Heckler & Koch G41

 

In 1981, Heckler & Koch introduced what would be their last infantry rifle that used their tried and tested roller-delayed blowback action, the HK G41. In October 1980, following NATO’s smalls arms and ammunition testing during the late 1970s, a meeting of NATO Armament Directors, agreed to standardise to the 5.56x45mm round favoured by the United States since the mid-1960s. Standardisation Agreement (STANAG) 4172 saw NATO standardise on the Belgian/FN SS109 ball round. At the same time Draft STANAG 4179 proposed adopting US 30-round M16 magazines as the standard 5.56 magazine pattern, while this proposal wasn’t ratified the M16’s magazine became the de facto standard.

At this time Heckler & Koch were engaged in a major engineering project to develop the G11 caseless ammunition-firing individual weapon. Their main offering for the 5.56x45mm rifle market at the time was the HK33, a rechambered version of the 7.62x51mm G3 developed by Tilo Moller, which was introduced in 1965. The HK33, however, used a proprietary HK magazine and was not compatible with the M16’s magazines. In 1977, as the NATO trials began and it became clear that 5.56x45mm would be adopted, HK began to develop what would become the G41. In 1979 with initial development completed HK submitted 18 G41s for testing with the West German Army. It wasn’t until 1981 that HK introduced the G41 onto the market.

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Left and right profile views of the G41 (Matthew Moss)

While continuing to use the same roller delayed blowback operating system as the G3, HK33 and MP5, the G41 embodied a number of improvements. While still using a stamped metal receiver it utilised 1mm thick high tensile steel rather than the 1.2mm thick steel used by the HK33. This helped to lighten the receiver. The new rifle also used a lighter bolt assembly, paired with a new recoil spring which comprised of five wound strands around a central coil, rather than a single coil, which had a longer stroke. This acted to lower the felt recoil. The G41, however, had a higher rate of fire at around 850 rounds per minute compared to the 750 rounds per minute of the HK33.  Some of the G41’s bolt geometries were reworked and a new extractor was added.

The G41’s lower receiver was redesigned to allow the rifle to feed from STANAG magazines rather than HK’s earlier proprietary magazines. The cocking lever and forward assist were taken from the HK21A1 (XM262) general purpose machine gun, developed for the US SAW trials.

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HK G41 (top) and HK33 (bottom) field stripped (Matthew Moss)

It also had a new more triangular polymer foregrip and added a plastic dust cover to the ejection port, a NATO pattern optics mount (meeting STANAG 2324) replaced HK’s claw-mount system, and a spring-loaded folding carrying handle near the centre of balance was added. Importantly it also added a last round hold open device and a bolt release catch, on the left side of the lower receiver.

The usual thumb serrations on the side of the bolt, for pushing the bolt home, were replaced by a prominent forward assist, similar to that found on the M16A1 and other HK weapons such as the HK21 light machine gun and the PSG-1 sniper rifle. HK sales literature described it as a ‘low noise’ forward assist and the manual describes the “quiet cocking of the weapon” – essentially riding the cocking handle back into battery and then pushing the forward assist to lock the action, the system is not as ‘low noise’ as advertised.

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Right side of the G41, note the addition of a forward assist and dust cover (Matthew Moss)

Another important feature of the rifle was the inclusion of a three-round burst setting alongside semi and fully automatic. The G41 could mount a standard G3 bayonet, fit an M16 bipod and had a flash hider designed to enable it to fire NATO standard rifle grenades. The 40mm HK79 under barrel grenade launcher could also be mounted to all variants of the G41, simply swapping it out for the polymer forend. HK referred to this set up as the G41-TGS or ‘Tactical Group Support system’.

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Spread from a 1985 HK promotional product brochure showing the various G41 configurations (HK)

The G41 came in a number of variants with designations A1 to A3. The base rifle had a fixed buttstock and its rifling had 1 turn in 7 inches with a right-hand twist, in a 18.9 inch barrel. The A1 had a 1 in 12” twist barrel and fixed buttstock. The A2 had a collapsing, single position stock and 1 in 7” inch twist rifling, while the A3 had 1 in 12” inch twist rifling. The 1 in 7” rifling was optimised for the new SS109, while the 1 in 12” optimised for the US M193 round. There was also a shortened G41K model which had a collapsing stock and a 15 inch barrel available with both rifling types.

