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During 1930s the German Army introduced the MG 34, considered to be the first modern general-purpose machine gun. Equipped with a quick-change barrel and fed with belts or large magazines, the MG 34 could fire for much longer periods of time than weapons such as the American Browning Automatic Rifle, Japanese Type 11, British Bren and French Châtellerault LMG, while being much lighter than crew-served weapons like the Vickers machine gun and M1917 Browning machine gun. The weapon was also quite versatile. It was able to be fed from belted ammunition and a saddle drum magazine (the feed cover had to be changed for magazine feed) and fired from heavy tripods or various pintle mounts for armored vehicles. It even became a primary defensive gun for the Luftwaffe, in its MG 81 form, and as secondary armament on tanks as the MG 34 Panzerlauf. However, it did have its drawbacks, such as sensitivity to dust and comparatively expensive production. One attempt at improvement was the MG 34S, an incremental improvement on the basic 34 design.
In order to address these issues, a contest was held for a true MG 34 replacement. Three companies were asked to submit designs: Metall und Lackierwarenfabrik Johannes Großfuß AG of Döbeln, Rheinmetall-Borsig of Sömmerda, and Stübgen of Erfurt. Of the number of proposals submitted, Großfuß AG's proved to be the best design by far, employing a unique recoil-operated roller locking mechanism whereas the two competing designs used a gas-actuated system. Interestingly, the company had no prior experience in weapons manufacture, specializing in pressed and stamped steel parts (the company's staple product was sheet metal lanterns). Dr.-Ing. Werner Gruner, one of the leading design engineers with Großfuß, knew nothing about machine guns when he was given the task of being involved with the project, but he specialized in the technology of mass production. Gruner would attend an army machine gunner's course to familiarize himself with the utility and characteristics of such a weapon, also seeking input from soldiers. He then recycled an existing Mauser-developed operating system and incorporated features from his experiences with army machine gunners and lessons learned during the early stages of the war.[3] Being made out of stamped metal, the new design required considerably less tooling and was much simpler to build than other machine guns — it took 75 man hours to complete the new gun as opposed to 150 man hours for the MG 34 (a 50% reduction), and cost 250 RM as opposed to 327 RM (a 24% reduction).
The resulting MG 39 remained similar to the earlier MG 34 overall, a deliberate decision made to maintain familiarity. The only major changes from the gunner's perspective were dropping of most of the drum-feed options, leaving the weapon to fire with a loose belt of ammunition or from a single 50-round drum shaped belt container fitted to the gun's receiver, and simplifying the weapon's open sights for aiming purposes; all these changes being intended to increase, maintain, or accommodate the gun's high practical rate of fire. Although made of relatively cheap parts, the prototypes also proved to be considerably more rugged and resistant to jamming than the somewhat temperamental MG 34. A limited run of about 1,500 of its immediate predecessor, the MG 39/41, was completed in 1941 and tested in combat trials.
The weapon was officially accepted, and the main manufacturing of the production design began in 1942, as the MG 42. contracts going to Großfuß, Mauser-Werke, Gustloff-Werke, and others. Production during the war amounted to over 400,000 units (17,915 units in 1942, 116,725 in 1943, 211,806 in 1944, and 61,877 in 1945).

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