The CETME and the SAIGA


by R.K. Campbell

photography by R.K. Campbell

February 24, 2006




When working with firearms, the history of each is sometimes helpful in addressing function and repair issues. When I first saw the CETME rifle, I said to myself, ĎThatís a G 3í (as in H and K).  Technically, I was nearly correct. The G 3 is basically a license built CETME. The German Army developed a number of semi auto rifles firing intermediate power cartridges during the closing days of World War Two.  When the war was over, many German engineers fled the country - or more specifically, fled the Russians.  A Dr. Vorgrimmer, a respected firearms designer, was among those who chose not to return to Germany. He turned to Spain. Spain, while not an active participant in the war, had supplied Germany with arms and had relied heavily upon the Germans during their own Civil War. Dr. Vorgrimmer began work at the Centro de Estudios Tecnicos y Materiales Especales, the Center for the Study of Special Technologies and Materials. This center is known by the acronym CETME.  The world was moving to semi auto battle rifles with detachable magazines. The battle proven Garand would be replaced by the M 14, and the British adopted the FN FAL. Russia adopted the AK 47.  Spain adopted what may have been the most advanced rifle of the time, the Modelo A. The Spanish adopted an intermediate power cartridge that allowed a reasonable level of control when the rifle was fired in fully automatic mode. However, the United States dominated NATO and ammunition interchangeability was paramount. Since the Spaniards, although not a member of NATO at the time, saw the Soviet Union as their logical enemy, they adopted the NATO standard caliber. The CETME Modelo B was chambered for the 7.62 NATO, known as the 7.62 x 51 and also as the .308 Winchester. There were intermediate cartridges available at one time, and several loads could be used by changing bolt groups and springs, but the 7.62 NATO  cartridge and loading was settled upon. These rifles were fitted with wooden furniture, unusual for the modern black rifle. The rifles were sometimes called Chopos in Spain, for Poplar.

The H and K G 3 as adopted by Germany is basically a CETME, a design returned home. The prominent feature of either rifle is the roller cam operating mechanism. This mechanism has proven quite reliable in action and capable of producing excellent accuracy. My personal example of the CETME is fitted with black synthetic hardware, making the resemblance to the HK 3 even more striking. I have heard through the firearms grapevine of problems with headspace with this rifle. This is possible, as the great majority of CETME rifles in the United States were assembled from parts. That is why no European proof marks appear on most of  the rifles, they were never fired as complete units but were stored as parts. Some of the receivers have been manufactured in the United States, including a quality stainless steel version.

My thoughts were to disassemble the rifle, clean and lubricate it, and discuss the headspace problems. As it turns out, the half dozen CETME rifles I have checked have good headspace. Century International Arms, like all human entities, is not perfect, but does usually give a good product at a reasonable price, as my Century Garand seems to indicate. But so far, headspace is fine on checked CETME rifles.  When first examining the CETME, I lubricated the rifle in the bolt and carrier and then proceeded to the range for a test fire. If the rifle were not reliable or accurate, there was little point in continuing. I used two loads primarily.  The Hornady TAP is designed for use in urban environments, offering excellent expansion potential. The cartridges are clean, reliable, and accurate, giving good service in several rifles.  The CETME digested this ammunition with no problem.  The rifle handles well, with good hit potential. Next, I used the Lapua Scenar, a loading famed for accuracy. The 167 grain Scenar grouped into two inches at 100 yards.  This is good to outstanding accuracy for this time of rifle. While inexpensive ammunition is fine for general recreation and target practice,  Graf and Sons offers good ammunition for hunting and competition. The Lapua loads grouped into a  remarkable 1.5 inch group on one occasion. The rifle would shoot.

Next, I disassembled the rifle. First, the two pins that hold the buttstock in place are pressed out and the stock, operating spring and rod come loose from the receiver. Contrary to most instructions, the pins are not finger tight. I used punches from my new Grace USA tool kit to punch these pins out. The pistol grip and the trigger control group are then loosened and pulled out the rear of the receiver. The safety is pressed straight up and pulled away to release the firing grip.  The bolt group is removed by pulling rearward on the cocking lever.  The bolt then comes to the rear and it can be pulled away. The bolt head is removed from the bolt assembly by turning the head 90 degrees to the ran, and turning the cocking piece so that the lug is removed from the bolt head carrier. This is obvious when the piece is viewed. Remember, when reassembling the slanted part of the bolt head meets the cocking lever. The certain the roller cams are in the same place as when the bolt head was assembled. The locking rollers recess into the bolt head when properly aligned.

