The Heckler & Koch HK G11 assault rifle design was, in every way, a revolutionary firearm departing from several traditionally accepted attributes common to guns for decades. Chief among these was the idea of "caseless" ammunition fired from a 45- or 50-round detachable box magazine through a 3-round burst or full-automatic fire function. The three-round burst fire was intended to provide the highest probability of first-hit accuracy by landing three rounds in direct succession during a single recoil action. As such, the internal workings of the gun were very radical from anything Heckler & Koch - or anyone else - had achieved by the late 1960s and its design would continue to impress gun-lovers for decades since.
Design work on the project spanned from 1968 to 1990. While formal issue began with German special forces by 1990, the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent political changes (including the absorbing of the old East German Army into the West) led to a cancellation of the complete order. The G11 was not picked up again and has since falled to history.
The G11 system was originally designed to a German Army need for a high-probability, first-shot assault weapon. When HK designers looked over the process of how contemporary automatic weapons operated, they realized that the low hit probability arose from muzzle climb when firing. That is, by the time the first round (round One) of a three-round burst was loosed, the weapon had already begun to climb, resulting in a lower probability of a hit with rounds Two and Three. The decision was made to design a weapon system capable of firing all three rounds before the entire recoil process was completed. Furthermore, it was thought that operating the weapon system through caseless ammunition - ammunition not requiring the typical ejection phase of the spent shell casing - would decrease the gap of time between each fired round.
Outwardly, the G11 became a very futuristic-looking assault weapon form for the time and, in some cases, continues to be considered as such today. It certainly lacked the traditional appearance of conventional assault weapons of the period which included the storied Cold M16 and Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles. Despite its unorthodox look, the gun was rather fundamental to some extent with the body frame encompassing an underslung pistol grip, integrated shoulder stock, and fore-end grip section. An optical sight was fitted over the receiver as standard as there proved no iron fall-back sights. The final service versions were to feature provisions for a bayonet as as well though the usefulness of such a design element in modern warfare was suspect.
One of the distinct elements of the G11's design was its ammunition. The weapon was fed through a front-mounted magazine that presented the cartridges in a vertical form. A rotating metal breech pulled the next available cartridge from the magazine, rotated it 90-degrees to the horizontal position, and chambered it. The ammunition was ignited through the striking of an integral nitro-cellulose combustible cap that allowed the projectile to be fired and effectively leave behind little to no propellant residue. Ammunition was of a specially developed 4.7x33mm DM11 cartridge and fired from the front-loading 50-round disposable pack. A 45-round count magazine was also noted.
The primary mode of fire was the three-round burst function. The first ignited cartridge would begin the recoil process while the chamber accepted the second round and fired it in sequence. By the time the third round was accepted and fired, the entire recoil process was finally completed. The idea behind this execution was to allow all three shots to be fired one-after-the-other as quickly as possible with little movement imparted on the gun itself, thusly increasing basic accuracy - the second and third rounds held an equal chance of hitting the target as much as the first round fired. The weapon could also be selected to fire in full-automatic and this process was as in the traditional way - continuous repeat fire until the trigger was depressed.
The speed at which the three rounds exited made it seem to the operator that only one cartridge was actually fired. The result was an automatic rifle design with unheard of accuracy, achieving a high probability, first-round capability through the firing of more than one round at a time. Though in trials with NATO by 1978, the system was withdrawn when issues involving ammunition "cook off" plagued the weapon. Considering the amount of heat generated by the constant action of the three-round firing process and its caseless ammunition, it proved no surprise that a rewrite of the ammunition casing was in order.
The G11 was taken back to the drawing board and refitted with a newly designed cartridge helped along by Dynamit Nobel that used a new propellant. This work raised cook-off tolerances and ultimately relieved the system of the issue altogether.
The initial production model - the G11 K1 - was available in March of 1987 to which active evaluations followed into 1989 with promising results. The G11 K2 followed and some of these examples made their way for testing to the United States military (Aberdeen Proving Grounds) through the Advanced Combat Rifle (ACR) program. These models differed slightly externally with a revised fore-end design but were largely indistinguishable from the K1 to the casual observer.
While the weapon missed on its chance to impress NATO (the unique ammunition meant that logistics were not in the weapon's favor), it became the brief the focus of the West German Army. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union freed many of its satellite states and supported nations to for self-rule, including East Germany. The Germanys then worked on a reunification program that included assimilation of Eastern forces. As such, funding initially scheduled for the serial production of the G11 was now rerouted to this process leading to full-scale production of the G11 being cancelled.
The HK G11 was to become the frontline service assault rifle for the German Army while the more conventional, newly-developed HK G41 (detailed elsewhere on this site) was to go to second-line units. Official West German Army certification came in 1990 though a defense review of 1992 killed any further procurement on the product. With the G11 product falling through (about 1,000 had made their way into circulation), the G41 followed suit and the newly-formed Germany Army had moved on to another Heckler & Koch product - the HK G36.
Nevertheless, the G11 remained a sound idea in every respect and a system that was near-ready for mass production and wide-scale service - though the European climate forced the potential of the weapon to the imagination. Given Heckler & Koch's proven track record regarding small arms and automatic weapons, the G11 would seemingly have performed admirably considering the thought given to every step of its design - the product remains a very interesting weapon filled with very good concepts. While the G11 will never see the light of day in our lifetimes, there is some thinking that its core design may very well reappear in another HK design down the line.
Beyond the standard G11 assault rifle was to be the G11 PDW (Personal Defense Weapon) - attempting to fulfill another NATO requirement of the time. This model was a handgun form of the G11 in the traditional sense save for the specialized ammunition found in the G11. Additionally, it was chambered for the 4.73x25mm cartridge. Still another planned variant was the LMG 11 intended for the light machine gun role. This retained the bulky body of the G11 though with a new frame design and lengthened, shrouded barrel system at front. The optics/carrying handle was still featured over the frame.