Special Thanks to S&T Motiv and Model Major (Reserve) Hyungchul Moon
During the last (almost) 30 years, ROK (Republic of Korea) Army’s squad automatic weapon (SAW) was a K3 light machine gun. Developed and fielded at around the beginning of the 1990s, the K3 has been the backbone of ROK infantry squads’ firepower (one K3 per squad).
But there is, and always has been, a problem; its reliability.
The K3 was designed during the 1980s and was very heavily influenced by the FN Minimi. The problem is, during the 1980s, the Minimi itself wasn’t mature enough; and the K3 wasn’t a licensed copy of the Minimi. It was very close to the Minimi, but it’s highly doubtful FN actually supplied technical details to Daewoo Precision (today, S&T Motiv). So, the K3 can be considered as an imperfect copy (whatever the legal issues may be) of an immature weapon. It could be a problem,
and the problem isn’t over yet. The Minimi has been gradually upgraded over time. For example, the M249, a U.S. version of the Minimi, underwent a few incremental upgrades like M249E2 or E4. FN’s original version also underwent similar evolution, and now its Mk.3 is on the market. Simply speaking, the first-production version and current version of the Minimi/M249 are not exactly the same gun inside or outside. K3, on the other hand, has surprisingly not changed since its introduction—not even a minor upgrade like adding a MIL-STD-1913 rail on its feed cover.
With all those things mixed together, the K3 became quite a problem almost from the beginning. Many guns in ROK service suffered reliability issues, from minor to major. Some units considered the K3 as total junk, almost similar to the U.S. attitudes toward the .30-06 converted Chauchat. While later production guns were improved in terms of internal parts, dimension/tolerances and use of materials (for example, barrel life improved gradually during its production history), the reliability issues were never solved completely.
During the last few years, the ROK Army and ROK gunmakers, namely S&T Motiv and Dasan Machineries, tried to make a new LMG for next-generation the SAW. When Dasan, who is a new player in the ROK military small arms market, tried to call the attention of the ROK Army with new foreign products like the ARES-16, many people expected Dasan’s victory based upon the K3’s notoriety, but S&T Motiv beat the trial with its new “Next-Generation LMG;” a heavily upgraded K3. Around late 2018, it became the ROK Army’s new SAW with the new name of “K15.” It will be mass-produced and fielded around 2020.
The name K15 means it is the next Korean-made and standardized small arm after K-14, a bolt-action sniper rifle. Many people feel it is more like a K3A1 or such, but the military didn’t bother with that nomenclature. It’s more of a modernized K3, rather than a new model and is more like a relationship between the Minimi original and Minimi Mk.3.
But there are also a few significant different points between the two. The K15’s ergonomics are way better than the K3’s; K3 simply recycled K2’s buttstock and pistol grip, and it was not that comfortable to shoot. The K15 has a completely redesigned, adjustable buttstock and pistol grip/trigger group component to improve its ergonomics.
Internal parts are also completely redesigned. Of course they are still our familiar Minimi-inspired designs, dimensions and specific shapes which were completely re-configured from K3. Many parts were also manufactured with closer tolerances than K3. Overall, S&T Motiv tried to make a much more reliable gun than the K3.
One thing that is interesting is the K15’s barrel latch mechanism. Unlike K3/Minimi, it uses a push button to hold and release its barrel, and the barrel has three upper positioning lugs to ensure its position on the receiver. With a push-button latch and three positioning lugs, the barrel would sit on a correct position virtually every time. Maybe ROK gunners suffered barrel alignment problems with its previous lever-type barrel latch, but I can’t be sure of the exact reason for the change.
Unlike Minimi/K3, the K15’s barrel latch is push-button type, and there are three positioning lugs above chamber.
Moving to the externals again, the feed cover has its own MIL-STD-1913 rail, and the handguard has been completely redesigned. Now the K15 has MIL-STD-1913 rails on both sides and below. Also, the bipod has completely changed. The K3’s bipod was also a point of contention, but on the K15, the bipod is more like a mixture of the FAMAS and Mk.48 versions. While you need to operate each single bipod leg, the bipod gives a sturdier platform than the previous one. The front sight is also collapsible.
Actually, MIL-STD-1913 rails were one reason to develop the K15. The ROK Army is planning to use a new electro-optical (EO) sight and day-night laser sight (similar to the PEQ-15) on their new LMGs. The new EO sight is a day/night sight (thermal), with a laser rangefinder and ballistic computer. Simply speaking, it is a day/night fire control system. And those things need MIL-STD-1913 rails, which the K3 doesn’t have (the K3 could accept optics with a special adaptor, but having rails installed from the beginning is way better than using an adaptor).
One thing is the same: the feeding method. The K15 still uses the typical GI-issued 200-round plastic container and also can accept a STANAG magazine as well. During its design there has been debate over the magazine feed, which the German MG4 doesn’t have, and it can also save money while increasing the receiver strength. But the ROK Army still feels the magazine feed is necessary for emergencies; I think it’s from their experience with the K3, which sometimes had to use a magazine when its original belt-feed mechanism didn’t work (which often happened).
Testing the K15
I couldn’t test the gun within a military trial-like environment, like putting the gun in the sand or mud, and couldn’t fire much—I only fired 200 rounds—but during the test in the S&T Motiv’s company range, our test gun worked perfectly. The test shooter (not the author), who is a Reserve ROK Army Major, intentionally put no support on the K15’s ammo belt while shooting to see its feed mechanism’s reliability. It digested the whole belt with no hesitation.
The only drawback to the K15 compared to the K3 is its weight. While the K3 weighs slightly less than 7kg, K15 is close to Minimi Mk.3’s weight. Even without its bipod, the K15 weighs 7.16kg, already heavier than the K3. And with its “Full Set” configuration (gun itself + FCS) it weighs 8.4kg. But compared with the Minimi Mk.3, which is already close to 8kg without optics, it seems tolerable. I interviewed a few ex-K3 gunners, and all of them said that if the K15 is much more reliable, they would choose the K15, even with its added weight.
Since the K15 is not yet fielded, we have to wait to see how reliable it is in “real life” situations. I hope S&T Motiv’s R&D guys learned enough lessons from K3’s near-30 year life!