Sporting Purposes: How HK Really Does Not Suck Or Hate You

While searching an old hard drive for an essay I wrote in college, I came across some unrelated documents which I had saved at approximately the same time:  ATF position papers/reports on the importation of semiautomatic military-style rifles. I briefly skimmed these documents, and found several interesting points that I would like to raise. First, a brief refresher course on some recent history, with points illustrated by photographs of cute animals.

Jerry Tsai, former editor of Recoil magazine, made some comments about how HK MP7s served no sporting purposes, and therefore shouldn’t be imported. When a stink was (quite rightly) raised, he doubled down on his silliness and blamed HK.

Jerry Tsai was in a plane that was lost and on fire with Dog as both his copilot AND pilot, and didn’t see the rapidly approaching terrain until it was too late.

Not taking this lightly, HK washed their hands of any responsibility. Tsai, along with practically every Recoil advertiser, was buried under an electronic avalanche of angry messages. Heads rolled and the crowd mentality slowly subsided.

Here’s the problem: While Tsai’s comments were a) wrong and b) lacking in knowledge of the current firearm community, they did nothing to actually stop you from owning anything. He just said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You aren’t good enough to own this.” It’s the same concept as Jim Zumbo’s ill-advised comments about “terrorist rifles” a few years back.

But in the ’80s and ’90s, magazine editors, hunting guides, state game commissioners, and competitive shooting groups were consulted by the ATF in order to determine whether certain rifles were importable under the ’89 import ban, and taking into consideration the “sporting purposes” test. I won’t be debating the merits of that “test” here, because it is a somewhat complex matter, although my position on the issue should not be a huge mystery (hint: it’s dumb).

What I want to focus on is the response of the magazine editors in particular. On multiple occasions, ATF asked them if rifles such as the SG550, FN FAL, AK-47, etc. had any useful “sporting purpose.” When polled directly in 1989, 0 (zero) of 14 magazine editors responded in the affirmative.

Much like this gray fox, shooting and hunting magazine editors of the ’90s were asleep when ATF asked them if AKs, PSG-1s, and FALs were useful for hunting or sporting purposes.

When polled directly in 1997, only 2 of 13 responded that such rifles were appropriate for the hunting of medium to large game (why ATF decided to exclude the hunting of small game from their report is not stated). Of 70 magazine articles reviewed by ATF (again, the selection process is not described), only one described what the ATF calls “large capacity military magazine rifles,” or LCMM rifles, as being “excellent” for hunting. Two others described 7.62×39 as being acceptable for hunting.

ATF also put down the idea of action competition shooting as being sporting, for the simple reason that it wasn’t “traditional.” I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of it is, “We didn’t like the idea of some sporting purposes, so we made up our own definition, and guess what, none of these rifles fit our new definition of sporting purposes. Except some do, but we’re going to ignore that.” I don’t grok this logic.

This owl is apparently unable to grok this as well.

What else is interesting about this position paper? Well, of the manufacturers, trade groups, and so on that received letters from ATF seeking their input, exactly one company made an active attempt to stop what they saw coming. This manufacturer placed an advertisement in Shotgun News, attesting to how useful their firearms were for various sporting purposes, and encouraged owners of their firearms to write ATF with accounts of how they use their products as sporting arms. Which manufacturer was this?


What? HK stood up for my right to own semi-auto firearms in use around the world by police and military organizations?

That’s right. The one company to step up and say “This isn’t right,” was none other than the much-vilified Heckler & Koch (see page 115 of the PDF linked above).

The magazine editors? A few attempted to tell ATF the truth – good for them. The rest were perfectly happy to watch “those other guns” get banned, as long as they could keep their fancy, imported Browning semi-autos. Really, this sentiment is made quite clear at several times throughout the study, including the Senate report on the 1994 AWB.

