Kraut Space Magic: the H&K G11


I have been waiting for a long time to have a chance to make this video – the Heckler & Koch G11! Specifically, a G11K2, the final version approved for use by the West German Bundeswehr, before being cancelled for political and economic reasons.

The G11 was a combined effort by H&K and Dynamit Nobel to produce a new rifle for the German military with truly new technology. The core of the system was the use of a caseless cartridge developed in the late 60s and early 70s by Dynamit Nobel, which then allowed H&K to design a magnificently complex action which could fire three rounds in a hyper-fast (~2000 rpm) burst and have all three bullets leave the barrel before the weapon moved in recoil.

Remarkably, the idea went through enough development to pass German trials and actually be accepted for service in the late 1980s (after a funding shutdown when it proved incapable of winning NATO cartridge selection trials a decade earlier). However, the reunification with East Germany presented a reduced strategic threat, a new surplus of East German combat rifles (AK74s), and a huge new economic burden to the combined nations and this led to the cancellation of the program. The US Advanced Combat Rifle program gave the G11 one last grasp at a future, but it was not deemed a sufficient improvement in practical use over the M16 platform to justify a replacement of all US weapons in service.

The G11 lives on, however, as an icon of German engineering prowess often referred to as “Kraut Space Magic” (in an entirely complimentary take on the old pejorative). That it could be so complex and yet still run reliably in legitimate military trials is a tremendous feat by H&K’s design engineers, and yet one must consider that the Bundeswehr may just have dodged a bullet when it ended up not actually adopting the rifle.

Many thanks to H&K USA for giving me access to the G11 rifles in their Grey Room for this video!

113 Comments

    • “gift”
      Ok, now I got it. Word play -> 11 in digitless form is Elf which in Deutsch mean also elf, which is associated with Santa Claus.

      “caseless cartridge developed in the late 60s and early 70s by Dynamit Nobel, which then allowed H&K to design a magnificently complex action which could fire three rounds in a hyper-fast (~2000 rpm) burst and have all three bullets leave the barrel before the weapon moved in recoil.”
      Moreover it might be called micro-caliber as it is 4,73 mm – significantly less than then default 5,56 mm. It is convergent with general trend which can observed in fire-arms firing fixed cartridges, starting yet from 19th century. At similar time British were experimenting with 4,85 mm cartridge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4.85%C3%9749mm unlike Germans retaining classic cartridge (with metallic case). Although G11 ultimately failed to enter mass production, I think it give H&K experiences with micro-caliber which was utilized in creation of 4,6×30 cartridge for MP7.

      • What if someone made a revolver with caseless ammunition, you wouldn’t need an ejection tool at all, you also wouldn’t need those pesky rims that make loading annoying(for me at least)

  1. Amen to that! That is a seriously innovating design: ammo, way of use by the soldier (no cleaning required), 3 round burst as standard(?) and Inrange mud test proof! Still, I would have been been nervous to adopt this as a secretary of defense. Was it to modern? There are good reasons to be conservative if you are responsible for arming soldiers.

    • The all sealed design was not so much for mud and sand resistance than for ease of decontamination in NBC environnement. Remember, this was the cold war.

        • The ammunition was supplied in the plastic magazines, and was not meant to be handled individually. Would this suffice to make it durable enough for a war? I don’t know.

          • I stand to be corrected, but I think the plastic sleeves were an attempt to ruggedize the ammo; they came along later in the program. I’ve seen boxes of the caseless ammo from the ACR period where they basically just had the rounds in cardboard boxes with little corrugated buffers around the perimeter, and that was it.

            Even so, the root problem with the ammo wasn’t necessarily with loading it or other handling–It was while it was inside the mechanism. The stuff had the tendency to crumble around the edges, and when it did that…? Imagine nice, flammable propellant dust, and then some flash coming out of the chamber seals. I understand that there was at least one catastrophic failure of a G11 during the ACR trials, and that it was due to something exactly like I describe.

            The interesting thing about the mechanism is that the opening for that rotary bolt is facing a right-handed firer’s cheek. Lefties have it made; there’s a fair bit of steel in between them and any chamber/mechanism detonations. Righties? LOL… It was not a good day, for the kid firing the weapon when it happened. Or, so it was related to me.

