Fusil Automatique Legere

by Peter G. Kokalis

Like the Colt single-action Army revolver, the Luger and M1911A1 auto pistols, and the Thompson and MP40 submachine guns, the FN FAL is both an esthetic and functional classic. But, an assault rifle, in the strictest sense, it is not. It could have been.

By the middle of WWII, the Germans became convinced that the individual soldier rarely engaged targets beyond 400 meters and that the ability of his weapon to deliver short bursts of full-automatic fire was a desirable characteristic. To these specific ends they designed a cartridge of reduced ballistic values, the 7.92mm Kurz (short) and the world's first true assault rifle (Sturmgewehr), the MP 43/44 (StG 44/45). Picking up on this concept after 1945, the rest of the world raced headlong down the path of intermediate cartridges and lightweight, selective-fire assault rifles. The most notable early example is, without doubt, the 7.62x39mm ComBloc cartridge chambered in the AK-47.

By 1950, the British, following this trend, had developed the .280/30 cartridge and chambered it in the British EM2 "bullpup" rifle and the Belgian FN rifle before that year's light-rifle trials staged in the United States. Forever the world's power freaks, the United States had taken the position that "there have been no changes in combat tactics which would justify a reduction of rifle caliber and power." Thus, the U.S. entry was the "full-power" T65 cartridge, which merely shortened the .30-06 case, a modification made possible by propellant improvements.

In 1953, American power politics prevailed and the modified T65 cartridge was finally adopted as standard by NATO and designated 7.62x51mm. This was done without any consideration being given to the desirability of selective-fire capability in a light rifle - a specification which absolutely necessitates the use of an intermediate-power cartridge.

Thus, by 1953, the British had adopted an American cartridge they didn't want and a Belgian rifle to shoot it that was their second choice. Amid this background of intrigue and controversy, the era of the FAL began.

Using D.J. Saive's breech mechanism, which closely resembles that of the Soviet Tokarev semiautomatic rifle, the original FN FAL (Fusil Automatique Legere: Rifle, Automatic, Light) prototype was chambered in the German 7.92mm Kurz. After its redesign to 7.62mm NATO, by Saive and Ernest Vervier, the FAL soon became one of the greatest success stories in the history of modern military small arms. It has at one time or another been adopted and used by more than 90 nations, including numerous Latin American countries, the British Commonwealth and Israel. It has been manufactured by Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Great Britain, India, Israel and South Africa.

The FAL is gas-operated and fires from the closed-bolt position in both the semi- and full-auto modes. It has an operator-adjustable gas regulator which works on the "exhaust" principle. Under ideal conditions the major portion of the gas is passed through the regulator and out into the air. This system helps to reduce recoil.

If the correct procedure is followed, adjustment of the gas regulator is simple. Start with the gas-regulator sleeve fully screwed up over the gas port. Then unscrew the sleeve - with either the adjusting tool or the head of a cartridge - one complete turn so that the gas port is completely exposed. If you are lucky enough to own an older FAL, the number "7" on the sleeve will be in line with the axis of the rifle. (Unfortunately, these numbers have been eliminated from the new LARS, apparently as a cost-saving device.) This is the fully-open position of the gas regulator and when a round is fired short recoil will result (the hold-open will fail to engage).

With an empty magazine fitted to the rifle, screw the gas-regulator sleeve forward one click at a time, and fire one round only after each adjustment by inserting the cartridge into the chamber through the ejection port. When the hold-open finally engages, verify by firing several more rounds single-shot. As a safety margin, screw the gas regulator forward by two additional clicks and the exhaust regulation is set.

While it sounds confusing, in practice it is not. The gas regulator offers firing with the lowest possible recoil combined with the ability to direct more gas into the system under adverse conditions or in case of fouling.

The FAL's operating sequence can be briefly described as follows. After the projectile passes the gas port in the top of the barrel, some of the gas is diverted into the gas cylinder where it expands and drives the short-stroke piston back, which in turn strikes the face of the bolt carrier. This carrier moves independently to the rear about a 1/4 inch, during which time the chamber pressure has dropped to a safe level.

After this free movement, the carrier's unlocking cam moves under the bolt lug and raises the rear portion of the bolt out of the locking recess in the bottom of the receiver. The bolt and its carrier now travel back, compressing the recoil spring. The extractor withdraws the fired case, holding it on the bolt face until it hits the fixed ejector and is propelled out of the rifle through the ejection port.

The recoil spring drives the carrier and bolt forward, stripping the top cartridge out of the magazine and driving it into the chamber. The bolt stops and the carrier continues forward a short distance until its locking cam rides over the bolt, forcing and holding the bolt down into the recess at the bottom of the receiver.

