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H&K's "Yankee" rifles.

My relationship with semi-auto guns has always been an uneasy one. I view them with suspicion, sort of circling them like a coyote that has had his toes pinched in a trap. In fact, the semi-auto rifles and handguns that I have owned and shot have almost been by chance.

I bought a Colt Commander .45 from a friend in distress one time. That was my first selfloader, and in spite of my prejudice, I liked it. This gun set me on a long trail of woe that ended in the World Pistol Championship, and won a match that presented me with an H&K .308 semi-auto rifle. I'm sure that if I hadn't won one, I wouldn't have ever taken the time to look twice at the H&K rifles.

The H&Ks are rifles of many surprises (some pleasant, some not so pleasant), but in the end all of them are positive. The first thing about them that makes them hard to fall in love with is the way they look. They just don't fit our ideas of what a rifle should look like. They have a very technical appearance, with their big, boxy, octagonal receivers, typical Bavarian stocks and a large unconventional-looking triggerguard. They aren't ugly, but they aren't pretty either--until you look at them for a while and they begin to grow on you. It's a feeling like the one you get from a BMW motorcar; you like them a whole lot better after you drive them for a while and realize they were born to run.

The H&K sporters come in three different sizes, for three different cartridges: .223, .308 and .30-06. It's interesting to see that H&K went to the trouble to make three totally different rifles to match the power and recoil of the cartridges that they would fire. Each rifle is a mildly scaled-up version of its smaller brother. They start with the .223 at 7 pounds with a 17-1/2-inch barrel. The .308 follows at 8 pounds and a 20-inch barrel, and the .30-06 ends the scale at just over 8-1/2 pounds and has a 21-1/2-inch barrel. Even though they have slight differences in size, they are all made on the same design.

The H&K sporters have a special action design all their own, but the technology is not new. The heart of the system is what they call the delayed roller-locked bolt. This bolt's ancestry goes back to World War II with the STG-45(M) assault rifle, and later in 1956 in a rifle called the G3. This is a military rifle, full automatic, and outside of the U.S. it is one of the two standard fighting rifles used in the Free World. This breech, bolt and locking system are the same that H&K are using i their sporters and for our concern the point is that it works and has stood the test of time, under conditions that are immeasurably tougher than we will ever see on a hunting trip.

The physical rollers themselves are just like the rollers that make a wheel bearing. They are hardened steel cylinders that float on the bolt head, acting as locking lugs on the bolt. When the bolt is locked into the breech, and when the bolt begins to open and retract the rollers retract into the bolt head itself. The whole system functions around a very complex timing/pressure-related cycle. This cycle holds the bolt closed during the high pressure part of the firing cycle. Then, as the breech pressure begins to fall, the rollers retract and the bolt begins to move rearward. This delay, combined with the inertia of the heavy bolt, contributes to slowing down the recoil velocity of the rifle, and we feel less recoil.

Even more important than the recoil reduction is the reliability of the system I said I won a .308 H&K some years ago, and that forced introduction to the semi-autos impressed me. I had the rifle for awhile, and confess to leaving it in its box without interest. By coincidence, I had it at the same time when cattle rustling was making a comeback here in eastern Colorado. I spent a lot of time riding or walking alone in the sandhills, looking for potential thieves and at times felt a bit outnumbered with a bolt rifle with three rounds in the magazine.

The H&K came with an accessory 10-round magazine, and that feature alone made me get out of the box and give it a try. My thought was, "If the darn thing will go 'bang' when I pull the trigger, I've got a lot of bullets to work with--and where lead's flyin' it's dangerous." My surprise was to find a rifle that was accurate and totally reliable with a good, crisp, shootable trigger. Even though I never got to use my new H&K on a beefnapper, I did carry it and shoot enough to gain immense respect for the rifle's design. I sold that rifle because I have no use for the .308 cartridge, and always hoped I could get one chambered for a "real" round.

I have always been surprised at the lack of use and recognition for the H&K sporters, and when I had a chance to get a pair of evaluation I jumped at it. I know that there are a lot of shooters who use or would like to use a semi-auto, and if you don't know about them you are missing something. I got the large and small versions, first the .30-06, a round with enough horsepower to do real damage anywhere, anytime, and he little "toy" .223, which is great for light work--varmints and learning to shoot with. They were made at least five years after my .308 and I was curious to see if that one "good" semi-auto was an accident or if H&K really had th eir act together and made good sporters all the time.

I gave the .223 a chance first. I scoped it with a 3-9X Redfield Illuminator that had shown it could be trusted in other tests. The H&Ks have a feature I really like and that is a quick-detachable scope mount system. It is spring loaded and works with the movement of one lever. This lever compresses two heavy coil springs that force a pair of lugs into two square holes on top of the H&K's receiver. It is the simplest scope mount I have ever used and, best of all, it works.