One of the main issues with the G41 was its weight. Despite efforts to lighten the sheet metal receiver, it weighed more than its predecessor the HK33. According to measurement data compiled by researcher Nathaniel F, unloaded the G41 weighs in at 4.31kgs or 9.5 lbs, this is a full pound heavier than the HK33. A contemporary M16A2 weighed 3.39kg or 7.5 lbs while the Spanish CETME L, a similar stamped receiver rifle chambered in 5.56×45, weighed 3.72kg or 8.2 lbs. The rifle eventually adopted by the Bundeswehr, the HK G36, weighed 3.13kg or 7.3 lbs.  The G41K with its collapsing steel stock wasn’t much lighter, weighing 4.3kg or 9.5 lbs, according to HK sales literature. Another potential issue may have been reliability with the move to the STANAG magazine rather than the optimised proprietary HK magazines may have introduced some issues.

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The bolts of the HK G41 (top) and HK33 (bottom), note the redesigned extractor, forward assist serrations on the bolt carrier and the G41’s thicker but shorter recoil spring (Matthew Moss)

Following NATO’s decision the early 1980s saw a large number of countries looking to replace their ageing 7.62x51mm battle rifles. Sweden began to look for a 5.56x45mm rifle to replace its licensed version of the G3, the Ak4, in the late 1970s. HK could initially only offer the HK33 but the G41, tested later, was also rejected by the Swedes in favour of FN’s FNC. Italy sought to replace the BM59 with a more modern rifle and HK entered into an agreement with Luigi Franchi which saw them offer both the original HK configuration and the develop their own, slightly modified version, the Franchi mod. 641, but the Beretta AR70/90 was selected. Similarly, in 1984 Spain decided to adopt the indigenously developed CETME L. In 1986 the HK G41 was also submitted to the Irish Army’s trials to replace the FN FAL, it was beaten by the Steyr AUG. Initially West Germany had hoped to procure up to 20,000 HK G11 rifles per year, with a total of 224,000 in service by 2003.

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HK’s G11 and G41 (Matthew Moss)

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent reunification of Germany saw Federal budgets stretched and the G11 programme was subsequently abandoned entirely. The Bundeswehr still needed a suitable rifle to replace the G3 and in the 1990s sought a lighter weight rifle. HK felt their HK50 project, in development since the mid-1970s was a better bet than the heavier G41, and following Bundeswehr trials the G36 was subsequently adopted in 1997. Sadly, I have not been able to get a hold of any of the trials reports from the nations that tested the G41, so can not say with certainty why the countries mentioned above rejected HK’s rifle.

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Graphic from HK’s manual for the G41 (HK)

From photographs of members of the Turkish Gendarmerie special operations group training at the Foça Commando School, dating from the early 2010s, it appears that Turkey either purchased a number of G41s or Turkey’s state-owned defence manufacturer, MKEK, produced an unknown number under license.At some point in the 1980s the British Army also tested a small number G41s with serial numbers #11131, #11832 and #11833 remaining in UK collections.

Denmark’s elite Jaegerkorpset and Froemandskorpset used the G41 for a time and Argentina’s special forces, including the Grupo de Operaciones Especiales, have also been photographed with both HK G41s and G41A2(collapsing stock) fitted with the TGS package comprising of the HK79 under barrel grenade launcher.

Argentine commandos with HK G41
Argentina’s Grupo de Operaciones Especiales on parade with G41s and the G41-TGS, grenade launcher package (source)

The G41 represents the last evolution of HK’s infantry rifles using the roller delayed blowback action. It comes from a period when HK were developing what they hoped would be the next generation of small arms technology and with the collapse of the G11 programme and the lack of interest in the G41 the company faced financial uncertainty throughout the early 1990s. HK’s move away from the roller delayed blowback action to a more conventional gas operated rotating bolt system, combined with lightweight polymers, in the G36 proved to be more successful than the ill-fated G41.


