The G36 can’t shoot straight
by TILL RIMMELE
German soldiers have long distrusted their G36 battle rifles. Fire a few shots, and you can hit your target. Fire more than that, and the weapon’s accuracy drops so much that it becomes almost useless.
Why? The barrels overheat — a particularly acute problem for German troops fighting in Afghanistan. During one 10-hour-long clash between the Bundeswehr and the Taliban in 2010, German troops’ G36s overheated.
Three soldiers died.
Now the G36’s problems have exploded into a political crisis. Heckler & Koch — the rifle’s manufacturer — is battling allegations that it built a shoddy rifle. The German defense ministry knew about the problems for years and did nothing.
The German army also needs to find a new rifle — and fast.
Here’s what you need to know about the G36. The German army first adopted it in 1995, and envisioned it as a light-weight and versatile rifle to replace the massive G3, which served in NATO arsenals for much of the Cold War.
The G36 is now in service with several European armies, but it’s less common in the rest of the world, unlike the G3. It’s easy to see why.
The main problem? The G36’s barrel is too thin and heats up inconsistently throughout the bore. The more you fire it, the worse the accuracy. When German soldiers have to throw down a lot of lead, their weapons suddenly transform into a huge liability.
Heckler & Koch blamed the accuracy problems on the rifle’s ammunition. In other words — don’t blame us. But a German federal fiscal court doubted the company’s claim and insisted upon an investigation.
On March 30, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen disclosed that the G36 is prone to overheating and losing accuracy. The inspector of the army issued a directive advising soldiers to maintain fire discipline and protect their rifles from the sun — advice given years before.
Overall, Berlin passed down the responsibility for fixing the problems to soldiers in the field. Von der Leyen’s statement also set off a lengthy, confusing discussion within the defense ministry lasting more than a month — which then unraveled as details leaked to the press.
Cue a national scandal.
Heckler & Koch replied with a series of rather grumpy press releases. The company complained that Berlin didn’t inform it about the G36 being inaccurate, that no clearly defined NATO testing procedures exist and that any weapons the company delivered were in compliance with the ministry’s technical specifications.
Further, any testing in the past — and use in the field — proved that the G36 is accurate and reliabile, according to Heckler & Koch.
But soon enough, rumors began to spread in the media accusing the company of building the rifles with polyethylene — an inferior plastic — instead of polyamide. Media outlets also alleged the defense ministry knew about the problems and didn’t disclose them.
In another flurry of press releases, the company denied the accusations and called for an independent investigation to track down who was spreading rumors in the press. In response, the German government formed the Nachtwei commission to study the G36.
But the government’s final report — released on April 17 — made it clear that one rumor was true. The defense ministry knew about the G36’s problems for years, and either doubted or downplayed the issues.
Now the question is what happens next, or whether the defense ministry could sue Heckler & Koch for delivering faulty weapons. Perhaps not.
The rifle is faulty and gravely inaccurate when fired rapidly, falling from an accuracy rate of 91 percent to 22 percent at 300 meters after firing four magazines, according to the final report. The rate can fall as low as seven percent depending on environmental conditions. That’s horrible.
But it doesn’t appear to violate the ministry’s technical specifications, since the ministry never clearly defined the G36’s required accuracy rate after firing multiple magazines. The ministry adopted the specifications in 1993 and hasn’t changed them.
Worse, there’s no short-term alternative available en masse. The ministry claims to have tested alternative rifles and could procure them on a small basis. However, Berlin hasn’t revealed which rifles it tested.
The G36’s successor must have a minimum accuracy of 90 percent at 300 meters when shot in short succession, according to a report by WTD 91, a group of seven military and civilian institutions tasked by the Bundeswehr to study the problem.
Unsurprisingly, Heckler & Koch didn’t like this outcome at all. In a press release, the company alleged the G36’s problems owed to ammunition and that WTD 91 testing the rifle incorrectly.
“It is simply not possible that it takes 20 to figure out: the rifle is useless,” Heckler & Koch primary owner Andreas Heeschen told the Frankfurter Allgemeine. “What we produce is 100 percent suitable for operation.”
But von der Leyen declared that “the G36, in its current configuration, has no future for the Bundeswehr.”
Note she said “in its current configuration,” which means the German army could reconfigure the rifle as a temporary solution.
A parliamentary committee has put budgeting for the G36 on hold. Heckler & Koch is now negotiating to reconfigure 7,000 G36s by adding thicker barrels taken from the MG36 machine gun.
Who’s responsible for this mess is a political question for the coming months. The Nachtwei commission will take time to retrace everything back from the authorities and institutions to different actors and stakeholders.
Meanwhile, the discussion took a new turn when leaked documents indicated that Heckler & Koch asked the Bundeswehr’s counter-intelligence unit to spy on journalists responsible for leaking classified information about the G36.
The military told the company no, according to the documents. But that sparked another investigation — by two commissions — as to whether the German army snooped on reporters on behalf of a weapons firm.
Ultimately, it’s unlikely Berlin will severely punish Heckler & Koch. There are too many political and industry actors intermingled over too long a period.
But this all scratches the surface of a deeper problem with the G36. The main thing is that it’s out of date.
Heckler & Koch designed the G36 two decades ago, when the Bundeswehr was still largely a conscripted army modeled on defending the homeland. The rifle isn’t meant for desert duty. The G36 has a built-in sight which cannot be replaced — good enough for conscripts, perhaps, but not for professional troops.
Since then, Germany ended conscription and has deployed its military in operations in Afghanistan, Mali and the Balkans. This means its soldiers need a rifle that can operate in wildly different environments, and which troops can modify to suit different kinds of missions.
Until Berlin finds a new battle rifle, the German army could pull its older G3s out of military depots. These longer-range and heavier-caliber weapons are still available in large quantities, and underwent a revival in Afghanistan when troops urgently requested a designated marksman rifle.
But for the moment, two commissions are investigating the G36 and its long-term successor, and two more commissions are investigating a possible connection between the ministry and arms industry.
All of this to provide one suitable rifle for the German army.