EPU Gun of the Week

Walther HK416, or Um, What The... ?

Originally posted April 23, 2016

Today's gun is... not what I was expecting, and it ended up leading me into a strange corner of the firearms hobby I had not previously suspected.

Walther HK416, left side

When I ran across this item during a poke around online, it was described by the shop offering it as semiautomatic pistol in .22 Long Rifle and called the Walther 416. I'm not generally much into the whole "tacticool" thing, but in this case I thought it looked like what a broomhandle Mauser would look like in an R. Talsorian Cyberpunk sourcebook circa 1988, which appealed to me. Slightly closer inspection turned up what looked strikingly like the logo of Heckler & Koch, which is a different German firearms manufacturer, and a cursory investigation led me to the conclusion that it was a rimfire pistol designed to look like a scaled-down version of the HK416 assault rifle—a derivative of the US M4 carbine which is currently used by, among other organizations, German special forces and the Norwegian Army.

Please note that I said cursory investigation. This will be important in a moment.

Anyway, I thought it was interesting, and it was very reasonably priced, so I ordered one and then sort of more or less forgot about it. Until the other day, when I got a call from the local shop that it had arrived and I could come and pick it up any time.

My first indication that I might have gotten the wrong idea came when I arrived at the shop and the man put the case the pistol came in up on the counter. Here is that case, pictured with a full-sized notebook computer to provide a sense of scale.

Walther HK416 case, with HP laptop computer for scale

... Yeah.

Remember I said I thought it looked like a sci-fi version of a broomhandle Mauser? Here it is with my broomhandle Mauser.

Walther HK416 and Mauser C96 Model 1921 (Bolo)

... Yeah.

So, uh, funny story. It turns out the firearm sold on the US market as the "Walther 416" is not, in fact, a pistol designed to look like a scaled-down HK416 rifle. It is an HK416 rifle. Or rather, it's the full-size rimfire replica version of the HK416 rifle... marketed as a pistol because they left the shoulder stock off. It is mahoosive. It's based on a full-sized assault rifle receiver derived from the AR-15/M16 chassis, with a heavy barrel all of 11 inches long and based on one designed to withstand the thermal loads of firing 5.56mm NATO ammunition at full auto, which involves (scientifically speaking) about eleventy dozen times more metal than you need for a .22 rimfire semiauto. It's covered in about 100 square feet of heavy-duty milspec modular accessory rail, which is either made of plastic-coated metal or high-density polymer (I can't tell). It weighs five pounds.

Baffled, I did a little more research when I got home and discovered that this is a thing now. Actually it's two things, but I knew about one of them—full-size .22 rimfire replicas of military rifles—before. The very first (retroactively) Gun of the Week was a .22 replica of a German StG44, after all. What I didn't realize until now was also a thing was military rifle manufacturers selling shortened versions of their wares on the civilian market as "handguns". And not just rimfire replica versions like this HK416, either. There are AR "pistols" that fire the full-dress 5.56mm NATO rifle round. Hell, there are AK "pistols" in 7.62x39mm! I can't decide if that's nuts or just silly, and in some cases I have no idea why the feds let them get away with it, because some of these assault-rifle "pistols" don't omit the shoulder stock the way the HK416 does.

A little background may be in order here. I'm puzzled by these things being legal because there is a specific provision in the National Firearms Act of 1934 establishing a minimum legal length of rifle and shotgun barrels. For rifles, that minimum length is 16 inches, with a minimum overall length for the whole weapon of 26 inches. (This was in response to guys like Clyde Barrow sawing the stocks and most of the barrels off hunting rifles and then hiding them under coats.) It was always my understanding that if a firearm has a rifled barrel and a shoulder stock, it's a rifle and is thus supposed to be subject to those guidelines. Shorter than that, and it's classified as a Short-Barreled Rifle (SBR). Contrary to popular belief, these are not illegal as such, but they are much more closely monitored and tightly regulated than "normal" rifles.

