The CETME L Rifle: The Spanish HK?

If you were to catch a glimpse of the Cold War-era CETME L rifle, you might automatically think: “H&K.” It’s understandable. The CETME L has that look. But you’d be wrong, mostly, because the CETME L was designed and built in Spain, where it served the Spanish Army from 1987 to 1999. I say “mostly” because there is an H&K connection, and not just that the CETME L was eventually replaced by a licensed version of the G36 rifle. Let’s look at how CETME and Heckler & Koch were connected.

Spanish soldiers with CETME L rifles
Spanish soldiers with CETME L rifles. And saws? (Wikipedia)

The CETME Rifle

Spanish arms maker Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales (CETME) developed the CETME 58 rifle in the early Cold War years. The Spanish Army adopted the design in 1957, and the rifle’s various models served from 1961 until it was finally phased out in 1992. The final model, the “C,” was replaced by the CETME L, to which we’ll return shortly.

Despite being a Spanish rifle, the CETME 58’s lead designer was German engineer Ludwig Vorgrimler, who had been a team lead at Mauser during World War II. While at Mauser, Vorgrimler developed and patented the roller-delayed blowback action along with fellow engineer Wilhelm Stӓhle. The concept faced some challenges, the most significant of which was determining the proper bolt carrier velocity for proper operation. That problem was eventually solved by German mathematician Karl Maier.

After the war, Vorgrimler and his team worked for the French arms industry before eventually being recruited to Spain in 1950. Working for CETME, Vorgrimler continued his work on the roller delayed action, basing it on the wartime Mauser Sturmgewehr 45 (StG45) prototype, as well as the French AME 49, with which he was also involved.

CETME 58 Rifle
The CETME 58 Rifle. (Wikipedia)

The CETME Rifle was originally chambered for the new 7.92×41 CETME cartridge, and all Model A CETMEs used that cartridge, though the Model A was a prototype and never issued. Interest from the West German Army led to an eventual change to the 7.62×51 NATO cartridge, after experimentation with a lighter 7.62×51 CETME round. The re-chambered 7.62 NATO Model B version was adopted by the Spanish Army in 1957. The 7.62 NATO chambering finally became standard with the CETME Model C rifle.

H&K Influence

The West German trials indicated that ergonomic upgrades were necessary for the CETME 58 to handle the more powerful 7.62 NATO cartridge. German gunmaker Heckler & Koch influenced those changes, including using higher-quality steel for the rifle’s construction. H&K continued collaborating with CETME and the Model B served as the foundation for the famed H&K G3 battle rifle. The roller delayed action and other design features have since become synonymous with H&K firearms, thanks to the company’s association with CETME and Ludwig Vorgrimler.

The CETME L Rifle

The CETME L came about as NATO pressured its members to adopt the standard 5.56 NATO cartridge, much as the US had done with the 7.62 NATO round in the 1950s. The resulting CETME L Rifle kept many of the successful CETME 58 features, such as the roller delayed action and ergonomics. The CETME L was adopted in 1984, left production in 1991, and was retired in 1999.

The CETME L Rifle kept many of the CETME 58’s design features but was lighter and chambered for 5.56 NATO. (Wikipedia)

One interesting feature dates back to Ludwig Vorgrimler’s solution to brass cases sticking in the rifle’s chamber, a problem inherited from the StG45. Vorgrimler solved the issue by developing a fluted chamber. The chamber’s horizontal grooves provided a layer of gas between the case and the chamber wall, which aided the extraction process. Ejected cartridge cases have distinct horizontal lines on them from this process. The CETME 58 and CETME L rifles all have fluted chambers.

THE CETME L is more streamlined than its predecessor since the 5.56 NATO cartridge does not require the rifle to be quite so beefy. But the CETME 58 series worked well, so why make major changes? The CETME L kept the roller delayed action, the basic shape, and ergonomics, and the non-reciprocating charging handle on the front left. If that charging handle looks familiar, it’s because H&K uses it too. So, the famous H&K “slap” to drop the bolt actually originated with the CETME Rifle.

But, interestingly, the CETME L’s charging handle does not have the “slap” feature. The handle itself does not lock back. The bolt must be locked back using a button on the rear sight tower in conjunction with the charging handle. That same button drops the bolt, reminiscent of the M-16’s system. Not nearly as cool, but that’s how it is.

The CETME L takes standard STANAG magazines, but the original CETME mags may work a little better. (Wikipedia)

The CETME L is compatible with standard STANAG M-16 magazines, though the US STANAGs may not always feed properly. That’s because the CETME mags have a different cut on their feed lips to help with the rifle’s steep feed angle. So, yeah, the M-16 mags will work, but they may experience an occasional hiccup.

The disassembly is also H&K-like, with the pins holding the stock to the receiver. Saying H&K-like” seems normal, since H&K is far better known than CETME. But, in reality, H&K took all these features from the Spanish CETME 58 design. The roller delay system in the bolt carrier looks very familiar, though the CETME L’s charging handle stem is much shorter than its German cousin’s.

A noticeable difference between the CETME L and the H&K rifles is the fit and finish. The Spanish manufacturing capabilities were not as precise as those of their German counterparts by this time, and small details show that. The safety lever, for instance, does not go all the way through both sides of the receiver, as in the H&K rifles. The CETME part works fine. It’s just not as polished.

The CETME L is, for all intents and purposes, an H&K 33, 43, or 93 with only a few small differences, including its slightly boxier appearance. Despite its solid design, the CETME L was dated by the early 1990s. Modern armies were moving to accessories like optics, lights, and lasers, and the CETME L was not really conducive to that, despite the rear sight tower’s ability to accept a proprietary scope mount.

Disassembled CETME L Rifle
The disassembled CETME L Rifle looks much like its H&K counterpart. (Wikipedia)


We saw how H&K helped adapt the CETME 58 to the 7.62 NATO cartridge. H&K also emulated the CETME designs through licensed production of the CETME 58 as the G3. But the German company’s processes were better than CETME’s, and H&K eventually surpassed the Spaniards in terms of quality and innovation.

When the Spanish military decided to upgrade from the CETME L in the early 1990s, they decided it was more cost-effective to produce the H&K G36 under license. The German Army was adopting the G36 at the same time and continuing the Spanish-German military rifle collaboration just made sense.

So, while we initially asked if the CETME L was the Spanish H&K, the better question may be whether certain H&K products are the German CETMEs. After all, the CETME came first, and the two manufacturers seemingly worked together for decades. Perhaps it’s better to state that those H&K rifles are upgraded CETMEs. Either way, it’s safe to say that H&K owes much of its success to CETME’s early sponsorship and development of Ludwig Vorgrimler’s designs. So, the next time you’re checking out certain H&K products, maybe give a nod to Spain’s CETME. They did some good work.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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