Lithuania has resumed buying the German G36 assault rifles after it temporarily suspended purchases in mid-2015 because a recent German Army study concluded that the G36 was unreliable during sustained combat, especially in hot weather. That, it turned out was not a problem for Lithuania, which has been using the G36 since 2005 and Lithuanian troops have been satisfied with the rifle. That was largely because the heat problems were never noticed. Lithuanian troops typically used the G36 for training (typical single or short burst fire) and often in cold European weather. When troops tested G36s again under simulated heavy combat conditions (lots of rounds fired over several days, often on full automatic) they found they did not have a problem.
The G36 manufacturer (H&K) still manufactures the G36 and has hundreds of foreign armed forces and police organizations as customers and wants to do whatever it can, even if it costs them a lot of money, to keep their satisfied G36 users as H&K customers. Lithuania knew this and German arms manufacturers knew that Lithuania was, like many other East European nations, eager to get modern arms at low prices. That has meant a lot of West European Cold War surplus was, and still is, sold in East Europe. Even second-hand these weapons are expensive and H&K quietly offered Lithuania even more discounts and extras if they would keep buying the G36. Since the troops weren’t complaining, especially since H&K agreed to customize G36s to implement changes Lithuanian troops had asked for, the G36 purchases resumed. The G36 is a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound), 999mm (39 inch) long (758mm with stock folded) 5.56mm assault rifle. Effective range is 800 meters and it can use a 30 or 100 round magazine and was designed to be an improvement on the M16 design from the 1960s.
Lithuanian users had come up with a lot of minor changes during a decade of use and the G36 manufacturer agreed to incorporate minor changes to the buttstocks, handguards and Picatinny rail used for mounting accessories like sights. The new version will be called the G36KA4M1. Some of the suggested changes had already been made on G36s used by Lithuanian commandos and apparently more tweaks will be provided. Most importantly the government is saving a lot of money. No one will say how much, which usually indicates it is a lot.
The early 2015 G36 report was big news in Germany because for years the German Amy refused to recognize a growing number of user complaints. Even after these complaints were validated by several rounds of testing the army leadership resisted. The main problem was major accuracy and reliability problems with the G36 under certain conditions. On paper the G36 was a success but in certain types of combat it was not. This was particularly true in Afghanistan. While the G36 entered service in 1995 it didn’t get exposed to heavy combat use until 2008 and that’s when the complaints from the troops began.
The main problem was that the G36 suffers accuracy and reliability problems when the barrel gets very hot. This tends to happen when the rifle fires a lot of rounds in a short period and was worse in situations where the outdoor temperatures were very hot to begin with. This was a common situation in Afghanistan. In 2014, despite formal investigations and test results that backed up the complaints of the troops, the German government insisted on one more round of tests along with a temporary halt in purchases of G36s. The results of those tests confirmed earlier results and the G36 was said to have no future in the German military. That admits the problem existed but did not solve it.
Although German troops went to Afghanistan in 2002, they were deliberately kept away from combat for several years. But by 2008 German troops were regularly fighting the Taliban and experiencing extended gun battles during the warm weather. At that point the troops encountered the previously unknown G36 flaws. There were incidents where hours of combat caused several very obvious problems. One of the more obvious culprits was the polymer (plastic) parts of the rifle getting a bit soft as the metal parts got very hot due to heavy use in a short period of time. The barrel and receiver could move a tiny bit under those conditions and that threw off accuracy to a small degree that became especially noticeable only at longer (over 200 meters) ranges. It was later discovered that the manufacturer had not been using the right type of plastic for the rifle and the cheaper substitute was more prone to failure in high-heat conditions.
As early as 2012 it was clear that there were no practical (workable and affordable) solution. At first the German government insisted the problem had to do with bad ammunition. The ammo manufacturers denied that and were able to make a convincing case. Meanwhile the complaints from the troops, confirmed by many witnesses and cell phone photos, of the heat related problems and total failure of the rifle in some cases kept showing up in the media. German politicians and procurement officials initially responded by trying to make all this go away. The government officials did not want to admit they made a major mistake in putting the G36 into service. They also don’t want the major expense of replacing the G36 with a better design.
The G36 was initially very popular as the standard German infantry assault rifle. By 1997 in was widely used and troops appreciated the fact that it used a short-stroke piston system. The American M16s uses the gas-tube system, which results in carbon being blown back into the chamber. That leads to carbon build up, which results in jams (rounds getting stuck in the chamber, and the weapon unable to fire.). The short-stroke system also does not expose parts of the rifle to extremely hot gases (which wears out components more quickly). As a result, rifles using the short-stroke system, rather than the gas-tube, are more reliable, easier to maintain and last longer. That was the good news. The bad news stayed hidden for a decade.
The G-36 assault rifle had been created in the early 1990s as the successor to the outdated G3 rifle which was incompatible with the current NATO standards. The new 5.56mm assault rifle has been adopted by the Bundeswehr in the 1995 and achieved some export success. The rifle is made mostly from reinforced composites. Thanks to this it is very light. The lightest version weighs only 2.8 kilograms and the heaviest variant is only 3.6 kilograms. Other manufacturers have designed similar weapons that did not have the heat problem. But for the post-Cold War German Army the G36 seemed to be an affordable and much improved new weapon at a time when military budgets were shrinking and there was no apparent threat of war in Europe and Germans were not interested in sending troops overseas for any combat operations. Life, as they say, is what happens while you’re making other plans.
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