There are exemptions, but they have to be specifically made within the regulations. The canonical example is, once again, the broomhandle Mauser; these originally came with a detachable shoulder stock, which, when assembled, would legally make the whole assembly an SBR. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the federal agency tasked with enforcing the NFA, gave broomie owners an out by specifically exempting them (as well as a few other stocked pistols, such as some early Browning Hi-Powers) from the SBR rule. (I used to think this was part of their "curio and relic" classification, but I had misunderstood—they're separate rulesets.)

The thing is, there is no way on this Earth that the BATFE ever classified new-production Kalashnikov-style "pistols" that way, so how can their manufacturers get away with selling them, as I have seen offered online, with 10-inch barrels and shoulder stocks? I have no idea. There must be a loophole in the NFA someplace, but it boggles my mind slightly to think that all they have to do is say "no, this is a pistol, wink wink" and all is well. I haven't dealt extensively with the ATF, but I have to say I never got the impression from the dealings I have had with it that it was the kind of agency where "wink wink" would really fly.

(Upon closer investigation after I wrote the paragraph above, it seems like they're doing it by calling the detachable stocks for those pistols "braces" and winking a lot. I'm still surprised they're getting away with that.)

At any rate, the HK416 "pistol" (I just can't bring myself not to use the sarcasm quotes) I have doesn't have that particular ethical grey area, since it doesn't have a stock, although if it is externally parts-compatible with the rifle version, adding one would... not be difficult? I'm not going to attempt it, but I can't see any technical reason why it would be.

So anyway, yeah. I thought I was buying a pistol designed, somewhat preciously, to look like a small cousin of a popular rifle. What I got... was a rifle with some of the bits left off it. Not what I was expecting. While we're here, though, we might as well take a closer look at what I actually got.

As previously noted, the HK416 is a military-and-police assault rifle, originally developed around the turn of the century as an evolution of the M4 carbine (which is in turn based on the M16, which is in turn the military version of the AR-15); so it's a relatively new rifle, but its roots go back to the late 1950s, when ArmaLite originally developed the AR family. I'm far from an expert on the AR's technology, but in this case—as with the Sturmgewehr replica I have—it doesn't matter much, since most of that technology isn't here. This is a fairly simple straight-blowback .22 action dressed up in an HK416 suit. It still has all the bits and bobs that the original military rifle had, because that's the appeal the manufacturers are going for, but many of them don't do anything. In the following photo, you can see two such decorative bits.

detail, HK416 right side

Most obviously, while the receiver has the markings for the ambidextrous selector switch that can be found on the centerfire military version of the rifle, the switch isn't there. I'm uncertain whether the one that is there could be removed and replaced the other way around, converting the weapon for left-hand operation; if that is possible, it isn't mentioned in the manual.

Further, see that plunger thing at the back of the receiver (upper left corner of this photo)? In the centerfire rifle version, that's the forward assist. If you're in the field and you're having a hard time getting the action to close, you can whack that and a plunger inside it will drive the bolt forward. This is necessary because the charging handle, which is that tab-eared dingus right above it, is not directly connected to the bolt; it can only pull it back and let it go, not push it forward (otherwise it would reciprocate when the rifle fires, which would be... disconcerting, to say the last, to the operator). It's not normally needed; like all automatic and semiautomatic rifles, it's supposed to be able to close itself with spring tension, but sometimes they get dirty or gummed up with residue and need to be helped out a little.

Anyway, in this rimfire version, that button doesn't do anything. It's got a spring in it, so it will press and rebound convincingly, but it isn't connected to anything inside; it's just there to provide verisimilitude to the replica. Similarly, that spring-loaded dust cover on the ejection port doesn't seem to actually close, although I suppose it's possible that the catch on mine just doesn't work properly. It's another milspec feature that is of no use to the casual shooter, anyway.