Specifications (standard G41 rifle model):

Length: 39in (99cm)
Weight (unloaded): 4.31kgs or 9.5 lbs
Barrel Length (not including flash hider): 17.7in (45cm)
Action: Roller-delayed blowback
Calibre: 5.56x45mm
Feed: 30 round STANAG magazines
Cyclic Rate: ~850rpm


Bibliography:

The World’s Assault Rifles, G.P. Johnston & T.B. Nelson, (2016)

Die G11 Story, W. Story, (1993)

Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking, R. Blake Stevens (2006)

The 5.56 Timeline, D. Watters, (source)

1985 HK Brochure on the G41 Series (via SAR Archive)

HK G41 Owner’s Manual (via SAR Archive)


Our thanks to the collection that holds this rifle for their kind permission to examine and film it. Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench, 2019.

Stripping the HK G11

Our thanks to the collection that holds the G11 for the privileged and nerve-wracking opportunity to field strip it and take a look inside. If you’d like to know more about the history of the G11’s development you can check out our video and full blog on it here. Vic has done a great series of videos looking at the G11 and the other prototype rifles from the US Army’s abortive Advanced Combat Rifle trials – you can find those here.


In this blog we’ll take a closer look at some of the G11’s components, for a demonstration of dissassembly and and explanation of how the rifle works in principal check out the video above.

Firstly, lets take a look at the exterior of the rifle. The weapon has a box-like polymer coated outer shell. The shell is made up of three parts, with the butt assembly and forend locking into the centre assembly which includes the pistol grip, trigger mechanism and optical sight. The forend and butt are locked into the centre assembly by plastic locking tabs. While stiff and somewhat difficult to depress the tabs are reportedly prone to breaking.

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Left side view of the G11 (Matthew Moss)

Before we look at the G11’s internals lets take a look at the shell components. Here we can see the inside of the forend, we can see a metal (aluminium I believe) barrel tube into which the barrel slides.

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Close up of the the inside of the G11’s forend (Matthew Moss)

Below is a photograph of the rear of the centre assembly looking forward, the small white circle (sadly slightly out of focus) is the bushing the barrel protrudes through into the forend.

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The G11’s centre assembly houses a metal guide rail and magazine guide as well as the trigger mechanism (Matthew Moss)

Next we have a view of the inside of the rifle’s butt assembly. Note the scuff marks on the inside where the centre assembly has scrapped the plastic. We can also see the locking tab windows which are on the top and bottom of the butt.

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A view inside the G11’s butt stock (Matthew Moss)

Inside the butt we can see the ‘toothed wheel’ and ‘sealing gear’ which are turned when the cocking piece is rotated. These plastic pieces act directly on the action. Behind that is the gas escape valve, which will tap off excess gas if over pressure problems occur with the rifle.

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A close up of the sealing gear and toothed wheel that interface with the cocking handle (Matthew Moss)

The first step to disassembling the G11 is ensuring the weapon is clear by pushing the cleaning brush up into the breech.

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Close up of the G11’s cleaning brush, housed inside the pistol grip (Matthew Moss)

Lets now take a look at the rifle’s action up close, below we can see the G11 with its forend and butt assembly removed. Next to it is the breech cylinder and control disk.

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The G11 field stripped (Matthew Moss)

Here are some photos of the action from various angles:

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A view of the action from the rear. We can see the striker assembly, clamping plate, ejector lever and cylinder retaining catch (Matthew Moss)
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From the right side of the gun we can see the two gears which work the breech cylinder – the spur gear and the actuating gear (Matthew Moss)
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On the underside of the action we can see the rear of the clamping plate, the slide – which is slightly worn, and the sear projecting below it (Matthew Moss)

Here’s some close ups of the breech cylinder and control disk:

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The top of the control disk, which has to be removed before the breech cylinder can be (Matthew Moss)
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Underside of the control disk (Matthew Moss)
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Top view of the breech cylinder (Matthew Moss)
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A view of the square chamber which is a replaceable part which is held in the breech cylinder by a circular retaining spring – seen on the right (Matthew Moss)
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The base of the breech cylinder with notches where the actuating gear interfaces (Matthew Moss)

Here are some close ups of the various parts of the action:

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A close up of the rifle’s spur gear – which gives the G11 its almost clockwork appearance (Matthew Moss)
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Another close up of the underside of the action (Matthew Moss)
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Close up of the end of the barrel, with the square outline of the breech chamber visible – the G11’s caseless ammunition was rectangular but the projectile was round in diameter (Matthew Moss)
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Another shot of the rear of the action showing the striker / firing pin assembly and spring  (Matthew Moss)

According to the 1989 armourer’s manual, provided for the ACR trials, the G11 is made up of a total of nearly 450 individual parts. 144 of those make up the G11’s breech assembly.

