The world of counterterrorism is often cloaked in shadows and rarely visible to the average person. That changed in early May of 1980. The world watched after an Arab separatist group from the Khuzestan Province of Iran stormed the Iranian embassy in South Kensington, London. After negotiations failed and the terrorists executed a hostage, Margaret Thatcher picked up a phone and called in the SAS.

The elite British counterterror team assaulted the embassy in broad daylight in front of assembled journalists and pedestrians. They rappelled from the rooftop dressed in black, wearing gas masks and carrying submachine guns. The team entered through the embassy’s windows, skylights and doors.

In the following 17 minutes, the SAS succeeded in freeing all but one of the remaining hostages, killing five of the six terrorists and capturing the sixth. Just as quickly as they appeared, the SAS vanished back into the shadows following what would become known as Operation Nimrod. But images were captured of the counterterror team carrying a unique submachine gun would be forever etched into people’s minds. That now-iconic submachine gun was the MP5.

Behind The MP5

The MP5 is the brainchild and treasure of German gun-maker Heckler & Koch. Officially the “Maschinenpistole 5,” the MP5 is a 9mm submachine gun that began its life in 1964. Eventually designated the MP5A1, this lightweight and reliable submachine gun would see service in 40 different nations for military, law enforcement and security applications over the years.

The MP5 originated in West Germany as the HK54 as part of Project 64. The project was based on the proven design and function of the 7.62mm NATO HK G3 battle rifle. The design team of Tilo Moller, Manfred Guhring and Halmut Baureuter worked for two years to create a reliable submachine gun using the same roller-locked, delayed-blowback action of the parent weapon.

Their attention to detail paid off. In a time where most submachine guns fired from an open bolt, the MP5 was designed for improved accuracy by firing from a closed bolt. No more bolt slamming forward and shifting the balance of the gun. Small submachine guns were notorious for being difficult to manage on target. The MP5 would set a new standard for subgun accuracy. The MP5’s proven roller-delayed blowback action is tremendously reliable, modular, extremely accurate and extraordinarily easy to control when firing.

Notable Variants

According to Heckler & Koch, there are currently over 100 versions of the MP5 in production. It can be almost dizzying to keep track. The primary difference between most versions are stock style, overall length and trigger pack design. While a breakdown of all of the versions could fill this entire magazine, we will look at a few that stand out. The most widely seen version is the MP5A2. This is the full-sized gun with a fixed stock. It comes with the “SEF” trigger group, which includes safe, semi-auto and full-auto fire control positions. These are the versions most commonly used by law enforcement and security teams around the world.

Next up is the MP5K. The “K” stands for the German word for short—“kurz.” This version of the MP5 is almost legend. It was designed for close-quarters battle with clandestine operations and special services.

The MP5K does not have a shoulder stock, and the bolt and receiver were shortened at the rear. The resulting lighter bolt led to a higher rate of fire than the standard MP5. The barrel, cocking handle and its cover were shortened and a vertical foregrip was used to replace the standard handguard. The barrel ends at the base of the front sight, which prevents the use of any sort of muzzle device. This is also the MP5 that was designed to fit and operate inside a special briefcase.

Almost as recognizable as the “K” version is the MP5SD. This MP5 variant features an integral but detachable sound suppressor. The “SD” stands for Schalldämpfer, which is German for “sound suppressor.”

According to HK, “Despite its integrated silencer element, it has the same length and shape as an unsilenced submachine gun. Unlike most conventional silenced submachine guns, it fires standard ammunition types with the same effect. The use of special subsonic ammunition is not necessary. The integrated silencer element suppresses the muzzle flash extremely effectively, as a result of which the weapon is also excellent for night operations using low-light amplifiers. No wonder the MP5SD is one of the most accurate silenced submachine guns of its type.” The MP5SD is a quiet, smooth-shooting Ferrari of the subgun world.

In the late 1980s, HK answered a call from the FBI for an MP5 chambered in the Bureau’s favorite new round at the time, the 10mm Auto, creating the MP5/10. This gun incorporated some differences, including a bolt-hold-open feature. The standard trigger group for the MP5/10 had the three-round burst mode. MP5/10 muzzles were threaded for a suppressor, and a lever-style magazine release located behind the magazine well was installed instead of the standard release button on the HK MP5. Almost all of these guns ended up in the hands of the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). While no longer manufactured, HK still provides support for these weapons.

HK MP5: Into The Future

HK continued to evolve the MP5, and in 1999 the company released the successor to the MP5 empire: the UMP. The UMP (Universale Maschinenpistole, German for “Universal Machine Pistol”) has been developed as a lighter and cheaper successor to the MP5, though both remain in production.

The MP5 is one of the most recognizable firearms on the planet, and it has helped HK reach the status it enjoys today. In many cases, the AR-15 now fills the space that the MP5 once held, but the classic subgun still remains. The MP5 will always be the benchmark for high-end submachine guns.

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