A total of six different FALs were used in SOF's test and evaluation of this legendary weapon. Three of the rifles were semiautomatic variants of the so-called LAR (Light Automatic Rifle - the nomenclature used overseas by FN for the FAL since the early '70s and by Steyr since it began to distribute the rifle in this country in 1977),, which is available through the Steyr-Daimier-Puch of America Corporation (Dept. SOF, 85 Metro Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094). They were a folding-stock, long-barreled (21 inches) paratroop model (No. FN 50-61); a standard, or "match," version with a rigid stock (No. FN 50-00); and the LAR heavy-barrel model with bipod (No. FN 50-41). Three older FALs were used for comparison: a semiautomatic "G" series (so called because of the "G" prefixing their serial numbers), one of 1,836 rifles imported from 1959 until January 1963, when they were reclassified by the BATF as exempt machine guns; a full-auto, folding-stock, short-barreled (18 inches) Belgian army paratroop model (No. FN 50-63) from the Congo; and a very early (serial No. 409) full-auto FAL without a flash suppressor.

Before we scrutinize each rifle individually, let us examine the ways in which the new LARs differ from the older FALS. We can start with a piece of ghoulish trivia. The FAL receivers are all marked "F.A.L. cal. 7.62," while the LARs are stamped ".308 MATCH." It seems that it is now illegal for any citizen of Belgium to own a rifle chambered for any military caliber, such as 7.62mm NATO. However, ".308" (Winchester) is, of course, a sporting cartridge and thus legal! The cancer of bureaucratic mentality is a worldwide infection.

The original FAL receivers were forged and milled with a projected lifespan of 80,000 rounds. Blake Stevens (personal communication) has observed one of these receivers which cracked in the locking-lug area after 60,000 rounds. Stevens has also seen a Canadian army FAL receiver (manufactured by flame cutting on a pantograph machine) which cracked after 40,000 rounds.

In an effort to lower production costs on a rifle which has never been cheap, the LAR receivers are investment-cast and mill-finished, with a hoped-for life of 40,000 rounds. The new investment-cast receivers are missing several of the lightening cuts that were milled into the older forged receivers - again, an attempt to lower production costs.

The trigger mechanism of the FAL is ingenious and well-designed and has been much copied. It incorporates both the usual sear which is attached to the trigger by a pin and an "automatic safety sear" which is in front of the hammer and must be depressed for the hammer to rotate.

The semiautomatic "G" series FALs imported in the early '60s contained a number of modifications, including elimination of this automatic safety sear, to render them incapable of full-auto fire. The BATF decided this was insufficient and demanded that the cut milled in the receiver to accept the safety sear be eliminated on all FALs imported to the United States. The 1,836 rifles imported prior to this judgment were declared exempt from this requirement.

In 1973 when FN went to an investment-cast receiver, the company forgot to omit the safety-sear recess in the receivers manufactured for U.S. delivery. As a result, Steyr sold more than 2,000 rifles (including SOF's test weapons) which were no different from the original "G" series FALs that BATF had reclassified as machine guns. BATF has agreed to exempt the LARs also, provided they have not been modified. All future LARs imported into the United States must conform to BATF requirements, i.e., the receiver recess for the automatic-safety sear will have to be omitted. The entire scenario is more than a little bizarre, as the full-auto mode is not especially useful in a light rifle chambered for the 7.62mm NATO cartridge.

The take-down lock lever has been moved from its former position, directly to the rear of the upper receiver where its motion was often impeded by the rear sling swivel on the paratroop models, to a more convenient location under the upper receiver on the LAR.

The absence of markings on the gas-regulator sleeve has already been noted. Sad to say, the front-sight markings have also been removed from the LAR, leaving no frame of reference other than several small dots. In addition, the "A" (Automatic) and "Gr" (Grenade) markings have been eliminated from the gas plug. However, the "A" side of the gas plug is still notched for identification. These economy measures are of small consequence, but irritating.

The trigger pulls on all three of the LARs were heavier, exhibited excessive drag, and were nowhere near as crisp in let-off as those of the earlier FALs. Unfortunately, there is little even the most competent of gunsmiths can do to permanently correct this in a FAL. An obsession for match-quality triggers in military service rifles is peculiarly American, however.

The fixed rear sight of the early paratroop FAL has been replaced by a two-position (150 and 250 meters) flip sight. The sight's protective ears have been enlarged as well.

The LAR's synthetic butt stock is a considerable improvement over the old wooden stocks. More impact-resistant than wood, it is capped by a substantial rubber pad which significantly reduces felt recoil.

