H&K is the modern day firearms equivalent of Albrecht Durer. There’s little doubt that everything they make is absolutely dead sexy, and as a result there probably wasn’t a single action movie from 1970 through 2000 that didn’t feature their firearms. Their latest and greatest battle rifle developed for the German military is the G36 line, which evolved from the G3 line much the same way that a chicken has evolved from a T-Rex. Some of the changes have definitely been for the better, but is the gun an actual improvement over the rest of the field? . . .
The G36 is a huge honkin’ firearm, but it definitely has its advantages. Joe Grine wrote an excellent review of the American semi-auto version, the SL8, and liked it just fine. The firearm is easy to disassemble, it’s accurate as you want, and reliable to boot. But did I say the gun is huge? It’s damn near the size of an M16.
For those soldiers who need to work in tight spaces, the setup was less than ideal. In order to give those special forces soldiers something truly special, H&K designed a shorter version of the G36 they dubbed the “C” or carbine version. The main changes are a drastically shortened barrel and a re-positioned gas block to keep the gun cycling even despite the shorter dwell time in the barrel. Almost everything else though is the same size and position as in the standard G36.
On paper, the G36C has a definite edge over the other leading military carbines. For one, the controls are fully ambidextrous which makes working the gun easier for lefties or if your right hand suddenly becomes less useful in a gunfight. The most obvious ambi-related feature is the charging handle, which is fixed to the bolt. The handle is designed to move back and forth along the top of the receiver but underneath the rail. That allows easy access for the soldier to grab it and work the action from either side, but keep it protected from ropes and other items in the environment that might snag it. It’s better than the design on the SCAR, but it still draws my ire for reciprocating at all.
Another big benefit is the weight. Compared to even an HK416, the gun is noticeably lighter by almost a full pound. The guts of the gun are all steel, but the chassis is made out of a high strength polymer. For those who remember the Magpul Masada (which became the Bushmaster ACR) it’s the same kind of setup, making for a sleek looking firearm that is very lightweight.
The last really cool feature is the magazines. They sport a set of nubs on the exterior that are designed to slot into one another, and allow the shooter to tie multiple magazines together without needing to break out the duct tape. The nubs add to the overall width of the magazine, but it’s still a slick feature.
Now for the bad news.
Issue number one is all about height-over-bore. The closer to the top of the barrel that you can get your sights, the more accurate and more comfortable they will be to use. With an AR-15, the standard is about one and a half inches between the top of the barrel and the center of the sights. With the G36C, there’s damn near three inches separating the two if you use a red dot and even more if you use an EOTech. In order to get a proper sight picture with the gun you’re no longer talking about a chin weld — you’re down to a neck weld.
Speaking of size, while the gun is shorter overall than the standard issue G36 it manages to be just as tall if not taller. For a firearm that’s designed to be compact, it still resembles a towering North Korean statue of Kim Il-sung. If the charging handle were moved elsewhere and the rail placed where the charging handle currently is, it would start looking a whole lot more sleek and small. As-is? Not so much.
Also problematic is the way the magazines work. Here in the United States, the push-button style magazine release has become the default standard for every new firearm. Even some bolt action rifles are getting in on the game. But with the G36C, the magazine release is still the old AK-47 style paddle release system and uses a tab on the back of the magazine to hold it in place. For those used to the American way of doing things, the manual of arms is awkward and slow, especially at first.
Out on the range, the gun is definitely awkward to shoot. The short barrel length combined with the way the G36C was designed means that the standard Chris Costa style grip isn’t an option — there’s just too much gun to get your hand around. There are three rail sections placed around the mini forend to affix lights and lasers and such, but they make the gun even chunkier still. It’s not ideal.
The final issue, though, is recoil. Not necessarily that the 5.56 NATO cartridge has a punishing level of kick, but the gun is so light that it doesn’t do a good job soaking much of it up. All of the recoil is transmitted directly back to the shooter, and when in full auto it takes some considerable effort to keep it on target. A lack of weight at the muzzle means that there’s no momentum to resist the recoil impulse trying to move the gun off target.
Overall, the G36C is an okay gun. There are definitely some improvements in the mechanics over the other firearms of the time, but with the introduction of the HK416 and other piston-powered guns in the intervening years, the gun has definitely lost its appeal. Sure it’s a couple inches shorter than some of the other carbines, but the ergonomic issues and the lack of interoperability with other guns (the magazines only work in the G36 family) stand out as serious marks against the gun. Add in ye olde H&K markup and my initial enthusiasm for the design drops to a flat “meh.”
Heckler & Koch G36C
Caliber: 5.56 NATO
Barrel: 8.94 inches
Size: 28.34 inches extended, 19.69 inches compact
Weight: 6.52 lbs empty
Capacity: 30 round magazines
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * * *
Average for a short-barreled 5.56 rifle.
Ergonomics: * *
It didn’t fit me at all.
Ergonomics Firing: * * *
Slightly tough to control, and no real good place for your forward hand.
Optics are about the extent of the options, and Magpul just released a magazine for it.
Overall Rating: * *
With the introduction of the HK416, even within H&K’s own offerings this gun doesn’t make much sense over the alternatives.