The strange case of the “Hitler assassination rifle”
Special thanks to Wuzh for research featured in this post
It is well documented that the Third Reich developed some very interesting experimental weapons, ranging from revolutionary successes (the StG.44 rifle) to resounding failures (the Maus tank). This is the tale of one such weapon. Hyped up by some writers as the “Hitler assassination rifle”, this obscure curio has a very strange story behind it.
The SDK (Schalldämpfer Karabiner, or “silenced carbine”) is purported to have been commissioned by developed in 1939 on the request of Graf von Helldorff, the Berlin chief of police who was assistant (some might say integral) in Nazi efforts to strip the Jewish population of their civil rights. The weapon was then recovered after the war from von Helldorff’s bombed-out Berlin home by American troops, marked with the serial No.2, indicating another example was mysteriously still out there. It was reportedly tested by Army authorities who were intrigued by the weapon’s design.
And what an odd design it is: a bullpup 9x19mm silenced sniper carbine. The bolt, breech and magazine (a Luger P08 mag) are located in the stock of the gun, and the barrel runs along from the butt to the muzzle, most of it encased inside the large integral suppressor. The safety is located in the pistol grip and the gun features a double-set trigger, a feature usually only seen on hunting and sporting rifles. Even more interestingly, the 9x19mm rounds it was allegedly designed to chamber were completely unmarked, so as to be untraceable, and had soft-nosed tips laced in cyanide.
Illustration of the disassembled SDK, featured in Waffen Revue, July 1976.
These are the claims reported in several magazines in the early 1970s, including Saga and Waffen Revue. Around the same time, the weapon was apparently sold to a private collector for a very large sum of money.
And with a backstory such as that, one can see why a rabid collector would want to get their hands on such a rare and historically significant piece such as this. But it is the perceptive collector that stops and thinks: don’t some of the claims about this rifle seem almost too crazy to be true?
Well, that’s because they are.
All of the above claims about the weapon’s history and development ultimately stem from a single source: a former US Army officer, Lt. Col. James P. Atwood. Stationed in West Berlin after World War II, Atwood made a buck dealing Third Reich memorabilia, and built up a reputation as one of the foremost experts on Nazi daggers and blades, authoring an authoritative book on the subject called Daggers and Edged Weapons of Hitler’s Germany. And while this would seem to be a glowing endorsement for the authentication of the SDK rifle, it seems that Lt. Col. Atwood’s imagination ran away with him sometimes. It was eventually discovered that many of the more exquisite and rare daggers that Atwood had cataloged in his book and sold in person were, in fact, fakes.
Atwood was not afraid to commission local German cutlers to produce elaborate fantasy pieces, some based on existing Nazi daggers and others completely fabricated by his fertile mind. He sold, among many other fakes, a piece passing itself off as Heinrich Himmler’s letter opener, decorated with SS runes. Sales like this, which purported to be of historical magnitude, made Atwood a small fortune amongst the post-war rush for Third Reich relics.
It’s not surprising, then, that it has also been alleged by some that Atwood’s Nazi assassination rifle was a fake, built post-war by a West German gunsmith on behalf of Atwood.
Photograph of the sole specimen SDK, published in Saga, April 1970.
There are also some very interesting (but ultimately unverifiable) rumors about Atwood floating around: that he was a CIA contractor who illegally ran guns through his Georgia-based Merex Corporation, and was involved in the Iran-Contra affair, among other shady business dealings. It’s hard to discern the truth from the conspiracy when it comes to companies like Merex, whose business partners apparently included prominent ex-Nazis like Otto Skorzeny, which makes it difficult to make an objective judgment on whether Atwood was really as knee-deep in the illegal arms trade as certain sources make out. For what it’s worth, however, his name infrequently does crop up in some contemporary news articles surrounding the Iran-Contra affair, including an editorial from the LA Times penned by William Rempel.
But whatever the truth about Atwood’s alleged CIA connections, it is in fact true and now well-known among dagger collectors that he was a forger and a fraud, which inevitably throws the authenticity of this supposed Nazi assassination rifle into serious doubt. Personally, I believe those claiming it to be a fake. Atwood’s story on its own is a pretty tall tale, and I have difficulty accepting that the rifle would survive, undamaged, among the ruins of von Helldorff’s home, especially since his house would have likely been extensive searched by the Gestapo after his involvement in the July 20th plot came to light (von Helldorff was executed for conspiring to assassinate Hitler in 1944).
There exists no verified record of the SDK prior to 1970, certainly not in official Nazi documentation. It would seem obvious that, given Atwood’s background, he likely spun this entire story in an attempt to generate significant interest in the rifle, which he sold in the early 1970s for an exorbitant price. It is probably still sitting in some poor sucker’s private collection somewhere, where it will be passed on through the generations.
Atwood died in hospital in 1997, aged 67, in his home town of Savannah, Georgia. He his buried at Arlington National Cemetery. The legend of his rifle, however, lives on. Most recently, it was featured the popular video game Call of Duty.
It was once said in a certain film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. I imagine this ethos will continue to shadow over this obscure rifle.