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MP-5 Review: The Go To Sub-gun of the Cold War

The MP-5 was the go to submachine gun of the cold war.  It was a Hollywood chick magnet and the sex symbol of a generation.  Where it came from and where it went is a twisted tale of terrorism and ballistics.

This story begins as Nazi Germany ends, the team with the prettiest uniforms lost, due in no small part to their sophisticated weapons which they could not mass produce.  In 1949 Heckler & Koch (the Germans pronounce it Heckler and  Cock.  They never did figure out why Americans find that funny) was founded by engineers Edmund Heckler, Theodor Koch, and Alex Seidel formerly of the Mauser rifle company.  I never could find out why Seidel didn’t get his name on the sign.   H&K made machine tools, sewing machine parts, and gauges and dreamed of the day they would again make guns.

After Germany’s World War Two development of the original Assault Rifle, the StG44 and the more advanced StG45,  various German engineers continued refining the concept in France and Spain.  In 1956, H&K sold the Spanish model B CETME design to the Bundeswehr (German Federal Army).  They called it the G-3. During the 1960s in an interesting reverse of the way the StG44 concept started as a submachine gun and became the first assault rifle, H&K took the G-3, chambered it in 9mm and shrunk it into a submachine gun, warts and all.

In the ’60s almost all sub-guns fired from the open bolt. This means that the bolt stayed open and when the trigger was pulled, the bolt slammed forward shifting the weight and making precision fire difficult. The MAC-10, Uzi, Sten gun, MP38 and the M-3 Grease Gun all fired from the open bolt.

The birth of modern counterterrorist units coincided with the MP-5’s development. It was reliable and fired precisely from the closed bolt. America’s Delta Force started with the M-3 and quickly figured out they were unsuited for hostage rescue.  After the British  SAS had their pictures go around the world holding MP-5s at the Iranian Embassy, it became a legend.

Photo by Sipa Press / Rex Features ( 77629l )
The siege of the Iranian embassy in London ended after a dramatic raid by the SAS. Five Iranian gunmen were killed and one was arrested. Nineteen hostages were set free but one died and two were injured in the crossfire.

The things I am about to tell you may seem strange. I did not learn them on the internet. I learned them at H&K MP-5 Instructor School and Armorer School. I do not have an imagination colorful enough to make this up.

Let’s talk about ergonomics. Why is the original MP-5 impossible to use left-handed? In the German Army, it was forbidden to shoot left-handed. Why is the selector/safety impossible to manipulate with the right hand? The “master grip” of the right hand must never shift. You use the left hand to reach over the gun and manipulate the selector. You put it on auto when you cross the border and put it on safe after the enemy’s capital is captured.

MP5 Fixed Stock (Photo courtesy of

The original MP-5 had a fixed stock. This stock sloped down to put the sights at eye level. This was a solid easy-to-shoot design. Later came a collapsible stock. This stock was designed to shoot in a rifle stance. It is long and when it is extended into its single length, it wobbles. The collapsible stock is higher than the fixed stock. A cheek weld is difficult and to put your eye behind the sights requires you to fold your face around the stock. When you shoot it, you get the sensation of being hit in the face with a piece of rebar.

HK MP5 Folding Stock (Photo courtesy

I took our team guns and had our armorers cut an extra notch into the collapsible stock, so the length of pull would fit when we were wearing body armor. I actually measured the pull for each man to an optimal custom length like a fine English shotgun. This had the additional benefit of removing that irritating wobble. When they noticed the rough cuts in my short stock in the MP-5 Armorers class, they looked at me as if I had just burned a Koran. They were nearly apoplectic and told me such modifications were unnecessary and forbidden. (That would sound better in the original German “Verbotten”).

The British SAS found the stock so worthless that they shot with it collapsed and just pushed the gun into the sling. It was the only way they could figure out how to shoot the MP-5 with a gas mask.

Firing the MP5 SD from support side (photo courtesy of

Magazine changes; now there is a story in itself. Apparently, Europeans don’t drop magazines. One of my mentors was involved in bringing the Sig handgun to the Arizona Department of Public Safety to replace their revolvers. The magazine base plates were popping off. This seemed so bizarre to the Sig that they flew an engineer to Arizona to investigate. This malfunction had never before been observed. With deft Teutonic insight, he quickly determined the problem. He angrily called back home and said “Mien Gott, they drop the magazines on the ground!”

I guess in Europe, human life is cheap and magazines are scarce and valuable. Having paid retail for H&K magazines, I can understand some of that. Sooo, let’s get started. The first thing you have to do is figure out if the magazine is empty. There is no bolt hold open on the MP-5. When I asked one of my H&K instructors about this, he sneered and said “You don’t want your enemy to know when your gun is empty.” I replied, “I think at least one of us should know.”

