For the latest in my series of firearms related posts I will be treating one of the problem children in my armory, the Century Arms International CETME Sporter purchased circa-2002. The Century CETME is rather notorious among rifle enthusiasts for its parlous build quality, something that requires rather in-depth explanation, related as it is to the CETME’s unusual method of operation.
Unlike the vast majority of military rifles which use variations of gas operation – venting some portion of the gas pressure of the fired cartridge through a port in the barrel and using its energy to cycle the action – the CETME uses a system called roller-delayed blowback (not to be confused with the roller-lock system). A decent if long video explaining this system using a cut-away of an MP5 is available here.
A long strange trip: The circuitous history of the roller delayed blowback action
The first rifle built using pattern was the StG45 (M), a Sturmgewehr developed by Mauser, chambered for the same 7.92X33 round developed for the better known and more widely used MP44/StG44. Like many German weapon designs, the plans and prototypes were spirited away by the French after the war where they were used to develop the CEAM Modèle 1950, chambered in the US 30 Carbine.
Top: StG45 (M), Bottom: CEAM Modèle 1950
The expense of their wars in Indochina and Algeria combined with the glut of American surplus from WWII led the French Army to decline adoption of the Modèle 1950 so the designer, former Mauser-Werk engineer Dr. Ludwig Vorgrimler, decamped from France, taking the fruits of his labors to the more friendly environs of Franco’s Spain. With Spain still excluded from NATO and US MAP due to lingering prejudices related to their civil war in the 30s, the third time proved the charm for Herr Doktor Vorgrimler; working with Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales, he developed the CETME which, after one limited production variation, was adopted en masse, as the Modelo B in a downloaded version of 7.62 NATO called 7.62 CETME.
CETME Modelo C (Donor for parts kits Century used for their US market ‘Sporter’ rifle)
As if to prove the old adage ‘There’s no place like home’, Herr Doktor Vorgrimler’s efforts eventually came full circle. After initially adopting the FN-FAL as the G1 in the 50s, the fledgling Bundeswehr and FN ran into difficulties reaching a lasting agreement for German production of the Belgian rifle, leading the Germans to seek alternatives. Apparently, although one can take the engineer out of Germany, one can’t take the German out of the engineer; the now esteemed Herr Doktor presented his work with the Spaniards to his Germanic brethren at Heckler & Koch and, after mutually agreeing to rework the rifles to fire the full pressure 7.62 NATO round, the CETME Modelo C and HK G3 were born.
Bundeswehr issue G3, top with so-called ‘wide’ forearm, bottom with ‘slimline’.
Due to HK’s marketing prowess the G3 was by far the most successful variant; aside from Germany, Turkey, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Iran, Mexico, Pakistan and countless other nations adopted it (Usually domestically built examples manufactured under license).
The G3 had some formidable strengths as far as a military arm. First was its inherent cheapness; the thing is hardly more expensive to manufacture than an AK apart from the complexity of the upper receiver stamping, which isn’t really an issue when you’re buying the tooling directly from Der Vaterland.
There is also the high accuracy potential of roller delayed system; lacking a heavy gas piston reciprocating about the barrel or a rotating bolt locking into the action, the thing can be fully-floated much more readily than other military semi-autos. HK had considerable success with so-called ‘sniper’ versions of the type, the PSG-1 being the most famous, used by Billy Zane’s character in the 1993 film Sniper.
Different isn’t always better: The odd ergonomics of the HK pattern rifle
Jeff Cooper had some admiration for the G3, considering it the best of the magazine fed battle rifles of its era. Colonel Cooper’s enthusiasm aside, I remain unconvinced; the ergonomics of the thing are universally crappy, with a trigger so horrible it would be an embarrassment on a cap gun and no bolt hold open device (although Colonel Cooper to his credit did list those as shortcomings he would have addressed if given the chance).
The feature that HK pattern rifles are most famous for among the average person is what is known as the ‘HK slap’ or the practice of slapping down on the charging handle to release the bolt into battery. It’s mostly a showy affectation, something that has made the MP5 in particular quite popular in Hollywood; unfortunately though this silliness hasn’t been confined to the movies (see here and here).
But because the action doesn’t lock back after the last shot, HK slap is of little use outside of a movie set or the range. I personally can’t see preferring the forward mounted charging handle in any serious setting; manipulating the action with the right hand close to the body while supporting the weapon with the left hand forward (a la an AK or M1A) is much more natural than supporting the weapon with the right hand on the pistol grip while reaching forward with the left hand to cock the action.
In my opinion, like the Farenheit system, the success of the G3 pattern rifle can be considered one of those initial advances that has held people back ever since. In retrospect, FN and the Belgians would have been better served by swallowing their post-war bitterness and allowing the Germans to produce the FAL; the small arms world would certainly have been better off had FALs (and perhaps AR10s) been adopted instead of the ergonomically ungainly G3.
Century Arms CETME Sporter
All of this history is a roundabout way of preparing us for the true purpose of this post: describing the CETME Sporter assembled by Century Arms International in the early-00s in all its star-crossed glory.
