One thing that never fails to amaze me on this blog is that whenever one of our writers (myself included) or a staff member either posts a review or product announcement from Heckler and Koch, said article generates 60 plus comments in a day and of course the inevitable wiseguy chiming in with “because you suck, and we hate you”. The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth, in fact the HK/American consumer relationship is like a long distance affair between two people that is being supervised by two sets of parents, represented here by the German and American governments (albeit you can substitute the American government with most gun friendly nations).
Anyways the old “you suck” thing can be dated back to 2007, when a poster on The High Road posted the classic, and admittedly funny “message from the H&K marketing director“. The message goes on to say how H&K refuses to sell to civilians, despises civilian sales, and more but after combining what I already knew and some exhaustive research I have discovered that nothing could be further than the truth. You see, in the 1980’s a brand spanking new HK93 was $550 while a Colt AR15 HBAR was $700. That is a pretty dang significant price difference. In fact, for a time in the USA the only military style semi-automatic rifles were the Colt SP1, available in 1963 and the H&K 41. However a little known fact is that H&K actually beat Colt to market with a rifle called the “G3 HK” imported by Golden State Arms in 1962:
I realize these are different calibers, but they were modern military rifles nonetheless. I know what you are thinking, “hey, that has a hole for a swingdown lower, that is clearly a machine gun”. Well, believe it or not until 1966 all semi-automatic G3 variants brought into the US had the pin hole right there until the government made them crudely weld up the hole with some sheet metal, and later eliminate the hole all together. The rifles also got a name change to the H&K 41, and most of them have been converted legally to machine guns because of the simplicity of doing so. Here is where they got their first taste of the US civilian market. It was not long before H&K began to offer a slew of hunting rifles to compliment their military style semi automatics as well, and for a time they were quite popular:
Pictured above is an individuals collection of all the hunting rifles H&K marketed! Below are a few advertisements.
So H&K realized that there was a pot of gold across the Atlantic, and civilian sales were booming. Info taken from former 20 year H&K employee Jim Schatz’s wonderful slideshow not only contributes to my own research but is quite interesting. Mr. Schatz notes that in the 1970s when the G3 rifle was adopted by 80+ countries, the company was churning out 2,000 rifles a day! Nonetheless Heckler & Koch realized that there were profits to be had in the United States to they built what H&K employees called “The Palace”. The Palace was built on 12 acres of prime real estate in the 3rd fastest growing county in the US. Four buildings planned to provide full HK production capabilities, however only one was built as it was more cost effective to just import product from Oberndorf. Regardless the new facility had three underground ranges, a classified storage vault, and imported German furniture (even German trash cans!). Sales of H&K pistols were booming too, as well as their long guns. The HK4, the VP70z, and the P7 were all flying out the door (the P7 being the most iconic of the bunch):
Call me old fashioned but I carry my trusty P7 every day. Anyways HK roller delayed blowback guns continued to sell, and the 91, 93, and 94 continued to pop up in action flicks and just about every police department had a locker full of MP5 submachineguns (Jim Schatz said that the MP5 was all the rage with LEOs and SWAT but that the onset of the 5.56 CQB rifle started making inroads to dethrone the sub-gun in the early 1990’s). However things were still going very well. HK was successfully marketing and selling pistols, rifles, and shotguns (FABARM team up) to the public. A little known company at the time even had an agreement with H&K where Heckler and Koch would handle all of their importation to the US. That company is known as Benelli. I have a pair of these old HK/Benelli M1 autoloading 12 gauge shotguns and they are fantastic:
Anyways all this success hit a proverbial brick wall in 1989 when H. W. Bush by Executive Order reinterpreted the 1968 GCA’s “sporting purposes” provision to include the importation of foreign “assault weapons” (imagine if there was a ban on importing foreign high performance vehicles!). Andrew Tuohy of Vuurwapen Blog has also done his research, and discovered the following:
The ATF consulted magazine editors, hunting guides, state game commissioners, and competitive shooting groups to determine whether certain rifles were importable under the ’89 import ban, and taking into consideration the “sporting purposes” test. On multiple occasions, the ATF asked them if rifles such as the SG550, FN FAL, AK-47, etc. had any useful “sporting purpose.” When polled directly in 1989, 0 (zero) of 14 magazine editors responded in the affirmative. When polled directly in 1997, only 2 of 13 responded that such rifles were appropriate for the hunting of medium to large game (why the ATF decided to exclude the hunting of small game from their report is not stated). Of 70 magazine articles reviewed by the ATF (again, the selection process is not described), only one described what the ATF calls “large capacity military magazine rifles,” or LCMM rifles, as being “excellent” for hunting. Two others described 7.62×39 as being acceptable for hunting. The ATF also put down the idea of action competition shooting as being sporting, for the simple reason that it wasn’t “traditional.”
