Bundeswehr Battle Rifle: G36

Truly A Soldier's Rifle
by Charlie Cutshaw

The Heckler & Koch (H&K) G36 has been in development for several years, but details of the rifle have been closely held until recently. We were granted unrestricted access to Heckler & Koch's new rifle and recently spent several hours evaluating it at Heckler & Koch's U.S. facility. Prior to our evaluation, however, we should define a few terms and the viewpoint from which we examined this latest addition to the Heckler & Koch product line.

The rifle is the infantryman's basic weapon. Regardless of the complexity of the battlefield and the advent of the "electronic battlefield," it is still the grunt who has to go forward and occupy ground. His basic tool is his rifle. This begs the question of what attributes should, therefore, characterize the infantryman's basic weapon. The subject of the ideal combat rifle has been debated for as long as infantrymen have been armed with rifles, and will continue to be debated for the foreseeable future, but from the standpoint of a former infantry officer, there are, in no particular order of importance, several characteristics which are highly desirable in an infantry rifle.

First, the rifle must be reliable. If his rifle quits working in combat, the man who is using it will probably be killed. Second, the rifle should be as light as possible. The infantryman must carry most of his kit on his back and every ounce makes a difference. The rifle should not be sensitive to the type of ammunition it is fed as long as it is the correct caliber. A rifle that is unreliable for any reason degrades the rifleman's confidence. Third, related to reliability, the rifle must be robust. Robustness is the ability of the rifle to be subjected to the elements, such as dust and mud, and keep working without the operator's having to take extraordinary measures to ensure that it will function. Fourth, the rifle must be maintainable. It should not be an onerous time-consuming chore to clean, nor should it require overly frequent cleaning. Fifth, the rifle should be suitably accurate out to its effective range. And, finally, the rifle must be simple and "user-friendly." This characteristic encompasses a host of factors, including ergonomics, accessories, disassembly/assembly, sights, and a myriad of small details that together make up a rifle. But before we evaluate the G36 in light of the aforementioned attributes, we should first explore the background of H&K's latest product.

The G36 originated in 1990 as "Project 50" for the German Bundeswehr, which desired a common receiver that could be used as the basis for a weapons family ranging from a 9x19mm submachine gun (SMG) to a 7.62x51mm belt-fed general-purpose machine gun (GPMG). Although options to convert the G36 to other configurations have not yet developed, the potential to do so exists. Other Bundeswehr requirements included light weight, affordability and a conventional design. An evolutionary, not revolutionary, design was the goal and in that Heckler & Koch has succeeded, while at the same time producing a rifle that makes optimal use of current technology. For a time, the G36 was designated the HK50, but that designation has now been dropped by Heckler & Koch in favor of G36, the Bundeswehr abbreviation for the official nomenclature Gewehr 36.

American Ancestors

Although there is no official acknowledgment by Heckler & Koch, it is clear that the G36 has roots in the ArmaLite AR-18. The AR-18 operating system is superior to that of the M16 (AR-15) because it eliminates gas and powder fouling being blown back into the receiver, a problem which has plagued the M16 since its introduction. The G36 bolt carrier, bolt and gas system are very similar to those of the AR-18, but have been modified and refined. After firing nearly a thousand rounds through several versions of the G36 at Heckler & Koch's U.S. range facilities, we found the interior of the rifle's receiver to be essentially clean and free of fouling. Cleaning encompassed no more than using a bore brush and solvent on the bore and wiping down the receiver and bolt group with a solvent-moistened rag and then applying light lubricant per specification.

The G36 rifle is the basic component of the G36 weapons system. It is a gas-operated rifle and locks via a Stoner-type rotating bolt and carrier. This is a complete departure for Heckler & Koch, which has heretofore used roller locking and delayed-blowback operation for all its long guns in every caliber. Virtually all of the rifle, save for the barrel, the reciprocating parts (bolt and bolt carrier), springs and small components, is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer. This results in very light weight, ease of maintenance and high reliability. The reciprocating parts move on steel rails molded into the receiver. There is no ejection port cover nor is one required, as the bolt closes the ejection port to foreign matter when it is forward. The baffel is optimized for the 5.56x45mm SS109 (M855) round with a twist rate of one turn in 178mm (1:7 inches). The G36K is the carbine version of the G36. The sole difference between it and the rifle is the shorter handguard and barrel. The MG36 Light Support Weapon is also identical to the G36 rifle, save for a heavier barrel, standard 100-round Beta drum magazine and a standard bipod. The Beta magazine can be used in any version of the G36, and while there have been criticisms of Beta magazines, those used by this writer during the evaluation of the G36 functioned flawlessly through several reloads to full capacity.


