In North America, the Heckler and Koch G3 may sit in the shadow of the FAL and M14, but Western bias aside, this weapon is without argument one of the best and most popular 7.62x51mm NATO caliber combat rifles in history. Further, it’s still in heavy use around the globe.
Why was it born?
After World War 2, the West German army and police forces were left with a hodgepodge of Nazi-era weaponry. While the StG44 assault rifle, Mauser K98 bolt-action rifle, and MP38/40 series of subguns were an answer to 1940s combat, a decade later they were being rapidly outclassed by the new Soviet AK-style weapons. While the AK47 itself was based on the StG44, the West Germans had no way to make more of that classic weapon. This left them looking for a new main rifle in the 1950s.
They bought 100,000 FALs from FN in Belgium after that weapons introduction but they needed more and the Belgians refused to grant the Germans a license to produce them. That put the new republic on a search for a modern battle rifle that they could make in-country. Oddly enough, this led them to a German design in Spain.
They call me CETME
During the last days of World War 2, the Mauser firm had developed what they felt to be one über cool assault rifle. Named the StG45(M), it was designed by Wilhelm Stahle, Theodor Löffler and Ludwig Vorgrimler to be a better assault rifle than the Haenel-built StG44. Lighter and simpler to manufacture, at its heart the StG45 used a modified machine gun action, specifically the roller-delayed blowback design of the famous MG42. The war ended before the ’45 could be put into production but Vorgrimler and company managed to escape the flaming bombed-out Mauser factory with their lives—and ideas.
After cooling their heels in France working for CEAM where they made the AME49 rifle, they moved on to Spain. There they founded Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales (Center for Technical Studies of Special Materials- CETME) where they came up with that firm’s Modelo A rifle in 1957. Chambered for a low-powered 7.62x51mm round, it used the StG45’s roller-locked action with a 20-round detachable aluminum box magazine in a select-fire rifle that was still controllable on full-auto. This rifle was soon adopted by the Spanish military of Francisco Franco, who had a known soft-spot for German weapon designs.
It was then that West Germany came calling on Vorgrimler and the CETME concern. After some modifications, namely strengthening the gun to be able to fire full NATO-strength 7.62x51mm, CETME sold the rights to the designs to Heckler and Koch who by 1959 had the weapon in full-scale production.
Design of the G3
Named the G3 by the German military, the weapon was modular and the buttstock, forearm furniture, and trigger pack could all be removed and swapped out to change or upgrade the weapon in the field. Formed from a simple sheet of steel bent to make the receiver, the gun was cheap to make and did not require excessive machining. Since the bolt of the weapon extends out over the barrel, it was more compact than other weapons firing full-size rounds. In fact, the charging handle for the rifle was on the left hand side of the barrel, not on the receiver itself. It proved accurate enough for use as a designated marksman’s rifle out to 800-meters, but still simple enough for a raw recruit to be trained on in a short amount of time.
The rifle tipped the scales right at 9-pounds and was 40-inches long with a 17.7-inch barrel. Collapsible stock options (G3A4) as well variants with 12.4-inch commando shortened barrels (the G3K) could drop size if needed while heavy barrel models like the G3SG/PSG1 could be used with long range optics for precision marksmanship.
The basic design was so good that HK copied it in a number of different calibers to create some other world-renowned weapons such as the MP5 9mm submachine gun, the HK33 5.56mm rifle, and the belt-fed HK23/21 light machine guns. Internally these guns are the same as their G3 grandfather, just shrunk or stretched to accommodate new purposes and chamberings.
The design of the new gun proved extremely popular. Soon after the West German military adopted the weapon, with HK producing 700,000 guns, orders started to come in from around the world. Small countries like Denmark, South Africa, the UAE, and Luxembourg along with a few larger ones put in orders for the new battlerifle. Overall, some fifty countries adopted the gun in whole or in part and it has seen steady combat in dozens of conflicts across the globe (with very few complaints).
But the real numbers came through licensing. Simple and cheap to make, HK set up franchises for the gun around the world—for a fee, of course—and licensed production of the G3 ran rampant in the 70s and 80s. West Germany’s NATO allies Norway, Portugal, Turkey, and Greece made more than a million rifles of their own. The G3 was also produced on license in large and sometimes unknown quantities by Mexico, Sweden, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and others. First imported by the Shah and still in low-scale production, the country of Iran has made no less than a million for their huge land army.
