Despite making some of the most iconic firearms of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including the MG08 machine gun, the Kar-98K, MP-40 and StG44—the German arms industry isn’t actually all that old. Among the largest, Rheinmetall was only founded in 1889 while Deutsche Waffen-und Munitionsfabriken (German Weapons and Munitions public limited company) was only founded in 1896. Even Königlich Württembergische Gewehrfabrik, which eventually became Königliche Waffen Schmieden and later Mauser, only dated back to 1812.
Yet all those firms seem practically ancient compared to Heckler & Koch GmbH, which only came into existence in 1949. Commonly known today simply as H&K, this company was founded in the ashes of World War II and could be considered a major part of the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle” that saw the rapid reconstruction and development of the economy of West Germany.
When it was formed in 1949, given the restrictions placed on Germany at the time, it didn’t actually produce firearms but instead manufactured machine tools, bicycles and sewing machines.
All that changed during the Cold War.
In 1956, the firm responded to the West German government’s calls for a new firearm for the Bundeswehr (German Federal Army) and this resulted in H&K’s first weapon, the G3 battle rifle, which was based on the Spanish CETME rifle. That contract allowed the firm to transform into one of the most successful military small arms suppliers in the world.
At the time, the Belgian FN FAL dominated that class of weapon and was used throughout the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Perhaps as a matter of nationalism in West Germany, the G3 won out—despite being notorious for having a violent action and requiring considerable force to charge the rifle when compared to the FAL or American M14. The G3 offered modularity that enabled operators to mix and match accessories years before this was commonplace, but more importantly, it was accurate and reliable.
The next “big break” for the company came in 1969 when H&K introduced the MP5 submachine gun—a firearm that truly evokes the company motto: “Keine Kompromisse!” (No Compromises!).
As The National Interest previously reported, “The gold standard for decades in submachine guns, the Heckler and Koch MP-5 is still found worldwide in use by a variety of police and military units. The MP-5 is actually a scaled-down H&K G3 battle rifle, chambered for nine-millimeter Parabellum. The MP-5 follows the G-3’s general shape and conventional configuration, right down to the adjustable sights.”
The weapon is everything a Special Forces operator or SWAT team would want—it comes in at just 27-inches and has an 8.9-inch barrel. The MP-5 achieved notoriety and the best possible PR money couldn’t buy when it was used by the British Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) during Operation Nimrod to free hostages being held in the Iranian embassy in London. The MP5 was chosen over the British-made Sterling L2A3 because the H&K weapon fired from a closed-bolt, which made the firearm more accurate—something deemed essential for hostage rescue situations.
While the H&K UMP has begun to replace the MP5, the latter remains that gold standard around the world even fifty years after it was introduced.
In June 2020, soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division became the first combat soldiers to receive the new M110A1 Squad Designated Marksman Rifle (SDMR), which is based on the H&K G28/HK417 sniper rifle. The semi-automatic 7.62x51mm weapon was fielded to soldiers in the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
More recently, H&K had been awarded a $44.6 million contract in 2016 to develop a special version with a baffle-less OSS suppressor. It has a 16-inch long barrel and weighs 8.7 pounds with an empty magazine—meeting the U.S. Army’s Compact Semi-Automatic Sniper System (CSASS) program size and weight requirements. It is just the latest firearm to live up to the No Compromises motto.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.