Germany’s MG3 Machine Gun Is Irreplaceable
70 years of service and counting
West Germany became a member of NATO in May 1955. Six months later its army reformed as the Bundeswehr. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Bundeswehr launched a major rearmament program.
Despite adopting a wide range of new weapons, the Bundeswehr continued to use the 7.92-by-57-millimeter MG42 as its main general-purpose machine gun.
But there was a problem. NATO had standardized on the 7.62-by-51-millimeter cartridge. To ensure that West German MG42s would be compatible with NATO ammunition stocks, Rheinmetall began manufacturing a rechambered version of the MG42 — the MG1.
Another problem. The Soviets had seized the original factory drawings for the MG42 at the end of World War II. Rheinmetall had no choice but to reverse-engineer the MG1 from an original gun.
In 1958 Rheinmetall rechambered the remaining original MG42s as MG2s. In successive upgrades, Rheinmetall made improvements including a chrome-lined barrel, a heavier bolt and new recoil springs, friction rings and sights.
In 1959 the Bundeswehr designated the newly-made guns as MG3s. Unlike the original MG42, the MG3 can use either disintegrating or continuous-link belts.
The MG3 is identical in operation to the MG42 and uses the same recoil-operated, roller-locked action. At 23 pounds, the MG3 is slightly lighter than the MG42 was. Rheinmetall also made attempts to slow the weapon’s extremely high rate of fire by introducing a heavier bolt and a stronger buffer. This had the effect of reducing the rate of fire to between 800 and 950 rounds per minute.
Rheinmetall produced the MG3 until 1979. Heckler & Koch later manufactured some parts under license.
A number of other countries have adopted the MG3 and even manufactured it under license, including Austria, Argentina, Denmark, Italy, Estonia, Turkey, Mexico, Pakistan, Greece, Iran and Spain.
Despite several attempts to replace it, the MG3 remains in service with the Bundeswehr. In 2005 the Bundeswehr selected the 5.56-by-45-millimeter MG4 light machine gun. Operations in Afghanistan highlighted the need for a heavier weapon, and in 2012 the Bundeswehr adopted the 7.62-by-51-millimeter MG5/HK121.
However, production delays and reliability concerns have slowed the replacement of the MG3s currently in the German arsenal. At the very least, the MG3 is likely to remain the standard secondary weapon on Germany’s armored vehicles, as the MG5 doesn’t fit current mounts.