Export versions of the G36 are designated G36E, G36KE and MG36E. The difference between Bundeswehr and export versions of the G36 is the sighting system. The Bundeswehr version of the G36 has a dual 3.5X magnification optical sight and an electronic red-dot reflex sight. The red-dot sight is activated by ambient light. Batteries are required for use in darkness rather than tritium, as this radioactive material is illegal in Germany. The export version has only a 1.5X optic with backup front blade and rear notch in the detachable carrying handle.

The optical sight of the G36 is provided with range marks from 200 to 800 meters. The outer edge of the circular reticle provides a lead for targets moving at 15km/hr from either left or right at a range of 200 meters, the rifle's battle-sight zero. The intersection of the vertical and horizontal cross hairs is used as point of aim from zero to 200 meters. The diameter of the circular reticle also corresponds to the height of a 1.75-meter man at a range of 400 meters. The intersection of the vertical cross hair and the bottom of the circular reticle is the 400 meter point of aim. The two small cross hairs below the circular reticle are 600 and 800 meter points of aim, respectively. The extended horizontal cross hair gives the rifleman an indication of canting, which degrades accuracy. We found the optical sight easy to use, with quick target acquisition at all ranges at which we fired the G36, from close-quarters battle (CQB) distances of 15-25 meters out to 100 meters.

Optical accessories for the G36 include a Hensoldt manufactured third-generation 1X night sight. Although we did not use this sight, we did install and remove it. The sight clamps into the G36 carrying handle adapter with no difficulty and will retain zero when removed and reattached, according to Heckler & Koch representatives. The design is such that a small prism mates with the rifle's standard optical sight. The rifleman can thus continue to aim through his standard sight with the night vision optic in place using the same head position and without the need to rezero once the sight has been mounted.


All controls of the G36 are completely ambidextrous. The cocking handle is particularly noteworthy. It normally extends forward in line with the barrel of the rifle, requiring only that the operator grasp it and pull it to the rear. It automatically rotates left or right, depending on whether the user is right or left-handed. To use the handle as a forward assist, or to kick it to the rear to extract a stuck cartridge case, the operator simply pulls the handle back and presses it inwards, thus locking it into position. This also allows the bolt carrier to be "eased" home when silent bolt closing is necessary. The positioning of the controls allow the user to maintain a firing grip on the rifle while changing magazines and operating the charging handle. The G36 bolt catch is conveniently located at the forward end of the trigger guard.

The bolt is automatically locked to the rear when the last round is expended, but the bolt catch can be deactivated without tools in seconds for those who wish to do so.

The G36 feeds from translucent polymer 30-round magazines of proprietary design. The magazines can be quickly and easily clipped together using built in studs. Use of a proprietary magazine was due to a feeling by Heckler & Koch engineers that their magazine design was superior to that of the M16 magazines commonly used by other NATO countries. For those who prefer the M16 magazine, however, a magazine well to accept them may be an option, thanks to the flexible design of the G36. The 100-round Beta Company magazine for the G36 light support weapon can be used in any version of the G36. As noted, the Beta Company drum magazines functioned flawlessly during our test firing.

A Modular System

The modular design of the G36 is one aspect of the rifle that makes it unique. Unlike many other Heckler & Koch weapons, the G36 can be reconfigured into any of its variants at the unit level with only two special tools. These are a mandrel, one end of which is inserted into the breech of the rifle, and the other clamped in a vise. The other special tool is a barrel wrench to remove and tighten the barrel retaining nut. When the barrel is replaced, a standard torque wrench is used to tighten the barrel nut. When the barrel nut is torqued to specification, headspace is automatically set. The few other tools required for organizational maintenance of the G36 are common hand tools available in any well-stocked hardware store.

No tools whatsoever are required for complete disassembly of the G36 into its major groups. This allows the rifle to be easily converted at the unit level into any of its configurations. For example, the trigger group can be changed from fully automatic into two-round-burst configuration by the operator. Trigger options include select-fire versions in semiauto, 2-round burst and full-auto; semi-auto and 2-round burst; and semi- and full-auto. For law-enforcement users, a semiautomatic-only trigger group is under development. All G36 retaining pins are of identical size and small holes are provided in the buttstock for them to be placed in when the rifle is disassembled, thereby reducing the possibility of their being lost. The carrying handle is removable with a cross-tip screwdriver. (At the Heckler & Koch range, this was accomplished with the Phillips head screwdriver tip on a Leatherman Tool, which is probably as good an armorer's tool kit for field use as any.)

From the foregoing it is apparent that while the G36 is not the G11 of the 1990s, it takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology and incorporates superb ergonomics and engineering in its basic design. But while the former infantryman in this writer appreciates the overall "user-friendly" design, the proof of any rifle is in the shooting. To this end, we were afforded unlimited access to all three versions of the G36 at H&K's facility in Sterling, Va. We requested permission to provide some of our own 5.56x45mm ammunition for test purposes. This ammunition was Black Hills 68-grain Moly-Kote Match, Longbow 40-grain Nontoxic Frangible, Olin M193 55-grain ball and South African M1A2 55-grain ball. When we arrived at the range, we found that Heckler & Koch had also brought a variety of ammunition, including Olin M855 (SS109), Federal 68-grain Match and Green Shield 36-grain Frangible. This provided a sample of almost every common type of ammunition that might be encountered by worldwide users of the G36.