        • So this thing sparked my imagination and I know nothing about it other than what I saw in this video but here’s my big guessing game: The action at least to my untrained eyes looks surprisingly durable for being so complex (they did it as simply as they possibly could) and since you never really mess with it it just gets swapped or sent in for scheduled maintenance no worries… the ammo is the main issue you’re right… but I gotta believe that because so much money and weight is saved doing away with brass that the intention was to eventually just have a few versions of the mag where the entire thing is partially or completely disposable… supply them pre-filled… all you’d really be throwing out is a plastic tube and a small cheap steel spring at that point. if the gun would have been adopted for an entire army The changes in manufacturing and supplying/resupply practices would have been well worth the gains…. can you imagine being able to carry 500+ rds with you easily on any hike? And all the extra weight capacity that could be used for body armor etc at that point? plus for field reloading I’m imagining mags whose bottom and spring comes out… a quick pull of a more beefy version of a cigarette cellophane shrink wrapper to undo mag sized portions of ammo directly into the tube and put the bottom cap and spring back in. I think that process doesn’t have to take any longer than reloading a pmag… and is probably faster even under stress. Maybe I’m way off base but from my armchair QB view this gun seems amazing.

          • This isn’t so obvious, default method of usage IIRC for G11 were “quick triplets”, so most often you would expend 3 cartridges per trigger pull.

    • I’ve always assumed that the Germans didn’t seriously anticipate using it in combat – back then the German army was only expected to fight World War III, which meant the end of the world. The typical German politician of the 1980s was more concerned with retiring rich than the unlikely possibility of global armageddon. If WW3 had broken out it was game over.

      My hunch is that the G11 was intended as a technology showcase for HK, but after a string of flops in the 1980s and the unexpected German reunification HK needed an export success, and the G11 was never going to sell abroad so they abandoned the thing.

      • I don’t think HK and Dynamit Nobel would have put so much money in a technology demonstrator. They must really have faith in their project.
        One HK demonstrator is said to be over confident on the gun. To prove the gun strength, it strike a cinder block with the buttstock during a demonstration. Guess who won? I can not retrieve the source and have no proof to have actually happened but this an illustration of why you should never demonstrate something you had not try before.

      • WW3 Would certainly have been fought on soil, then the rest of us would probably sue for peace.

        They wound the Russians up in the first place, after sending them Lennin.

        • It depends when. In years before August of 1968 it was looking that NATO had tactical edge. Not so much after so called invasion (basically re-affirming of CSSR position in WP). There was also immediate example and boost for West after 6-days war year before; some thought it could be done in Central Europe. Recognising this, CCCP made the move; the internal political situation just helped to made decision – it was a present for Soviets. Many Czechs still do not understand this important “detail” and continue to feel offended….

          Soon after Soviets moved in substantial quantity of tactical nuclear arms. If the conflict happened, it would have been nuclear from first days after opening of hostilities. Many of us felt the threat vividly, which btw. led me to my decision to depart from European space. The objective was to reach Brussels in 3 days and cut-off Britain. In that case, U.S. would be hard pressed to take defensive stance on their own territory.

          We talk 45 years back, just to be clear 🙂

          • Disclaimer: what I am writing here is not necessarily my own opinion. It is result of reading wealth of material at various pages including that of Czech military history enthusiasts. Many of them were officers in active service in that period – they knew what was in plans.

          • I do not mind sharing what I picked up here and there plus my own conclusions. For those who did not see all this “ready to go” machinery cannot understand what they were up to. There was several hundreds of thousands of finely honed troops of every service. Remembering comment of one British admiral who wanted to give Russians “bloody nose” in air combat. Good luck sir!

            What is important to know however is existence of “soft-power”. This part was put on display handsomely by West in 1998-91. We do not know the next phase in this long lasting struggle, but Russian have nowhere to go. They cannot be pushed any more back. One wrong step and BEAR will rip you up.

            In the meantime, lets enjoy one more day in peace 🙂

          • Attack from the East, like Mongols.

            But I know what you mean, and I have nothing against Russia or Putin; I hope your all happy bears, in future.

