French soldiers refer to it as "le Clairon." But this bugle spits
bullets. It is not a pretty weapon - in fact, it's downright ugly.
Esthetics, however, are of small consequence in the design
of efficient weaponry.
France's newest service rifle, the FA MAS (Fusil Automatique,
Manufacture d'Armes de St. Etienne), has already demonstrated
itself to be an effective and generally well-conceived piece
of ordnance. First introduced in 1973 and subsequently modified,
the FA MAS was adopted by the French armed forces and placed
into production in 1979. Manufactured by GIAT (Groupement
Industriel des Armements Terrestres) at their St. Etienne arsenal,
a semiautomatic-only version of this interesting assault rifle
has been imported in limited quantity by Century International
After generations of discordant calibers - such as the 7.5mm
rifle and 7.65mm Long pistol cartridges - the French finally
decided to play in NATO's orchestra and chambered the FA MAS
for what is essentially the U.S. 5.56x45mm M193 cartridge. It
differs only by virtue of its Berdan primed steel case. Compatibility
with NATO has been served and France now has a cartridge
with proven efficiency in causing casualties.
Hands-on use of this weapon has produced compliments -
SOF's Paul Fanshaw, who employed the FA MAS rifle extensively
while serving as a platoon sergeant in the French Foreign
Legion, awards it a clean bill of health in all regards.
Of so-called bullpup configuration, the FA MAS measures
only 30.28 inches in overall length. Complete with flash
suppressor, the barrel is 19.5 inches long. Oddly cut with
only three grooves, the rifling's rate of right-hand twist
remains one turn in every 12 inches. An optional pitch of
one turn in 9 inches is available as a compromise to
accommodate the SS109 projectile. But in spite of its
compactness, the FA MAS weighs 8.0 lbs. empty and minus
the bipod - at the outer limits by today's standards. Steel
parts are phosphate finished and the receiver has been
Firing from the closed-bolt position, the method of operation
is by means of delayed blowback. While this principle smacks
of Heckler & Koch (early prototypes of the FA MAS were
pictured with the G3 bayonet), the delay system has been
taken directly from the French AA 52 General Purpose Machine
A black plastic lower handguard, pinned to the barrel and
receiver, extends back to the magazine well and cannot be
removed. To accommodate the bullpup configuration, the
trigger mechanism and pistol grip have been mounted to the
lower handguard, forward of the magazine well. The
ergonomically-designed pistol grip has three finger grooves
and a storage trap which contains a plastic bottle of lubricant.
The sheet-metal trigger guard can be pulled away from
its rear retaining pin and rotated 180 degrees for firing
with gloves under arctic conditions. The trigger is connected
to a long, thin strip of sheet-metal which rides in a slot
on the right side of the receiver and reaches the hammer
mechanism located at the rear of the receiver. Trigger
pull-weight was a spongy and variable 8 to 9 lbs. on our
test rifle. On the semiauto-only FA MAS, pressing the
trigger draws this spring-loaded bar forward to pull both
the primary and secondary sears away from the hammer's
A spring-loaded, plastic catch in front of the magazine
well must be pressed back to remove a magazine. Magazines
are inserted by pushing them straight into the well. No
rocking motion is required. There is no hold-open device.
But who cares? Thirty million Kalashnikovs have been
manufactured without one, as well as millions of G3s
and Galils. And they all seem to do just fine in combat.
FA MAS magazines hold 25 rounds and, in my opinion,
are superior to those of the M16 series. While not as
heavy as Galil or Beretta Model 70 magazines, the sturdy
steel bodies are straight-line, without any curvature,
with substantial locking tabs punch-welded to the exterior,
front and rear, Two-piece floorplates insure rapid disassembly.
Only the follower is plastic.
Because the firing pin is withdrawn from the bolt face
by the delay lever's rotating cross-piece, there is no
need for a spring. Other components of the bolt group
include a removable bolt head with a spring-loaded,
centrally located "bump"-type ejector, and an extractor
and dummy extractor plug.
Being a bullpup, the FA MAS can be modified to fire from
either shoulder. To change the FA MAS from right- to
left-hand ejection, withdraw the bolt head after removing
its notched retaining pin on top of the bolt body, insert
the extractor into the left side of the bolt head and the
dummy plug into the right side. The extractor will now
spin empty cases out to the left. Nothing else is required
for left-hand ejection, other than to snap the cheekpiece
onto the right side of the buttstock.
