Weapons: The Avoidable G36 Disaster


May 5, 2015: The German army now admits, after years of user complaints and several rounds of testing, that it has major accuracy and reliability problems with its G36 assault rifle. 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. On paper the G36 was a success, in 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 is worse in areas where the outdoor temperatures are very hot. 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 ordered one last round of tests and 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 but does 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 experiencing firefights and encountering 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 when 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.

By 2012 it was also discovered that there were no practical (workable and affordable) solutions. At first the German government insisted the problem has to do with bad ammunition but 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 M16s uses 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.

Meanwhile heat has long been a problem for infantry weapons, especially those capable of automatic fire. The mass media is prone to misinterpreting these effects. For example the mass media is fond of talking about American assault rifles overheating and jamming. Some of the reports displayed a remarkable ignorance of how military rifles operate. A typical bit of misinformation reported rifle barrels white hot with heat. That's a physical impossibility, because of the metal used for these rifles. Long before the rifle barrels turned any color from heat, rounds would automatically fire ("cook off") from the heat, and the barrels would fail (split apart). The reporters also seemed unaware of how automatic weapons handle heat. Assault rifles are built to fire about once every four seconds for hours, without any heat problems. Machine-guns do have heat problems, and are designed with easily removable barrels, so you can switch in a fresh (cooler) barrel as needed. In short, any automatic weapon will overheat if you put too many rounds through it in too short a time. The G36 can fire over 12 rounds a second, interrupted only by the few seconds it takes to insert a new magazine. In heavy combat troops fire their weapons as fast as they can because it is a matter of life and death. But all that firing is not what the G36 was designed to handle.

At first German troops were taught about this heat problem and reminded that they must either cope with it or risk death. The G36 problem is what engineers consider “acceptable” given the design. It is always possible, especially in a desperate combat situation, to use weapons in ways they were not designed for.  Well trained troops are taught the consequences of certain extreme situations, so that at least they know what to expect. But the problem with the G36 was not enough attention to heat in the design process and then not enough attention to how the weapons were built. The solution to this is not warning the troops and telling them to suck it up.  

The German government has announced that the G36 cannot be salvaged but has not yet announced what the replacement might be. Many Heckler & Koch officials still do not believe there is a problem or, if there is one, that it cannot be easily fixed.




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