As the title of this articles implies, I’m going to attempt to answer the question "Are submachine guns still a viable tool for CQB?" The quick answer, I would say, is certainly yes! I will also say that it depends on the expected threats you are going to face.
A Quick History Lesson
Before I get into the pro’s and con's of choosing a submachine gun for close quarters battle work, let me provide a quick overview of their past use in CQB and the military. When you put submachine guns and CQB together in the same sentence, the two things that come to most shooters minds are: the H&K MP5 submachine gun (SMG) and the British SAS (Special Air Service).
Both were made famous back in 1980 with the SAS' successful hostage rescue in the Iranian Embassy in London. The SAS were able to kill 5 out of the 6 hostage takers using burst fire (i.e., controlled full-auto fire) from their MP5 submachine guns. Because the assault was televised (from outside) even today you can still find a H&K poster of one of the SAS assaulters on the balcony of the embassy (MP5 in hand) in a lot of gun stores . The success of that mission led to the HK MP5 dominating the field when it came to military and police selecting a primary weapon for hostage rescue and CQB up into the 1990’s. Even with my own experience, the first time I did CQB live fire training in [U.S. Army] Special Forces in the late 90’s, our team chose the MP5.
When you look back in time, the MP5 SMG had two attributes that made it the logical choice for hostage rescue CQB work; the first and most important attribute is that it is controllable on full-auto at room distance. During the assault on the Iranian embassy, the SAS shot in full-auto bursts at their targets. This is where the submachine gun shines, and is exactly how I feel it should be employed. Second, because it is a pistol caliber, over penetration of the target is minimized. This is crucial for hostage rescue work. The last thing you want to do is engage a threat and have it go thru and hit the person you are trying to save.
Unfortunately, the same asset that made it the primary choice for CQB work (being a pistol caliber weapon that's easy to control, and less likely to over-penetrate the target) has also come to be its biggest limitation with regard to being the weapon of choice today. On the law enforcement side of the house, with the 1997 North Hollywood bank shootout, the police found themselves out-gunned with their pistol caliber weapons while dealing with two rifle-wielding body armored-up assailants. Because it took so many rounds to finally put the robbers down, it was decided that not just SRT-type teams needed rifles, but also normal patrolmen who might find themselves as first responders to an incident.
The second and a major issue that has dropped the submachine gun down on the list as a primary tool for CQB is its range limitations. Since the global war on terror [GWOT] began, the military has had to deal with one crucial factor that most police departments and stateside HRT teams generally don't have to deal with when it comes to CQB. In addition to having to shoot targets at room distance in the target building, military operators also have to deal with a 360-degree threat of targets out to medium distance as you approach and depart the target area.
In Iraq and Afghanistan (both urban and rural environments), if it is a “hot target”, you can expect to have to engage defenders/enemy targets out past 100 meters as you approach the target, before you conduct your CQB mission. This includes all the way thru the mission on target and even when departing the area on exfil. The last thing most soldiers want to have to try and do is suppress AK-47 wielding assailants at 200-300 meters with an MP5 submachine gun–which is generally only good for consistent hits out to 100 meters–on both approach and exfil.
Lack of Proper Training
Because the assault rifle/carbine/SBR (Short Barreled Rifle)/sub-carbine has become the weapon of choice now for CQB, it has also created a training scar for assaulters who still employ the submachine gun today. At least on the military side of the house, because the carbine is our primary weapon and the primary method of engagement is semi-auto fire, it has crossed over to the primary method of engagement for submachine guns also. Shooting on semi-auto is fine for a rifle, but if you are armed with a 9mm submachine gun, I think you are limiting your ability to incapacitate your target in the time necessary for CQB work. To make matters worse, in most military shoot houses today, full-auto fire is not allowed, so being able to train properly with submachine guns is getting hard to do. In my opinion, not employing the submachine gun in the full-auto mode (at room distance) totally defeats the purpose of carrying a submachine gun in the first place.
Full-Auto is Key
Submachine guns still have a place today in the military. Without going into current TTP’s [Tactics, Techniques and Procedures], weapons like the MP5 are still carried on missions due to their compact size. With the right method of engagement, I feel you can make up for its pistol caliber stopping power by dumping large amounts of rounds into the target area, driving the target down. I prefer the technique of aiming for the chest and walking rounds up towards the head with full-auto burst of fire. Now, of course, there is the classic Mozambique method out there of 2 [shots] to the body and 1 [shot] to the head. I actually do not like that engagement method. Before you gasp let me explain….
For one thing, you can only really sustain a really good speed with 2 body, 1 to head generally at targets within say 5-7 feet. Beyond that, the transition from the 2 to the chest to 1 to the head takes too long, in my opinion. Granted, it might be only half a second, but I think it’s too counter-instinctive to the situation. Here is my case: While it might be a great flat-range training technique when you are engaging the paper people, in reality it’s pretty difficult to change gears from two fast shots [to the upper torso] to one shot aimed at a smaller target [face/head].
For anyone who has ever shot a force-on-force scenario, how often have you seen shooters when engaging targets shoot a calm 2 to the chest then transition 1 to the head? I bet more often than not you've seen shooters wail into each other trying to drive each other down. It’s your natural response. You want to shoot at the largest part of the body and put rounds into it until you see a reaction. Aiming at a small target such as a head takes conscious thought. I think it’s just as fast and easier to shoot a rapid string center mass to the torso kill zone area and drive the target down, even on sem-auto.