          • Putin is cunning but mild guy, pretty jovial too. But, he is serving last term. Let’s see who comes after him. Let’s also remember, there is entire group behind him plus his favored “oligarchs”.

            And enough for politics. Cheers! 🙂

        • The Russians have always been shitty neighbors. Ask anyone who had to deal with the Tsars…

          And, with the apparent involvement of the Tsar’s intelligence services with the Serbian Black Hand organization that organized the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie…? You can’t help but look at what happened to Nicholas II and his family as being a darkly karmic debt being repaid. You have to wonder if Nicky knew what his agents were doing, down in the Balkans, and how much of it was the traditional Russian security agency overreach?

      • I don’t believe it was entirely “just for show”, but I think it at least conceivable that it was intended for a much shorter service life than we’re used to thinking of. In peacetime, or in a low-intensity “brushfire war” context (which Germany was constitutionally hindered from participating in anyway), you could just send that barrel/action assembly back to the factory and swap in a new one. An actual shooting war in central Europe would likely be decided in a matter of months or weeks — whether decided by Germany being overrun, by the Warsaw Pact running out of steam, or by a civilzation-shattering nuclear conflict. The idea of troops operating continuously in the field for years, as in either of the World Wars, may have been considered obsolete. So maybe a lower life-expectancy weapon would be considered acceptable.

        • I’ve always suspected that the main thrust of the G-11 design and HK’s caseless research in general (which extended to LMGs and pistols) was for CTW.

          Assuming that most of the IAs would involve hostages and indoor events, weapons which had very low recoil impulse (for accuracy even in burst fire) and no case ejections (to avoid collateral damage) would be desirable.

          There’s also the cost factor. A single 5.56 x 45mm case made of brass is cheap. Millions of them bought in bulk aren’t. A caseless cartidge that doesn’t need that brass is probably going to be at least a bit cheaper to manufacture.

          Also, just moulding the propellant around the projectile and primer is a process that would be considerably faster than conventional cartridge production, more akin to mass production of plastic toys or even model kits. Something German industry has been very good at for decades. (See “Revell-Germany”.)

          For that matter, if you expected to need a lot of rifles that could be handled by conscripts, the G-11’s simpler manual of arms (compared to say the typical HK rifle, like the G41) would probably be an easier training proposition.

          The major reasons the G-11 failed other than just not really being needed after the Berlin wall came down were probably;

          1. Problems with ammunition durability in storage and transport;

          2. Problems with ammunition sensitivity to changes in climate, especially temperature and humidity;

          3. Problems with breech sealing exacerbated by wear;

          and

          4. The fact that while mass production of millions of such weapons by some country like the United States (who HK hoped to sell the G-11 to) would be fairly cheap per item, production of what amounted to a pre-production run by a smaller country like West Germany, even allowing for the postwar “economic miracle”, would be a serious budget line item. At a time when the FRG’s economy was entering a recession along with the rest of Europe.

          You can argue about the G-11’s merits or otherwise. But ultimately, the production of anything boils down to “do we need it?” and “can we afford it?”

          With a side order of “Do we even care?”

          cheers

          eon

  2. The internals do not look like they were designed by a German gunsmith; they look like they were designed by a Swiss watchmaker. I also like the engraved “Jim’s toy” on the side of the demonstrator.

  3. Whatever its inner working, the gun ergonomics are weird. How a soldier is supposed to carry and hold the thing when not shooting? I heard complains in this regard from Belgium soldiers equiped with FN F2000, the G11 could only be worse given its blocky appearance.
    Fine to have 3 magazine on the gun, but was it going to be the standard dotation? 150 rounds does not look so much. Was it planned to have extra ammo only in 10 rounds packs? Or was it planned to have extra mags? But how to carry them? They look longer than a backpack. FN P90 mags and AK74 45 rounders are quite cumbersome but nothing like this.

  4. One thing that I have never seen was the obturation mechanism – how was the open chamber sealed *effectively* against gas leakage?

      • Pdb, I gotta tell you that I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, with Nitonal. If that material did what it did instantaneously, then maybe you’d be able to use it the way it you are imagining. But, it doesn’t–It takes time for it to return to its “remembered” shape, and that time is not on the scale that would make it usable for your intended purposes. You’d basically be trying to obturate with something that would only return to shape long after the micro-second where it was needed, and would thus not perform the function you think it would. The lag between deformation and return to shape is simply not small enough to use it that way.

