Text & Photos by Jeff W. Zimba
A market that not-so-long-ago was almost entirely specialty driven, has become a booming industry with new players entering the scene at an incredible rate.
Before the 1989 importation ban on "non-sporting" semiautomatic firearms, semiautomatic Heckler & Koch (HK) variants were imported on a regular basis. These semiautomatic versions of the famous HK battle rifles and submachine guns were popular in the recreational shooting community as host firearms for what used to be a multitude of registered conversion sears. They were also popular in their original, unaltered condition for hunters, competitive shooters, collectors and those living in non-class III states.
Those guns regularly imported were the HK91, HK93, HK94 and SP89, representing the most common .308, .223 and 9mm firearms. The 91, 93 and 94 were full-length rifle models, and the SP89 was actually a pistol, which was a semiautomatic version of the HK MP5PDW, without the shoulder stock. After the 1989 importation ban, the firearms already in circulation quickly dried up and the prices skyrocketed as demand for them far surpassed the available supply.
When importation of these guns was a legal and common practice, they were regularly customized to more resemble their full automatic counterparts. There were a few specialty companies who would take the imported firearms and rebuild them as short barreled rifles, either as stand alone firearms and registered as such, or as host firearms for use with the customer's registered sear or trigger pack. Some of the imported HK firearms were also used as platforms for more radical conversions, including overall and barrel length, feed mechanism and caliber conversions that were never offered from HK to begin with. Some of the higher profile conversion manufacturers at that time were Fleming Firearms, F.J. Vollmer & Company, Inc. and S&H Arms.
Due to good old American ingenuity, some of these HK configurations that were never designed by the factory became extremely popular in the USA. The short-barreled rifles kept getting shorter and their magazine capacity kept increasing. Some of the wildest and most radically altered HK conversions included the following:
• 53K - The .223 variant (HK93) cut to the size of the SP89 or MP5PDW.
• 51K - Same as above in .308!
• 51B - Belt-fed variant of the G3, in the size of an MP5.
• 52A3 - Fleming's 7.62x39 version of the HK51.
• MP45 - Fleming's .45ACP version of the MP5.
Not long after the finite supply of available HK firearms started to dwindle due to increased demand, we were faced with another devastating piece of anti-gun legislation. In 1994, congress passed what would become known at the "Clinton Gun Ban," virtually outlawing domestic manufacture of the same firearms that were barred from importation. After the dust settled from this latest ban and the industry figured out how to comply with the new law, a few businesses tooled up and started manufacturing "HK Style" firearms in the USA, sans the evil features outlawed by the Clinton Gun Ban. (Hereafter referred to as clones.) In order to comply with the 1994 ban, these clones could legally be manufactured with fixed stocks, non-threaded barrels and no flash hiders.
Soon there were USA manufactured clones legal for civilian sale under federal law. Because the supply aspect of these firearms could keep up with the demand, prices soon started falling to lower levels allowing more people to purchase these guns. Of course, the HK "purists" dismissed these new guns as they were not manufactured under authority and supervision of the highly revered Heckler & Koch, but the clones continued to increase in popularity and sales as a viable option to the originals that were either unobtainable or excessively priced.
It didn't take long before some of the previously "custom" configurations started to show up on the market. Since these clones were being manufactured here in the USA anyway, the demand for the desired configurations just drove the industry to make them to meet the demand. For the first time, shorter versions of the original firearms were directly available to the consumer from the manufacturer. A few businesses started assembling the .308 and .223 rifles in the HK51 and HK53 lengths, just extending the barrels to over 16 inches to stay within the Title I firearms guidelines. The consumer then had the option of filing an ATF Form 1 (5321.1) to register their gun as a Short Barreled Rifle, and, upon approval, they could cut the barrel to match the original. Due to the 1994 Clinton Gun Ban, threaded barrels, flash hiders and folding stocks could not be added without violating the law. Effective September 13, 2004, this draconian and illogical ban expired, as was intended in the 10-year sunset provision, and these features can now return.
In my travels with SAR, I have had the opportunity to handle and fire several of these new clones. Some have been pretty rough and others have been, quite simply, beautiful. Like any other industry, there will be those who excel at what they do, and those who don't. The two current manufacturers who supplied test firearms to SAR for this article were Bobcat Weapons, Inc. of Mesa, Arizona, and Vector Arms of North Salt Lake, Utah. After spending considerable time testing and evaluating their firearms, these businesses both go in the "excel" column.