The first step in the MP-5 reload; guess your gun is empty. You never know for sure until the hammer drops on an empty chamber. Now we have to reach forward and pull the cocking handle back and lock it to the rear. On the typical reload, this launches a live round on to the ground. I guess ammo is plentiful in Europe too. Then you grab the magazine and hit the flapper with your thumb. This design forces you to grab the magazine.

At this point, you may as well retain the magazine because this is not a quick process and hey, those are some pricey mags. The 30 round mags hold 31 rounds. This is a mixed blessing. They will not load under a closed bolt with more than 30 rounds. If you attempt to cheat the H&K design features and tactical reload on a closed bolt, you are flirting with disaster. You may have an empty chamber. You may not be able to insert the mag if you have 31 rounds. Once you get a new mag in position, you lock it in, slap the cocking handle, allowing the bolt to go forward, chambering a round.

H&K makes a mag clamp that holds two magazines together. They are expensive. I found that if I put both mags pointed up, it shifted my arm out disrupting my tight CQB shooting position. When the mags are both up, you shift it quickly to the right and reload. Since you have to retain the mag anyway, it is a good idea. I put one up and one down so that the extra magazine remained on the left side of the gun.

When I showed up for the MP-5 instructor class, my H&K instructor told me gently (read this with a German accent) “Your magazine is upside down.” I explained my situation and my solution. I had been carrying the MP-5 as a duty gun for 3 years at that point. He smiled as though speaking to a moron. He said (again with the accent)  “How do you reload?” I dropped the mag, rotated the gun 90% to the right, the mag 90% to the left and reloaded. “Like this,” I said. He looked at me as though I had just killed a kitten. After several seconds, he said “Do not do that here” and walked away. I was not the honor graduate of the class.


Disassembly is not too difficult. It is harder than an AK and easier than an M-4. It takes a bit of head scratching to figure out the delayed roller blowback system. One of the things I found endearing about the fixed stock was the two holes in it. The takedown pins are stored in these holes when the gun is disassembled. How orderly!


The trigger is OK. The original SEF trigger group is simple and rugged. (So called because the markings are literally SEF; in German this stands for Safe, One, Fire) Once the American DEA started buying H&K guns, things changed, they wanted to buy a 3-round burst rather than teach trigger control.  Those genius bastards at Oberndorf crammed three times as many parts into the same space and invented a working 3 round burst which, unlike the Colt M-4, resets, so every burst is 3 rounds. It is a masterpiece of the engineering like those which lost WWII.

The bad news. They had to send the trigger groups back to Oberndorf for repair because they couldn’t explain it in English. They later corrected this. This is also when the pictographs (pictures of rounds next to the selector) appeared. Not only could non-Germans figure it out, but even illiterates could also shoot it!

The DEA contract guns had a flash hider, night sights, an ambidextrous selector (which can equally not be manipulated by either hand) and an ambidextrous sling. This sling hangs the gun from the pin that holds the stock on the gun. If the bolt loosens up, the gun will disassemble itself. That is some high adventure stuff right there.


The MP-5 is pretty reliable. It will shoot dirty but it does not tolerate debris in the locking cam detents. There is one part that has to be replaced routinely, the extractor spring.  It is made from a steel paper clip that is plated in copper and it just breaks after a while.  I have read that NASA (yes that NASA) security has one MP-5 they have logged over 1 million rounds through. It is so over-designed I have no difficulty believing this.

The most common wear or breakage parts on the MP-5 are the copper-colored extractor springs & the roller retainer. With that said, you still should get thousands of rounds of use from both items before needing to replace either item. All in all the MP-5 is a super robust firearm with very little maintenance required.


Zeroing? There is a special sight tool, known in the field as “the $75 Phillips head screwdriver.” This device has a Phillips head which adjusts windage, and a two-horned contraption which depresses two detents to adjust elevation.

This goes back to another quaint European idea. Shooters shouldn’t adjust the sights. Expert craftsmen in Obendorf adjusted those sights; you will just screw it up. The sight tool is designed to PREVENT the adjustment of sights unless you pay the toll. There is a rotating drum with different size apertures. These don’t change the point of impact; they just provide different amounts of light in.


Accuracy? It is difficult to hit a head at 100 meters. Out to 25 meters it is surgical. There are optics mounts which grip the lugs on the MP-5 receiver. A dot sight on one of these mounts goes a long way towards making the collapsible stock eye relief work.