As for the 1998 “study,” it was noted that a reason for it being undertaken was that some time had passed since the last one (8-9 years), and that the times might have changed since then. Well, it’s been almost 15 years, and I’m pretty sure that ATF would find a slightly different response if it asked these questions today. Which might be why I can’t find a more recent version.

So harbor all the resentment and ill will against Jerry Tsai, Recoil magazine, and anyone-who-didn’t-pull-their-advertisements-from-Recoil-within-5-seconds-of-hearing-about-this-whole-thing you want. In reality, nothing Jerry Tsai did had any effect on how many self-loading firearms you can buy. A bunch of former – and possibly current – magazine editors did have an effect, though.

49 thoughts on “Sporting Purposes: How HK Really Does Not Suck Or Hate You”

  1. I didn’t know any of this stuff. A little historical perspective can be fascinating. Thank you for writing this. I bet you are right about the responses from a selection of magazine editors today.

  2. I really do think there’s a lot of unjustified hate towards H&K that’s more an issue of German export and US import laws. People drastically underestimate the cost of development of something like the USC or SL8 and importing them into the US

  3. I do not understand the hatred of HK from a gun ownership perspective (I can’t speak to hatred of them from a customer service perspective).

    HK is often villified as “not caring about civilians” or “deliberately gimping their hardware” and “only caring about the profits” but none of this makes any sense.

    If HK hates civilians, why do they have a whole host of sporting rifles that require completely different tooling to produce than their military weapons just for the civilian market? If HK is anti-gun, why do they import unneutered handguns into this country by the thousands?

    The SL8 is a very different rifle than the G36. It has a different upper receiver molding, a different lower, a different bolt carrier, a different magazine well and magazine, and a different barrel assembly. If HK hates us civilians so and cares only for their profits, why do they bother with the SL8 at all?

    In fact, HK products are not only subject to highly restrictive US import law, but even more restrictive German export law. I don’t know the exact details of German export law, but I do know that it accounts for many, if not all of the neutered features seen on HK long guns.

    1. Some would argue that HK hates you so much and thinks you should not have access to the cool original products, hence they go out of their way to give you neutered rifles.

      On the pistols, how could they neuter them exactly? CA/MA style 10 round mags? Done.

      1. Or they could just not let you have any of their products? Like, what’s the point of going out of your way to sell neutered rifles to people? That must be some grudge HK has against civilians. Civilians must have burned HK’s beautiful wife and son alive in the distant past.

      2. @fozzie: Long guns are one thing, but your argument about pistols is misguided. How are the pistols neutered? You mean the pistols that (supposedly) the Navy Seals carry, the HK45c Tactical? Because you can buy that and it’s exactly the same as government issue (supposedly – they aren’t talking). Or the HK45 they developed for the military that they ended up selling to the public after the Feds scrapped the JSP program? You can buy that too and it’s the same.

        Should they have stuffed one or two extra rounds into the HK45/45c double-stack magazine and made both guns extra wide like the Mark 23 or should they have designed it in such a way that it struck a balance with capacity but also fit in the hands of most shooters? I guess they should have ignored Hackathorn and Vickers when they gave them their feedback, or ignored the guys that were carrying the Mark 23 and asked for something else.

        That the pistols only hold 10 rounds has jack sh*t to do with the 10 round magazine requirements for Massachusetts (as if that market influences HK, a global arms supplier) or California. The 45/45c were made available with a magazine disconnect only by special order, and as such are not legal for sale in CA. So I guess it’s possible that HK “neutered” the pistol, or it’s more likely that they built the best gun that they could and then put it up for sale as it was designed.

  4. Does it surprise you? Look at whats going on in the gun community today.

    Obama is the president and its the end of America, flags in distress run rampant in profile pics and in gun owners yards.
    There is panic buying because everyone just know Obama will pass a new AWB outlawing every gun known to man, and even though Republicans run the house it doesn’t matter, Obama will do what he wants.

