Bullet Points: The Future That Never Was

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There really hasn’t been a great, revolutionary change in firearms design perhaps since we quit stuffing powder, paper wads and musket balls into the barrels of our weapons and switched to cartridges. Sure, there have been changes in propellants, the development of smaller, lighter, faster bullets, and a few tweaks here and there, but things have remained more or less unchanged since the time John Moses Browning was coming up with creative new ways to throw lead at high speed. Sure, there has been talk of gauss rifles and laser weapons, but until we have them in man-portable packages, they remain in the realm of science fiction. It may seem that this leaves little upon which to draw on for this retro-futuristic look at firearms, but there is one rifle that immediately comes to mind.

The G11 was a rifle developed by Heckler & Koch (HK), a German defense manufacturer of handguns, assault rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers, to replace the G3 battle rifle chambered in 7.62 NATO that was as effective as it was heavy. The G3 was a 9-pound rifle on its own. Add to this the considerable weight of 7.62 NATO and you have the makings of a heavily-encumbered fighter with limited ammunition. HK wanted to solve this problem with the use of new materials and a particularly clever bit of engineering, as well as a radical new approach to making the cartridge itself. The result was the G11, a bullpup rifle that fired 4.73mm caseless rounds.

For those of our readers who need a quick primer, the case is the part of the cartridge that holds the propellant and primer, and is crimped around the bullet. To put it in conventional terms, it’s the brass or steel shell that the weapon ejects once it is fired. The 4.73mm cartridge of the G11 has the propellant and primer compacted and formed into something of a brick that serves as a case for the round, completely encapsulating it.

This cuts down on weight and reduces the firing cycle of the firearm by one whole step, which is key for another feature we’ll get into later. The 4.73mm round had less than half the volume of 7.62 NATO at about half the weight. This meant that a combatant could carry twice the ammunition as the G3. The ballistics of the 4.73mm round was said to be very similar to the 5.56 NATO round, as both rounds were small, light and fast, with a common weight of about 60 grains, give or take. Caseless ammo wasn’t a new concept, but it was a great idea to use it with modern materials and methods.

The firearm itself was a massive rethink of how a rifle works. Firstly, the G11 was of a bull pup design, meaning the breech and bolt are located behind the trigger group, allowing the rifle to have a longer barrel than a rifle of the same overall length. The G11 also had a curious rotating chamber that fed rounds from the top, where the magazine was located, to the firing position below it. Since it had no case to eject, there was no need to factor in that part of the conventional firing cycle. Duds get pushed out of the rifle by the movement of the next live round into the chamber. The entire assembly moved rearward for each cycle in full-auto fire where the G11 was capable of a perfectly sufficient firing rate of over 400 rounds per minute. Charging the rifle was achieved by essentially twisting the bolt group, priming the rifle for fire.

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On top of the technological leaps forward with the materials, ammunition and overall concept, the rifle really shone when placed into “Burst” mode. The rifle fired three rounds at a rate of 2100 rounds per second, each traveling at just over 3,000 feet per second. Because of the extremely high rate of fire, the recoil impulse felt, to the operator, like a single round. On top of this, because the whole assembly moved rearward during fire, the recoil impulse was not transmitted to the shooter until after the last round had left the muzzle of the weapon. The salvo fire, delayed recoil impulse and extremely flat trajectory made the G11 a rifle that was deadly accurate at the expected ranges of conflict. It even had room for a pair of spare magazines on either side of the buttstock, so that each rifle would be able to stay in the fight as long as possible on its own.

The rifle itself was a mere 3.6 pounds empty, and 4.3 pounds when loaded with the standard 45-round magazine. The design of the rifle was what immediately brought it to mind as a retro-futuristic concept. The G11 was first designed in the 1960s, as reflected in its futuristic, boxy space gun look. Then, it was submitted to the US Department of Defense as a candidate for the Advanced Combat Rifle program. Among the variants conceptualized for the G11 were a multi-barreled light machine gun, and a small, pistol-sized personal defense weapon.

While the G11 was a design success, like many things too far ahead of their time, it never really made it to mainstream production, as there was never a procurement order for them. Heckler & Koch, being the technical geniuses they are, managed to overcome the difficulties of caseless ammo, and produced a very noteworthy rifle. Even though the G11 was never adapted by any armed force in significant numbers, it still remains an important part of firearms and technological development, plus it looks so retro-cool.


Words by Ren Alcantara
First published in Gadgets Magazine, August 2013