The MP-5K (K=Kurtz, German for ‘short’) is a specialized variant which is short. Without a stock, it is hard to shoot and the only advantage it has over a pistol is the 30 round mag.

The coolest thing H&K ever did was build a special briefcase designed to shoot the MP-5K. It even caught the brass! The Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) put a stock on it and gave aircrews some full auto capability that strapped to a leg. If I was a downed pilot, I would probably shoot one at a time.

The MP-5 SD (SD = Schalldämpfer, German for “sound suppressor”) is quiet with a CDI (Chicks Dig It) factor off the scale. There is, however, an ugly secret. In 1989, you could find these low signature babies in the arms rooms of every elite unit in America.

On December 20th, 1989, all of that changed.

During the early hours of Operation Just Cause in Panama, some of these units shot PEOPLE with these guns. You see, the barrel on the MP-5 SD is short and it has holes in it. It takes most 9mm rounds below the speed of sound. This is why it is quiet. This is why it is non-lethal. Shooting paper, it makes terrifying rips and tears.

After shooting people with poor results, the M-4 became America’s sweetheart and the MP-5 became the retro gun favored by people who don’t understand physics.

While it is no longer the gun of choice on the battlefield, the MP-5 is a piece of history and a very reliable 9mm platform.  Americans can still get these in all flavors from HK-94 to MP-5SD as well as G-3 clones.

Zenith Firearms is making a new pistol braced MKE Z-5RS which has all the fun of the original without the tax stamp or a felony.  Be on the lookout, they will be hitting stores shortly. My question for Zenith?  When are you going to make a briefcase?

To call the Zenith guns “clones” is not accurate. These guns are license built on German H&K machining and jigs. These are as H&K as any guns made any where.

Zenith can rebuild older delayed roller blow back guns from any manufactorer and they have a number of upgrades that bring the MP-5 into the 21st century.  Adjustable stocks, Sight mounts, M-Lok forearms, improved bolt handles and trigger jobs are all options.

The Zenith guns are every bit as fun as the originals and much easier to buy and maintain. The CDI (Chicks Dig It) factor on these guns is off the scale.  What more do you need to know? Zenith provides customer service, training, full maintenance support and spare parts.

What you don’t get from Zenith is a big price tag or a bad attitude.

Featured Photo: Zenith Z-5P SB Classic courtesy of Zenith Firearms.

About the Author /

Mark Miller is a former Customs Agent and a Green Beret who served in Afghanistan and a number of other live fire locations. A student of firearms and shooting, he is an FFL and a SOT. The guiding philosophy of his life is that terrain and situation dictate tactics and the enemy always gets a vote on any plan.


  • Raffi

    September 27, 2019

    The MP-5 is a classic. There is nothing else like it.

  • Roy J Couvillion

    November 16, 2019

    Mark, your story about the Panama ballistics experiment helps to resolve my inability to understand why LE agencies are abandoning the MP5.
    We developed Zenith’s D9-Z suppressor. As a result, I’ve become quite fond of the MP5s and routinely demonstrate them to LE agencies as part of our dog-and-pony show. Many at those demonstrations have never before touched an MP5 and comment on how much better control they have over other weapons. When I ask the old-guard why they abandoned the MP5, their answers are not compelling (at best). Many comment that the MP5’s lethal range is just too short, and that they need the extra reach. That doesn’t explain abandoning the MP5 for CQB.

    Now, consider that they are using SDs as their comparative standard.

    Keeping it simple (which is an effort for an engineer…we like details and think everyone wants to hear them), the SD slows the 124gr bullet down to below the speed of sound, AND it reduces the muzzle blast.
    Newer ammo with 147gr and heavier bullets leave a suppressed MP5 with more energy (F=ma). If we assume all other factors equal (BC, MV, target range, etc.), the heavy bullet fired from the suppressed MP5 will transfer more energy into the target than the 124gr from an SD, and both would be quiet.
    With a suppressed MP5, you have the option of sub-sonic or high velocity. With an SD, you only get slow.

    Am I missing anything here?
    What are your thoughts on why LE agencies are abandoning MP5s for CQB?

    • Mark Miller

      November 16, 2019

      The MP-5 has a lot to offer. New ammunition technology has increased the effective kinetic energy we can get from an MP-5 and advanced suppressors like the Zenith D9-Z can keep LE agencies from destroying hearing while shooting next to each other in rooms. The only advantages a .223 platform has over the MP-5 in close quarters is penetrating soft body armor and last round bolt hold open. The MP-5’s robust reliability, lack of a gas system and compact size make it ideal for working inside buildings and operations in and around vehicles. This is the majority of actions LE agencies perform.

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