    Gun owners are some of the most erratic paranoid people I have ever met. It’s a shame honestly. Not all are like this but alot, you should see ARFCOM general discussion.

  5. Wow, only 5 comments before it went political and insulted gun owners. Josh, are you from handgun control inc? You sure sound like it. Its incredibly insane how people like this try to invoke panic among the gun community by running into the gunshop and screaming GUN BAN!!!! Nothing has changed in the last 24 hours, Obama doesnt have the votes or the nuts to introduce a new AWB. people need to chill out.. sorry about that..
    About the article, very well written, I remember arguing with the “old timers” in the 80’s and 90’s about this very subject, I often heard “what do you need that for ?” I went on several hunts with a folding stock AK-47 and scored more kills than the old timer with the model 94. I believe you are correct in that the ATF would get a completely different set of answers if they were consulted now!!

    1. You kidding me, I exercise my second amendment all the time. I own numerous firearms even some NFA stuff.

      My point is go to any gun website right now and look at what is going on, everyone is freaking out and screaming AWB and end of America, hell I have even seen vendors posting the American flag in distress on facebook.

      Gun owners are freaking out right now, they are practically the only ones I am seeing running in a panic to buy every single gun they can find and all the ammo possible to prepare for the AWB(that would never be passed since Republicans have the house). They are also the ones flying the American flag in distress because America is doomed now that Obama is president for 4 more years.

      Go see for your self, go to ARFCOM in their general discussion and see 2 pages full of crap about the stuff I posted on.

      My point is gun owners seem to freak out over the stupidest smallest things. Jerry Tsai posted a stupid, ignorant comment and everyone boycotted the magazine and threatened boycotting any company who did not pull adds. Jerry’s comment did nothing to harm the gun community yet the gun community freaked out and made themselves look bad, just like they are doing now that Obama won a second term.

      1. Vendors posting the flag in distress is good for their business. I don’t blame them.

        I personally am not running out and buying anything (other than a few mags here and there which I already planned on buying).

  6. Interesting.

    IIRC whole “You suck and we hate you” was customer service and attitude from the 90s when Larry was running a gun store. But I’ve heard the roughly same story from cops when their department didn’t buy thousands of guns.

    It would be nice if they have actually changed, I have no idea. Though I have noticed that they have stopped putting the bullets in their magazines backwards….

  7. Very good write up. I would like to add, the debate on assault rifles may soon start up again. I say MAY, I have seen things on the internet already, I think this is premature. However, I also think we should be discussing this. The lines like “From my cold, dead fingers” make us sound extreme. Ask questions like “How would you prevent the large loss of life from shootings like the one in Aurora, CO.? Would you be willing to restrict high capacity magazines to only hold 5,10 rounds? If we start shouting, or sounding like we are unreasonable, we will get laws forced on us and we will be shut out of the discussion. I own many of these military style rifles, I don’t want to have them restricted in any way. But I realize that if we are not part of the discussion, we will have things imposed on us that will be much harder than if we had been part of the debate.

  8. I had believed that HK was simply a bunch of snooty Germans looking down their noses at us. I must admit I am as surprised as that prairie dog. I guess no one is ever “simply” anything.

  9. HK & FN are the two premier small arms manufacturers in the world. We are very fortunate that they are exporting as much stuff to American consumers as they are legally allowed to do. Heck, both companies are giving us very similar versions of what select units have been using in MR223 and the SCAR 16/17! They don’t have to do that with as much money as they make on military contracts.

    Let’s compare that to the clowns at Colt and Smith and Wesson who tried to make backroom deals with the government in the 90s to ban guns, or the idiot owner at Ruger who said mags didn’t need to be above a certain size. The market, being the powerful force that it is, forced all of those gun companies to change and at least appear in public to be pro gun for US citizens.

    Let’s not forget the great role Glock played in the dark days of DA’s and AG’s across the nation suing the gun companies. The one company to step up and say they would fight every single case if need be? Glock. They bought us time until the public changed their minds on the whole gun issue.

