Heckler & Koch’s first 5.56×45 rifle, the HK33, was introduced in the late 1960s as a response to the emergence of the new 5.56x45mm round and the introduction of the FN CAL. The HK33 is little more than a scaled down version of HK’s successful 7.62×51 G3. Developed by Tilo Möller, the HK33 used the same roller delayed blowback action and shares most of the G3’s features.
It has a stamped receiver and uses the same plastic furniture and pistol grip/trigger mechanism housing as the G3. The rifle is 39 inches or 92cm long and is by no means a light weapon, weighing around 4kg or 8.7 lbs. The HK33 feeds from 25, 30 or 40 round proprietary HK magazines.
The rifle came in main two main variants a full length version with a fixed stock, which could be fitted with a collapsing stock, and a shortened K-variant with a shorter barrel. The weapon came with either a safe, semi and full auto or safe, semi, 3-round burst fire control mechanism.
The HK33 was not adopted by the West German Army, however, it did see extensive use with Germany’s federal state and police forces and the Bundeswehr special forces. While it wasn’t adopted at home it was a successful export weapon with dozens of countries purchasing and adopting the rifle. France tested the improved HK33F in the Army 1970s and although it performed well the FAMAS was adopted instead. A production license was sold to Thailand who adopted the HK33, purchasing 40,000 rifles and the license to manufacture 30,000 more. Thailand also developed their own unique bull pup version of the rifle, the Type 11.
Malaysia also purchased 55,000 HK33s and the Spanish Guardia Civil used them for a time. The manufacturing rights for the HK33 were also sold to Portugal for production at Fabrica Militar de Prata and to Turkey where it remains in production at MKEK.
HK produced the HK33 from 1968 through to the late 1980s. It also provided the basis for the HK53 5.56 ‘submachine gun’ which we have covered previously. It was also the basis of the less successful G41, which we’ve also covered in a full length episode, you can find this here. The similarities with the HK33 are easy to see but the G41 has a number of subtle changes.
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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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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