The Tools of War: 10 Deadly Infantry Weapons of WWII

Soviet troops prepare to take the offensive. Avalanche Press

World War II still holds the ominous distinction of being the deadliest conflict in human history, with official estimates placing the overall death toll anywhere from 60-80 million losses worldwide. Most of these fatalities stemmed from technological advancements in the tools that men used to wage war. Mid-century small arms could deliver sustained and accurate fire over great distances, explosives were portable and lethal, and new twists on old ideas gave rise to some truly deadly implements of destruction. The following is a list of weapons that drew both the fear and admiration of WWII infantrymen during the Second World War.

Lee-Enfield Rifle No. 1 MK 3*. The Canadian War Museum

Lee-Enfield Rifle

The Lee-Enfield rifle, along with its many variants, was one of the most versatile and dependable weapons of WWII. Based upon the earlier Lee-Metford rifle, the Lee-Enfield was the British Army’s standard service rifle for over 60 years. Beginning its lengthy manufacturing run in 1895, the rifle’s creator, James Paris Lee, oversaw the first several years of production at the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, a small borough in the northern London. Lee’s greatest contribution to the firearm industry was his spring-loaded, column-fed, centerfire magazine system, which was a vast improvement over older tubular systems and is still featured many modern rifle designs.

Chambered in .303 British, a skilled marksman could typically deliver 20-30 aimed rounds with the Lee-Enfield over the span of one minute. This high-powered rifle cartridge was manufactured in several varieties, including tracer, armor-piercing, and incendiary ammunition. The most popular variant was the 174-grain Mark VII cartridge, which achieved a maximum range of approximately 3,000 yards. The Japanese, in recognizing the soundness of the round, patterned a direct copy of the British cartridge (7.7×56mmR) for use in their rifles and machine guns. Time-tested, the .303 British is one of the few bottle-necked, rimmed centerfire cartridges still in use today.

During WWII, the British produced and refined several versions of the Lee-Enfield. The No. 4 Mk 1 debuted in 1941, being much stronger and easier to manufacture than earlier versions of the weapon. The No. 4 rifle employed a fearsome spike bayonet, which soldiers dubbed the pigsticker. A No. 5 “Jungle Carbine” variant of the Lee-Enfield saw limited use near the end of the war, but was discontinued due to recoil issues. By far, the deadliest model of the Lee-Enfield was the SMLE No. 1 Mk. III (HT), which featured improved ergonomics and a sophisticated telescopic sight.

Three interesting versions of the Lee-Enfield included the Charlton Automatic Rifle, the De Lisle Commando Carbine, and the Howell Automatic Rifle. The Charlton and Howell were similar in design, but filled two very different roles. The Charlton was used as a light machine gun by Aussie and Kiwi allies during the war, while the Howell was employed by the British Home Guard as an antiaircraft weapon. The De Lisle carbine, on the other hand, featured an integrated suppressor, fired lethal subsonic ammunition, and is still one of the quietest combat weapons ever produced. Regardless of configuration, the Lee-Enfield was deadly in battle.

  • Ish Kabibil

    The crafters of this compendium seemed to have picked items that are often third tier in importance, or in impact. The Radom VZ 35 was probably not in the top 5 of importance,,,notably the P 08 was much more relevant. Not a word was given to flame throwers, tanks, bombs and so forth. Neat little items are mentioned here but the big “baddies” seem to have been ignored. Useless article that does nothing to expand the readers’ knowledge base. Of note, there was no mention made of the K98 rifle

    • Robert Ranstadler

      Dear Ish,

      Thank you for visiting History Collection! I appreciate your
      feedback and would like to address each of your concerns in detail.

      You mentioned that the Radom Vis 35 was not very important
      compared to other pistols, such as the Luger P08. I can only offer that the Vis
      35 was arguably relevant to Hitler and the Wehrmacht,
      who went to great lengths to obtain and confiscate Vis 35s from occupied Poland
      (including the relocation of an entire factory to Austria). I would also argue
      that the pistol was fairly important to members of the Polish Home Army and
      underground dissidents, who used the weapon while attempting to reclaim their
      country from the Nazis.

      Your concerns over the omission of “flame throwers, tanks,
      bombs, and so forth,” merits some attention. Regarding flamethrowers, I
      empathize with your point. They were unique and effective weapons, vital to the war effort (some would even argue they won the war in the Pacific).
      Flamethrowers unfortunately suffered from many reliability issues that
      inhibited their overall use when compared to more reliable weapons, such as machine guns or service rifles. The portable, infantry version of the flamethrower
      also had the nasty habit of exploding on the back of the soldier who was wielding
      it. Vehicular flamethrowers, on the other hand, were much more effective but
      not necessarily considered infantry weapons, as they were mounted to tanks or
      other armored vehicles.