        • Thanks. “I did recognise, the instantaneous point… Was, basically; the key point. But I couldn’t, know.” So thank you for your input… Might be a dud idea overall or… Something can be done, something.

      • I’ve always thought that the Dardick Tround concept of a rotating chamber was an excellent path for caseless, assuming that we can ever get materials that could withstand the pressures and temperatures. Add in a helical magazine, and away you go–You’d be able to have enough ammo on board to make an individual weapon almost the equivalent of a modern SAW. Unfortunately, material science and propellants aren’t anywhere near where they’d need to be, in order for this idea to work, and I suspect that by the time they are…? We’ll be on to different pastures, like directed-energy weapons or rail guns.

        • Explosive EMP devices could probably be used in rail gun etc type designs, they generate massive electrical power…

          Maybe we should think, shells… Instead of platforms.

        • Something like the Dardick can’t work with caseless ammo because the gun doesn’t really have a chamber as you would normally understand it. The mechanism is similar to an ordinary revolver except that instead of chambers bored along the axis of the cylinder slots are cut in radially leaving no outer cylinder wall.

          The mechanical fit between the cylinder and its outer housing is not a gas seal, and the case has to contain the pressure of firing without being fully supported by a traditional chamber. The “trounds” can do this because the polymer sleeve around the inner metal case is strong enough under compression to to effectively transfer the pressure to the outer cylinder housing. Without a case the pressure would vent through the gap between the cylinder and the housing and probably cause a chain fire.

          That being said a you could probably achieve a lot of the goals of the G11 project by using a Dardick style design with polymer cased ammo.

          • If you could overcome the gas-cutting and the chamber-sealing issues, I think a caseless Dardick Tround concept would solve a lot of problems, in terms of ammunition-handling. I mean, if you can solve it for one sort of rotating chamber, then you can solve it for another. And, the Dardick mechanism could be set up such that it essentially fired open-bolt, allowing the rotary bolt to cool. And, since you’ve essentially got at least three different chambers at a minimum, you’re able to cool the things in between shots.

            I honestly have my doubts that we’ll ever make caseless work, at least before something supplants the entire technology. But, if you’re gonna blue-sky and fantasize, why not go whole-hog?

          • For going case-less better alternative might be NUTCRACKER which British tried to use with, but without success:
            http://www.quarryhs.co.uk/Split%20Breech.htm
            and U.S. forces used successfully in HONEYWELL GRENADE LAUNCHER.
            Both were made for ammunition with cases, but there should be less problem with gap that in “caseless Dardick”

          • Another example of a “split breech” was the Ball repeating carbine of the American Civil War;

            https://www.forgottenweapons.com/ball-repeating-carbine-video/

            It had a Henry-like action, but the cartridge lifter also formed the lower half of the firing chamber. With wear, case splitting along the junction between the chamber halves became a problem.

            But I’d expect the same thing with any system with any sort of “split” breech, especially in a high-RoF weapon (like an AGL, for instance).

            cheers

            eon

  5. This wouldn’t go over in Europe. Needs to be shaped like a paper bag, not a box. It will now be against the law to carry anything that looks like a box.

  6. Caseless is the Brazil of the small arms world; always destined to be the next big thing, but never quite realizing the promise of it all.

    G11 foundered on a couple of things, mostly ammo-related. The propellant was not actually based on traditional smokeless powder, in any way–Dynamit Nobel went with what amounted to a high explosive, modified to reduce the detonation velocity down to a rate that made it useful as a propellant. The issue with the propellant was that it was prone to a bunch of problems you just don’t see with cased rounds. For one, it was mechanically a lot weaker, and prone to being damaged during loading and handling. In conjunction with that neato-keeno clockwork mechanism, well… You can imagine the joy that a crumbled block of propellant could create, and then add in the potential for gas cutting to degrade obturation between the chamber bits and bobs…? Yeah; can you say “Flashover”, Johnny…? Knew ya could…”.

