CLOSE IN AND DIRTY
Think of a really effective submachine gun. Chances are that one of two models spring to mind: the Heckler & Koch MP5 or the UZI. Both weapons are excellent designs in wide spread use, and it's hard to choose between them. The German gun, with its closed-bolt firing cycle, is more accurate and is the better weapon for police and counter terrorist work. The sturdy, reliable UZI is marginally superior as an infantry weapon. Both weapons are perfect for the close range fighting associated with urban areas. The German gun was produced in the 1960s by a state which was an industrial giant, with a well established arms industry. The Israeli weapon was built earlier in the 1950s, by a developing country, with a ramshackle economy and a Mickey Mouse arms industry. How did the Israelis manage it?
main reason is that they had a sophisticated and ruthless system of competitive
tender: they pitched two decent, local designs against each other in a battle to
the death. It also helped that they had a weapons designer of genius, a man by
the name of Uzi Gal. The Israeli arms industry started up in conditions of
illegality in the Palestine of the 1930s. Secret underground workshops built
D.I.Y. small arms of varying quality. Some of these weapons were ingenious; most
were eccentric. The Dubigun, a 12-gauge "carbine" with a six-round drum
magazine, was impressive looking. However, it was probably more dangerous to the
firer than the target! By the mid 1940s the Israelis were producing an
unlicensed copy of the 9mm MK II Sten. Unfortunately, the Israelis had to build
the gun of poor quality materials, only the barrel - cannibalized and rebored
from the barrels of old hunting rifles - was actually made of steel! This did
nothing for the accuracy and reliability of this STEN clone.
By 1950, the Israeli military, having had enough of submachine guns that blew up in your face or which jammed just when the fire fight was getting interesting, put forward a requirement for a new gun. The Israelis wanted a compact, reliable weapon, sturdy enough to take punishment and accurate enough to dish it out.
Israel and its hostile neighbors during the 1950s were involved in a cycle of artillery duels, nighttime border raids and counter strikes. The Israelis had inferior artillery but had infantry better trained in night fighting. The submachine gun, easy to carry and with a high rate of fire, was ideal for this kind of close-in and dirty type of warfare. The Israelis were desperate to put a reliable weapon in the hands of their paratroopers, the spear-point of their night raiders. Having decided that there was nothing on the market to meet their requirements, they had to build a submachine gun from scratch.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) found that they had two designs in development which appeared to meet their needs. The first was a rather traditional looking weapon designed by Major Chaim Kara, head of the light weapons section of the IDF's Science Corps. The second weapon was built by a youngster working his way rapidly up the ranks and who seemed to have a genius for weapon design - Uzi Gal. Both guns needed further development before being submitted to testing. The Kara in particular needed reworking to meet the advanced demands of the IDF. The rival submachine guns, named after their creators, were handed over to the army in 1952 for competitive trials.
With the help of Colonel Matti Hemed (retired) of the IDF Collection Houses Museum Tel Aviv, I examined the weapons entered for trial. Matti, who was involved with just about all the small arms trials the IDF has ever carried out, was able to explain why the UZI won the contest.
The 9mm Kara was a good gun,
the match of any found in the major armies of the time. Despite its traditional
appearance, it utilized - as did the UZI - a wrap-around bolt and blowback
operation. Wrap-around bolts allow the construction of a much more compact and
handy weapon. Nowadays this type of bolt is common; in the 1950s, they were
innovative. The Kara was very well made - if anything, too well made. Its
circular cross-section was built to very fine tolerances, difficult to
manufacture cheaply. Having only eight main parts, the gun was easy to field
strip. Just as well really as its precision manufacturing process would not have
withstood the grit and dust of the Middle East without jamming. The Kara had the
choice of a 20- and 40-round magazine.
The 9mm UZI, even in its crude looking initial version, was a gun of a later generation than the Kara. Well built, it employed a large amount of stamped steel in its design: simple to mass produce and without the need for the close tolerances demanded in the manufacture of the Kara. The UZI was a killing machine: precise and elegant in its design, rather than in the quality of its construction. With its wrap-around telescoping bolt, the UZI was a compact weapon. The original UZI was fitted with a 30-round magazine; later models have 25- or 32-round magazines.