This checkpiece was neoprene-covered sheet-metal on
early specimens. It is now a light plastic molding, but still
quite comfortable. Both ejection ports are cut into the
plastic buttstock molding - one or the other being blocked
by the cheekpiece. A spring buffer in the top of the buttstock
compresses about an inch before rebounding. To reduce
costs, it has been eliminated on the semiauto-only version
as its cushioning effect on the reciprocating parts is not
required in semiautomatic fire. There is a stippled, neoprene
buttplate with fixed sling swivels on either side.
The upper handguard certainly contributes more than its
share to this rifle's grotesque appearance. It also acts as
a carrying handle and protects the sights which rise 3 inches
above the bore's axis. A lightweight tubular aluminum bipod
has been bolted to a bracket under the handguard. The
non-adjustable legs, with plastic feet, fold along the sides
of the handguard when not in use. To employ, simply pull
out on the leg and rotate to the extended position. This
useful feature adds only 6 oz. to the overall weight.
Each FA MAS is equipped with a cleverly designed,
ambidextrous web sling. The rear portion attaches,
in the conventional manner, to either of the sling
swivels on the buttstock. The front clips mount on
either of the bipod legs' axis pins, which permit rotation
of about 220 degrees and a wide variety of carrying
A spare parts and cleaning kit is also included and it
consists of an ejector and spring, extractor, dummy
extractor plug, bolt-head retaining pin, plastic cleaning
rod with brass tip, bore and chamber brushes, camel's
hair brush and a really useful prismatic bore scope.
While bayonets have certainly become an anachronism
on today's battlefield, armies continue to issue them.
Little time was wasted on designing a bayonet for the
FA MAS. What is essentially the MAS 49/56 (French army
rifle which preceded the FA MAS) bayonet was adopted.
Blade shape resembles that of the U.S. M4-M7 series
of knife bayonets. Grip panels are black, uncheckered
plastic. There are two muzzle rings. One fits over the
flash suppressor, the other on the barrel collar. The
rear muzzle ring diminishes the bayonet's value as a
fighting or utility knife. The black plastic, locking scabbard
has been riveted to a web frog in the U.S. manner.
Firing the FA MAS, or any bullpup assault rifle for that
matter, can be somewhat unsettling the first time around.
With your face directly over the action, fleeting thoughts
of what might happen if the weapon self-destructs are
bound to occur. They are but fantasies of course, and
nothing we stuffed into the FA MAS brought us anywhere
close to red-lining its engine.
Most of the firing sequences were conducted with
Portuguese M193-type ball ammunition of 1982
manufacture (headstamped 'FNM 82-17'). What a
pleasure it is to fire an assault rifle in this caliber
and not have to contend with bolt-over-base stoppages
such as those induced by an M16 magazine. There
were no malfunctions of any kind.
Accuracy potential was more than acceptable. With
winds gusting at 25 mph, 3 MOA, with horizontal dispersion
only, was the best we could do at 100 yards.
Felt recoil was quite low, but the perceived muzzle blast,
because of the bullpup configuration, was loud. Ejection
patterns, which are either to the right or left in direction,
varied from 10 to 20 feet from the rifle with a high trajectory
for the empty cases. Some cases spun back to scuff the
While they have no heat shields, the handguards are far
enough from the barrel to permit a substantial volume
of air to circulate. Neither handguard overheated at any
time during the test. Balance and handling charactefistics
are excellent and the rifle can be shifted quickly to engage
The more I shoot it, the more this grotesque hunchback
grows on me. Its unsightly geometry becomes quickly
muted by its superb performance. Regardless of the U.S.
military's antipathy toward them, bullpup designs will
continue to proliferate as the quest for ever more compact
individual weapons marches forward. Fit for anyone's
front line, the FA MAS should give both the Austrian Steyr
AUG and the British Enfield SA 80 a stiff run for the money.
Military organizations and law enforcement agencies
can obtain versions with scopes integrated into the
carrying handles, training rifles firing 4.5mm pellets by
means of C0&sub2; and short-barreled models with
16.5-inch barrels. A new carrying handle that will
accept any NATO STANAG scope is also under development.