We’re all familiar with the Heckler & Koch G3 and its roller-delayed blowback action. What is less well-known is that H&K were one of two companies originally contracted by the West German government to produce the Bundeswehr’s new service rifle. The other company was Rheinmetall and today we’re lucky enough to be taking a look at an example of an early production Rheinmetall G3.
The rifle which became the G3 was of course originally developed by German and Spanish engineers working at the Centro de Estudios Tecnicos de Materiales Especiales (CETME) and was intended to equip the Spanish armed forces. Initially, the West German Bundesgrenzschutz (border guards) were interested in purchasing a substantial number of the new CETME rifles, with an initial order for 5,000 agreed, however, in September 1955 the order was cancelled due to delays in production and the Bundesgrenzschutz subsequently ordered the FN FAL instead.
In November 1955, the Bundeswehr (West German military) was formed and began to search for a suitable new 7.62x51mm service rifle. Having observed the Bundesgrenzschutz’ testing the fledgling Bundeswehr took an interest in the CETEME rifle. 400 ‘STG CETME’ rifles were ordered for troop trials and these were assembled in Germany by Heckler & Koch. The rifles were delivered in late 1956, and comparative trials against the FAL began the following year.
The trials found the ‘STG CETME’ to be satisfactory in terms of features and design but lacking in durability. A number of small changes were requested including a flash hider suitable for launching rifle grenades, either a flip-up or dioptre rear sight instead of a traditional tangent style, a case deflector, a simpler more ergonomic pistol grip, a longer more ergonomic cocking handle, changes to the recoil spring guide and tweaks to the shape of the buttstock. Additional improvements such as a stronger bipod, lighter magazine, a last round hold open mechanism, overall lightening of the rifle, a lighter 20-round magazine and a proper handguard were also requested.
FN were unwilling to grant Germany a manufacturing license and the $110 per rifle price for the FAL proved substantially higher than CETME’s production estimates (The ArmaLite AR-10, J. Putnam Evans (2016), p.204). With adoption looking likely, legal wrangling over patent ownership began between Mauser, Rheinmetall and Heckler & Koch. All claimed the ownership of the roller-delayed blowback principle used by the CETME rifle. Eventually, however, the West German government awarded Rheinmetall and H&K future production contracts for the new rifle with the government supporting H&K’s claims but the legal battles continued for almost a decade.
In the meantime, with production of the CETME rifle not yet initiated and in light of some durability/reliability issues suffered during the STG CETME’s troop trials, 100,000 ‘Series C’ FN FALs were ordered for the Bundeswehr in late 1956. In 1957 the Swiss SIG 510 (designated the G2) and the American ArmaLite AR-10 (designated the G4) were also evaluated. Once the modifications requested after the troops trials were completed by H&K, a run of twenty rifles was produced and tested again.
In 1959, the West German government finally adopted the CETME rifle, designating it the G3. The German federal government decided that they wished to purchase the worldwide manufacturing rights to the G3, which naturally the Spanish government was reluctant to agree to. An agreement was finally reached in January 1958 and the contract giving West Germany worldwide rights to the G3 was finalised on February 4th, 1959.
One issue was that in June 1957, CETME had agreed a licensing deal for manufacture and sale of the rifle with a with a Dutch company Nederlandsche Wapen en Munitiefabriek (NWM). In order to gain the manufacturing rights sold to NWM the German government awarded the Dutch company a lucrative contract producing 20mm ammunition (Full Circle, p.234).
Interestingly, as the German government owned the manufacturing rights, H&K initially had to pay the government 4 Deutsche Marks per rifle, despite having been awarded the contract by the German government. In late January 1959, H&K were awarded the first substantial production contract, amounting to 150,000 rifles. Rheinmetall were subsequently awarded a similar contract (Full Circle, p.235).
According to R. Blake Stevens’ book on the roller-delayed blowback action, Full Circle, Rheinmetall produced 500,000 G3s during the 1960s, delivering 8,000 rifles per month (Full Circle, p.287). As H&K had been designated as the technical lead on the G3 project, Rheinmetall’s engineers made no attempts to develop modifications or improvements and even when H&K had switched to plastic furniture the Rheinmetall guns continued to use wood. Rheinmetall’s only other G3-related project was the RH4, a 7.62x39mm chambered, roller-locked but gas-operated rifle designed for export (Historical Firearms).
In addition to the G3, Rheinmetall were the sole manufacturer of the MG3, the 7.62x51mm MG42. Blake Stevens explains that in 1969, when a new tender for G3 production was due, that H&K moved to undercut Rheinmetall who had until now held the monopoly on MG3 production (Full Circle, p.292). As a result an agreement was reached where Rheinmetall retained their monopoly on MG3 production and H&K became sole manufacturer of the G3 for the West German military.
Examining An Early Production Rheinmetall G3
The G3 went through a large number of changes both before and after it went into service. The rifle we’re examining today is a good example of an early production rifle, as adopted in 1959. This rifle is lightly marked with ‘G3 [Rheinmetall’s ‘star-in-a-circle’ logo] followed by a serial number of 745 and below that it is date marked with the ‘3/60’, for March 1960.
Working our way from the muzzle back; the rifle has the early style of flash-hider/grenade launcher support which was introduced in 1957 and altered in early 1961, an enclosed front sight and a detachable bipod (which was not Bundeswehr general issue). It has a stamped metal handguard which was replaced by one with a wooden insert in 1961, before H&K introduced plastic furniture in 1964.
The folding carrying handle seen on the troop trials rifles has been removed, the receiver is stepped for the attachment of a scope base and the magazine housing has a single strengthening rib, rather than the later ‘full-frame’ continuous rib. It has an S-E-F selector (S – Sicher/safe, E – Einzelfeuer/semi, F – Feuerstoß/auto) and black plastic pistol grip. Internally, the rifle has a captive mainspring. Unlike later G3’s the rifle has a 2-position folding L-shape rear aperture sight with apertures for 200 & 300 metres rather than the later dioptre sight adopted officially in mid-1960. The rifle has a wooden stock held with a stamped metal sling attachment and a plastic buttplate.
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Overall Length: 40 in /1.2m
Barrel Length: 17.7in / 45cm
Weight: 8.6lbs / 3.6kg
Action: Roller-delayed blowback
Capacity: 20-round box magazine
HK G3 Operator’s Manual – early 1970s (source)
Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking, R. Blake Stevens (2006)
The ArmaLite AR-10, J. Putnam Evans (2016)
The CETME Assault Rifle, Small Arms Review, J. Huon, (source)
Our special thanks to the Cody Firearms Museum, at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, for their kind permission to film items from their collection and their assistance in filming and research.