The M3 Grease Gun: The Poor Man’s SMG

The M3A1 Grease Gun. Will Dabbs MD Photo

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Sergeant Eugene Colter slouched immobile alongside 27 of his mates inside the dark cavernous interior of the big C-47 cargo plane as it droned hypnotically through the predawn darkness toward occupied Europe. He was one of only three young paratroopers onboard the plane who was not chain smoking Camels, Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes. He had trained for nearly two years for this moment, and he was utterly terrified.

He was a member of the 101st Airborne—the Screaming Eagles—and he was about to take the fight to Hitler. As the plane started to buffet and tracers arced up into the night sky, he came to the sick realization that Hitler had been expecting them. Then there was a sound like gravel thrown against a metal building, and he realized the plane was taking fire. Suddenly, all he wanted to do was to get out.

The jump sequence was chaotic, much more so than even training had prepared them for. Colter struggled to stand encumbered as he was with a hundred pounds of gear inside a violently oscillating airplane. Before he realized it, he was leaping out into the cool night air above Normandy.

The plane was flying much lower and much faster than had ever been the case in training. He felt as though the opening shock was going to rip his legs off. It was then that he realized his rucksack with all of his food, explosives and support gear had been torn away in the violent slipstream. About the time that fact really registered, he slammed into the soft French dirt like a freight train.

It took SGT Colter half a minute to regain his wits. He peeled himself out of his chute and took stock. The only reason he remained prickly was that he had only recently been issued a weird pressed steel submachinegun that he had strapped directly to his chest. Everybody called the blocky weapon the Grease Gun after the familiar mechanic’s tool. With an M1911 .45 pistol, a jump knife, three frag grenades, that Greaser and seven loaded magazines, SGT Gene Colter struck off into the night looking for trouble.

Origin Story

The M3A1 Grease Gun saw action very late in World War II. The Army did not stock spare parts for the gun. If something broke you were to run over the weapon with a tank and draw a new one. Will Dabbs MD Photo

At the apogee of mass production during World War II, the streamlined M1A1 Thompson submachine gun cost Uncle Sam $70 to produce. It was bulky, heavy, inefficient and mean. By contrast, the stamped steel M3 Grease Gun only set the government back $18. I’ve run both, and the Greaser is hands down the better weapon.

The M3 began as an analysis by the U.S. Army Ordnance Board in 1941 that eventually pitted the British Sten against the German MP40 and American M1928A1 Thompson. The ultimate standard was to place 90% of the rounds fired on a 6×6-foot target at 50 yards. The resulting design was to be made predominantly from steel pressings with a minimum of machining reserved for the bolt and barrel. The finalized weapon first saw combat during the D-Day invasion.


The pistol grip on the Grease Gun is huge. The trigger and fire controls are all formed from pressed steel. Will Dabbs MD Photo

The design stipulations for the M3 mandated that it could be converted from its original .45 ACP chambering to 9mm via a drop-in conversion unit. Military planners envisioned airdropping these inexpensive SMGs by the thousands into occupied territory for use by resistance forces. They wanted the weapons to be able to use captured 9mm ammo if necessary. While the conversion kits worked fine, there never were very many of them produced.

The Grease Gun was built from a pair of stamped steel shells welded together along the seams. The bolt was undersized to provide ample clearance from dirt and grunge and rode on a pair of steel rods inside the weapon. The gun was full auto only and unnaturally reliable.

The pistol grip on the Greaser was too big for normal humans but nonetheless effective. The gun cycled at a comatose 450 rounds per minute and fed from a double-stack, single-feed 30-round box magazine. Early M3 guns incorporated an unnecessarily complicated ratcheting charging handle. The simplified M3 saw action at the very end of the war and dispensed with the complex charging system. Charging the subsequent M3A1 involved nothing more than hooking a finger in a divot on the bolt and pulling it to the rear.

The Grease Gun was a marvel of mass production and first saw action during the D-Day invasion. Will Dabbs MD Photo

All Grease Guns fired from the open bolt. The weapon’s sole safety was the ejection port cover. As was artfully explained in the epic David Ayer war movie Fury, closing the cover put the gun on safe. Opening it made the weapon hot.

The Grease Gun was ugly, awkward, uncomfortable, and cheap. However, it was also awesome. The weapon remained in production into the 1950s, and 655,363 copies were built. It remained in U.S .Army service as a defensive weapon for armored crews well into the 1990s. The Grease Gun was a marvel of American engineering prowess.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our pictures.

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