The U.S. Army Almost Adopted a German Machine Gun

One small Virginia company did everything it could to promote the weapon

The U.S. Army Almost Adopted a German Machine Gun The U.S. Army Almost Adopted a German Machine Gun
In the late 1970s, the U.S. Army was searching for a new infantry machine gun. That’s when one small Virginia company hoped to convince... The U.S. Army Almost Adopted a German Machine Gun

In the late 1970s, the U.S. Army was searching for a new infantry machine gun. That’s when one small Virginia company hoped to convince the ground combat branch to pick a German weapon.

In April 1978, the Security Arms Company, or SACO for short, offered the Army 18 specially modified HK21A1s for testing. It seemed like a shrewd business move. The German weapons firm Heckler & Koch manufactured the machine guns for export, and SACO—acting as the middleman—stood to potentially make millions from a deal with the Army.

At the time, Ford Aerospace and the Belgian company Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal were the only competitors in the Army’s squad automatic weapon program, commonly abbreviated as SAW.

But SACO’s president lobbied hard to get the Army to accept the weapon. The problem was that the HK21A1 was an ungainly machine gun with heavy, steel ammunition boxes—factors which ultimately doomed the proposal.

The new Heckler & Koch guns were similar to a design the German company first developed nearly two decades earlier. By swapping out the barrel and some internal parts, the 7.62-millimeter machine guns could fire smaller 5.56-millimeter bullets instead.

Coincidentally, whatever firearm the Army chose for their new SAW would replace various M-60 machine guns—another weapon with German heritage. U.S. Army technicians created the M-60 after borrowing ideas from a number of Nazi designs following World War II.

Above—an unmodified HK21. Wikimedia photo. At top — Army soldiers in Grenada in 1983. Army photo

Based in Arlington, Virginia—a short drive away from the Pentagon—SACO had a close relationship with the German firm. SACO imported Heckler & Koch’s guns for years to sell to civilian shooters and police departments.

SACO president John Wood, Jr. wrote to Army Gen. John Guthrie, hoping to convince the general to include the HK21A1 in the SAW competition.

“As I understand it … the gun was a viable candidate, recommended it be included as SAW candidate and requested … an increase in SAW funding by $300,000 for the additional testing,” Wood wrote.

Guthrie was in charge the Army’s renamed Material Development and Readiness Command, which develops weapons for the ground combat branch. The general sympathized with Wood’s predicament.

But SACO and Heckler & Koch were late to the project. After having already spent six years whittling down their choices, the Army didn’t want to add a new gun into the mix.

Wood, using his personal connections, continued to push the Army to include Heckler & Koch’s gun in the tests. The SACO boss was a retired Army officer, a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services—the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency—and a former member of the Army’s Material Command.

“I regret that the H&K 21A1 will not be included as a SAW candidate, but the decision on its exclusion was not a surprise considering current funding constraints,” Guthrie explained.

After the end of the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon’s budget shrank dramatically. With limited resources, the fighting services had become wary about spending any more money.

But two months after the exchange, Heckler & Koch sent representatives to plead their case directly to the Army. The Germans came away from the meeting with assurances that they could get their gun into the project if they convinced senior Army officials to sign off on the idea.

So Wood quickly sent a letter straight to the Gen. Fredrick Kroesen, the Army’s vice chief of staff. The message made it clear that SACO wanted Kroesen to intercede on behalf of their offer.

“It appears to be a versatile weapon,” Kroesen wrote back. “You are correct in your observation about my decided interest in the SAW.”

The move apparently worked. Wood received a letter from the Army, telling him that funding concerns had evaporated, and that the branch accepted the machine gun into the SAW trials.

A U.S. Marine with an early M249 machine gun during the first Gulf War. Marine Corps photo

The Army renamed the gun the XM-262 and pitted it against Ford’s XM-248 and Fabrique Nationale’s XM-249. But while SACO had succeeded in getting the weapon into the competition, Heckler & Koch’s entry was still playing catchup.

For one, the German machine gun was three pounds heavier than what the Army wanted. Neither SACO nor Heckler & Koch had any plans to lighten up the XM-262s.

Secondly, the Army insisted the guns had to hold their ammunition belts in lightweight, plastic boxes. Heckler & Koch only offered steel containers.

“Due to the short period of time afforded us since your letter of August 28, 1978, we will not be able to design and manufacture the plastic ammunition boxes and deliver them to you until March 1979,” Wood admitted in another letter to Army officials.

Lastly, the XM-262s didn’t fit on the Army’s standard M-122 tripods. German engineers would need to come up with some sort of solution.

“Would it be possible for me to beg, borrow or otherwise scrounge a sample [M-122] to loan to Heckler & Koch long enough for them to come up with an adapter for the XM-262?” Wood pleaded in yet another written message.

While the XM-262s proved to be durable and reliable, these problems were insurmountable. In 1982, the Army officially decided to buy Fabrique Nationale’s light machine gun. American troops now use this gun in the SAW role across all services.

Eight years after failing to secure the contract, Wood finally closed SACO down. Heckler & Koch took over and set up their own U.S. headquarters in its place. Today, the German firm’s American office is still in northern Virginia.

Heckler & Koch continued to offer their 5.56-millimeter machine gun as the Model 23. However, the company recently dropped the gun in favor of their new MG-4.