Evolution of the Heckler & Koch G3
The Heckler & Koch G3 is one of the most recognisable weapons of the latter 20th century. Part of the holy trinity of Western rifles during the Cold War, along with the FAL and the M16. The Gewehr 3 was adopted by the West German Army in 1959, instead of the FN FAL. Over the next 25 years it was adopted by 45 more countries and spawned a family of revolutionary weapons which made Heckler & Koch’s name.
Its development is a fascinating story spanning 30 years of some of Germany’s most difficult history. The origins of the G3's firing mechanism began during the last months of World War Two. In 1942 Mauser began development of a new rifle, theMaschinenkarabiner Gerät 06 (machine carbine device 06 - see photograph 1). It was intended to be lighter and easier to construct alternative to the already adopted StG-44.
It ingeniously took the tried and tested firing mechanism of Germany’s excellent general purpose machine gun the MG42, which fired from a closed bolt using two rollers which locked into recesses in the receiver to delay the bolt. Mauser simplified the design by having a fixed instead of moving barrel and chambered it in the new intermediate Kurz round. During testing it was realised that the short stroke gas piston which was used to push the bolt back was not needed and was removed leading to the Gerät 06H (see photograph 2) which fired from a half-locked breech, it was to be adopted as the StG-45 but the war ended before production could begin.
While the rifle didn’t see action during the war members of its original development team continued to work on the system, first in Bavaria, later in France and Spain before finally returning to Germany in the 1960s.
A cutaway diagram of the roller delayed blowback system showing the rifle in battery.
Following the war the German armaments industry was all but destroyed with Mauser and Walther’s factories being dismantled and repurposed. While some German designers were put to work in both the US and USSR (Hugo Schmeisser was one of many forced to work in Russia). The French instead had the Mauser development section simply begin to work for them, eventually transferring the workforce and machinery to France. It was in France that the next step of the G3’s evolution took place. With German expertise the French set up Centre d’Etudes et d’Armament de Mulhouse (CEAM), a weapons development unit in Mulhouse, Alsace. It was here that Ludwig Vorgrimler and Theodor Löffler began work perfecting the Gerät 06H. By 1949 they had developed the CEAM Modèle 1950 (see photograph 3), chambered first in the Gerät’s original 7.92×33mm Kurz and later in US .30 carbine. The design followed the same roller delayed blowback principle as the Gerät but the project was scrapped by the French in 1950 and Vorgrimler left CEAM.
With the German small arms industry still stifled by sanctions Vorgrimler took a position at Spain’s CETME, the Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales (or Center for Technical Studies of Special Materials). There he continued development of the CEAM M1950 design chambering it in several experimental CETME rounds including 7.92mm and 7.62mm. The CETME Modelo A was ready for production by the mid 1950s and was accepted by the Spanish Army in 1956 as the CETME Modelo B(see photograph 4), the CETME is still Spain’s service rifle today.
Cutaway diagram of the HK G3
At this point the evolution of the G3 becomes a story of political wrangling and international business. In 1959 the newly reformed West German Army was in need of a new rifle. The FN-FAL had originally been the favourite however FN was unwilling to give Germany a license to produce it. Attention instead turned to the CETME Modelo B, which tested favourably against other options. The only problem was that the license to manufacture CETMEs outside of Spain was owned by Nederlandse Wapen en Munitiefabriek (NWP) a Dutch armaments firm.
The West German government bought the license from NWP, offering them an ordnance contract to sweeten the deal. Thus the G3, as the CETME was now officially designated in Germany, became a state owned design. Contracts to produce the first runs of the rifle were farmed out to numerous German armaments companies, not just H&K. Over the next several years H&K further refined the design, adding plastic stock furniture and strengthening the main spring and buffer to allow the G3 to fire full power NATO 7.62mm, instead of CETME’s slightly weaker 7.62mm round.
By the late 1960s H&K had negotiated with Rheinmetall, the other major G3 manufacturer, to take over the contract in full - in return for agreeing not to enter a rival design in the West German Army’s competition for a new general purpose machine gun, which Rheinmetall’s MG 3 went on to win. In 1977 the German government decided to sell the rights to the G3 which H&K bought outright, making it the sole owner of the design.
In the late 1960s H&K developed the HK33 (see photograph 6), essentially a scaled down G3, which was chambered in the new 5.56mm NATO round, this rifle became a popular export rifle but the German Army continued to favour the larger calibre G3.
The G3 has proven to be a reliable and robust rifle, while the roller delayed blowback system requires close tolerances and complex machining it makes for a highly reliable weapon which does not foul easily. Over a dozen variations of the G3 have been built since its adoption in 1959 and it has seen service with an estimated 60 armies around the world and taken part in dozens of conflicts from the Rhodesian Bush War, Irish Troubles, both Gulf Wars and of course with German ISAF forces currently in Afghanistan.
Following the success of the G3, H&K created an entire range of firearms based on the same roller delayed blowback system, including the MP5 submachine gun and PSG-1 marksman’s rifle. These weapons have been extremely successful with the MP5 becoming one of the most popular submachine guns of the 20th century. However, with the failure of the revolutionary G11 caseless ammunition rifle in the 1980s H&K developed the G36 chambered in 5.56mmfor the German military. The G36 uses a short stroke pistol firing mechanism with a rotating bolt much like the British L85 and ArmaLite AR-18 abandoning the long favoured roller delayed blowback system.
Above are photographs representing each stage of the rifle’s development. From top to bottom:
Mauser Gerat 06 (Source)
Mauser StG-45 (Gerat 06H) (Source)
CEAM Modèle 1950 (Source)
CETME Modelo B / mod. 58 (Source)
Heckler & Koch G3 (Source)
Heckler & Koch HK33 (Source)
NRA Museum’s Article on the CETME
Jane’s Guns, I. V. Hogg, (1996)
Military Small Arms of the 20th Century, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)
Military Small Arms, (1994), G. Smith
More firearms evolution can be found here, with the Evolution of the STEN and the Evolution of the Lee-Enfield Rifle.