The years following World War Two found every major military in the world looking to upgrade their current battle rifles. This was no big surprise, as many nations were still fielding bolt action rifles. The United States was the only country fielding a reliable semi auto main battle rifle in the M1 Garand. The Garand had performed admirably during WWII, but by the 1950s many new designs clearly eclipsed the Garand.
These new designs would compete for adoption with all the non Soviet backed nations. These would be what the free world would fight the Soviets with if they ever rolled their legions of tanks through the Fulda Gap and began World War III. While that never happened these rifles were used all over the world fighting the Cold War and the communist insurgencies that brought with it. From Angola to Vietnam, Nicaragua to Rhodesia, The Phillipines to the Falkland Islands from Northern Ireland to Kuwait, Mogadishu , and the mountains of Afghanistan these four rifles have been battle tested over and over again. The 4 major rifles we will focus on are the U.S. made M14, the Belgian FN FAL , the inch pattern counterpart to the FAL and the rifle the British Commonwealth countries adopted , the L1A1, and the German G3.
The M14 is essentially a product improved M1 Garand. The gas system has been changed, a flash suppressor added, a 20 round box magazine added, a rarely used an largely impractical full auto selector added, and it was chambered in the new 7.62x51NATO cartridge, essentially a shortened version of the 30/06 cartridge the Garand had fired.
The FN FAL was to be adopted by 90 some odd countries and was known as the “Right Arm of the Free World”. The FAL was originally designed as an intermediate cartridge assault rifle much like an AK47, but due to NATO politics it was redesigned for the new 7.62×51. Salient features of the FAL include a 20 round removable box magazine, flash hider, bolt hold open on the last round, and a gas regulator that is adjustable for different ammo, and for firing rifle grenades. The overwhelming majority of FAL rifles were produced with a full auto capability.
The L1A1 is essentially a modified FAL. Instead of being built with metric measurements it was built using the imperial units of measure (inches).While very similar to the FAL, there are a few differences. The L1A1 has a slightly different angle to the stock, a different flash hider, different designed pistol grip and fore end, no magazine operated bolt hold open so the bolt does not lock open after the last round is fired, a different magazine due to the inch vs. metric construction, sand cuts on the side of the bolt to help keep dirt and sand from causing malfunctions, and a fold down bolt handle that lessened the likelihood of it getting caught on web gear. The L1A1 was also semi auto only. The British commonwealth countries regarded full auto fire in a rifle as a waste of ammo.
The last but certainly not least is the German G3. The G3 is essentially a product improved Spanish CETME. The CETME was an offshoot of a design spirited away from Germany in the final days of WWII. When the Belgians refused to license Germany to build FALs domestically, they went looking for a different rifle. The CETME was chosen and HK and Rheinmetall started production in Germany. The G3 used a delayed roller blowback system. With this system the recoil of the cartridge being fired drives the bolt to the rear. Rollers on the bolt are compressed and driven towards each other which allows the bolt carrier to be driven rearward but not unlocking the bolt until after the pressure has dissipated to a safe level. It is a very simple design, and the rifle is extremely reliable. Ejection is quite robust. This also allows the rifle to shoot just about any 7.62×51 ammo reliably. Also the internal simplicity makes disassembly simple and cleaning as easy as an AK. The rifle is simple to maintain, robust and built as tough as a tank. There are literally teenagers and children using this rifle in conflicts all over the world and if an uneducated third world child can operate and maintain this rifle then that is about as robust as it gets.
The M14 was essentially obsolete before it was adopted. The rifle is little more than a moderately improved Garand. It is 44.3 Inches long and tips the scales at 9.2 lbs empty with a wood stock. It did not have a pistol grip (unlike every other major post war rifle like the AK 47, FAL, L1A1, Sig SG510 (STGW 57), and G3) was completely uncontrollable in full auto, and did not really lend itself well to anything other than long range marksmanship. Also the wood stocks had issues with warping and zero shift and the rifle itself was not the most robust rifle even available at the time. Jungle fighting in the humid environment of Viet Nam made these issues apparent. It was not the best rifle for that task. Honestly, the biggest reason the M14 became the U.S. rifle is that we already had the machinery and know how to build Garands and the U.S. military has always been a bit conservative in their weapon procurement. Anyone remember the Krag Jorgensen? That is another rifle we adopted that was already obsolete when compared to the Mauser rifles our enemies were acquiring at the same time. But that is an article for another time. As a side note Australian forces in Vietnam used the L1A1 which did not have the same shortcomings. And a G3 would take those conditions in stride due to its robust simplicity.