The firearm supplied by Bobcat Weapons, Inc. was their BW5 FS9 (9mm model). It is a clone of the HK MP5, with a faux suppressor permanently attached to an original-length, 3-lug barrel. The overall barrel length with the faux can is over 16 inches. This allows the firearm to transfer on a regular ATF Form 4473 for immediate possession. If the end user desires a short-barreled rifle in the future, with the completion of the ATF Form 1, they can mill off the faux suppressor to reveal the original length, 3-lug barrel. They may also purchase a collapsible stock and have a firearm very similar to the MP5 for a fraction of the cost.
The BW5 FS9 we tested is excellent in quality and craftsmanship. The finish is very close to its original counterpart and the detail excellent as well. It is even manufactured with a "paddle" magazine release like the original MP5 instead of the standard button as found on the original HK94. The lower is a plastic slim, "Navy/FBI" style model. The BW5 ran excellent with all factory ball ammo we tried. The recoil was minimal, as one would expect. Several people fired the BW5 during various outings and everyone had the same impression. It was universally well received and most people were quite surprised at the quality when they learned it was not an original HK. The only failure to function we encountered was during my "crappy ammo test." I have a can of assorted 9mm ammunition, and I like to randomly fill a magazine with everything from lead ball to Black Talon and everything in between. It hiccuped with some of the truncated cone rounds I had in there. No great surprise there though, as most guns I test do not like that. That big, flat tip just doesn't like to feed correctly in most military style firearms including the original HK guns.
For those of you who would like to purchase a BW5 as a host for your registered sear or trigger pack, you can purchase the upgraded full auto bolt carrier, complete with the tungsten powder fill, for an additional $135.00. The retail price of the BW5 FS9 as tested is $1,625.00. A clone of the HK Generation 2, A3 collapsible stock may be purchased on the BW5 FS for total retail price of $1,850.00. At this time stocks are not available from Bobcat Weapons, Inc. separately. For future projects from Bobcat Weapons, Inc. watch for the introduction of their SP89 and MP5K clones in the near future. They will also have an ambidextrous lower for the BW5 series available in the beginning of 2005.
The firearm supplied by Vector Arms was their V-53. This is their version of the short, HK93 with the 8.3-inch barrel. It is basically an MP5-length firearm in .223. The example supplied to SAR was a registered short barreled rifle but is also available with a permanently attached, faux suppressor to bring the overall barrel length in excess of 16 inches.
The Vector Arms V-53 specimen we tested was extremely impressive in all aspects. After having handled a few of the larger caliber clones from other manufacturers in the past that were not up to the authors standards, it was a pleasure to open the Vector package and see their rifle. In typical Vector fashion, the fit, finish and function of the V53 were all extraordinary. Complete with the "paddle" magazine release and plastic "Navy/FBI" lower, there is no detail left untouched. I received this example after the sunset of the Clinton Gun Ban and it was delivered with the threaded barrel and flash hider. Since the date it was shipped, a custom collapsible stock is now available as well.
For shooters wishing to use the V53 as a host for their registered sear or trigger pack, a pleasant surprise awaits. The bolt carrier is all set for full auto function and requires no additional modification to work in conjunction with your registered parts. Upon request, Vector will even substitute a 3-position lower for an additional $25.00 so when you get the gun, it will be all ready to go.
If you have never fired an HK or HK Clone in .223 with an 8-inch barrel, you owe it to yourself to do so. There are very few firearms that excite your senses like one of these, especially in full auto. This gun is a fire-breathing dragon and will grab the attention of everyone within earshot when you are at the range. They are extremely loud and the ball of fire, usually called muzzle flash, was compared to "a basketball coming out of the barrel" by my 13-year-old nephew on one of our trips to the range.