With the breech and barrel assembly removed from the centre assembly here’s a diagram I put together showing most of the component parts of the G11’s action:

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G11 Breech & Barrel Assembly Diagram (Matthew Moss)

Next lets take a look at the G11’s barrel assembly with its recoil management system and gas piston:

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A bird’s eye view of the G11’s breech and barrel assembly, note the barrel markings (Matthew Moss)
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A side view of the breech with the cylinder and control disk in position (Matthew Moss)
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A view of the housing of the recoil mitigation system, on the other side is the gas piston system (Matthew Moss)

Finally, here’s a photo of the G11 broken down into its major component assemblies: magazine, forend, centre assembly breech & barrel assembly and butt stock:

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G11 field stripped (Matthew Moss)

Bibliography

HK G11- ACR. Armourer’s Manual for Maintenance of Repair of Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR, March 1989 (source)

‘Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR’ Operator’s Manual (source)


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench, 2018.

An Introduction to the Heckler & Koch G11

Vic kicks off his series looking at the US Army’s ACR trials rifles with a look at, not one but two versions of, Heckler & Koch’s advanced caseless ammunition assault rifle – the G11. This video is an introductory overview, we’ll be delving into the G11’s insanely intricate and wonderfully complex action in later videos!

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HK ACR 4.92x34mm G11 (Matthew Moss)

There are few experimental weapons that have cultivated myth and reputation like Heckler & Koch’s G11. The product of decades of research and development into what was hoped would be the next evolutionary step in small arms design. The G11 was Germany’s attempt to combine advanced caseless ammunition with a weapon system which could increase the average infantryman’s hit probability. The G11’s action has three distinct modes of fire and uses a complex action and buffer/recoil system to achieve a high rate of controlled fire.

The program began in the late 1960s as part of a NATO initiative, however, it became a primarily Bundeswehr project and over two decades the design evolved substantially. The project sought to increase the hit probability of the individual infantryman. Heckler & Koch’s approach to this problem was the most radical. Working with Hensoldt to develop an integrated optical sight and with Dynamit-Nobel to create a new kind of ammunition.

Numerous studies and theoretical designs were worked up but by the mid-1970s the base design of what would become the G11 was cemented. The design team included Gunter Kastner, Dieter Ketterer, Tilo Moller and Ernst Wossner – all of whom are credited in H&K’s 1976 patent protecting the G11’s rotary action.

The G11 went through dozens of iterations throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the first firing prototypes ready by 1974. Both the design and the ammunition also went through a number of changes.

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Diagram showing the composition of the G11’s caseless ammunition (source)

The revolutionary ammunition was developed by Dynamit-Nobel AG.

The 4.73x33mm round which was finalised comprised of a solid propellant material body which encased a primer, booster, projectile and a plastic nose cap. Dynamit-Nobel developed the High Ignition Temperature Propellant (HITP) in an effort to prevent accidental ignition (cook-off) of the ammunition’s outer propellant body.

The G11 fed from 45 or 50-round horizontal, single stack box magazines which fed rounds into the action at 90-degrees. The rounds were then rotated into alignment with the breech by the rifle’s action.

The rectangular shape of the Dynamit-Nobel ammunition was more efficient and better suited to storage than conventional circular rounds. The positioning of the magazine along the top of the weapon, parallel to the barrel, also in theory helped minimise the rifle’s profile and reduce encumbrance for the soldier equipped with the weapon.

The G11 is a gas-operated weapon with gas being tapped from the barrel, to cycle the rifle’s cylinder drive system, which rotated the breech through a series of cams and gears. At the heart of the G11 is a complex rotary action. Rotating actions themselves are not a new concept with the earliest dating back to the 17th century, such as the Lorenzoni system.

The G11’s rotating breech was patented in late 1976 by Heckler & Koch. While our initial video does not go into detail on how the G11 operates, we will be covering this in later videos, this article will explain the action in more general terms.

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H&K’s early patent showing the G11’s rotating action – note the early incarnation of the ammunition with the projectile protruding from the propellant block (source)

Below are two diagrams showing the internal layout and major components of the G11 from a March 1982 draft of the ‘Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR’ armourer’s manual (source). It shows the major assembly groups and also a component list for the breech assembly.