The M14 also is not known for its ability to run well when dry, and it requires tools to disassemble. Remember, the Garand is 1930s technology and was showing its age by the 1960s and the M14 is the same rifle with a few improvements. Not exactly things that endear it to the modern infantry man. Also the safety is located in the trigger guard and the selector lever (if even used) was located at the rear of the ejection port. It is about as poorly designed for modern warfare as it gets. The M14 however does have excellent adjustable sights and did become the darling of the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) shooters in the guise of the semi auto Springfield M1A rifle. It acquired an almost legendary status (though overshadowed now by free floated barrel AR15s) and this author agrees that as a purpose built semi auto target rifle for an owner who is willing to pay for improvements and learn how to gunsmith them, the M1A rifles are an excellent target rifle. They are somewhat similar to the 1911 in that regard….but that too is an article for another time.
The FAL was the rifle that was on everyone’s list in the late 50s. The rifle gave the end user an “Assault Rifle” as we know it today with pistol grip, detachable magazine, relatively lightweight and still carried a full size .30 caliber battle rifle cartridge that was still effective at 600 yards. Remember the war the world was planning for then would be fought on the plains of Europe, not in a Southeast Asian jungle or in cities so the rifles they were adopting were adopted with long range engagements in mind. As such the rifles in full size configuration weigh in at 9.5 lbs and are 43” long. This is pretty standard for the battle rifles in this class adopted in the late 1950s. At that time if you could afford it, or more importantly if you could get licensed to build them domestically you adopted the FAL. In fact the U.S. had agreed in principle that if the NATO countries would adopt the 7.62×51 cartridge as NATO standard that the U.S. would adopt the FAL (in mostly L1A1 guise) as our standard service rifle. Unfortunately we backed out on the deal, instead adopting a rifle that was designed to win World War II…not World War III.
The FAL is a fine rifle. It has good ergonomics and good usable sights. But it is also can be a bit finicky in regards to ammo. While the gas regulator helps with that it also makes the system more complex and there are more things that can go wrong or break as the level of complexity increases. The L1A1 , being essentially an FAL has the same issues both good and bad. They are excellent rifles as long as you keep them properly taken care of and lubed.
The G3 , while maybe not quite as ergonomic (a VASTLY overused gun magazine buzzword) as the FAL, it is by no means “un ergonomic”. The rifle is in line with the others in weight, tipping the scales at 9.04 lbs and having a length of 40.4 inches. The safety and selector lever is in the same place as the FAL. The primary magazine release is an ambidextrous paddle release in the same place as the FAL (and the M14 and AK for that matter) with a secondary push button release on the right side of the receiver similar to an M16/AR15. The sights are a rotary diopter rear sight with a ring protected front post. The 0-100 setting is a shallow notch, with apertures for 200, 300 and 400 meters. It also has a stock that is a bit shorter than the FAL which makes shouldering the rifle a little faster.
The biggest complaint from those not familiar with running HK style rifles and subguns seems to be with the bolt handle /cocking handle which is located forward on the cocking tube a few inches behind and to the left of the rear sight. Right handed shooters have no issue with it and left handers simply have to rotate the rifle inboard so the ejection port faces down so they can reach over the top with their support hand. The location and the fact that it is designed to flip down and lay almost flat keeps it out of the way and less likely to snag on your web gear. This was built as a rifle for harsh use on the battlefield not fast use in a 3 gun match. There is a difference.
And on that note I will mention that the rifles currently available as clones of these great battle rifles are that. Clones. The Gun control act of 1968 and the George HW Bush era 1989 import ban has really limited the civilian shooters ability to own a real FAL, L1A1, M14, or G3. How? All of those designs have had to be tweaked in one way or another to be able to import or produce them. Most of those rifles have long since been replaced in their original countries arsenals in favor of intermediate cartridge assault rifles. As such original Mil Spec parts are drying up and many of these rifles are built now with American made parts in order to make them legal under the 18 US Code 922R laws. So what is available today and why would you want one?
We will start with the “why”. Simply put 7.62×51 (or .308Win) makes concealment out of things that .223 and 7.62×39 still thinks are cover. The battle rifle is simply built to shoot through things. A friend asked me what the underlying logic was for a civilian owning an iron sighted .30 caliber battle rifle. My immediate answer? Vehicles. In a Hurricane Katrina or other natural disaster situation or civil unrest where looters (or worse) might try to enter a neighborhood and bust through a neighbor hood roadblock, a 7.62×51 rifle can disable a car a lot faster and while expending far less rounds than any .223 or 5.56×45. Also when out in the great outdoors if you take a rifle with you a .308 can simply do more (engage at longer distance and shoot through things better than .223 or 7.62×39. While I’m not saying you should sell all your ARs or AKs and roll with just battle rifles, I am saying a battle rifle is never a bad thing to have on hand in case of civil unrest or natural (or man made) disaster.
Now let’s look at the “what”. You can still get the M14 in the guise of the Springfield M1A and from a few other smaller boutique manufacturers. The problem is that Springfield began running out of MilSpec parts around 2001 and now the rifles are largely nothing more that commercial target rifles that look like an M14. They do not have the bayonet lug on the flash hider and the majority of the parts are newly manufactured MIM Metal injection molded parts. At starting price of between $1300 to $1500 that is a lot for a rifle that you will want to replace parts in. Also magazines will run in the $40 to $50 range. Of course a rifle made by a custom builder will be more accurate and more reliable….but it will also be A LOT more expensive.