With a submachine gun such as a MP5, it’s even faster and easier to give a quick burst center mass. I know what you’re thinking: What about body armored assailants? If your primary method is to shoot bursts or strings to the center chest, I think it’s easier and faster to walk the rounds up from the chest to the head. With a 5 round burst, yes some will impact armor, but the target will start feeling rounds thru the base of the neck, neck and head–not to mention if you put rounds through their arms or hands while they are holding a weapon. Even better, if you know beforehand your targets have body armor, my method of engagement would be to send a burst at the pelvic cradle to start collapsing the threat then burst towards the head. Yes, shots to the pelvic area are not instantly incapacitating, but they will start the process of putting your target down and can allow you the time to transition to the head.
One more reason I think 2 body, 1 to the head is hard to accomplish is that during most CQB situations, you are moving as a member of a team. Usually, the number one man is setting the pace, so at times you are moving at a speed that might not be optimum for your shooting ability. For example, try shooting a Mozambique drill at a target down a hallway 10-20ft away as you pass by, moving at someone else’s pace. You will have about a second to react after you see the target so you have to engage the target with a method that best delivers rounds on target in short order. For most shooters it's a lot easier to shoot a multi-shot string really fast at a torso then trying to shoot the body and then, immediately after that, a 6-inch head while moving.
Technology Fills the Gap
I will admit there were times when I carried an MP5 in 9mm as my primary weapon that I did feel a little anemic when it came to the damage I could inflict. As stated previously, my solution for this was to just plan on engaging any threats with full-auto bursts and hopefully drive the threats down. This underpowered feeling I had towards subguns all changed (for the better) when I was issued the HK UMP .45 ACP SMG. I don’t know if it was H&K’s original goal with the UMP .45 to create a .45ACP-caliber submachine gun that shoots like a 9mm MP5, but in my view they did!
The recoil of the HK UMP to me feels slightly harder than a MP5 and less than a M4. If anything the recoil, even in full-auto, feels more like a push than a rifle's sharp crack. The result: a weapon that, again like a MP5, allows you to shoot very controlled bursts on full-auto at room distance. The big difference now is you are shooting a proven man-stopper, the .45ACP. Besides the 12GA slug .45ACP has one of the best one-shot-stop records out there, even in ball form.
Although we were issued HK UMP .45 ACP SMGs for close protection, soon many of my fellow operators chose to take them on CQB missions. Yes, .45ACP still lacks range and armor penetration, but again, the power at room distance is hard to match. When you look at reports of carbines and rifles chambered in 5.56 used in CQB, the average amount of rounds reported being shot into threats to put them down has been six, and in some cases, as high as nine.
So, as a member of an assault team, the HK UMP .45 ACP submachine gun is not that bad of a choice when you are now talking about only having to shoot half as many rounds to get the same effect. Yes, I know, shot placement is key, but I’m just playing the averaging game here. Now, yes, you are still at a disadvantage if you have to engage long-range targets to and from the objective. This can be offset if you have crew-served weapons available and CAS (Close Air Support) platforms to cover your approach and exfil. Also, it has been said that distance equals’ time when in a gun fight. I believe this is true. I place more weight on immediate threats than I do with targets at distance. Yes, they can both kill you, but when shooting at close-range (room distance) armed targets, you have very little time to react and put down the threat. I would rather carry a weapon that has the most effectiveness against the biggest threat I might face. This does not mean I only carry UMP 45’s for CQB now, but depending on the threat and terrain (i.e. urban area where the longest field of view could be less than 100 meters) the .45 ACP HK UMP could be the best choice for the mission.
KRISS Vector SMG .45 ACP (formerly KRISS Super V XSMG)
The HK UMP .45 is actually one of two modern designs that I feel has now brought the submachine gun back into the forefront as being a very viable platform for CQB. The other platform is the KRISS Vector SMG .45 ACP. Although I have not shot it personally, the design intent of the KRISS deserves mention; a platform that allows for very little recoil of the .45ACP to facilitate fast and accurate on-target shooting. Feedback from people who have shot the KRISS Vector SMG .45 ACP has been nothing but positive. I know it has been picked up by a few law enforcement tactical teams here in the States.
The Wrap Up
I realize that there's a growing trend in a lot of police SWAT/SRT teams to go all carbine/SBR, but when you're a Police officer and you must account for every round shot, and a lot of your operations take place in U.S. domestic dwellings that don't fare so well stopping 5.56mm rifle rounds, then submachine guns like the KRISS Vector and HK UMP .45 ACP submachine guns might be the best choice. Going back to the original reason why the MP5 lasted so long at the top for CQB, you have a platform that shoots lots of rounds on target with minimal over-penetration, except now you have it in a man-stopping caliber.
So, do I think SMGs are right for CQB? As a military operator faced with a tactical problem where most of the danger is going to be at room distance, both the HK UMP and KRISS Vector .45 SMGs bring the right lethal power needed to get the job done in CQB.
About the Author (Jeff Gurwitch):
- Has been a competitive shooter for the last 10 years: USPSA, IDPA, and 3-Gun.
- U.S. Army 3rd Special Forces Group, Ft. Bragg, NC.
- Spent 3 years as an instructor at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School
- Spent 8 years with U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group, Ft. Campbell KY and did 3 tours in Iraq.
- Graduated the U.S. Army Special Forces Qualification course in 1998 as a Weapons Sergeant.
- Spent 7 years in the mechanized infantry and Airborne.
- Served in First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm) in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division.
- Joined the U.S. Army in June of 1990 as an infantryman.
David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.