The UZI had excellent human
engineering. Its best feature was the magazine housing built into its pistol
grip. Uzi Gal had thought what happens to a tired soldier fighting at night and
needing to change magazines in the dark. The soldier may be frightened,
disorientated and fumbling. The designer thought of the "fist finds fist"
principal. No matter how dark the night or how tired you are, you will be able
to touch your fists together without thinking. The fact that a soldiers dominant
hand holds the combined pistol/grip magazine housing, allows the UZI to be
reloaded quickly. The Kara's later prototypes followed this feature of the UZI,
however it was insufficient to sway the contest.
The UZI had a number of other advantages. Unlike most submachine guns, the UZI is almost immune from the danger of inadvertent misfires. A substantial safety catch at the back of the magazine housing needs to be squeezed at the same time as the trigger, before the gun will fire. Because of this safety feature an UZI is not likely to accidentally discharge if dropped to the ground. The weapon also has a small number of parts making it easy to strip down and reassemble - a good feature for combat operations. For a submachine gun, the UZI is accurate with limited recoil and climb; it can even be fired one-handed.
Incidentally, Uzi Gal has been accused of copying the Czech weapon, the CZ23, with its similar layout. Colonel Matti, who knows Uzi Gal very well, describes Gal as being absolutely straight and honest. When Gal says he did not copy the Czech gun, he is telling the truth; it was simply the case of two sharp design teams coming up with similar sophisticated blueprints.
Anyway in 1951, twelve Karas
and five UZIs were placed on trial. After a period of rigorous testing, the UZI
was declared the winner. The UZI was accepted because of its ability to fire and
function in dusty, gritty environments without jamming. The gun was also easier
to mass produce than the Kara.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE LOST UZIS
From 1951 through to 1955 some eighty preproduction models were issued to selected units. After feedback, the basic design was altered and enhanced at the request of the IDF. In 1955, the UZI recognizable as the gun we know today, was finally put into service. In 1956, the gun proved its reliability during the Suez War. It was the start of a great career. The gun continued to evolve when in service. Perhaps the most important modification was the introduction of a neat, folding metal stock to replace a fixed wooden one in 1967. As well as having been built by Israeli Military Industries for the IDF and many other armies, the UZI was license built by FN, the famous Belgium weapons firm.
Colonel Matti showed me several prototype variants that were never to go into service. The most startling of these was an UZI built in 1967, fitted with a bayonet lug and equipped to fire rifle grenades! Mercifully for the soldiers intended to use them, this unwieldy beast was not accepted by the IDF. In 1980, the demand for an even more compact weapon led to the adoption of the Mini-UZI. This has all the killing power of the UZI, compressed into a smaller package; it's most often used in covert work by special forces. The model of the Mini-UZI that is in service has a folding metal stock of a rugged design. Colonel Matti showed me the Mini-UZI as it might have been, with a selection of alternate stocks including a two-bar telescoping butt. Many of the variants of the Mini-UZI variants that were tested but not adopted, had forward pistol grips. The UZI continued its shrinking act in the 1980s with the adoption of the UZI pistol and the Micro-UZI. These super compact weapons have the reliability, sturdiness and good ergonomic design of the UZI squeezed into miniature bundles.
So there you have it. The UZI was the product of an individual weapon designer of genius. Early development of the sound basic design came about through competition from the Kara. Further evolution of the UZI, once it was adopted for service, occurred because of the increasing demand for ever smaller killing packages. The UZI and its variants have seen service in twenty-six countries. Although the UZI has largely been replaced in front-line military service by cut-down assault rifles, it remains in use with police forces and with soldiers in non combat roles. Its simple construction, reliability and portability will see it soldering on for a long time to come. Uzi Gal won't disappear from the scene either. The new Ruger MP9 submachine gun is based on Gal's latest design work.
Thanks to Matti, Meir and
Zvika of the Collection Houses Museum Tel Aviv for their help. For those
interested, this museum, located at 35 Eilat Street, Tel Aviv, contains a vast
number of unique weapons of every kind and is an Aladdin's cave for the military
Originally published in the November, 1995 issue of Machine Gun News Magazine.
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