Reliable And Robust

Functioning of the G36 was flawless. We fired every available type of ammunition through all three versions of the rifle without a single malfunction or stoppage of any kind. We mixed frangible, ball and match in a single magazine and ran it through the rifle on full automatic. The G36 is eminently controllable on full auto; maintaining center of mass hits at CQB ranges was absolutely no problem from the first burst, although we were given only a brief orientation before shooting the rifle. Full-auto control of the G36 is the best I have ever experienced in a rifle of this class.

The 750-round-per-minute cyclic rate made three- and four-round bursts easy to achieve and the design of the rifle made it easy to hold each burst in the center of mass of the target. There was only the slightest, very easily controllable, tendency of the rifle to climb to the right in fully automatic firing. A small female shooter with us on the range likewise had little difficulty controlling the G36 in fully automatic mode. The reasons for this controllability in a rifle weighing less than seven pounds are twofold: First, the barrel's long axis actually lies below the point where the shooter places the rifle to his shoulder. This in itself helps to reduce muzzle rise. Second, the small mass of the reciprocating components of the rifle help keep it on target under full-automatic fire.

After testing the G36 on full automatic at 15- to 25-meter CQB distances, we moved back to 100 meters to briefly check the G36 for accuracy at longer ranges. We were not able to test beyond 100 meters, but under rapid fire from the prone unsupported position, we consistently achieved 2 to 2.5 inch groups. This is not match accuracy, but is acceptable in a combat rifle and could have been improved if we had used a sling, rest or bipod.

Moreover, accuracy would improve with more practice. One of the few possibly negative comments regarding the G36 is its trigger pull. The rifle is intentionally manufactured with a trigger that will pass a two-meter drop test cocked and with safety "off!" The result is a relatively heavy trigger squeeze.

It must be noted the G36 is not intended to be a long-range precision rifle. Most infantry engagements are at ranges of less than 500 meters, with the vast majority at ranges of 200 meters or less. The comment on the G36 trigger pull is thus not so much a complaint as an observation. The sole complaint regarding the G36 is the fact that the forearm heats up very rapidly under rapid and sustained fire and soon becomes too hot to grasp. This situation is caused by the lack of a heat shield inside the forearm. A thin aluminum heat shield to solve this problem is under development.

Good By Any Measure

In conclusion, then, let us return to our original criteria for an infantry rifle and compare the G36 to them. The G36 certainly meets our weight criterion. The assault-rifle version weighs only 3.3kg and the carbine 3kg. As to reliability, we experienced absolutely no failures of any sort in our test firing of the G36, although our test was admittedly insufficient for more than a general impression of the rifle's reliability. It should be noted, however, that during testing of the G36 at the U.S. Army's desert test facility at Yuma, Ariz., there was not a single stoppage in more than 24,000 rounds fired under incredibly harsh conditions. The test protocol consisted of firing 240 rounds on uninterrupted (except to change magazines) full automatic, submerging the G36 into a barrel of water until it quit boiling, removing the rifle, shaking it free of water, then repeating the process. The test rifle was cleaned at the end of each day after firing 6,000 to 8,000 rounds. This performance confirms the impression gained during our limited firing of the G36 with several types of ammunition.

Is the G36 maintainable? According to the manufacturer, cleaning is really necessary only about every 5,000 rounds. While the author cannot in good conscience recommend this procedure, it does show confidence by H&K. Also, the polymer components can be cleaned using either solvent, water-based solvent, plain water, or compressed air. As noted previously, after firing hundreds of rounds, there was no noticeable fouling or residue buildup in the G36 receiver that the author examined. We have already noted the ease of both user and organizational maintenance. And, finally, the G36's simplicity is remarkable. The operating system is, to this writer at least, "as good as it gets." The control placement made the learning curve on the G36 extremely short. The sights are excellent. Disassembly and assembly of the G36 are simple and almost intuitive with minimal instruction. In sum, then, we feel that the G36 fits our definition of the ideal infantry rifle in virtually every respect. We have only two minor reservations. We prefer a lighter trigger, but this is a subjective judgment that can, as stated previously, be overcome with training and use. The only real, albeit minor, complaint about the G36 is the forearm that overheats too quickly, but H&K is in the process of designing a forearm heat shield. Our final assessment, then, is that Heckler & Koch have definitely hit the mark with their new G36.

It is truly a soldier's rifle.

A former Marine intelligence officer, Charlie Cutshaw is now an editor for Jane's

first published in the August 1998 edition of Soldier of Fortune Magazine