    Jim Schatz had a little presentation, based on his experience during the years of the ACR program:

    https://ndiastorage.blob.core.usgovcloudapi.net/ndia/2012/armaments/Wednesday13614JimSchatz.pdf

    Lots of interesting reading there, and some really educational pictures; not the least of which is a view into the complexities of that action. Did you realize that the firing pin had to obturate, as well as the front and rear of the chamber…? Think about that for a second, and marvel at the complexities of that whole thing. The Gnomes of Oberndorf really outdid themselves with this rifle, but the fact is, the practicality of its clockwork intricacies was probably a war-loser for the poor schmuck that wound up issued one.

    The ammo had a lot to do with the whole thing–It had to be stored in carefully climate-controlled settings, and there were (per reports of friends who were part of the ACR testing…) little indicators that were stored with it, and if the temperature was exceeded, then you were not supposed to fire it. Problems came because of chemical and mechanical changes in the propellant blocks due to high temperatures, and once the ammo was exposed to those temps, no can use–It would cease to deflagrate, and start detonating, and the mechanical part of the whole thing started showing problems with crumbling and cracking. Exposure to really cold temperatures was also a problem, but once it was warmed back up, there were no residual effects on the ammo.

    Basically, while there are storage issues with conventional cased ammo as well, the stuff the G11 fired was really, really sensitive, and just sticking the stuff into a MILVAN and leaving it out in the open under desert sunlight was enough to make it start acting wonky. Supposedly, that was a matter of days, where with conventional ammo, it would usually take a few months of that sort of abuse before you start seeing issues.

    I’ve heard apocryphal stories from German officers who were involved (per their report to me…) in the testing that the Bundeswehr didn’t really want the G11, and that it was more-or-less forced on them by the politicians and the lobbyists from HK. The fact was that HK had bet the farm on the whole project, and was looking at bankruptcy if it didn’t work out, so they’d pulled out all the stops, and forced through adoption. Supposedly, the problems with the ammo were never quite solved, but the Bundeswehr was forced into changing the specs so that they complied with what the G11 actually delivered, and there was a lot of angst in the Bundeswehr because of it. Which goes a long way towards explaining why the Bundeswehr cancelled the G11 program almost as soon as the Wall came down, and then allowed nature to take its course with the initial HK bankruptcy, instead of acting to keep the company afloat. There was that much bad blood built up, and the German I talked to swore up and down that he and his peers would prefer not to ever buy from HK again, if they could. It’s interesting that when I met and talked to this gentleman, it was before the G36 fiasco, and he was telling me that the Germans were thinking hard about just modifying all the East German AK74 rifles they’d inherited over to take 5.56mm, and calling that the new standard rifle. The 5.45mm was never an option, because it didn’t meet safety standards due to propellants and the by-products from them–Toxic, or something. All in all, the guy I spoke with felt that the Bundeswehr had dodged a bullet with being able to drop the G11, since it was mostly political, and they’d never thought it worked well enough to go on general issue. I can’t testify to anything he told me in a court of law, but it’s interesting to observe the externals, and suspect that while he might have been exaggerating a bit, he was telling me the truth as he saw it. I don’t think the Bundeswehr was happy with HK, during the 1990s and on into the 2010s, to be quite honest. The recent G36 fiasco probably grew out of all that, and one does wonder what the hell was going on behind the scenes–Why was HK allowed to go bankrupt, when it was the premier small arms producer for Germany? They didn’t even have a state arsenal system, really, and the East German small arms production facilities were either abandoned or sold off almost immediately, so why the hell did they allow HK to fail and be sold off to Royal Ordnance…?

    If my informant was correct, then that had a lot to do with the political pressure the guys at HK were applying to make good on their investment in the G11, which the Bundeswehr bitterly resented and then acted on. If you go digging for the financials that would corroborate this, you find a bunch of really opaque records–For a lot of the time, HK was a privately-held company, and even the amount of company money spent on the program isn’t really public. It must have been a pretty big line item, though, because when G11 got abandoned, official bankruptcy followed shortly after.

    Sometimes, the political BS and machinations behind everything are nearly as big a part of what gets adopted as the technology and the actual merits of the weapon system. And, of course, we plebs will never know what the hell went on behind closed doors, not the least because these things are sometimes state secrets.

