Polish Infantry Firepower
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
In 1939, the Polish Army’s striking power - as with every other army of the time - lay in its 30 regular infantry divisions. While Poland tried desperately to upgrade her armed forces with modern tanks, artillery and aircraft, the Polish Army remained dependent on its riflemen as the Second Republic’s defenders.
The typical Polish infantryman went to war in September 1939 carrying a Karabinek wz. 1929 bolt-action rifle, nearly identical to the Karabiner 98k wielded by his German counterpart. Some carried the longer and heavier wz.98, a direct copy of the German Mauser Gewehr 98.
The Polish Army ended its victorious 1919-1921 war with the Soviet Union with 22 different models of rifle arming its infantry. These included German and Austro-Hungarian Mauser and Mannlicher rifles issued to Polish formations sponsored by the Central Powers or left in arsenals in formerly German or Austro-Hungarian territory, French Lebel rifles issued to the “Blue Army” organized in France, Russian Moisin-Nagant rifles issued by the Central Powers, left behind by the Russians, or captured from the Soviets. And many more besides, mostly sent to Poland as aid during the war with the Soviets.
Over the next few years, the Poles sold their surplus “odd number” rifles to other countries and began production of the Mauser as their standard service rifle. The peace settlement left Poland with ownership of the former Prussian Royal Arsenal in Danzig, which had manufactured Gewehr 98 rifles for the Imperial German Army during the First World War. The Poles took possession of the machine tools and the stockpiles of completed rifles, parts and raw materials, along with all of the Arsenal’s blueprints, and moved them all to the newly-established National Rifle Factory in Radom in the center of the country south of Warsaw. A second factory in Warsaw began production in the 1930’s.
A Polish soldier with his wz.28 Browning Automatic Rifle.
After a few years the Polish Army wanted a lighter rifle with a shorter barrel, and production shifted to the Karabinek wz.1929. About 350,000 of these were manufactured, with some of them sold to foreign customers as Poland desperately tried to raise hard currency to expand its armaments industry. The Spanish Republic was a major customer during the Spanish Civil War.
The Karabinek wz.1929 was nearly identical to the German Karabiner 98k, the standard German service rifle adopted by the Wehrmacht in 1935. The Germans issued the Polish-made rifle after the fall of the Second Republic, and continued production at Radom for their own forces.
The wz.1929 fired a standard 7.92mm cartridge, but shared the German weapon’s problems of comparatively low firepower since the rifleman had to work the bolt between each shot. That also meant that each shot had to be individually aimed, since he had to take the rifle down from his shoulder to chamber the next round. The Germans solved that problem with “area fire,” instructing their infantry to fire in mass into the same area, reasoning that someone would hit something.
By the mid-1930’s the Polish Army began to have second thoughts about the wz.1929, since it was rather fragile in bayonet fighting. Production of an improved wz.98 resumed and continued until 1939 alongside the Karabinek; the new/old rifle was heavier and did not break even when bayonetting a stone wall, but could not be fired as rapidly as the Karabinek.
The Polish 46mm grenade discharger.
German doctrine built a squad’s firepower around its light machine gun, and the Wehrmacht had very good ones. The Poles, unfortunately, did not. Like the U.S. Army they relied on the Browning Automatic Rifle as the squad’s integral automatic weapon, manufactured in Poland as the Browning wz.1928 light machine gun. The Poles bought 10,000 of them from Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale and produced 14,000 more of them under license. The Polish versions, both Belgian- and Polish-built, fired the same 7.92mm round as the Polish rifles.
The problem with the BAR was its 20-round box magazine. While those 20 rounds could be fired on full automatic, they made for a very short burst before the box had to be replaced. The Poles developed a 7.92mm version of the Browning M1919 medium machine gun, but did not issue it as a squad automatic weapon - the cz.32, as it was known in Polish service, required a crew of five and the bipod-mounted version to be operated by two men proved to be still too heavy for the role. Most Polish machine-gun platoons operated the cz.30, a Polish-made unlicensed copy of the Browning M1917 heavy machine gun, chambered for the 7.92mm round.
A Polish infantry platoon did have support weapons, including one 46mm wz.36 grenade discharger, a weapon similar in concept to the Japanese Type 89. It used gas pressure to “toss” its grenades up to 800 meters; the four-man crew regulated the amount of gas applied to control its range. The weapon could be fired quickly, needed little maintenance or cleaning and was easy to assemble. It also had a tiny explosive charge in its 46mm grenades, and was not very accurate.
The other uniquely Polish support weapon was the top-secret wz.35 anti-tank rifle, known as the “Uruguay” as a non-existent export order to Uruguay was the cover story for its manufacture. Designed by Józef Maroszek, the wz.35 drew heavily on the wz.98a improved Polish Mauser, with a very similar bolt action, receiver, barrel and stock. It retained the 7.92 caliber, but with a much, much longer barrel and an extended cartridge to accommodate a more powerful charge.
The rifle fired the Polish 7.92mm DS round, a special anti-tank bullet developed at the National Arms Factory in Radom. It had a soft-lead core, as the round was not intended to penetrate armor plate. Instead, the soft lead was expected to splat against the armor of an enemy tank at high velocity, causing spalling on the inside of the armor - a chunk of armor plate, usually larger than the bullet, would break away on the opposite side of the plate (the inside) and then go zipping around the inside of the tank at high speed, smashing up anything soft including the crew.
So while a Polish infantry platoon lacked a true squad automatic weapon, it did have an anti-tank capability superior to any other infantry platoon of 1939. The Uruguay rifle would soon lose its effectiveness as tanks became larger with thicker armor, but they claimed dozens of the Panzer I tankettes and Panzer II light tanks that made up most of Germany’s tank strength in 1939.
A Polish lancer with an Uruguay anti-tank rifle.
Like other armies, the Poles looked to give their infantrymen more individual firepower with a semi-automatic rifle. A design competition opened in 1934, with Maroszek submitting the winning entry. His wz.38M was accepted in 1936 and entered production in 1938, but only 150 of them had been produced when the Germans attacked and none had been issued to the troops. Full-scale re-equipment of the regular rifle regiments would have commenced in the spring of 1940.
The wz.38M was a gas-operated weapon drawing heavily on the Mauser and firing the same round. It carried 10 of them, loaded from Mauser stripper clips. Construction was relatively simple and rugged. The wz.38M would have greatly increased Polish firepower, and as in the U.S. Army the semi-automatic rifle would have gone far to balance the lack of a true light machine-gun.
Additional close-quarters firepower would have come from the Mors submachine gun, a carbine-sized machine pistol design firing 9mm pistol rounds. The Mors (“walrus” in Polish, “death” in Latin) was accepted in March 1939 but only 36 had been produced at the time of the German invasion.
Would all of that added infantry firepower have saved Poland in September 1939? It certainly would have made the conquest far costlier for the Germans, but would not have done anything to solve the many other Polish deficits (command and control, armor, motorization, artillery, modern aircraft). But it’s just about always better to go to war with more firepower rather than less.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published countless books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold approves of this message.
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