The CETME Model 58: Roller-Locks Go Mainstream

The CETME Model 58: Roller-Locks Go Mainstream

Developed in post-war Spain by ex-Mauser engineers, the CETME Model 58 was based on German prototype designs and resulted in one of the most influential battle rifles to ever exist.


CETME Model 58 Quick Facts:

  • CETME=Centro de Estudios Técnicos de Materiales Especiales=Center for Technical Studies of Special Materials
  • 7.62x51mm Rifle Using Roller-Delayed Blowback Action
  • Lead Engineer Was Ludwig Vorgrimler
  • Most Common Model C Variant Adopted By Spanish In 1964
  • Served As Basis For Later H&K G3

The CETME 58 Model C learned to walk so the H&K G3 could leave the gates running. While the CETME is often overshadowed by its German younger brother, the original Spanish battle rifle should not be forgotten. Its arduous and complicated development process may have resulted in a rifle that hardly saw any serious action itself, but its design would go on to be the basis for the prolific H&K family of roller-locked guns that are still used and loved to this day. Like the FAL, the CETME never got the opportunity to demonstrate the design’s true potential, but despite the bureaucracy that forced it into the battle rifle category it still proved to be an effective service weapon. These guns would almost certainly be less well-known if it weren’t for the abundance of parts kit builds that once flooded the country. While any model of CETME is less obtainable now than they were previously, these classic Cold War battle rifles can still be solid shooters for the right price.

Military CETME
Select-fire military CETME. Photo: Rock Island Auction Company.

Another Battle Rifle That Wasn’t Meant To Be

By the end of WWII, the Germans had put some serious development into the “Sturmgewehr” or assault rifle concept. These select-fire weapons chambered for the new 8mm Kurz cartridge fed from detachable box magazines and featured pistol grips and SMG-like handling. The less powerful ammunition allowed them to be much more effectively used in full-auto than other select-fire weapons of the time such as the FG 42 or BAR.

Immediately following the war, most firearms engineers understood that weapons like the StG 44 and StG 45(M) were the future of infantry weapons, so they began developing their own iterations of the concept for their own nations' armies. Unfortunately for the West, only the Soviets were able to fully realize this design concept with their adoption of the AK-47, as American stubbornness and NATO standardization politics forced the design teams behind both the FAL and the CETME to abandon their original intermediate cartridge designs in favor of the new 7.62x51mm round. This change resulted in reduced ammunition capacity, increased weight and made them far less effective when using fully automatic fire—essentially defeating the purpose of each designers’ original intent. While not as effective as they could have been if chambered for intermediate calibers, these battle rifles would still go on to be perfectly suitable service weapons.

Experimental Model A variant chambered for intermediate cartridge. Photo: Wikipedia

CETME Development

As already stated, the CETME Model 58 began its life as an intermediate caliber weapon inspired primarily by the experimental StG 45(M). The short version of its development is that after WWII, German industry was filled with minds too bright to be wasted getting put on trial at Nuremberg, so the allies took them for themselves. NASA famously got Wernher Von Braun and the Soviets got Hugo Schmeisser, but plenty of other skilled engineers and scientists were spread amongst the allied nations. One such man was Ludwig Vorgrimler.

Vorgrimler worked as the director of Mauser’s weapons division until the war ended and he and his team were sent to work for the French government. While in France, the team further developed the roller-delayed blowback action of the StG 45 into the CEAM Model 50—an experimental design that was chambered for various intermediate calibers. France abandoned the project for financial reasons, resulting in Vorgrimler to begin working for the Spanish CETME institute instead. Development on the CEAM concept continued, resulting in the CETME A and B models which were chambered for intermediate and reduced-recoil rounds, respectively. NATO standardization on the full-powered 7.62x51mm cartridge sealed the CETME’s fate, however, finalizing the design in 1964 with the Model C that we all know today.

Century CETME
Early CAI Parts Kit Build Model C. Photo:Rock Island Auction Company.