From the diagram we can see the various action parts which feed the projectile into the breech, lock the action and ignite the round. We can also see the counter-recoil system beneath the barrel.

 

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The G11 used a counter-recoil buffer mechanism to allow high rates of burst fire. When firing three round bursts the weapon send the rounds downrange at a rate of ~2,000 rounds per minute, only when the last round has left the barrel does the barrel and action begin to recoil inside the stock along a central guide. When in sustained fire the rate of fire is closer to ~460 per minute.

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H&K promotional diagram showing the G11’s mounted recoil system (source)

The buffer spring below the barrel is compressed as the recoiling barrel and breech assembly moves. In sustained fire the buffer spring is partially compressed with each round, but in burst fire the buffer is compressed to its maximum hitting before the buffer housing (which is when recoil from the burst is felt by the operator), this is described as having the barrel and breech assembly ‘float’.

To ready the weapon to fire a magazine was loaded into the magazine channel on top of the G11, a magazine dust door, which automatically closed when unloaded, was depressed as the magazine was pushed home. The cocking handle on the left side of the butt was then actuated. The operator rotated the handle 360-degrees counter-clockwise until the weapon was cocked (essentially like winding a clock). The same process will eject any rounds left in the chamber once the magazine has been removed.

Gas tapped from the barrel cycles the cylinder drive system with gas pushing a piston back to act on a series of gears which rotated the rotary breech from horizontal to vertical to allow a new cartridge to drop into the breech. There was a vent for high pressure gas underneath the butt stock this prevented pressure build up and mitigated some of the thermal build up.

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Members of the Gebirgsjäger (Bundeswehr alpine light troops) on the march with G11s (source)

The G11 K1 was tested by the German Army in the late 1980s with adoption planned for the early 1990s. Heckler & Koch continued to develop the G11, entering the G11 K2 into the US Army’s Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) trials alongside entries from Steyr, AAI and Colt [all of which we will examine in upcoming videos]. However, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that West Germany no longer had the huge amount of funds needed to field the G11. At the same time the ACR program ended inconclusively and the G11 project was finally abandoned.

The extreme complexity of the design, the inadequacy of the weapon’s ergonomics and its inevitably high production cost casts doubt on whether the G11 would ever have seriously been considered for widespread adoption. Regardless of this the G11 is a fascinating footnote in small arms history representing a false start along a technological avenue which, with the Lightweight Small Arms Technologies (LSAT) program, may still prove fruitful. Heckler & Koch and Dynamit-Nobel’s ambitious design marks one of very few serious and potentially successful attempts engineers to overcome the plateau that firearms technology is currently stuck on.


Stripping the HK G11

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G11 ACR disassembled to its major assemblies (Matthew Moss)

Matt recently had the opportunity to disassemble a G11 and get a look inside the action. In this special video and accompanying full-length article he explains how the rifle strips and how it works! Check out the video here.

 


Technical Specifications (from 1989 H&K Brochure):

Length: 75cm (29.3in)
Weight (unloaded): 3.8kg (8.4lb)
Barrel Length: 54cm (21.3in)
Action: Gas-Operated, rotary breech
Calibre: 4.73x33mm
Feed: 45 or 50-round, single stack, box magazine
Cyclic Rate: sustained fire: ~460rpm /  3-round burst: ~2,000rpm


Bibliography:

Die G11 Story. Die Entwicklungsgeschichte einer High-Tech-Waffe, W. Seel, 1993

‘Shoulder Arm with Swivel Breech Member’, US Patent #3997994, 21 Dec. 1976, (source)

‘Automatic or Semi-Automatic Small Arm’, US Patent #4078327, 14 Mar. 1978, (source)

From the Small Arms Review Archive:

HK G11- ACR. Armourer’s Manual for Maintenance of Repair of Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR, March 1989 (source)

‘Rifle, 4.92mm, ACR’ Operator’s Manual (source)

HK G11 Caseless Ammunition Weapon System. The G11 Rifle. HK Factory Brochure, 1989 (source)

Our thanks to the collections that hold these examples of the G11. While one wishes to remain anonymous, we would like to thank the Dutch Military Museum for access to their G11.


Please do not reproduce photographs taken by Matthew Moss without permission or credit. ©The Armourer’s Bench 2017.