    One does look at the public information and go “WTF happened, here…?”. It is very interesting to me that HK has been claiming that the technology was mature and ready to take off the shelf, any time, but… When they bought it to use as an alternative track for the LSAT system, they couldn’t get it to work worth beans. That tells us that the technology still had problems, even after the guys at LSAT poured big money into it. If G11 had actually been more than a bit of vaporware, then that shouldn’t have happened–LSAT should have been able to make the caseless track work quickly and easily, and they were never able to do it. This is a telling point, and one all the G11 fanboys ought to acknowledge before talking up how great the G11 was.

  7. I feel that the “optical laser” under the barrel is actually an experimental plasma bayonet. It is probably for the best that it was not working.

    • A plasma bayonet is exactly what we need to break through the German lines, somewhere near hill 60 Zap! Pull left; Zap, Zap, Zap, a row of zapped Krauts, get with the program man.

      • How is a plasma bayonet on a German rifle going to help you break through German lines, precisely…? I’m not getting the utility, here.

        Although, I suspect that if the Germans had adopted the G11, the infantry troops on the side of their enemies would no doubt regard the issuance of that weapon on the German side as a Godsend, and would no doubt hoist the Gnomes of Oberndorf on their shoulders, during the victory celebrations…

        The more I look at the G11 program, the more I have to wonder at the sheer hubris of it all. Oh, no… It’s too easy to restrict ourselves to worrying about obturation at just the back end of the chamber… Let’s do something really challenging, and make the mechanism so that the front requires obturation, as well… Oh, and while we’re at it? Let’s use an entirely new, and not-well-understood propellant. That’ll really make the whole thing come together…

        G11 wasn’t a “…bridge too far…”, but an entire sequential series of bridges, connected by causeways across the vasty deep, inhabited by sea monsters of unknown and unknowable provenance. The whole program just exudes technological exuberance and hubris; you look at it, and the first thing that comes to mind is the WWII-era Nazi Wunderwaffe, all of which exhibited similar features of technical arrogance and overreach. The G11 was simply a modern-day version of it all, and without the necessary technical underpinnings of the whole thing in materials and chemical sciences, was as doomed as the Maus or the other German attempts at overcoming mass with finesse and “excellence at war”.

        I think G11 represents an eventually attainable set of technical accomplishments, but I fear that it wasn’t just a few years before its time–More likely, it was generations ahead. Whole thing reminds me strongly of the Ferguson Rifle, and probably would have been about as successful. By the time we can do what we need to do to make G11 successful, the entire technology will likely be supplanted, just as the Ferguson was overtaken by the percussion cap and cartridge-firing weapons.

  8. Wiesa in the DDR actually did have a Kalashnikov AK74 in 5.56x45mm lined up and had tentative contracts with India and apparently even Perú. Instead, the Kohl government closed Wiesa and ate the penalties from breach of contract. As far as I know, neither India nor Germany has an adequate service rifle?

    One wonders if the G36 ailments–German troops don’t serve abroad, so no need to test if for anything but muck, mud, and some sub-zero temperatures–also applied to the G ELF project?

    As it happened, the Bundeswehr did retain the Kalashnikov bayonet for the G36, so they save the taxpayer a bit there I suppose… Ha! Ach du lieber!

    The Bundeswehr seemed to have a longer history of constantly tweaking and changing testing requirements to obtain foregone conclusions while maintaining a sort of myth of meritocracy: Witness the contortions to ensure the adoption of the MP2, aka. the 9mm Uzi. ERMA cooked up all manner of prototypes at each stage of testing, only to see the criteria changed yet again. In terms of flat out cheapness of production, the ERMA MP-60 and MP-65 were arguably the least expensive, being basically Sudayev PPS43 knock-offs albeit mit extra-qualität hergeschtellt und so weiter… But the fix was in.

    QUESTION: What was the unit cost for the G ELF? I mean, was this the F-35 of assault rifles or what?

    Incidentally, Matthew Moss scooped Ian on the G ELF, and his demonstration indicated that the chamber insert had to be swapped out after 3k rounds… But that public relations folks for Hochler und Keck thought they could double that… Maybe.