The Uzi Submachine Gun: An Iconic Weapon


Small arms commentators have been predicting the demise of the submachine gun ever since the assault rifle made its inception at the end of the Second World War.  And yet the weapon is still here with us.  While not part of the front-line military outfit of most modern armies, it nevertheless has a role in security work and with certain special forces units.  In close quarters combat, few things are more effective than a submachine gun.

We turn our attention to Israel’s iconic Uzi submachine gun.  This is one of those weapons (like the AK-47 or the Luger pistol) that is instantly recognizable.  Its profile is unmistakable.  Few people, however, are aware of its fascinating design history.

After the close of Israel’s 1948 war of independence, there was a pressing need for armaments of all types.  Israeli forces had been equipped with a motley assortment of Czech, British, and even Russian weapons, and this arrangement had become problematic.  Besides the supply and maintenance problems, it had become obvious that these weapons were not ideal for use in dusty, sandy locales.

A young lieutenant named Uziel Gal now stepped into the picture.  It is interesting that, in the history of small arms design, many innovations have come from young soldiers with little or no design experience.  Like Evelyn Owen, the designer of Australia’s Owen gun, Gal was determined to create a better submachine gun, and he approached the task methodically.

Gal made a detailed study of the Czech line of weapons designated under the “vz 23” series (vzor 23, 24, 25, and 26).  What he liked about these designs was the fact that the breech locks (bolts) were wrapped around the gun barrel.  As the bolt could be placed far forward on the gun, the arrangement allowed for a longer barrel but shorter total length.  Gal adopted these design features.

The submachine gun that he finally produced has the following specifications:

  • Caliber:  9 mm
  • Weight:  9 lb (4.1 kg)
  • Length:  25.6 in.
  • Rate of fire:  600 rpm

The trigger group is located conveniently at the center of the weapon, improving the balance and speed of deployment.  The 32-round magazine is inserted through the handle, a fact that greatly simplifies changing magazines under stressful combat conditions, especially in the dark.

Perhaps most importantly, the body of the submachine gun was specifically designed to keep out grit, sand, and foreign particles.  The receiver was formed from a single sheet of heavy steel, and metal pressings and stampings are employed whenever possible.  Side grooves deflect or channel off any dust that might collect on the body.  The weapon is easy to cock (by use of a lug on the top of the main body) and is extremely portable.  The stock is either made of wood or of the wire folding-type.  It is one of those weapons that just “feels right” in the hands.

The Uzi has proved itself in combat time and time again.  Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of its value came during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  Beaufort Castle, located near the Litani River in southern Lebanon, was an obstacle that military planners knew had to be taken in the drive north.  This proved easier said than done, however.

The only practical method of taking the fortress was using grappling irons, ropes, and vertical climbs up the walls of the fortress.  Commandos who participated in this operation greatly appreciated the Uzi’s virtues:  handiness, portability, and reliability.  The Uzi proved to be the ideal tool to get the job done.

The end result was a weapon that was durable, tough, and extremely versatile.  It was initially produced in small machine shops, simply because in the early 1950s there were no other options.  But by 1953 the new Israeli Military Industries (IMI) took over production and the gun entered service everywhere.  As convention dictated, the weapon was named after its designer; Gal himself stayed in the military and would eventually retire at the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 1970s.  As his weapon achieved universal fame, so did he.  He died in Philadelphia in 2002.

The Uzi proved to be so popular that it nearly cornered the market on security work.  I personally can recall seeing Secret Service agents brandishing the weapon after the attempted assassination of US president Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s.  The gun was produced under license in Europe; in West Germany it goes by the name of MP2.

There is even an abbreviated version of the Uzi called the “mini-Uzi,” marketed specifically for police and security jobs.  It differs from the full-size version only in its shorter barrel and wire folding stock.