The Heckler & Koch HK416
Established in 1949 by two former engineers from the Mauser rifle factory in Oberndorf, by 1959 the firm had become the official supplier of service rifles to the new German army; their first product, the famous G3 battle rifle, went on to be used around the world and is still produced under license in several countries. Using the same delayed blowback mechanism as a base H&K went on to develop a range of firearms that included the HK11 and HK21 machineguns, the PSG-1 sniper rifle, the HK33 assault rifle and its HK53 sub-machinegun variant and, of course, the famous MP5. When this design began to show its age the new G36 was introduced, and was selected as the new rifle of the Bundeswehr. To get the 21st century off to a flying start the company carried out an improvement programme on Britain’s troubled SA80 rifle and achieved what dozens of weapons designers had been failing to do since the late 1970s – they made it work. This success seems to have provoked ideas about improving the reliability of another NATO rifle, and H&K turned their attention to the Colt AR15 design.
As previously discussed the AR15, and its military M16 and M4 variants, is a popular and effective rifle that’s slightly let down by its simplistic and filthy “direct impingement” gas system. With their experience of sorting out the SA80 – a project which also involved a new gas system – H&K put some AR15s through a thorough set of reliability tests, then decided to make a few changes.
To anyone who’s ever cleaned an M16 the problem with the gas parts is very obvious; the primitive direct impingement system blasts superheated, fouling-laden gas into the action of the weapon with every shot. This rapidly burns away the lubrication, heats up the working parts (in itself a cause of jams,) wears away areas of the bolt carrier with a stream of abrasive burning particles and fouls the whole action. Heckler & Koch have some experience with dirty weapons – the G3 and its derivatives are also notorious for the amount of muck that ends up in the action, although because they’re not gas operated it has no effect on reliability – so they knew better than to waste time tinkering with the Colt gas system. Instead they simply got rid of it and replaced it with a short-stroke gas piston based on the system used in the SA80 and G36.
The result is a weapon with the light weight and familiar control layout of the M16 or M4, but a whole new level of reliability. In tests carried out by US special forces the new rifle – christened the HK416 – had a stoppage a quarter as often as the standard M4 carbine. It was only slightly less reliable than the other two rifles on test – the G36-based XM8 and the brand-new FN SCAR – which is pretty impressive for a basic design that’s over 50 years old. H&K’s new gas system proved beyond doubt that direct impingement is a bad idea, and at the same time gives the AR15 platform a whole new lease of life.
Of course there isn’t much old about the HK416. Every part of the weapon has been brought right up to date while maintaining commonality with the original design wherever possible. This has big logistics benefits; the HK416 can be ordered as a complete weapon or as an upper receiver and gas system that can be used to rebuild an existing rifle. It’s available in a choice of barrel lengths from a full-sized 20 inches right down to a super-compact nine inches. Unfortunately the procurement trend is still towards short barrels, but when sense returns to the world’s armies the good news is that the barrel can be easily changed for a longer one.
So far the HK416 is replacing the G3 as the standard rifle of the Norwegian Army and (produced under license by MKEK) the Turkish armed forces. It’s also been widely adopted by special operations units in nearly 20 countries, and a version has been adopted as the US Marine Corps’ new M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle. Whether replacing the Minimi light machinegun with a short-barrelled 5.56mm rifle as a support weapon makes sense is pretty doubtful, but the HK416 is certainly reliable enough for the job.
The current conflict in Afghanistan has shown up some serious deficiencies with the 5.56mm NATO standard round, especially from short-barrelled weapons. Even the heavy British L86A2 light support weapon, which has a 25 inch barrel, struggles to have much effect beyond 400 metres. Standard rifles like the SA80 and M16 run out of steam at about 300 and short-barrelled carbines like the M4 – and the standard HK416 with its 14.5 inch barrel – are only effective out to 150 or 200 metres. There’s a lot of discussion about a new rifle round, with something in the 6.5mm to 6.8mm range getting a lot of support, but right now if you don’t want to be handicapped by the anaemic 5.56mm round your only real alternative is 7.62mm NATO. This is a big, heavy round with heavy recoil, but its great advantage is that even from a short barrel it’s effortlessly lethal out to 500 or 600 metres, and from a full-sized rifle it can effectively kill at 800 or better. Heckler & Koch have widened options by offering a scaled-up version of the HK416. It’s called the HK417 and it’s chambered for 7.62mm x 51mm NATO.
Because it’s a larger calibre weapon the HK417 is somewhat heavier than its little brother, but still slightly less weighty than the last generation of 7.62mm rifles like the FN-FAL or G3. It also benefits from modern ergonomics and design, and is designed to be highly modular. For example there are three barrel lengths available – 12, 16 and 20 inches – and they can be swapped in less than two minutes with simple tools. The 417 has a free floating barrel, quad rail system and HK-designed collapsible stock, giving it all the features of a modern M4-type carbine along with the ability to reliably drop enemies and blow through light cover like car doors, wooden buildings and vegetation. A variant has been adopted by the German infantry as a designated marksman’s rifle and the short-barrelled versions are popular with the SAS.
The change from direct impingement to a proper gas system isn’t complicated, and in fact it’s been done before. H&K have done a very good job of it, though. Combined with the ability to easily change barrels, that could leave them ideally placed to grab a large market share if a new intermediate NATO round is chosen that works with standard AR15-type rifles.