The FAL is currently limited by importation laws, but some guns are still made here via imported parts kits (which have largely dried up) and USA made receivers. If you know what you are doing and know what and where to look you can amass a kit, and enough US made parts to assemble a rifle on a receiver made by Imbel, Armscor, and a few others or on US receivers made by Coonan or DSA. Also from DSA you can get newly manufactured rifles made domestically. Unfortunately they too have begun to run out of Mil Spec parts they acquired from the Austrians back in the 90s and their rifles are beginning to climb in price. A quick look at DSA FAL prices shows their current rifles selling for the same price or more than an M1A. Magazines for the FAL run in the $20 to $30 dollar range.
This brings us to the G3. In 2013 you can still get a perfectly functional G3 pattern rifle manufactured by PTR. Portugal was one of the countries licensed to build G3 rifles (along with Mexico, Germany, Greece, Pakistan, Sweden, Norway, Turkey, England, and Bangladesh) I have one of the 1980s era Portuguese rifles and it is every bit as reliable as anything made by HK. Portugal sold their machinery used to build their G3 rifles to PTR who has been manufacturing them right here in the U.S. for several years. Their GI model is the standard G3 rifle. It is as close to a G3 as you can currently get on the US new commercial market and it won’t break the bank. Unfortunately there is one catch. Or maybe more correctly the lack of one catch.
The most stinging insult to the G3 caused by the importation bans and issues with the ATF is the lack of a paddle mag release. The ATF has decreed that the standard design of an HK rifle is problematic under US law. The lower receiver houses the fire control unit and it attaches via two push pins on the factory G3 rifles. The front push pin also is where the paddle mag release is housed. Due to ATF restrictions about easily converting semi auto rifle to machine guns the HK style semi auto rifles all have to be what they call “clip and pin“ so that factory full auto trigger packs cannot be easily attached to a semi auto rifle. The rear push pin remains intact, but the front part of the lower receiver attaches via a shelf that it slides on to. As such , the front push pin is removed and with it the paddle release. This leaves only the side magazine release button on the right side of the receiver. While perfectly functional it is not nearly as instinctive as the paddle release. The good news is that there are several reputable gunsmiths (or frankly many mechanically inclined individuals) who can add a paddle release back to your amputated receiver. I have one on my NFA registered G3K and believe that is a worthwhile addition to any HK style rifle if you plan to ever have to use it for serious business. Again the side release is functional and with some training it can be worked quickly, but there is a reason the original design included the paddle release. If I could make ONE single recommendation to PTR that would be to start adding the paddle at the factory on the GI rifles.
The other complaint that I hear about the G3 pattern rifle is that the fluted chamber (which aids in reliability) makes reloading brass difficult. These guns were not built with the American hobby ammo reloader in mind. They were built to operate reliably on the battlefield. As such the cases may or may not be able to be reloaded. I know people who do reload them and people who say they prefer not to fool with reloading their cases shot out of their G3. If it is that important to you to reload the empty brass, then you probably have a different set of priorities and there is probably a better rifle out there for you than the G3.
As far as accuracy goes, I do not judge fighting rifles solely on what size group they will shoot off of a bench. Most battle rifles are in the 3 to 4 MOA range of accuracy. And that is plenty good enough for a battle rifle. The tighter a group, the tighter the tolerances. The tighter the tolerances the less reliable they are when filthy. And Battle rifles , by hteir nature are designed to run when filthy.
One other silly qualm I hear from some is that they feel like the G3 kicks harder than a FAL tuned to the specific ammo it is shooting or to an M14 with match ammo. I own all four (M1A, G3, FAL, L1A1) have shot all four extensively with GI ball ammo and while the recoil feels different with the G3 than the others due to the operating system it is not in any way unbearable or even remotely uncomfortable. After all, it is a 308 not a .223. And most of the complaints seem to come from people used to shooting only .223 Ar15s. I’ve seen guys with a solid stance and understanding of recoil control do mag dumps with full auto G3s and keep them on target.
So what do you get with the PTR GI model G3 rifle? You get a tough as a tank reliable rifle that is as accurate as a battle rifle needs to be , retails (One Source Tactical ) for $1125 and comes with TEN factory magazines. That would be plenty enough for most people , but for those who want to stock up additional magazines can be had for $10. That is ½ to 1/5 the price of FAL or M14 magazines!
If it sounds like I like the G3 I do. And I don’t just like it because of what a magazine article somewhere says. I own all four rifles, I have shot them extensively. I know the good points and bad points of each and if I were forced to choose one to use in harsh conditions from arctic cold to jungle heat and humidity to desert sand it would be the G3.