Range time with the Vector V53 has been too short. This is not because I have not had enough time to properly evaluate it; it is because I can't shoot it enough. Since this gun came in, it has been the first one out of the safe with every trip to the range. The first outing with the V53 left the most memorable impression. After disassembling the firearm while reading the instruction manual and reassembling it, it was time to test fire it. I loaded a single round, stepped to the line and fired it. There was a big bang and a big flash but something didn't feel right. I checked the barrel, loaded another round and fired it again. Everything appeared fine. The element that was missing was the recoil. I loaded up a complete magazine, fired half of it and handed it to a few of my shooting buddies to finish. All had the same impression. Vector Arms REALLY got it right with this one. I have never fired a military style rifle in .223, as smooth as the V53. Secondary shot placement and all shot placement during rapid fire was incredibly accurate. The absence of felt recoil and muzzle rise allows the shooter to stay on target, even under full auto fire.
Speaking of full auto fire, you should know that I couldn't resist a statement like the V53 being full auto capable without trying it myself. It only took one friend to ask if I had tried it in select fire yet while he was examining it. When I replied, "no" he said, "throw me a pack and let's go." We immediately installed a registered trigger pack and it has lived in it ever since. All it took was a quick ejector swap from .308 to .223 and it was running perfect. Vector gets a great, big thumbs up from this writer on the V53. The retail price of the V53 as tested is $1350.00. An example with Vectors new collapsible stock can be purchased for $1,515.00. For future projects, keep your eyes open for their new HK51 clone to hit the market.
I have one other HK clone we haven't discussed yet. This one is a clone of an HK51 and it is one the author had the misfortune of purchasing almost 2 years ago. I don't think I have put over 5 magazines through it since. Don't misunderstand me; I love the 8-inch barrel in .308. I don't mind the blood-vessel bursting recoil. I even kind of like the blinding flash. Unfortunately this gun is one of the examples that make you really appreciate the guns Bobcat Weapons, Inc. and Vector Arms are manufacturing. This is a gun I bought from another dealer as "as new," and I have no doubt that the dealer I purchased it from had been led to believe that. I think it really was "as new" or "new." The problem is that it was converted to an HK51 clone from a completely worn out HK91 copy, parts kit. I never function tested it before hacking at the ugly barrel extension so I couldn't send it back. I have no idea who did the conversion but it is obvious it was a hack-job. After spending more than it is worth on repairs, it still does not run right, and remains "one of those projects." Every outing to the range it gets a little closer and I will probably have it running at a somewhat acceptable level at some point. Unfortunately, it will never look good or run good. The only reason I bothered to mention this gun is to emphasize the importance of real quality and craftsmanship like we have seen displayed in the Bobcat Weapons gun and Vector Arms gun.
All HK clones are not created equal and you owe it to yourself to do some research on what you are buying so you don't end up with a "project" when you really want a shooter.
Bobcat Weapons, Inc. BW5 - FS
Overall Length: 34.5 inches (876mm)
Barrel Length: 16.5 inches (419.10)
Sight Radius: 13.39 inches (340mm)
Weight, unloaded: 6.7 pounds (3.0kg)
Method of Operation: Semiautomatic, delayed blowback, roller lock bolt system.
Magazine Capacity: 10-rounds, 30-rounds, 40-rounds
Barrel: Button rifled, stainless steel, 1:10 twist
Sights: Front - Fixed post in ring.
Rear - rotating drum.
Finish: Black, epoxy coat.
Retail Price as Tested: $1,625.00
Vector Arms V53
Caliber: 5.56mm NATO
Overall Length: 29 inches (736mm)
Barrel Length: 8.3 inches (210.8mm)
Weight, unloaded: 6.75 pounds (3.05kg)
Method of Operation: Semiautomatic, delayed blowback, roller lock bolt system.
Magazine Capacity: 30-rounds, 40-rounds
Barrel: Hammer Forged, 1:7 twist.
Sights: Front - Fixed post in ring.
Rear - rotating drum.
Finish: Black, powder coat.
Retail Price as Tested: $1,350.00
Bobcat Weapons, Inc
P.O. Box 21017
Mesa, AZ 85277
Phone: (480) 832-0844
Fax: (206) 350-5274
270 West 500 North
North Salt Lake, UT 84054
Phone: (801) 295-1917
Fax: (801) 295-9316
WOLF Performance Ammunition
1225 N. Lance lane
Anaheim, CA 92806
Phone: (888) 757-WOLF
Fax: (714) 632-9232
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