    What is interesting is that looking at that bit of 90s trivia, it would almost appear as if the Euro gun companies were more “pro gun rights” for the US citizens than the American ones, or at least Colt/Ruger/S&W. It is also interesting to see how far we have come, and how mainstream “assault rifles” are these days.

    1. “both companies are giving us very similar versions of what select units have been using in MR223 and the SCAR 16/17! They don’t have to do that with as much money as they make on military contracts.”


      They’re capitalists. There’s money to be made here. Maybe they make more on .gov contracts, but there’s still revenue and profit to soak up from civvies, too. It’s hardly philanthropy.

      Agree with the rest (more or less).

      1. I doubt very much that pure “capitalist” desire for more money is what motivates the people who design and build the wonderful weapons at HK and FN. Sure everyone likes to get paid, but I suspect that ultimately they do what they do because they’re engineers and they love their work. We’re very lucky to live in a world where we can reward their passion with money so that their passion can keep providing us with arms.

      2. I am fully aware that they are capitalists, but are you aware of the hoops HK had to jump through to be able to sell american citizens a version of their rifle? You probably aren’t aware of the huge amount of pressure the EU and the German government and media have placed on HK to not do what they did, so they came up with some excuses to claim it was a sporting rifle.

        Sure, there is money to be made, but they actually risk losing far more money in Euro contracts potentially. And no, HK and FN don’t just make “more” on military contracts, it is way, way more. As in, they wouldn’t have to ever sell to a single civilian if all they received were military contracts. There is a reason every major gun company fights so hard to get the government contracts, because that is where the real money is.

      3. Not to mention the “capitalist” argument falls apart when you examine how Glock behaved vs the American companies like Colt, S&W, and Ruger who were all ready to embrace gun laws, while Glock fought them tooth and nail in court long enough for the public’s mindset to change.

        Colt, S&W, and Ruger were all capitalists, but they really tried to screw the people over. Glock just about single handedly stopped them long enough for a sea change in public thought. Yet all were capitalists wanting to make money. My point is that there are different things done and decisions that are more than just about making money that a company makes.

    2. Going devil’s advocate here – FNH has released to us the FS2000, PS90, Five-seven and SCAR line. Until I see Hk releasing to us a more faithful G36 and MP7 and other desired long arms, I will favor FNH more. Nonetheless, I believe Hk bringing the MR556 to the US (and able to fit AR lowers unlike the MR223) was a huge step for Hk.

      1. I agree that I favor FN more as well, but when you consider the pressure the German media, government, public, and the EU government and media put on HK to not export weapons of violence, it is actually pretty amazing that they imported a version of the HK416.

        Think about all of our anti-gun politicians and media, and magnify it several times to understand what pressure and PR hits HK takes for exporting “military arms.”

  10. Josh, let us not forget that Jerry Tsai didn’t post some off the cuff Twitter comment, Facebook status update or gun board message.

    His comments were written well in advance, poured over, proof-read, edited, mulled over, and contemplated by the staff, and ultimately considered to be worth being sent to the printer by the editor-in-chief (the man himself) well in advance of them being published.

    One might be forgiven an off hand comment on the internet, but to plant one foot in your mouth and keep it there until the print deadline, and then to firmly plant the other one (and another, and another) when you’re called out on your months old ,ill-advised, and too-late-to-keep-from-hitting-store-shelves comments is disaster. In this case, the disaster was self-inflicted and seemingly well deserved.

    Those calling for his ouster (or head on a pike in some cases) might have been a bit over dramatic at times, but were really ultimately interested in having the guy nut up and take some personal responsibility. He couldn’t seem to do so, and it cost him.

    As far as this article, I’m not a fan of HK or their products (I don’t hate them, I just prefer other manufacturers) but it is somewhat refreshing to see that they took a pro-shooter position that might be one they still hold today, in spite of the black eye that Jerry Tsai tried to give them.

