoid the strong recoil caused by very high muzzle velocities, which in practice broke more than one collar-bone. For additional safety, he installed a muzzle break which redirects propellant gases to additionally counter recoil and unwanted rising of the barrel during rapid fire. The rifle was loaded with lead-cored jacketed bullet (12.8 gram, 1220 m/s) which softened recoil when targeting tank hulls from an angle. The rifle could pierce 15mm steel armour from a distance of 300 metres and 30mm of armour from 100 metres. Its production, which began in 1938, was kept top secret. The development was disguised as the "rifle for Uruguay" (Ur), where supposedly, the rifle was meant to go. Before the outbreak of WWII, 6,500 35M anti-tank rifles were produced. Thanks to its covert production, the possession of the weapon by the Poles surprised the Germans.
By comparison, the first Soviet anti-tank rifle, the PTRD was developed by famous Russian arms designer Fedor Degtyarov in 1941, when the Red Army issued the urgent requirements for a man-portable and inexpensive anti-tank weapon, suitable for infantry use. It became an important asset of the Soviet infantry during the earlier stages of the Great Patriotic war.
Before WWII, Poland was trying to rapidly modernise its military. In the 1930s the Polish Army was largely equipped with leftover weapons captured or donated after the First World War. With Hitler’s Germany to the West and Stalin’s Soviet Union to the East both rearming with the newest gear, Warsaw understood they needed the best weapons available. One of the plans was to equip the army with new semi-automatic battle rifles. By the time the Germans invaded on September 1, 1939 from the West, followed by the Soviets on September 17th from the East, as most sources say, only 150 or so copies of the semi-automatic Rifle 38M were made.
What happened to the 38Ms and why it matters is another interesting story. The cultural heritage of the Poles has been systematically packed up and stolen, destroyed or removed abroad. During the war, the Maroszek rifles fell into the hands of the occupiers. Maroszek claimed seeing a group of German soldiers armed with his rifles in 1940 but that is the only account of the whereabouts of the weapons. Previously, there were only seven known examples of wz.38M rifles in collections around the world: a deactivated 38M in poor condition on display at the Museum of the Polish Army in Warsaw; one each at the Central Armed Forces Museum, Moscow; the National Firearms Museum, Fairfax, Virginia; and a private collection in Germany; and two in private collections in the U.S.
This year, as a result of an agreement between a gun collector in the U.S. and the Polish government, the Museum of Polish History in Warsaw has come into possession of a 38M (serial number 1019). Its place within the collection is among "Polish Engineering Solutions".
The 38M has found its way into history due to its cultural importance. This man-made tool echoes the country's economic, political, geographical and financial situation of the time. As part of the History Museum, this man-made tool can be appreciated as an artifact which bears a meaning and relevance understandable to all, if not necessarily beautiful.
Author: Mai Jones Jeromski 21/04/2014
Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, David Campbell, British Museum, Museum of Polish History, World Guns, Collectible Firearms, guns.com, Washington Post, Forgotten Weapons, Interview with Polish History Museum spokesperson Marek Strenecki