Markets mature with time. As purchasers get accustomed to the use characteristics of what they’ve bought, they recognize its limitations, which in turn changes the nature of the demand. In the case of the ubiquitous AR-15, which has seen a stunning resurgence since the sunset of the deeply flawed 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, the fruit has been a mild dissatisfaction with the .223 cartridge, leading to demand for different calibers on the AR platform. This includes the 6.5mm Grendel and Creedmoor, 6.8mm SPC, .300 Blackout, .338 Spectre, .458 SOCOM and a host of lesser-known others. It has also created sufficient demand for heavier calibers that even mainline companies such as Smith & Wesson and the notoriously conservative Colt have introduced AR-pattern rifles in .308.
At the same time, the market saturation of the AR has been accompanied by interest in other modern sporting rifles, often in search of a lower-cost option or simply something different. To this intersection of interests — the desire for a heavier-caliber rifle that’s not based on the AR platform — there’s an obvious answer in the form of modern variants of the German roller-locked rifles best typified by HK’s G3. We’ll start with a bit of the gun’s history, then move into newly made guns and the wide range of available parts.
The roller-locked .308-powered G3 began life as an evolutionary offspring of the Sturmgewehr (StG) 45 that was under development at Mauser during the waning days of World War II. The StG.45 itself descended from the MP.43/MP.44 (later the StG.44), part of the line of weapons that introduced the world to the concept of the assault rifle: a select-fire weapon chambered for intermediate-power ammunition. Post-war, the Spanish firm CETME, which was then partially staffed by some of the German personnel who had previously been employed at Mauser and were familiar with the StG.45, continued to refine it. Intent on using it to win the contract to supply rifles to the Spanish military as well as the newly forming West German Bundeswehr, CETME partnered with a then-new gunmaking firm composed of Edmund Heckler and Theodore Koch, both formerly of Mauser, to produce the fully-automatic 7.62mm NATO rifle that was ultimately adopted (albeit in slightly different forms) by the Spanish as the CETME 58 and by the Bundeswehr as the G3.
Relatively inexpensive to manufacture thanks to its stamped-steel receiver, the G3 quickly earned a reputation for monotonous reliability and for delivering a healthy thump on both ends when fired, and it became one of the standard battle rifles worldwide. Predictably, the gun’s success led to a line of both military and civilian-friendly weapons from HK, including the HK91 (the G3 in semi-auto form), the smaller-framed .223-caliber HK93/53/33 family, and the iconic MP5 submachine gun with its semi-auto brother, the HK94. Of them all, though, the .308-powered roller-locked rifles (as typified by the G3 and CETME) are currently the most popular.
In addition to its power and reliability, this is function of modularity (parts such as buttstocks, trigger groups and forends interchange easily without tools), a strong aftermarket and recently decreased costs, which is largely a function of how many were made. Built to the tune of 7 million plus, licensed copies of the G3 have been made Greece, Iran, Mexico, Sweden and other countries, and adopted everywhere from Haiti and Malawi to Qatar, Senegal and many other places. Although still prevalent (we’ve seen recent news photos of the G3 in current use in Africa and Mexico), a significant number of G3s have been surplused out by forces moving to other weapons platforms. Original HK rifles tend to be pricey (the last one we saw at retail was $4,500), but the availability of surplus parts has made the German roller-locked rifle much more accessible in aftermarket form.
Generally speaking, many roller-locked rifles begin as parts kits. The imported surplus guns are de-milled, typically by destroying the barrel and receiver, and the U.S. manufacturer reassembles them with a new, U.S.-made receiver, barrel and other components to make sure the gun both functions only as a semi-auto (remember, we’re starting with machine guns) and has the appropriate parts count to be 922 compliant and legal for sale in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, the guns come in a broad range of prices.
In researching this article, we spoke with Jacob Herman of Century Arms. In business for 60 years, Century previously imported the CETME, and in addition to selling the C93, a roller-locked .223, showed its new .308-caliber C308 at SHOT Show this year. While the earlier CETMEs were surplus guns in the truest sense, the C308 is built from CETME parts that are either NOS or arsenal refinished.
Externally almost identical to a G3, the C308 uses the slightly simpler CETME sights in place of the familiar drum-and-post G3 sights, and includes an optics rail on the top of the receiver. It also has a muzzle brake threaded at the more universal 5/8 x 24 pitch instead of the usual metric thread, which broadens the horizons considerably for those who wish to replace it or install a suppressor. The C308 comes with a new five-round steel magazine and a pair of surplus 20-rounders, and with a retail of $699, it is a very compelling piece for anyone on a budget considering a .308 semi-auto.
On the more custom side of things, we also interviewed Chuck Malta of Kelly Enterprises at length, and he gave us a detailed explanation of the workings of the roller-locked marketplace. Malta’s Key West, Florida-based company has rifles manufactured to his specifications under the name of VKE using new U.S.-made receivers with cold hammer-forged barrels and internal parts machined by aerospace parts maker Rim Country Manufacturing.
Since Kelly Enterprises is a Class III/SOT licensee, it offers some NFA weapons, and the semi-auto VKE guns come with the appropriate parts to make them an excellent host weapon for those who have lawfully owned ATF-registered auto sears. Generally sold as a package with a range bag and magazines, the VKE models retail in the low $2,000 range, with some guns in the high teens. In .308, models range from traditional full-size, full-stocked rifles to the 12-inch-barreled 91K, and pistols with either an 8-inch or 5.5-inch barrel. Short-barreled guns are available either as a pistol or a short-barreled rifle, the sale of which requires ATF approval.
