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The CETME, Bargain Basement Battle Rifle
By Alex Osinski
The Cetme has proven to be one of the best bargains on the gun market in 2002 and stands to be one of the better deals well into 2003. Based closely on postwar German designs that later spawned the G3 rifle, the original CETME was considered a stepping stone to many battle rifles of the 1950s. Fast forward to the popularity of the HK 91 among well heeled survivalists and mercenaries of the 1970s and early 1980s, the German made semi-auto was the Mercedes Benz of combat rifles. Powerful, accurate and well put together, most admirers chose to overlook lackluster ergonomics and some out of whack pricing.
Parallel to the marketing of the first HK rifles in the US, we saw some early CETME rifles, but they were even more costly and sales suffered among an American public conditioned by cheap Spanish made knockoffs of other designs. The CETME was thus brushed aside and did not re-emerge on the scene until a brief time in the late 1980s when some importers attempted to get a few semi-auto versions into the country as a cheaper alternative to the HK91 rifles which at the time were costing close to $1,000 and license built copies of good quality were still in the $800+ range. That import plan was cut short by a series of executive orders on the part of then president George Bush.
Later in about 1999, a small firm in Arizona began making clones of the HK 91 using surplus German and Pakistani parts. Shortly after that, the firm of Special Weapons was contracted by Century Arms to use their steel casting techniques to produce parts and receivers to be mated with surplus Spanish and various African military rifle parts to produce new rifles. The Early rifles were pretty rough, but being less than half the cost of a decent HK91 clone and not even close to the cost of a Genuine HK 91, they snagged market share and a reputation as a "not half bad" clone. It was only a matter of time before the HK91 clones built with parts from surplus G3 rifles, would evolve into CETME clones, built on the very similar but cheaper CETME rifles. Interestingly, it was the CETME that came first, and they really don't "cost" any less to produce, just that the bulk of surplus was obtained at lower prices.
Spare magazines can be so cheap for the CETME that one can consider them semi-disposable when purchased in quantities of ten or more but that situation is probably not going to last as long as with the cheap FAL mags. That logistic advantage alone causes the CETME to outclass the M14 and closely compete with the FAL as a utility survival rifle. Spare parts can be obtained by purchasing a demil parts kit from any one of a number of suppliers for well under $200. Note that many of the parts kits contain full auto parts that would require some modification to lawfully be used in a semi-auto CETME, albeit the key trigger group will not install outright into a semi-auto CETME because the semi-autos were engineered with a block to prevent easy conversion to select fire. At that, the slow cycle rate on automatic and sufficient one shot lethality of 7.62 NATO standard ammunition is such that full automatic capability is not a significant enough advantage to be worth much effort to obtain either legally or illegally from a utility standpoint.
Faced with respectable, but not extraordinary sales, the people at Century Arms and probably Special Weapons homed in on what was one of the bigger problems with the re-engineered rifles. That being the cast stainless steel receiver. Original specifications called for a formed sheet metal receiver. A decent functional formed sheet metal receiver came out in mid year of 2002 along with a hefty price reduction in the rifles. Currently (January 2003) the rifles are readily available at many US gun shops for $400 or less. Low cost and cheap (really cheap) accessories make the .308 caliber CETME a readily available choice for the survivor who is looking for a multipurpose utility rifle. It also makes a good cost effective transition rifle for those with military experience who are looking for a .308/7.62 rifle with handling characteristics similar to an M16/AR15/M4. Although heavier with a very different cocking mechanism, the overall shape and magazine release seems easier for people experienced with the M16 series guns to familiarize with than the FAL or M14.
The CETME is heavy, but not overly heavy, and it takes the same scope mounts that would fit the HK rifles. Accuracy varies a bit from gun to gun, but credible sources rate them at one to four MOA depending on the skill of the shooter and quality of ammo. A big factor is luck of the draw on the condition of the original military donor rifle (especially the bore) and the overall mood and attentiveness of the worker at Century arms when they were slapping it together. The sights, however, are just good, not great. Difficult to adjust without tools and not exactly fine precision instruments. That said, the rifle is good enough for hunting or retreat defense after a few hundred rounds of break in. Nearly all scope mounts that were made to fit the HK rifles will fit the CETME, with the B-Square mount giving one of the better fits. The "genuine" HK claw-lock mounts can sometimes require a little tweaking before they will work on the CETME or HK clones.
Some quirks about the gun are the roughness of the action and fit of the magazines. Expect to need to put a good 500 rounds through a CETME before the action smooths up enough to be smooth and reliable. It would probably be best if this were spread out over a few shooting sessions with thorough cleaning in between. Don't even slow down with delicate oils and patches, scrub the thing out in a solvent tank and work the gunk out of the bore as much as you can with stiff chamber and bore brushes.
Magazine fit in the rifles can be really irritating for the uninitiated. Your best bet is to buy twice as many magazines as you would anticipate wanting to keep and then test all of them for fit, feed, and function. Expect to be tweaking a few and even refinishing some. I found the condition of the magazines to have no bearing on fit and function. Some look crappy and work fine, and some look fine and work crappy. Some work fine in one gun and work crappy in another. If you are going to fill out an arsenal with CETME rifles and want interchangeability of mags, buy even more mags to fit to the guns because you will need to eliminate those that will function in one gun but not the others. Mag catches on the rifles can sometimes be the culprit. Fixing it can require taking the catch assembly apart and deburring it so that the catch seats deeper in the grooves.
The work that goes into debugging a CETME is never in vain when it comes to resale value since it is very common for used rifles to be cleaned up and "dialed in" with a set of matched magazines to be worth considerably more money than one that comes straight from the maker or distributor. A debugged Cetme with a few matching magazines and correctly sighted in is easily worth $450 even though most ads in Shotgun news will show a "New" rifle at $299.
Recoil on the rifles is not that bad and handling is pretty consistent with the HK series rifles which I felt was always overrated. The placement of the cocking mechanism has always been a problem with the guns, especially when combined with the fact that they lack a bolt catch that would activate on the last shot. Another thing to keep in mind with operating the CETME is that you need to be forceful with it. Jack the charging handle back hard and let it snap forward hard. If you don't, it is likely to not close all of the way and will have a misfire. As the rifle "breaks in" it will smooth out considerably and a well broken in CETME can make a decent marksman's rifle when you mount a scope on it.
Durability on the guns is really good for the average or casual user who is going to treat a utility rifle like a farm tool rather than priceless heirloom. Current value and market availability on the guns makes it a non-issue for the owner to put the ol' spray paint camo job on one.
Another bit of good news is that the CETME is probably the most forgiving rifle for slightly out of spec 7.62 NATO and .308 Winchester ammunition among all of the top contending battle rifles. Once the gun is broken in, it will feed and fire just about any ammo in the appropriate caliber, even some really old surplus and reloads of dubious quality. That said, don't get crazy with overpowered reloads in this rifle, as the mechanism is said to have been designed for slightly lower powered ammo than "normal" 7.62 NATO. The Spanish had adapted it to work with standard NATO ammo which is full power, but it unclear how this was done.
In conclusion, the CETME is not a hands down winner for the title of best utility survival rifle, but it is a top contender. Good news is that any improvement they need out of the box is well within the abilities of just about any attentive home gunsmith and should not require the replacement of any parts. Spare parts and magazines are cheap and available on the current market, making this a winning choice for some survivors and a must have for most gun collectors who want a piece of history in the development of the battle rifle.