In the late-90s, as the CETME Modelo C was removed from Spanish service, Century reportedly purchased the entire inventory from the Spanish Army and, after disassembling them into parts kits, brought them into the US. In order to comply with 922r requirements, the rifles were reassembled on US made receivers with US made trigger parts, buttstocks, handguards and an odd muzzle device. In rebuilding these rifles though Century made what proved to be a decision of incomprehensible stupidity: thinking they could control the headspace – and thus the safe operation of the rifle – by grinding the bolts.
Because the rifle fires from an unlocked condition it’s impossible to headspace like a conventional locking bolt; any attempt to place a gage in the chamber would simply result in the rollers being pressed back against their spring. Instead, the gap between the bolt and its carrier is measured, the assumption being that, so long as the gap there is within specification, then the relation of the locking piece-roller-roller recess (which isn’t directly measurable due to its location) is within specification. In this sense the bolt gap isn’t really a critical attribute, it’s simply the most convenient way of measuring the critical attribute (the engagement of the rollers in their recesses); thus, grinding the bolt to make the gap match the requirement is something like trimming a ruler to get the measurement you want.
This video shows the bolt gap measurement and the disassembly and roller replacement on a Century C93, good for a basic understanding system. Just ignore where he describes the system as ‘roller lock’ – that’s incorrect, it’s roller delayed – and keep keep in mind that the bolt gap gets tighter as the bolt moves back out of battery and the roller engagement gets looser, so the lower end of the specified range is the more dangerous (Summarized here).
Properly setting the headspace in a roller delayed firearm requires quite precisely fitting the barrel, barrel trunion and upper receiver, with a slight final tuning made by fitting different sized rollers. The rifles as made by Century fell into three broad categories; those that functioned fine as built: those that simply required a change of roller to be put right: and those that required the major work of refitting and rewelding the barrel/trunion/receiver assembly.
I purchased my CETME sometime in 2002, on more or less an impulse; at $350 out-the-door, the price was ‘right’ (famous last words) and magazines were cheap, not to mention that I already had thousands of rounds of 7.62 NATO on hand. After purchase it sat for a while – at that point in my life I had more money to purchase guns and ammo than time to shoot them – until some months later when I finally took the thing out to the range.
I realized something was wrong before I had fired the first few magazines through the rifle; the recoil was extremely stiff, hard enough that my cheek ended up sore and swollen. I called Century and they assured me that they were simply stiff recoiling rifles and considering the design of the stock – the bolt carrier does strike directly where one takes their cheek weld – it seemed plausible.
Still, figuring better safe than sorry, I did some research on-line and found that others had had similar issues with their Century CETMEs. I disassembled the rifle and examined the bolt and found the chamfer on the back missing, the telltale sign that the bolt had been ground to give a false gap measurement.
Further calls to Century offered no relief – they were still in denial regarding their dubious assembly methods – however, I was able to find a person in Spain who had a collection of new CETME parts and was offering them for sale. I ordered a new bolt, locking piece and set of the largest rollers and waited for the package to arrive.
Fitting the new parts revealed the truth; even with the largest rollers the gap was well outside the specified range (After all this time I can’t recall precisely how much). I placed another call to Century and told them of my situation. Unfortunately, Century claimed the rifle was now out of warranty while I argued in return that I had originally called within the warranty period only to be falsely assured that the rifle was OK for use. But my arguing was halfhearted; considering how shoddy the original build was – badly canted sight as well as the ground bolt – I didn’t really trust them to ‘fix’ the rifle properly anyway.
Researching HK builds revealed a few sources trustworthy to do the work. I settled on Investment Grade Firearms and, after discussing the options with the owner, Jayson, agreed to have the barrel reset in the receiver, the front sight (so-called ‘triple frame’) correctly aligned and have a custom flash hider permanently installed with the barrel length reduced to 16″. Jayson and I agreed on the $350 price and I shipped the gun out, waiting patiently.
About a year – after all this time, I can’t precisely recall – the rifle was returned. It was much more handy with the shorter barrel – at 38″ nearly identical to a fixed stock AK in overall length – and the new flash hider was a thing of beauty (effective too, as a trip to the range would prove).
Shooting was much improved as well. Although its recoil is still stiffer than my M1A – many people claim these to be soft shooting, which I just don’t see – muzzle rise is negligible. Many people complain about the paddle-wheel style rear sight on the CETME. While the rotating drum of the G3 is undoubtedly better, I don’t really find it objectionable; about as good as what you find on an M1Carbine – for the record, I think the sights found on M1 Garand/M14/M1A are the best on any battle rifle – and, with the 200M aperture, good enough to keep your rounds on target at typical action shooting ranges.
The worst feature of the rifle by far is the safety lever. The lever itself is well placed, the problem is that its actuation stroke is backwards to what it should be for easy use; instead of ‘Safe’ being on top with the lever stroked down to ‘Fire’ (how it is on the G3/HK91), the lever is pushed up to ‘Fire’. This is really quite upsetting to quick operation, requiring the hand to be shifted about on the grip as the rifle is made ready to fire, encouraging the thing to be run with the safety disengaged (a practice I profoundly disagree with). I actually find the safety lever on the AK easier to use, which is saying something.
