In a press release, the Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defense announced that a replacement has been found for the country’s 1990s-era Heckler & Koch G36 rifle. The winner of the competition, C.G. Haenel, an east German-based firearms manufacturer, is a blow to H&K—though perhaps understandable considering the controversy surrounding H&K’s problematic G36.
The G36’s problems came to light after German troops in Afghanistan reported that the weapon would overheat after sustained firing, and causing severely degraded accuracy. An initial investigation attributed the G36’s poor accuracy on ammunition deficiencies, though subsequent investigations laid blame squarely on Heckler & Koch. After the G36’s problems became apparent, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen stated that the G36 had no future in the Bundeswehr, or Federal Defense Forces.
The Defense Ministry sued Heckler & Koch, claiming that the company should be legally obligated to repair the 167,000 or so rifles in service with the Bundeswehr but lost the lawsuit. A regional court ruled that H&K had met the Defense Ministry’s weapon design specifications, and was therefore not responsible for any resulting deficiencies.
Still, the Defense Ministry’s selection of Haenel is a blow to Heckler & Koch, which supplies the overwhelming majority of the Bundeswehr’s small arms. H&K has previously enjoyed great success exporting several of their M4/M16 patterned small arms abroad, one of which—either the HK416 or the HK433—company hoped would win the Defense Ministry contract.
The United States Marine Corps adopted the HK416—named the M27 by the USMC—in 2011 and is prized for both its accuracy and reliability. The French Armed Forces also elected the HK416 as a replacement for their 1970s-era FAMAS bullpup assault rifle. The rifle is also in service with the Norwegian Armed Forces.
In a statement, Heckler & Koch’s CEO Jens Bodo Koch left the door open to future legal action, saying that H&K “will now examine the decision in detail from a legal point of view and exhaust all legal possibilities.”
Haenel’s MK556, chambered in the ubiquitous 5.56 x 45mm NATO round, will likely be issued to the Bundeswehr with a 16-inch barrel, and follows the USMC move from a shorter, 14.5-inch barrel length M4, to a slightly longer 16.5-inch barreled M27 for greater accuracy at further ranges. Like H&K’s HK416, Haenel’s MK556 is also based on the M4/M16 pattern, but uses a more reliable gas-piston cycling system, rather than the M4/M16’s direct impingement cycling system.
Does Haenel’s win represent a widening of the Bundeswehr’s procurement process? We’ll have to wait and see. Either way, the MK556 is a blow to H&K, and a boon to the grunts who’ll be issued them.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.