In the world of submachine guns, a few designs stand out and get their due credit. The Thompson, the Sten gun, the MP5, and some others have all earned their place among the legends of martial prowess. One submachine gun that’s earned its place on this list is the Carl Gustaf M/45, also known as the Swedish K. The Swedish K has a storied history abroad and even managed to find its way into the hands of some specialized American forces.
Maybe the reason the Swedish K isn’t as well known by American gun buffs as some other SMGs is that it served with the always secretive CIA and new-at-the-time Navy SEAL teams when America put it to work. In American hands, the Swedish K saw a trial by combat in Southeast Asia, but the origin of the gun starts long before Vietnam kicked off.
The Birth of the Swedish K
The Swedish K submachine started life unsurprisingly in Sweden. The Carl Gustaf factory was a state-owned armory in the 1940s, and the Carl Gustaf was named after Karl Gustav, the king of Sweden in the 1600s. In the 1940s, the Swedes wanted an SMG, and both the Gustav firm and my favorite chainsaw manufacturer, Husqvarna, entered the contest. The Gustav firm won with the M/45.
The Swedish K was developed in 1945 and was certainly a product of its time. World War Two had just ended, and the submachine gun was a critical weapon for warfare at the time. The Swedes pulled from the hard-learned lessons of the massive conflict and implemented handy features from numerous designs, including the Sten Gun, the Russian PPSH 41, and German MP40 submachine guns.
As such, the M/45 proved to be very robust and capable. While many wartime SMGs had corners cut to improve production times, the Swedish K was also remarkably well-engineered. Like most SMGs of the time, the K utilized a direct blowback system that operated off of an open bolt design. Internally it’s a remarkably simple system that had proven its effectiveness throughout the Second World War.
The M/45 fired the 9mm round and originally used 50-round quad stacked ‘coffin’ magazines. However, like most coffin mags, these proved unreliable and were ditched in favor of standard double-stack 36 round magazines. The Swedes didn’t even waste time with a semi-auto setting or manual safety.
The Swedish K was full-auto only, though the Swedes did include a notch to restrain the bolt which acted as a rudimentary safety. The gun utilized a robust side folding stock. It featured an 8.34-inch barrel, weighed 7.38 pounds, and was 31.81 inches with the stock deployed.
Why the Spooks, Spies, and SEALs like the M/45
Fast forward to the beginning of America’s involvement in Vietnam. The rifle of the day was the M14. The M14 sucked for a number of reasons, but for special operations, it sucked because it was big, heavy, and cumbersome; especially in jungle operations. The Swedish K presented a lighter and shorter option that was controllable for full-auto fire. If you know your guns, that might lead you to ask, then why the Swedish K over the Grease Gun or the Thomspon?
Well, lots of times out, Special Operators and Spies were working in places they weren’t legally allowed to be. Laos, in particular, became the subject of numerous black ops. A 9mm SMG from a neutral country leads to plausible deniability. At the time, the U.S. pistol and SMG round of choice was the .45 ACP, and the M3 and Thompson were distinctly American.
After World War 2, there were plenty of 9mm SMGs running around, but the Swedish K stood out. For one, its 600 round per minute firing rate made it very easy to control. Second, the weapon was extremely reliable and worked well in water-borne conditions. The weapon could be fired almost as soon as an operator came out of the water. It even seemed immune to sand that clung to it after these beach-bound excursions.
The folding stock would certainly be handy in ultra close quarters and shrunk the weapon considerably if need be. Suppressors could be easily attached to make things quiet. Noise might be a concern when scoping an enemy village or outpost for precious intelligence.
In Heroes Hands
Green Beret Staff Sergeant Drew Dix wielded a Swedish K in action, which earned him a Medal of Honor. While the gun was handy for jungles and swamps, it was also ready for urban combat. Short, full auto, easy to control guns often are. In the first days of the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong attacked Chau Phu.
Staff Sergeant Dix decided that would just not do and grabbed his Swedish K and organized a relief force. He and his men stormed the city and conducted rescue operations for Americans trapped in the fray. During the next few days, Staff Sergeant Dix and his Swedish K killed at least 14 enemy fighters. Along the way, he captured 20 prisoners and rescued 14 civilians who were under siege.
The End of the M/45
The Swedes weren’t stoked about the U.S. Intervention in Vietnam and issued an arms embargo against the United States in 1966. This ended the supply of Swedish K SMGs but didn’t end the demand. Smith and Wesson stepped in to fill the gap and produced a clone called the M76, but by the time they got the gun ready for production, America’s clandestine forces in Vietnam had moved on.
The kinks of the M16 had been worked out, and Special Operations community had largely turned to the CAR 15/XM177 variants. These guns were short and light and fired a rifle round, rather than a 9mm pistol round. The 5.56 round offered greater power, greater range, and more penetration. The Swedish K certainly served honorably in its time in Vietnam, but that time was over.