Left: Spanish steel 20 round CETME mag, Right: German aluminum 20 round G3 mag
Although it came with a ‘correct’ Spanish steel magazine, so far it seems to shoot better with the aluminum G3 mags which isn’t surprising since, in typical Century fashion, they reportedly designed their receiver around the ‘incorrect’ G3 mag (but still went ahead and provided it with the CETME mag they had in bulk from the original purchase of the parts kits). Magazine seating is an issue, requiring a combination of rocking and a firm smack on the floor plate to assure that the magazine is fully seated (especially against a closed bolt, which is where the lack of a bolt hold open device really shows).
The magazines are also difficult to release. Even if you could reach the release with your trigger finger – which most people can’t – it isn’t the easy release of an AR; instead, depending on the fit of the magazine, quite a bit of force is needed to get the release fully depressed (of course, most AR lowers are machined out of a piece of forged aluminum and not a sheet metal stamping of dubious dimensional correctness like the Century).
Fortunately the magazines were quite cheap, the steel Spanish ones $4.50 or $5.00 each when I bought them about ten years ago, the HK aluminum ones closer to $1.00 at the same time. Lest one conclude that the HK mags are some great deal, be advised that they are of quite light construction, noticeably thinner than a USGI aluminum AR mag and, although all military mags are intended to be disposable, seem to take that intention to the very edge. One added benefit was the availability of some extremely cheap magazine pouches, part of the wave of surplus dumped on the market as the Western European nations disarmed in the years following reunification.
Left: Vinyl two mag pouch (origin unknown), Right: Molded two mag pouch (German)
Another oddity of the HK pattern rifles is their hard treatment of brass. Because the bolt doesn’t rotate, the chamber is fluted to vent some portion of the gas back and help prevent the fired case from sticking in the chamber. The system is excessively effective; no firearm I’ve ever shot has a more violent ejection, throwing the brass nearly ten yards in a clear space and bouncing it off of walls where present (Range etiquette tip: Always warn anyone to your right when shooting one of these).
The result is that the fired brass is quite dirty, with blackened stripes left on account of the fluted chamber and case mouths rather misshapen. There is differing opinion on whether or not its a good idea to reload the brass; I wouldn’t feel unsafe doing it but wouldn’t recommend shooting any high quality brass through it simply on account of how it hurls its spent shells into the stratosphere.
Fired brass from M1A (left) and CETME (right). Note carbon deposits on CETME brass from fluting and misshapen case mouth from ejection.
Ultimately I can’t recommend anyone do similar (They couldn’t anyway, since IGF won’t work on these buggered Century rifles anymore). For what I have into it, I would have been far better off having IGF build a HK91 clone off of a proper receiver, although I’m still not that enamored with the HK platform. Either a Saiga or Vepr 308 would have been a better buy at the time, even with their more expensive magazines, and would have been a more enjoyable way to fire my now rather expensive 7.62 NATO.
Technically I could buy a PTR Trigger Assembly which, apart from correcting the irritating backwards safety, would put me above the seven compliance parts required by 922r, and allow me to replace the Century furniture with HK surplus. The downside there is, first, that the trigger assembly costs $280 and, second, that I don’t really mind the look of the rifle with the wooden furniture; ultimately, the piece in destined to remain a range toy, so looks are important – or at least more important than they typically would be. The one thing I can say for certain is that I’m going to change the mag catch (RTG has a kit of all new parts) and take the time to better fit them with the hope that, between that and the new spring, it eliminates the fiddliness of the magazine fit.
Despite their ergonomic flaws and dodgy reputation, these guns are still somewhat popular among cheap survivalist types. You Tube is full of videos posted by various neckbeards extolling their virtues but I absolutely can’t recommend them for anything other than ‘Range Toy’ duty. ARs are light years better in terms of ergonomics and affordable at current prices; while the G3 magazines are still cheap, their dodgy fit in the Century receiver and overall chintziness makes them a reliability issue and 5.56 NATO will remain cheaper and more readily available than 7.62 NATO for the foreseeable future.
Century has come out with a new version using a receiver with an integral rail and the PTR trigger housing assembly but the price is much higher than the $300 range the originals sold for in the early-00s. I’ve never seen let alone shot one so I can’t attest to any claims made regarding their improvements but I would note that they’re now more expensive than a basic AR which makes the value proposition even more questionable and the 5.56 v. 7.62 cost issue remains regardless.
Although this piece can’t really be called a ‘review’ since the rifle itself is no longer available, I can endorse IGF’s work wholeheartedly (with the caveat that anyone interested call them before purchasing – Jayson told me that he no longer works on these older Century CETME builds since it’s not really economically attractive to get them fully right).
And, despite the fact that I wouldn’t recommend any HK pattern rifle due to their ergonomic issues, if one was going to go that route, I’d recommend 16″ as the ideal barrel length. It makes the rifle quite handy and, with a proper flash hider, the blast is negligible. Many people like to make ultra-compact – 10″ and even less barrel length – HK SBR builds since there’s no gas system to contend with and telescoping stocks are readily available, but – in 7.62 NATO anyway – such a thing seems more in the realm of pure range toy than practical rifle.