What else is interesting about this position paper? Well, of the manufacturers, trade groups, and so on that received letters from ATF seeking their input, exactly one company made an active attempt to stop what they saw coming. This manufacturer placed an advertisement in Shotgun News, attesting to how useful their firearms were for various sporting purposes, and encouraged owners of their firearms to write ATF with accounts of how they use their products as sporting arms. Which manufacturer was this?
That’s right. The one company to step up and say “This isn’t right,” was none other than the much-vilified Heckler & Koch (see page 115 of the PDF linked above). The magazine editors? A few attempted to tell ATF the truth – good for them. The rest were perfectly happy to watch “those other guns” get banned.
The flow of the popular 90 series immediately stopped coming into the USA after ’89. What stinks even more is that the company had inventory sitting in port worth an incalculable amount of money. Crates of H&K 91 rifles were suddenly unsellable, and while some were crudely remarked “H&K 911” and had a thumbhole stock put on and whatnot, many would have to be shipped back to Germany… on H&K’s dime. So this was the first time the US government crippled H&K, but it would not be the last. H&K quickly tried to drum up more business with a pistol called the “SP89”, a civilian semi-auto MP5k. However that also got banned in 1994 with the Federal Assault Weapons Ban. So twice in five years H&K got screwed over by my government.
This understandably left a sour taste in H&K’s mouth but they continued to sell their new polymer handguns and the P7, as well as some politically correct sporting rifles that were exempt from both the import ban and the Assault Weapons Ban. But it’s 2013, hasn’t the Assault Weapons Ban been expired for over a decade? Well yes, but the ’89 import ban is still in place. But doesn’t H&K have a domestic manufacturing facility so they can make semi auto G36 rifles, MP5 variants, and maybe even an MP7 pistol or SBR stateside where they make the MR556? Well no, and here is where it gets extremely complex. First of all, German export laws are just as if not more complex than our import laws. You see, the German government effectively owns the patents and export rights of all firearms made in Germany, and it takes years to get approval for the exportation of even military rifle designs to H&K USA! For example, the HK 416 was in production in 2005, but it took six years to navigate the bureaucracy of two governments and tool up here in the USA to make some of the guns components. If it were not for the ’89 ban and the German governent’s export laws, H&K might have a complete and total stranglehold on the whole piston AR15 market (mind you this is speculation).
I got this information from an employee at The Craft (the outfit that employed Chris Kyle before his passing) which is located not far from me. I had wondered how the MR556A1 I tested had German proof marks on the barrel despite the 2005 barrel ban. The man told me that they are imported as partially machined blanks and then finished here in the states, so the rifles are an amalgamation of US and German parts that increase the cost of the rifle significantly due to trans-Atlantic shipping and the cost of export permits for designs, parts, and more. The fact is that if Germany would let H&K export the G36 rifle and the US allowed them to import it, there would be plenty of civilians with semi automatic G36 rifles if a cost analyst determined there was a market and the company could turn a profit on them (we live in the world of $2,000 Tavor and AUGs that sell like crazy). Even if the German government let the plans be exported for guns like the G36 and MP7, the factory here in New Hampshire would have to be expanded, retooled, etc. to sell firearms to us normal folks who just have a good time shooting. If you live in a country like Canada where there is no such import ban (and you lucky Canucks can walk into gun stores and buy brand new Sig 550s from Switzerland) the German government is your road block and I imagine this is quite irritating to H&K, a company that employs over 600 good people and wants to make sure they all make a good living. The man at The Craft also showed me a nice post-sample G36c but explained how to meet governmental standards, H&K now requires an end user certificate on all such firearms (perhaps due to cases like in Canada where some civilians have ended up with semi automatic G36 rifles and MP7s, not to mention all those 416 uppers that popped up on the market here in the US).
So that’s that. H&K doesn’t hate you, in fact they want your business despite having been crapped on twice by the US government and even the German export restrictions in place. In my experience their customer service has been phenomenal (I asked for an O-ring for my mark 23 and they sent me a bag of five, no questions asked), their employees are incredibly easy to deal with (not many companies send you expensive rifles after you tell them “I am going to put 1,000 rounds through this and abuse it”), and they just make good stuff… that I wish I could buy.