      Concerning the omission of “tanks, [aircraft-delivered?] bombs,
      and so forth,” I can only offer that this is a list of ten deadly INFANTRY weapons of WWII. Tanks and bombs, due to their overwhelming size and weight were typically not carried into combat by the average infantrymen. These items were instead assigned to
      specialized armored or air units, staffed by people that would drive or fly
      tanks or airplanes into combat. These combatants were called armor crewmen, pilots,
      or bombardiers and not considered part of the INFANTRY. Thus, tanks and aircraft-delivered bombs were omitted from the above list of deadly INFANTRY

      I appreciate you pointing out that a lot of “neat little items,” which were used in killing
      millions of people, were included on this list and will make every effort to incorporate more “big baddies” in future articles.

      I apologize that you feel the article “does nothing to
      expand the readers’ knowledge base.” The list was composed with the
      non-specialist in mind. I can understand how an eminent scholar, such as
      yourself, could get frustrated with non-academic content. Unfortunately, commercial
      interests are always at play when producing such articles, which typically
      prohibit the inclusion of long dissertations or lengthy peer-reviewed articles. I
      encourage you to visit a local university or reputable academic periodical to
      satiate your clearly superior intellect and quest for knowledge.

      Lastly, the Karabiner 98k rifle did not make the list because
      three other rifles did: The British Lee-Enfield, the American M-1 Garand, and
      the Russian Mosin–Nagant. In all honesty, this was a tough decision, because so
      many different rifles were used during the war. Were this a list of the top 10 military rifles of WWII, the K98 would have made the cut.

      Again, thank you for visiting History Collection. I look forward to your future feedback.

    • Ish Kabibil

      It should be noted that the Axis pistol armament was varied. The most significant was the P38 , the Mauser HSC, the Star, The High Power, the CZ series, the Walther PP and PPK. Sauer HH,CZ27-39,Norwegian M1914,Browning 1922 as well as the High Power,, Russian Tokarevs, Beretta models, Astra400 and 600,and 300, Spanish Star models, Hungarian Femaru, as well as the inclusion of French pistols and the German pistols produced prior to 1938. (Axis Pistols by Jan Still 1986)

      Furthermore the role of the Nambu seems to have been diminished. The Japanese sdiderarms were significantly involved in much of the Japanese occupation and eulwe of conquered territories

    • Ryan Phillips

      It seemed ridiculous to put the kabar in an article outlining deadly infantry weapons…. EVERY faction had a melee weapon of some kind. But why not mention the uniqueness of the trench knife compared to what is effectively a standard blade?

      • Robert Ranstadler

        Hi Ryan,

        Thanks for reading the article and I really appreciate your
        question. You have an excellent point, one that I mauled over myself while
        writing the article. Without belaboring the point, I selected the KA-BAR for
        three reasons:

        1. The KA-BAR, unlike the trench knife is a very specific,
        patented, device. The term “trench knife,” on the other hand,
        encompasses a wide range of blades that shared similar characteristics but
        weren’t necessarily manufactured under one name. Thus, selecting the “trench
        knife” would have been akin to selecting the “service rifle” or “pistol” as an influential weapon. Obviously, there are too many variants to mention here but I’m sure you can appreciate the point.

        2. Trench knives were prized melee weapons during WWI, fell
        out of favor near the end of WWII, and virtually lost any sort of widespread
        appreciation over the course of the twentieth-century. The U.S. Army, for example, replaced the M1 trench knife with the M3 trench knife, which eventually gave way to the M4/M5 bayonet. The KA-BAR, in comparison, has pretty much been in continuous service since its inception approximately 70 years ago.

        3. Total disclosure: I’m a former Marine and have a soft
        spot for anything related to the USMC. In my defense, I’ll just point out that
        the article is titled, “10 Deadly Infantry Weapons,” not “The 10 DEADLIEST
        Infantry Weapons.” I never intended the article to be an all-inclusive list,
        nor was I trying to rank one weapon over the other. Instead, I was just interested in sharing my thoughts about some really cutting-edge weapons that shaped the war.

        Again, thanks for your question and I hope I answered it to
        your satisfaction.

        • Ryan Phillips

          That was extremely informative, and I really appreciate your time to write out that response. You could have easily just been a jerk about it haha (as lots of people are on disqus)

          So thank you!

          • Robert Ranstadler

            Thank you, Ryan, and you’re welcome. Half the reason I write these articles is to discuss them with informed and inquisitive readers such as yourself. Thanks for stopping by and feel free to comment on future articles.

  • Dan Baron

    How did we manage to win WWll since everyone else had such superior weapons?

    • Tim Platt

      Quite simply, no one ‘won’ the Second World War. With hindsight we can see that now.

    • jccargill

      Superior production facilities.

    • Robert Ranstadler

      Jccargrill hit the nail on the head. American, Soviet, and British weapons and munitions factories simply outpaced Hitler’s war effort. The Allies additionally had a much longer logistical reach that the Axis powers, who also faced the challenge of having a finite amount of resources.

    • stuartiannaylor

      War is always won on the materiels of war, something Napoleon coined.
      Resources and numbers won the war as they usually are.