French Marine Commandos with CETME Rifles

Wolfgang Riess, one of the Commandos who used these CETMEs, later to work as an H&K weapons technician
Wolfgang Riess, one of the Commandos who used these CETMEs – later to work as an H&K weapons technician. This story comes from his notes.

I was doing some reading up on the early roller-delayed rifles (in Blake Stevens’ exquisitely technical and detailed book Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking) and came across this very cool story, which I wanted to share…

Spain formally adopted the CETME Model B in 1958. It was mechanically pretty much the same gun we know today as the CETME-C or G3, but still chambered for the 7.62 NATO-CETME cartridge. This was a Spanish response to the NATO cartridge requirements – it was dimensionally identical to the 7.62mm NATO but fired a 125 grain projectile at 2300 fps, rather than the 143gr @ 2790fps of the NATO standard. The Spanish saw that the standard cartridge was too powerful to be effective in a select-fire rifle, and the reduced load was developed to reduce recoil to a manageable level. This was done for only a few years, until they surrendered and adopted the Model C in 1964 using standard ammunition. The CETME-B would still use the NATO ammo, but it was rough on the guns.

Anyway, the French were busy fighting against Algerian rebels at this time, and in March 1961 a Danish freighter named the Margot Hansen was spotted by a French maritime patrol aircraft and stopped off the coast of Algeria. Upon boarding and inspection, it was discovered that the ship was carrying 200 brand new CETME-B rifles and ammunition for them, destined (illegally) to the ANL and FLN rebel groups. The arms were confiscated, of course, and put into storage at the French naval depot at Mers El Kebir. This depot held other seized weapons as well, mainly of German WWII origin – Kar 98k Mausers and StG-44 assault rifles. When the 200 CETMEs arrive, the quickly drew the attention of the French Marine Commandos who were stationed at the port.

The French at the time were using MAS 49/56 rifles, semiauto only, and with 10-round magazines. The supplementary full-auto firepower was provided by Chatellerault 24/29 light machine guns, which had 20-round box magazines (which were occasionally adapted to 49/56 rifles, but that is a different story). The Marine Commandos were very interested in this new rifle, which looked to offer the capabilities of both their rifles and LMGs in a single light package. Because they were a unit of the French Navy and the guns had been seized by the Navy and were stored in a Navy depot, the Commandos were able to requisition the guns and the seized ammo for their own use without much difficulty.

French Marine Commandos try out their CETME-B rifles in Algeria
French Marine Commandos try out their CETME-B rifles in Djibouti

The one obstacle that did surface was when someone noticed that all the rifles were missing their firing pins. Why? Nobody knows for sure, but most likely because the smugglers were planning to hold them back for security or for an addition payment. It is also possible that the whole smuggling setup was actually a fake operation being run by the SDECE (French Army Intelligence), but any records that could confirm that are long since destroyed. At any rate, the Marines didn’t let a minor issue like firing pins stop them, and the depot machinists reverse engineered the design and manufactured a large supply. They were never able to get the material and heat treat quite right, and their firing pins apparently had a tendency to break frequently – so the Marines carried a bunch of spares whenever using the guns.

Another obstacle that developed was that the seized ammunition turned out to be garbage. It had been hastily made from components sent to be scrapped, and dimensions like overall length varied substantially. Some cases had no primer flash holes. Headstamps varied significantly, and were mixed within boxes. The men were able to source French-made 7.62mm ammunition, and wound up using those CETME-B rifles in active combat operations as late as 1978. Quite the colorful path for a batch of early Spanish rifles, ultimately used for decades against the very groups they were intended to aid!

How did the guns make it out of Spanish control? That’s a good question. They would have been first-line military arms at the time, not guns being surplussed or otherwise left about unattended. However, CETME was actively working with Dutch and German firms and military organizations at the time, and shipments of rifles could have been legitimately bound for either of those countries. Blake Stevens suggests one possibility for the source was such a shipment being rerouted by a man like notorious German arms smuggler Otto the Strange – although this can only be speculation.

A group of French Commandos relaxing during their campaign in Algeria. Two are armed with MAT-49 SMGs and two with seized CETME-B rifles.
A group of French Commandos relaxing during their campaign in Algeria. Two are armed with MAT-49 SMGs and two with seized CETME-B rifles.