Measuring headspace with a roller cam locking rifle can be a different problem than with a standard rifle. However, Century recommends feeler gauges be used. The gap between the bolt head and bolt header carrier should be between the measurements of .005 and .019.  When using a standard gauge, such as supplied by Forster,  we simply close the bolt on a chambered gauge and stop closing the bolt when resistance is felt. If the bolt closes, then the length of the datum line to the breech face is greater than the length of the gauge.  Still, when using my Forster gauges, I felt reasonably confident that I was getting a proper measurement despite the roller cam mechanism. But the argument is there - because headspace isnít a function of locking lugs that remain in place. The position of the roller cams or locking rollers and the inclined position of the locking piece are what will determine proper headspace.  The headspace of the CETME is actually less than the shortest gauge we may use. Still, when I closed the bolt on the "No gauge" the gap widened, indicating the rifle can be measured with standard gauges. I feel most comfortable using the Century recommended feeler gauge combined with Forster gauges. This is all done because of the rumors of CETME excess headspace - that I have not seen materialize nor have my friends at the local shop encountered in firing and selling over two dozen of these rifles.

The trigger action of the rifle is OK for a military rifle, and the design and fitting of the factory product to not incline me to attempt to improve upon the action. Overall, I find the rifle interesting and reliable, a good addition to any collection. The headspace issue is resolved, the rifles seem reliable. 


The SAIGA is imported by European American Armory. This is basically a sporting development of the AK series rifle. It resembles the Israeli Galil, itself an AK derivative. The main differences are internal. The bolt and other key parts are enlarged to make the Saiga safe for the .308 Winchester cartridge. This makes for a handy carbine with much to recommend. The take down is the same as the AK, simply pop the latch at the rear of the receiver cover and the top opens for easy maintenance. The magazine holds ten rounds. The rifle is also available in the popular 7.62 x 39mm caliber, but be aware that AK clips will not fit this rifle.

My example was quite pleasant to fire, despite the larger cartridge.  The semi auto action soaks up some recoil, the shape of the stock is also comfortable.  I lightly lubricated the rifle and proceeded to fire five hundred rounds of Wolf ammunition in less than a week. This 18 inch barrel carbine proved popular on the range.  It is quite easy to quickly get the rifle on your shoulder and lay into a target. For moderate range hunting such as taking wild boar or deer from a stand, this would be an excellent cartridge and rifle combination.  We experienced no stoppages of any type, although towards the last few cartridges the bolt became sluggish, as may be expected with 500 rounds of ammunition fired.

After a thorough cleaning I proceeded to test the rifle for accuracy. We didnít expect much from an 18 inch barrel carbine, and the AK is not famed for accuracy. Still, the Saiga proved acceptable for moderate range use. At fifty yards, we secured a 2.0 inch group with Hornady TAP, a 2.2 inch group with the Lapua loading, and a single 2.0 inch group with my personal handloads using the Barnes X bullet.  I like the coated bullet, it looks blue and also works well.  At one hundred yards, a careful effort with my handloads, using Norma brass, the Barnes bullet and Accurate powder,  produced a four inch group on one occasion but averaged 4.5 inches. Still, this is a carbine intended for use at short range. For brush hunting or personal defense, we have a good choice.

These two .308 rifles gave good results, and both are quite interesting. Either would make a good addition to a hunting or shooting battery.

R.K. Campbell

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Click pictures for a larger version.


The Century CETME gave good results. It is a handsome black tactical rifle.



This is the kind of accuracy we need in a tactical rifle- the low shooters were sighters. Not allowed for real!



The SAIGA is a neat little carbine with many practical applications.



A detachable 10 round box magazine gives the SAIGA a good ammunition reserve.



The .308 shares many characteristics with its .30 caliber brethren, the .30-'06 (left) and the .30-30 (center & right).



High power rifles are murder on light cover!



The Hornady TAP loads gave fine results, and would be the first choice for personal defense.



The Lapua loading, offered by Graf and Sons, has been hard to come by but gets excellent results.