Also in this side view, you can see the takedown pin (the round protrusion below the dummy forward assist and behind the 'FIRE' marking). That is real, as we will see in a moment. Up on the magazine well, the markings show that though the design belongs to Heckler & Koch, the .22 version is actually made by the Carl Walther company. I'm not sure why this arrangement was made; maybe H&K, being primarily in the business of supplying armies, didn't have/want to devote the manufacturing capacity to making purely sporting replicas like these, and so farmed the business out to Walther, which has much more of a line in that kind of thing.

numbers on top rail of Walther HK416

Up on top, the accessory rail is marked with these inscrutable numbers. I'm uncertain whether these really signify anything on the rimfire "pistol" version, or if they're just more stylistic holdovers from the rifle.

As is often the case, most of the action on this receiver is on the right side, though over on the left we do have the selector switch and some nice highlight paintwork on the markings.

detail, Walther HK416 left side

Note the two-position semiauto selector. The centerfire military version obviously has a third position for full auto. I'm not sure what that serrated tab in the middle of the shot is supposed to do; I'm guessing it's another vestigial feature that does something on the military version and nothing on the rimfire one. Also note that, like many .22 replicas of army rifles, this action is specced for .22 LR high-velocity ammunition. Not surprising, given the amount of metal the action has to move around, even though it is a simple blowback and doesn't have anything like the "real" rifle's gas system.

It does take down like the grown-up version, though. You just pull that pin out on the righthand side (as an aside, it is virtually identical to the pin used to mount the shoulder stock on the StG44!), and then the action hinges open so you can get at everything inside it without further disassembling the gun.

Walther HK416, open

From here, it's easy to see that though exotic-looking on the outside, it's a pretty simple action on the inside. (You can also see that the "forward assist" plunger isn't connected to anything.) Another camera angle gives a good view of the usually concealed and entirely conventional hammer.

detail, Walther HK416 hammer

It's even got a not-really-secret secret compartment! A look at the bottom of the pistol grip reveals this suspicious-looking button...

detail, Walther HK416 pistol grip compartment, closed

... which, when rotated, reveals that the grip is hollow.

detail, Walther HK416 pistol grip compartment, open

I assume there's some kind of folded-up cleaning kit and/or disassembly tool in there in the grown-up rifle version, but the "pistol" came just as you see here.

What an odd gun. What an odd corner of the sport inadvertently buying one has revealed to me. I'm not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, the so-called "assault weapons" bans that go in and out of legislative fashion in this country have never made a ton of sense to me, inasmuch as they always seem to be designed by people who think they know what an "assault weapon" is supposed to look like, but evidently not how any of them actually work. It's the same sort of mentality that led authorities in my neck of the woods to ban "ninja knives" when I was a teenager, despite the fact that what they perceived as a "ninja knife" (i.e., a tanto-style knife) was no more or less dangerous than a kitchen knife. They saw some guy kill 45 people with one in one of those American Ninja movies and wow, scary.

On the other, I've never really seen any practical point in civilian ownership of firearms designed for modern military applications. I don't think it should be illegal, because I've always been and continue to be of the view that the law should involve itself in cases of misuse of technologies generally, not their possession; but at the same time, the culture that has grown up around said civilian ownership has gotten more than a bit... weird in reaction to the various forces arrayed against it over the last couple of decades. The result is a situation where I've bought an essentially useless bit of kit that comes with a lot of strange cultural baggage, and am probably on some kind of watch list now when the fact of the matter is, I just thought it was kind of cool—the problem being that I live in a time when "I just thought it was kind of cool" doesn't seem like a sufficient reason to a lot of people.

We'll see more about these two points, semi-coincidentally, in the next installment. I try not to be political about these things, but this specimen and the next one really can't be dealt with in a just or honest fashion without at least touching on the politics of the situation. For now, just enjoy the image of my bemusement when I rocked up to collect what I thought was a plinking pistol designed to look a bit like a rifle and got... well... this, in a box the size of a briefcase.

Walther HK416 in open carrying case

Problems of scale aside, though, I still think it looks like a sci-fi'ed up Mauser broomie. I can see BlasTech dropping something that looks like that as their "100th anniversary" tribute to the DL44.