For 70 years the small arms company Heckler&Koch, based in Oberndorf am Neckar, has been supporting the armed forces and security forces of Germany, NATO and NATO-associated countries. This traditional German company – also known as “HK” – enjoys a legendary reputation worldwide.
Heckler & Koch was founded on 28 December 1949. The company founders were Edmund Heckler (1906 – 1960), Theodor Koch (1905 – 1976) and Alex Seidel (1909 – 1989). From the very beginning, Heckler & Koch was characterised by a high level of engineering and weapons expertise, as well as by the proverbial Swabian inventive and entrepreneurial spirit. All three company founders had started their professional careers in the famous Mauser factories in Oberndorf. Heckler & Koch is still based in the town known for its metal-working industry and weapons forge.
An Exciting History
Heckler & Koch initially produced spare parts for sewing machines and bicycles, but received early permission from the French occupation authorities to manufacture small arms. First customers were the police, the German border police and the allied armed forces. With the rearmament of Germany in 1955, HK turned into an arms factory. From 1959 on, the company was the main supplier of the G3 assault rifle for the German armed forces. In the mid-sixties, the MP5 submachine gun was a second major success based on the reliable roller-delayed blowback mechanism known from the G3. The MP5 achieved worldwide success after the British SAS ended the hostage situation in the Iranian embassy on Prince’s Gate in London in 1980 – better known as Operation Nimrod.
During the Cold War, HK, together with Hensoldt and Dynamit Nobel, developed the G11 caseless ammunition assault rifle on behalf of the Bundeswehr. When the Cold War ended, however, the order was terminated which spelled financial difficulties for the company. In 1991, HK became part of Royal Ordnance, a subsidiary of the British BAE Systems. During this time, HK received large orders: From 1997 HK supplied the Bundeswehr with the G36 assault rifle and the P8 pistol. In addition, the company revised the British standard weapon SA80/L85 which was originally developed by Enfield.
In 2002, the private investors Andreas Heeschen and Keith Halsey took over Heckler & Koch The investors reorganised the company and realigned HK to an internationally operating defence company headquartered in Oberndorf. The product portfolio was diversified, sales were internationalised, and substantial investments were made in the headquarters and production site in Oberndorf. Infrastructure and machinery were modernised. A new, expanded logistics centre was built in 2007. Heckler & Koch has also had a new training centre since 2010.
Today, the H&K AG Group includes the subsidiaries Heckler & Koch GmbH and Heckler & Koch Management GmbH (both located in Oberndorf), Heckler & Koch France S.A.S. in Saint-Nom-La-Bretèche/France, Nottingham Small Arms Factory Limited in Nottingham/UK, as well as Heckler & Koch, Inc.(Columbus/Georgia), Heckler & Koch Defense Inc. (Ashburn/Virginia) and Small Arms Group Holding Inc. (Ashburn/Virginia). The corporate headquarters is located in Oberndorf am Neckar. Since 2018, Jens Bodo Koch has been CEO of the company. By the way, Koch is not related to the company founder Theodor Koch. Björn Krönert holds the position of CFO.
Heckler & Koch maintains extensive research and development capacities in order to be able to meet the constantly evolving demands of the armed forces worldwide. Within the framework of its own projects and on behalf of the German government and other NATO countries, HK is a market leader in developing weapons and weapon systems and in improving existing ones.
Heckler & Koch’s strictest internal compliance and security rules are a cornerstone of the business model. Key components are produced exclusively in Oberndorf, even if licences are granted. The company and its quality assurance system are certified to EN ISO 9001 and meet the requirements of NATO’s quality standard AQAP 2110.
Already during the Cold War it was one of the strengths of the Oberndorf armourers to think in families. The G3 assault rifle was surrounded by a whole family of weapons, ranging from submachine guns to belt-fed light machine guns. The reliable short-stroke gas piston system of the G36 not only made the Enfield SA80 a field-ready assault rifle, but also laid the foundation for the successful HK416/417 assault rifle family.
Despite different manufacturing processes, the MG4 and HK121/MG5 machine guns are also distinguished by their similarity. In the German armed forces, the MG5 is currently replacing the MG3 as the standard universal machine gun, while the MG4 and MG5 inventories are being further harmonised.
In the field of pistols, a complete product range based on the STRIKER Fire Pistol 9mm x 19 was recently developed; several German state police forces have fielded the SFP9 as the new service pistol.
The HK416/417 Small Arms Family
The development of the HK 416/417 family began in the beginning of this millennium. It combines the battle proven operating concept of Eugene Stoner’s AR assault rifle architecture with the legendary short-stroke gas piston system of the G36. Series production of the HK416 and the “bigger brother” HK417 in calibre 7.62mm x 51 started in February 2005. First procurements quickly followed. One of the first customers was US SOCOM, followed by Special Forces from France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
The first major order was received in 2007. The Norwegian armed forces procured the HK416 as their new standard assault rifle. Another major success overseas came in 2010 when the US Marine Corps replaced a portion of its M249 light machine guns with the 16.5-inch barrel version of the HK416 as the Infantry Automatic Rifle M27 with the intention to enhance the automatic rifleman’s manoeuvrability. In September 2016, the French procurement authority Direction Générale d’Armament (DGA) ordered the HK416 assault rifle system as the new standard French handgun “Arme Individual Future (AIF)”.
The weapon family also gained a foothold in Germany. The HK417 is used by the Bundeswehr as the G27, the HK416A5 by various security authorities as the G38 and the German special forces selected the A7 version of the HK416 as the G95K. The most recent successes of the 416/417 family can be seen in the US. In July 2019, the US Army announced the acquisition of several thousand semi-automatic G28Es as M110A1 Semi-Automatic Designated Marksman Rifles.
The HK416, together with the newly developed HK433 modular assault rifle system, is currently reportedly in the race for the new Bundeswehr assault rifle system.
Especially with regard to national and alliance defence, the development, production and sustainable technological support of handgun systems represent key technologies. In this particular field Heckler & Koch is one of the European global players with worldwide success.
Jan-P. Weisswange PhD is a communications manager in the defence industry. This article reflects his personal opinion.