The accuracy and ability to hold zero by the rifles with this mount is totally acceptable and the return to zero when the mount is removed and replaced is exceptional. I found less than an inch shift in the impact point at worst and most of the time the change couldn't be measured. The smae scope mounts fits all three H&K receivers, so you can change the scope from one rifle caliber to another instantly, but you will have to re-zero for the new rifle.

I wanted to try the rifles with factory ammunition so I started shooting with a supply of Frontier ammo that I had on hand. They are fed with a box magazine that detaches from the rifle by a "push button" inside the front of the triggerguard. The .223 held four rounds in its magazine and I shot the test groups from the magazine, filling it to start shooting. (The reason for this was to see if the feeding cycle would deform the bullets or the rounds and ruin the accuracy.)

Right out of the box, with factory ammunition, the little .223 was a consistent star. The largest group with the 55-grain Hornady FMJ and soft point bullets was 1-3/4 inches, with the smallest just under an inch. You could almost put money on any given group being right around 1-1/4 inches and I made a big pile of brass, making sure that the rifle would be consistent. Actually I shouldn't say I made a big pile of brass with the .223 H&K. I shot enough to make a big pile, but found only a small part of that. You could say ejection of the fired cases was positive.

Shooting by myself I never was sure where they were going, but from the whistle when they left, I suspect they landed somewhere in next week. I did lay a rag over the port just to make sure the H&K wasn't vaporizing the cases, and it wasn't. I decided that this was a military throwback--H&K was using the empties to guard the soldier's right flank! Actually it isn't that bad; my cases were going into a meadow of tall grass some 20 feet from my bench, making them hard to find. They were doing exactly what I wanted them to do--get out of the gun and not cause a jam. Laziness struck and I didn't shoot handloads in the .223, but rest assured, with tailored loads it won't shoot any worse. As my real interest was in power, I wanted to unleash the .30-06 H&K.

I unclipped the scope from the .223 and started shooting the .30-06 with 150-grain Frontier ammunition. I made the right choice first; this round gave me the best accuracy of any I tried. Out-of-the-box groups were under an inch. Unfortunately, nothing else I tried would duplicate that performance, but almost any other load would group in the 1-1/2-inch range.

The exception seemed to be the big boattail match bullets in the 190 to 200-grain weights. They made the rifle mad, and the best they would give me was about 2 inches. I can only suspect they were incompatible with the bore and twist of the polygon-rifled barrel. But if you put things in perspective, the average shooting I got from the H&K, untuned right out of the box, was pretty darn impressive. It will shoot right beside most bolt guns in their out-of-the-box state and the H&K's general fit, finish and trigger action are far better than most of the production bolt rifles.

With their Model 940, .30-06, H&K has what I would call a complete rifle. With the power range of the .30-06 round up to and including the 220-grain soft point and solid bullets, you can tke heavy game if you shoot well and have some room to maneuver. With the premium varieties of 180-grain bullets, it is about ideal for all other shooting. You can direct it with a good variable scope or with excellent iron sights at will, with the instantly detachable mounts. It's a big gun, almost 9 pounds scoped, but the weight makes it easy to hold and makes the recoil almost non-existent. As a day-to-day workhorse and meat gun, it's hard to beat.

I said earlier that the H&Ks were rifles with surprises, and their production triggers are one of those. The surprise is that on a semi-auto the factory supplies good, shootable triggers. My samples were both just under 4 pounds and very crisp.

They certainly aren't superlight match triggers, just as the groups weren't equivalent to supertuned bolt rifles, but remember we haven't started to "gunsmith" these rifles yet. Because the rifles are so good as they come, I had to keep reminding myself that there must be some hidden potential in them that tuning could bring out. The H&Ks are very "usable" just as you get them, out of the box.

The H&K rear sight folds down and is adjustable for windage by two opposing screws. The front is set in a big ramp and is screw-adjustable for elevation. I shot the .30-06 with its iron sights at a fast-moving target. I could make good center hits with three rounds on a target crossing a 20-yard space in two seconds. I was shooting from 60 yards, offhand. When I saw the results I wished someone would chase a big buck out of the timber instead of this useless paper target; the combination would get him for sure.

The next H&K surprise will come more as a shock the first time you pick up one of your shiny new cases that the rifle just digested. It will look like it really has been eaten! It is grooved, dented and blackened with soot. The kind of case you would expect to find right after a rifle just blew up instead of one that just cycled nicely. Relax; it's all according to plan, and no harm is done--cosmetics inside.

Part of the extreme reliability of the H&K system is its "fluted chamber," again coming from its military ancestors. There are grooves cut in the neck and shoulder of the chamber that allow gas to leak back into the chamber around the case, on purpose. When the rifle fires, this "gas leak" actually surrounds the brass case with a cushion of gas. This prevents the case from gripping the chamber walls (a process we expect in other guns). As the pressure begins to fall, the rollers that I mentioned earlier retract and the case is literally blown out of the chamber.