To put a figure on total production of CETME/G3 rifles around the world in the 20th Century is purely speculation but stands at a conservative five million.
How it compares to the competition
When stacked up amongst its battle-rifle buddies right now: the FAL, the M14, the French MAS49/56, and Soviet SVT, the HK G3 is by far seeing the most widespread service across the globe. Yes, the FAL was the ‘Free World’s Right Arm’ and saw more initial service than the G3 but after 1990 was rapidly replaced. At the same time the G3 was still being used in very large quantities by Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey and continues to be so to this day. A quarter million M14s were dusted off Post-9/11 by the US military and it is still in use by overseas allies such as the Philippines, but the G3 still by far outnumbers it in common service.
This is in a large part due to HK’s tendency to license rifles out to local production. The FAL was made locally in ten countries, but the G3 was produced in no less than 14, and in much more quantity.
The G3 beats the French and Soviets in magazine capacity, having twice as much as the MAS and SVT. It had a much shorter profile than any of the other 7.62x51mm battle rifles, with an overall length of just 40-inches (compared to the FAL’s 50 and the M14’s 45 for example). Its roller-delayed blowback is seen by many to be more reliable than the gas-operated piston actions of its rivals. This is borne out by the fact that the FAL was notoriously unreliable in desert conditions while the G3 has been adopted and by all accounts loved across the Middle East. In short, the German battlerifle inherited the spot that the Mauser bolt-action rifle once held and is still treading water.
Although it has been rapidly sidelined inside NATO by 5.56mm rifles since the 1990s, the gun remains hugely popular overseas.
Getting your own
With so many G3s in the world, you would expect the gun to be more popular in the United States. Sadly, since most of the large users (Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Germany etc.) still have their stocks on-hand either in active service or in reserve, few have floated over to the states. There was a movement pre-1986 to import some honest to goodness West German-made select-fire HKG3 models into the country, but these are rare. Other than that there are some German semi-auto HK91s that have been given full auto sears and are transferable for around $15K.
Speaking of semi-autos, there are lots of them out there. First were the Golden State Firearms marked models in the 1960s, which command premium prices. Then there are the almost 50,000 semi-auto only HK sporter guns, designated HK91 that were brought into the country before they were banned in 1989. With the “evil” pistol grip replaced with a thumbhole buttstock abomination, the gun was brought in as the SR9 for a few more years before Clinton slammed the door for good on high-quality HK semi-autos coming in after 1997. Today these guns, due to carrying the ‘pre-ban’ moneymaker moniker run many times their original 1990s MSRP of $999. Typical starting points are about double that amount, and that’s just for starters.
A note should be made of the HK G3-based PSG-1 rifles. These guns were heavily modified 17.8-pound marksman rifles marketed to law enforcement SRT teams. Sold with 5-round magazines, adjustable everything, and an HK-supplied 6×42 Hensholdt optic, these guns sold for $10K from the distributor when new and still imported. With that in mind, picking up one of these ‘post-ban’ on today’s markets can bankrupt you quick. With that in mind, watch out for those evildoers who modified regular HK91/SR9 sporters and try to sell them as much more expensive PSG-1s.
Springfield Armory imported what they called the SAR-3 and SAR-8 rifles in the 1990s. They were made in Greece by EBO/EAS, the government owned armory that has made G3s under license from HK for decades. The fit, finish, and support given by SA for these guns has made them less desirable with collectors and these guns often can be had for as low as $1000.
Outfits like Century Arms have pushed Kit guns, made from surplus parts of questionable age and origin over new semi-auto sheet metal receivers, for the past twenty years. This company sold CETME and G3 sporter reworks for as low as $299 in the late 1990s. Today these guns, if they work, are worth under $800 and coupled with the seemingly endless supply of dirt-cheap surplus G3 mags and number of aftermarket updates can make nice entry-level battlerifles.
For a few dollars more, however, you can get into a PTR91, made by the company who used to be JLD. They bought the HK tooling from Portugal in 2002, which makes these near-clones of the actual G3. PTR makes more than 30 semi-auto variants of the G3 at the small 60-person factory in Aynor, South Carolina at MSRPs that start around $999.
Overall, it looks like the G3 could be around for another fifty years, no problem.