    Customer service attitudes aside, they wouldn’t be in the business of manufacturing and selling firearms if they didn’t want people to use them.

    This still doesn’t meant I’m going to rush out to buy HK hardware.

  11. another reason not to buy gun magazines (the kind that don’t go in guns).

    ps: i had a change recently to fire my first mp5. nuff said.

  12. HK sucks for other reasons, namely I think their guns are Fugly and overpriced, though the consensus seems to be that they are well made and perform well.

    As to why HK stood up and said something about the (then) approaching ban on semi-auto importation I have a thought – They were looking after their bottom line. If Semi-Autos cannot be imported, HK cannot sell them here.

    Come to think of it, that might be why some of the magazine writers were OK with that bit of regulation, thin the competition for domestic mfgs. Maybe. Or maybe there were just a bunch of old timer gun writers who were dyed-in-the-wool Fudds.

    You know the type: cranky old farts at shooting ranges that look askance at anyone who shows up with a rifle with a detachable mag that was designed after WWII. The same guys that like rules against rapid fire at ranges.

  13. The sporting uses letters HK solicited in the late 90’s specifically dealt with PSG1’s, and I doubt enough civilians in the US bought them to be anything other than a footnote on HK’s global balance sheet.

  14. Yeah, but in 1997 HK’s primary customers were the Military and Law Enforcment Agencies. They did not sell very many models to civilians. The products they were selling were all “Sporterized”.

    If H&K had not displayed so much loathing for the civilian markets they would have made civilian (semi-automatic) versions of the HK416 and other models at an affordable price. They probably would have sole ownership of the civlian piston-AR market. But since they decided to limit these to (once again) Military and Law Enforcement consumers, the samples that were made available to use lowly civilians (who never shoot scumbags) averaged around $5,000 apiece. And these were just the upper receiver assemblies because HK never released a complete rifle (actually, these uppers were order “extras” that distributers and dealers would sell to suckers… err… customers).

    Yeah, HK may have been the only one who responded to the questionnaire that the ATF sent out. But HK did nothing to actually support the civilian ownership of these so-called “Assault Rifles”. Actions are really more powerful than words.

    1. By “an affordable price” do you mean “exactly the same price as everyone else is offering their fourth generation carbines for”? Because the MR556 is in the same price bracket as the SCAR 17S and the ACR.

    2. HK had practically its entire product line rendered unimportable at the stroke of a pen in 1989.

      Gosh, why would they be gun-shy of the commercial market here ever since?

  15. One of the things HK can be given credit for is that they picked up part of the tab in defense of one of their employees who used a full-auto to defend himself from some bad guys.

    “‘H&K protected me,” says Gary. “They picked up the tab for about half of my legal bills, and got all the publicity for it, until I quit a few years later.”

    1. Awesome. Again, like I said above, the pressure HK faces to not be involved in private arm selling over here at all is huge by the media and government in Germany. They do an incredible amount in that context.

  16. I’m just excited that you used the word “grok.” Now if you’ll begin to litter your blog posts with other Heinleinian references, I’ll be ecstatic.

  17. By German law HK is forced to make their civilian products incompatible with their automatic weapons. The law calls for separation in production of essential (pressure containing) parts, so no 416 barrels or bolt heads in an MR, and the inability to convert to fully automatic without special tools, so no compatability with the (in Germany unregulated) full auto lower.

  18. The true problem here is the verbiage of the 1968 Gun Control Act that references “sporting purposes”, that is the root of it all. Who really determines what constitutes “sporting purposes”?

    Otherwise, having dealt with HK for several years in the LE supply side of the equation, their service left much to be desired. Communication, parts availability, and a prevailing attitude of indeference seemed to be the case. That was more than a couple of years ago, so things may have changed.

    HK make makes a quality product, but not necessarily the best product of any given genre in design or perfromance.

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