Another manufacturer on the higher end is Moore Advanced Dynamics, which, like Kelly Enterprises, offers a broad range of roller-locked weapons built to a very high standard. In addition to the familiar .308s and 9mm subguns (all NFA rules apply), they offer a number of interesting variants, including rifles in the easily suppressible .300 Blackout and a .223 variant that takes standard AR magazines instead of the much more expensive HK93 magazines. Another twist found on some models is the use of the more prominent MP5-style cocking knob in place of the lower-profile folding cocking lever, which allows for faster reloading. Prices hover around $3,000 and up.
While many roller-locked guns do begin as parts kits and thus to a certain extent fluctuate with the availability of surplus parts, the South Carolina-based PTR is a notable exception.
Capable of producing all of the parts in-house, since its founding in 2002 PTR has made clones of .308 service-style rifles as well as variations never before seen in the market, including the PTR32, a 7.62mm x 39 variant that takes AK-47 magazines. It is also the company perhaps most responsible for making the 1913/Picatinny rail a standard feature on roller-locked guns, a trend other makers have followed.
Long hamstrung by requiring a claw-style scope mount, PTR’s incorporation of a welded-on rail for optics, as well as an optional machined forend that takes bolt-on rails, makes the gun far more appealing in a market where consumers expect the ability to use rail-mounted accessories. Uniformly excellent in fit, finish and function, PTR rifles generally retail in the $1,000-2,000 range (we’ve even seen closeout models in retail sources as low as $700), and their accessibility, especially in the much less crowded market in which they were founded, has doubtless drawn in buyers who would otherwise not be able to afford the buy-in for an original HK rifle.
Who’s Got Parts?
The final element that makes the roller-locked rifle appealing is the aftermarket, consisting of both readily accessible surplus parts and newly made custom items. Tritium night sights from Trijicon, Meprolight and XS sights as well as the new prevalence of optics rails gives the customer more sighting options and the retailer more chances to provide for them, with either combat-oriented optics like ACOGs and EOTechs or a traditional riflescope.
Recoil has long been a complaint for the G3 (it is after all a .308), and several companies offer muzzle compensators — we’ve used an FSC brake from Primary Weapons/PWS with good results. Threaded in the correct metric 15 x 1 RH threads, it interchanges easily with the customary birdcage-style flash hider. In addition to muzzle devices, the G3 design incorporates a recoil buffer in the buttstock assembly, and heavier kick-absorbing buffers are available from sources such as www.hkparts.net.
Although involved in the business for about 10 years, owner Adam Webber incorporated hkparts.net in 2009, and it has quickly become the go-to source online for parts and accessories. While it is a retail source, dealer and distributor pricing is available.
In addition to providing both new and take-off surplus parts for HK firearms of all types (including handguns, for which hkparts.net produces threaded barrels not available from the factory), Webber also produces new rifle parts of his own design. This includes a four-position variant of the traditional A3-style collapsible stock (which is usually a two-position, all-or-nothing proposition), making the rifle more adjustable for individual shooters such as law enforcement officers wearing body armor. He also offers a line of Key Mod forends for 91, 93, 94 and K- size guns, as well as a variant that accepts Magpul’s proprietary M-LOK mounting system.
Using a clever U-shaped hanger to let the end user adjust the forend’s mounting position to the foibles of the individual gun upon which it will be mounted, the Key Mod and M-LOK forends are held on by an included screw instead of the customary push-pin. The use of Key Mod and M-LOK systems (similar in effect to PTR’s “Tactical” forend that accepts bolt-on lengths of rail) gives the end user a choice of mounting surfaces while avoiding the considerable bulk and cheese-grater effect of a traditional quad-rail forend. While these are premium products, and priced accordingly, a less expensive option is the surplus “slim” G3 forend that can be had from hkparts.net and other online sources for under $10 each.
The same holds true with buttstocks: Held in place like the forend with easily removable push-pins, they can be swapped out in a matter of seconds. On the low end of the price range, take-off stocks are in the mid-$20 range. For those interested in accuracy, Magpul offers an excellent adjustable precision stock that we’ve used on test rifles before.
For those needing a more compact rifle, hkparts.net produces an M4 stock adaptor as well as a SIG-style arm brace, and its sidefolder (which uses Remington ACR hardware) will likely be available by the time this goes to press.
Magazines are always a consideration with any weapons platform, and that is perhaps the best part for consumers. Although we’ve seen them for $15 at a retail gun shop, the millions of surplus 20-round G3 magazines in this world can be easily found for under $4 apiece, or, if purchased in quantity, $1. Stock up.
In a world where the dominance of the AR has created additional market share for modern sporting rifles in heavier calibers, the German roller-locked platform is well-positioned to fill that niche. The broad variety of rifles available — from the surplus .308 rifles to the far-higher-priced custom builds — offers a wide selection for customers across the spectrum of price tags and those with discriminating tastes for build quality.
Incorporation of features such as welded-on sight rails and more versatile forends have made the guns more useful and more in step with what current users are looking for in a semi-auto rifle, and the broad range of available parts — both high-end custom and inexpensive surplus — presents a wealth of options for users wishing to personalize their guns or simply ensure they can keep the gun in good repair at low cost.
The roller-locked rifle will never replace the AR, but it is uniquely positioned to appeal to those looking for something more.