Gun Exports

G3 Rifle Used by Militias Worldwide, Made in Germany

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter poses for the camera at Buyuk Yeniga village. The German government is shipping G3 rifles to the Kurds.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The G3 assault rifle, developed for the German armed forces almost 60 years ago, is still in widespread use around the world.

  • Facts


    • The German government wants to send 8,000 G3 rifles to Kurdish militias.
    • The G3 is being made under license in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan.
    • More than 10 million G3 assault rifles are estimated to be in circulation worldwide.
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The product weighs 4.8 kilograms (10.5 pounds), is 1,023 millimeters (40 inches) long and is available in green, black or beige. The G3 is used and copied worldwide, even though the rifle is more than 60 years old.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, rates this successful German product as one of the “weapons of mass destruction of the 21st century.”

The name G3 stands for Gewehr, or rifle 3, an automatic assault rifle included in the group of weapons known as small arms. More people are killed with the G3 in wars today than with any other weapon.

In its current weapons export report, the German government concludes: “By far the largest number of casualties in internal and cross-border conflicts are attributable to the use of small arms and light weapons and the corresponding ammunition.”

Nevertheless, the government has now decided to deliver 8,000 G3 rifles to the Kurdish Peshmerga militias in northern Iraq, so that they can use the weapons to fight the Islamic State, or IS.

The Peshmerga will also receive other small arms from old German military stockpiles, including rocket-propelled grenades, MILAN missiles and hand grenades.

The Kurds’ adversaries are also equipped with German weapons.

MILAN anti-tank missiles, a German-French product, were supplied to the government of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad decades ago, and now the Islamists have captured some of these weapons.

In addition, Qatar is suspected of having passed on weapons purchased in the West to IS and other groups.

The Islamists could also have acquired missiles that were delivered to rebel groups in Libya in 2011, when the West armed them against then dictator Moammar Gadhafi – a strategy that proved unsuccessful in the long term.

Only a few years after the war, Libya continues to descend into chaos, while weapons used there have ended up in Mali, Syria and Iraq.

Today this assault rifle, more than any other German weapon, is synonymous with uncontrolled arms proliferation in a globalized world of weapons.

In Syria, where IS originated, countless G3 assault rifles developed in Germany are in use by all parties to the conflict. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, fighting on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, use the weapon, as do the regime’s moderate adversaries and the self-proclaimed holy warriors with the Al-Nusra Front.

It is no longer possible to pinpoint exactly where the G3 rifles came from. The German firm Heckler & Koch developed the rifle specifically for the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr.

For this reason, the Federal Republic of Germany holds the licensing rights for the G3. Between 1961 and 1982, it sold or gave these rights to more than a dozen countries, with the aim of strengthening its allies.

As a result, the G3 is copied worldwide and produced in Central America, southeast Asia and the Middle East. Factories producing the G3 are also located in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, countries which are seen as supporters of various civil wars.

A government-owned company produces the weapon in Iran, and in Saudi Arabia it is made by the Military Industries Corporation. The G3 even appears on the crest of the Saudi Border Guard. A Turkish company, MKEK, manufactures the rifle, as does Pakistani arms producer POF.

A German soldier holds a Heckler & Koch G36 rifle, the successor to the G3 rifle that Germany is sending to the Kurds fighting militant Islamists in northern Iraq. Source: AP


In recent years, these companies have exhibited various versions of the G3 at defense technology exhibitions such as the IDEX 2013 in Abu Dhabi.

According to the German government, thousands of G3 assault rifles from Iran and Pakistan reached Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Balkan war and Sudan during the Darfur conflict.

More than 7 million G3 rifles are in use worldwide, according to conservative estimates by respected research organizations such as the Small Arms Survey in Geneva. Other experts even estimate the number of G3 rifles in the hands of security forces, rebels, terrorists and criminals at 10 million.

Today this assault rifle, more than any other German weapon, is synonymous with uncontrolled arms proliferation in a globalized world of weapons.

Still, the German government believes that supplying the Kurds with these small arms is a good idea, arguing that they will enable the Peshmerga forces to defend themselves against IS, and that supplying the Kurds with weapons is the only alternative to sending German troops to Iraq.

At the same time, the German government is unwilling to guarantee that the weapons will remain in the hands of the Peshmerga.

The Bundeswehr has thousands of G3 rifles in its inventory that are no longer used, so delivering them to the Kurds does not present a hardship. But whether the Kurds actually need the rifles is debatable. Their fighters are already well-equipped with the AK-47, or Kalashnikov.

It has the same caliber as the G3, costs about €100 ($130) in the region and is considered indestructible.

The Bundeswehr cannot provide Kalashnikovs, as its inventories of these weapons are exhausted. Germany gave the old AK-47 stockpiles of the former East German military, which it assumed after reunification, to Turkey long ago.

Turkish security forces allegedly used the weapons to fight Kurdish militias. And now the Bundeswehr is training and arming Kurds.

When it comes to shooting people, the world still speaks German.

This story first appeared in Die Zeit. It was translated by Christopher Sultan.

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