CETME Model C Operation

It takes a German level of confidence in mathematics to use an unlocked breach with a full-powered rifle cartridge, but that’s exactly what Vorgrimler’s team accomplished with the CETME. This style of action means that the CETME is completely lacking a gas system, let alone an adjustable one like seen on the FAL. The result is a rifle with a bit more kick to it, but one that is ultimately more reliable. While the FAL can be tuned to one’s ammunition to be both reliable and relatively soft shooting, it could grow less reliable as the gun gets dirtier and the gas regulator can get bumped out of position resulting in malfunctions. No such thing is possible with the CETME, as all the cartridge’s gas blows back onto the bolt upon firing, only to be delayed by the roller-lock mechanism which keeps the breach sealed until chamber pressure has dropped to a safe level. This style of action resulted in cartridge cases that were prone to get stuck in the chamber, so a new fluted chamber design was introduced for more reliable extraction. This leaves spent shells with an iconic pattern burned into them. This system is the reason behind one of the CETME’s best qualities—reliability. These rifles are known to eat whatever ammo is fed to them and always ask for seconds, so if you have a pile of dirty military surplus 7.62 sitting around there may not be a better platform to run it through.

The CETME is charged by its non-reciprocating charging handle that can be locked to the rear, giving it the same iconic “HK slap” to load it as would become famous on the G3 and MP5. The rifle is fed by 20-round box magazines of the “rock and lock” style and are released by an AK-like paddle. The iron sights are simpler than what would later be found on G3s, but they still feature differently sized apertures and notches that can be rotated through depending on one’s engagement distance.

Weighing in at almost ten pounds, the CETME is about half a pound heavier than a standard FAL despite being three inches shorter. Heavy and long, it’s no surprise that the battle rifle platform fell out of style as urban warfare became the more common fighting locale.

Spanish sailor with CETME rifle. Photo: Wikipedia

Owning A CETME In The US

When half the world adopted the H&K G3 over the CETME, so too did they decide the fates of millions of civilian gun owners. The simple truth is that for a multitude of reasons, the average American who wants a roller-delayed 7.62 NATO rifle will be better off with a G3 derivative. They are ultimately better guns, and just like throughout the rest of the world they are more abundant in the States than any CETME variant. The only truly authentic CETME rifles in the country were imported by the MARS Equipment Corporation in the 60s and 70s who brought in a total of about 1,200 guns. While these examples are the only 100% Spanish CETMEs in the country, they also included a few “sporterized” features like a scope mount and rubber recoil pad. While nice rifles, the rarity of the MARS-imported guns relegates them to the collector’s market.

The most abundant CETMEs in the U.S. by far are the parts kit builds that were sold by Century Arms from the 90s throughout the 2000s known as C308 Sporters. These were made using a mix of surplus and new production parts, and the resultant rifles came in varying levels of authenticity. Earlier examples are near clone-correct, while newer ones are mostly CETME in nature with a few inauthentic details like the polymer “navy style” G3 lower and Picatinny optics rail. Like many Century Arms kit builds, the quality of C308s can be hit or miss. Some people reportedly got awesome rifles while others got lemons, but it was the widespread proliferation of C308s in America for very affordable prices that helped keep the CETME name from slipping from public consciousness. Having not sold them for at least a few years now, however, the prices of C308s have begun reaching PTR levels, making them no longer worth it. Unless C308s suddenly drop in price, those who want a roller-delayed battle rifle are better off looking at PTR’s offerings.

Early MARS import with 5-round magazine. Photo:Rock Island Auction Company.

Ultimately, CETME Model C battle rifles are historically significant not because of what they were, but because of what they inspired. Outside of some smaller African conflicts, the CETME never got to truly test its metal, but as the parent rifle to the H&K G3 and the “grandfather” to the MP5, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. If there’s one area where CETMEs have the G3 beaten, its aesthetics, as the classic wood furniture screams Cold War battle rifle more than German polymer ever could have. While pre-fabricated kit builds are no longer common, the parts kits themselves are still readily available and would serve as an excellent project for those with the skills to finish it.

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  1. I traded for a Century Arms version around 2010. I found a steel clamp on optic mount, a decent 3 x 9 x 40 rifle scope, a collapsable stock AR type stock and an assortment of 10 and 20 round magazines. During the pandemic I found a gunsmith that did a trigger job on it, with only sending him the trigger and I believe it was $50. The trigger job improved the accuracy beyond my belief.

  2. I bought a C 91 in 2016 and the first one i had a problem with jamming and sent it back the second C 91 runs like a top and other than a bit heavy and a trigger up grade i wouldn’t sell it is a keeper.

  3. I love my roller guns! My CETME Sporter has good bolt gap and is a blast to shoot. I also have a C91 and C93, all from CAI. They may not be the lightest, softest shooting rifles but will run all day without a hiccup. My AR buddies always enjoy them when I bring them out. They truly are a piece of history…


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