A stuck case seems impossible. The fired case is left with noticeable grooves on its neck and shoulder and blackened with soot. If you pick one up right away, you will also find it is extremely hot. The head takes a beating as well. The bolt face has a raised center that is just larger than the primer. The case head sets back onto this bump and is left with a round depression around the primer pocket quite a bit like a military crimp.

I can only use my imagination as to why they do this, but I think it is to totally seal the leaking gas out of the inside of the bolt, where the firing pin lives, and to completely eliminate the chance of a loose primer getting into the action and tying up the works. (The bolt is the same as the full-auto fighting rifles, and there it would be a very clever addition.)

Now, the good news. Your brass isn't hurt at all, it just looks like it. I reloaded some .30-06 10 times in standard RCBS dies. They are still very usable, and the reloads functioned perfectly in the semi-auto H&K rifle, as well as my Remington. The only hassle is after the first firing you need to debur the primer pockets to remove the "crimp" left by the bolt face, but they don't need further help after the first shot. And pretty be damned, it's results we're after--the rifles run, they fire and feed every time, even with reloads.

The H&K Sporters have "Polygon" rifling which is unusual. Their bores don't have conventional lands and grooves. Instead, they look a little like the outside of a twisted five-sided rod with the corners rounded off. H&K claims better barrel life and increased velocity. I can't test the barrel life, but it should be at least as good as conventional rifling, and because the barrel doesn't have small lands to wear down it should be better.

My velocity tests with the .30-06 H&K against a conventional rifle with the same barrel length left H&K on the short end of the stick. All kinds of ammunition fired were about 30 feet per second (fps) slower in the H&K, but this could be due to the energy used to run its action, rather than a shortcoming of the polygon bore. The H&K might have been even slower with a conventional barrel, and I really tested only one rifle.

The muzzles sport "flash hiders." They are supposed to contribute to recoil reduction, a claim I doubt. (But then I don't believe in muzzle brakes to reduce recoil.) They do greatly reduce the fireball in front of the muzzle even you shoot in low light. This could be a big help in telling if you hit your target or in making a follow-up shot if you are hunting at dawn or dusk.

The "put-into-action" parts of the rifles are different too. The cocking lever that opens the bolt is a tidy spring-loaded lever that folds against the receiver when you are not using it. Its only function is to bring the bolt to the rear to load or unload the chamber. When you pull it back it locks to the rear, with the bolt open. If you are unloading the rifle the chamber is now empty and you can take out the magazine, inspect the chamber and be confident that you have an empty, fully safe rifle.

To load the rifle, you put in the loaded magazine from the bottom of the receiver and the press the locking button on the rear of the cocking lever. When you touch this button, be sure your fingers aren't in the bolt's way--it goes home with a vengeance! At this point you only have to take the safety off to fire. The safety is a lever, recessed into the left side of the stock, just behind the front of the receiver. It is slow and cumbersome, but very positivE.

In its defense, with a little practice you can operate the safety quite effectively with your left hand. Because it is so neatly recessed into the stock, it would be very easy to miss if you were in a hurry.

The stock, with its Bavarian style, is the rifle weakest point. It is executed very well, with good inletting and crisp checkering. It also has tidy, detachable Pachmayr sling swivels, but in shooting dimensions it just doesn't fit the "Wa-Americani" tribe too well. In typical German fashion the comb is too low--even a bit below ideal dimension with the iron sights, and much too low for the scope.

After the fun of shooting, sometimes we are forced into cleaning an arm. Usually the thought of flying springs and other "lost part" disasters would be enough to keep me from even considering taking a semi-auto apart. Looking at the owner's manual for my rifles, the fieldstripping instructions seemed very simple, with just one screw and four parts. I thought I could handle it. It is just that easy: you take out one big hex screw in the rear of the receiver and slide out the upper receiver.

Then the mainspring (which is a spring within a spring, with a rod in the center) comes out as a unit. The springs are held captive on the rod, and won't shoot across the room. A push on the firing pin releases the bolt from the receiver and you're done. The whole inner works are in your hands, and the rails that guide the bolt are fully exposed for cleaning and lubrication.

The hole in the receiver that holds the main hex screw is in line with the bore and large enough to let a .30 caliber cleaning rod through. So with the rifle stripped you can clean the bore from the breech end rather than the risky job of cleaning from the muzzle, where the delicate crown can be damaged. The manual also gives instructions for complete, easy stripping of the bolt itself, without tools, in case it needs attention.

In an overview the rifles are dandies, and I like them. With practical rifle competition becoming more popular, I expect to see the H&Ks become a lot more known in these tournaments. If you ever consider a semi-auto rifle for hunting, don't overlook these. Get more information by writing to Heckler & Koch, 14601 Lee Road, Dept. GA, Chantilly, VA 22021. They're fine examples of German engineering that are ugly ducklings--until you pull the trigger, that is.
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Author:Seyfried, Ross
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Nov 1, 1985
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