All of the FAL/LARs had a baked-enamel exterior finish: the early FALs glossy black, the Congo FAL an odd two-tone gray and black, and the LARs matte black.

The tubular aluminum folding stock on the LAR "PARA" model has a newly added complexity. To open or close, the spring-loaded stock must be pressed downward as before, but now an additional spring-loaded catch must be simultaneously moved to the left - a difficult and confusing procedure, especially in combat. The folding stocks on the Galil and AK-74S are much easier to open or close quickly under stress.

The front lug of the FN FAL magazine locks up into the receiver when the magazine is properly inserted front end first. This front lug has been merely punched out of the sheet metal of the magazine body. A weak feature which has caused many a malfunction, this front lug should be inspected periodically. The Canadians solved this problem by installing a separate beefed-up front lug. Unhappily, while all other FAL magazines can be used in the Canadian FALS, their improved magazine can be used in no other. A 30-round British Bren Conversion (L4A2) magazine was employed during the tests. It worked well but is quite heavy.

The very early full-auto test FAL was notable by the absence of a flash suppressor. It was intended for use with IMR-type powders, which in general do not produce as much flash as the more common ball propellants. This rifle's unusual bayonet has two prongs attached to the hilt, which, together with the blade itself, serve as a flash suppressor.

Both the full-auto Congo paratroop FAL and the "PARA" LAR had combination flash-hider/grenade launchers. They were equipped with a tubular-handle, convex-bladed bayonet that is useless for anything except sticking people. Since this is not a bayonet's primary function in the field, it will promptly be discarded by the average grunt. The flash suppressor on the "G" series FAL and the "match" FAL was long and slender and not designed for grenade launching. It only further adds to the FAL's already almost-excessive length - a problem in heavy brush and house-clearing.

The LAR Heavy Barrel has its own flash suppressor which also aids in reducing muzzle climb, at the expense of increased side blast. As imported into the United States, in semiautomatic only, the LAR HB serves no discernible purpose. Complete with its bipod and chrome-lined heavy barrel, it weighs in at over 13 pounds. Far too heavy to fire effectively off-hand, its weight and bulk would be justified only if it were capable of firing in the full-auto mode.

The FAL/LAR is a comfortable rifle to shoot and it handles well. The adjustable gas system, placement of the gas cylinder above the barrel, and alignment of the stock with the barrel axis all reduce the tendency of the weapon to climb in rapid semiauto fire. Little difference in felt recoil was noted between the 18 and 21-inch barrels of the two folding stock paratroop models. Well-built, rugged, handsomely finished for a military rifle, and adequately reliable except under the most severe sand and dust conditions, the FAL/LAR's reputation is largely well deserved.

Although the rear sight tends to wobble and must often be shimmed (a piece of paper match will do nicely), and many will find the rear peep too close to the eye (four inches closer than the rear sight of the M1A/M14), the FAL is capable of splendid accuracy. I managed one three-shot group fired from the rigid-stocked LAR off the light bipod of 1/2-minute of angle (MOA) at 100 meters.

Two scopes were tested. The first was a 4x Hensoldt as used on the early West German army (Bundeswehr) FAL (G1). The G1 rifle, as used by the Austrians (StG 58) and Dutch, featured a stamped, sheet-metal handguard, a bipod and a removable flash-hider/grenade launcher. The other scope tested was the 4x unit currently marketed by Steyr for the LARs. Marked "FN," it is also probably manufactured by Hensoldt. Both scopes are mounted on the sheet-metal FAL receiver cover and both failed to hold zero miserably. Bench-rest groups fired with these scopes exhibited as much as 12 inches in vertical dispersion at 100 meters. This is unacceptable. The fault lies not in the optics, but in the use of the sheet-metal receiver cover as a mount. The thin FAL receiver cover simply bends and twists too much during the firing sequence. To date, only Jim Leatherwood has presented a satisfactory alternative - a rigid mount that completely replaces the original receiver cover (see "Leatherwood Scopes," SOF, May '82).

Firing an FAL in the full-auto mode - on those versions possessing this feature - is best restricted to only the most experienced operators in two to three-round bursts at extremely short distances. At ranges of 200 meters or more, employing an unsupported kneeling or sitting position, it can be anticipated that the second and third rounds in the burst will hit at least 10 meters above and to the right of the first shot. Full-auto fire offhand with an 8- to 10-pound rifle in caliber 7.62mm NATO is strictly an emergency procedure. In fact, many, if not most, of the nations which adopted the FAL have removed the selective-fire option entirely.

Alas, the twilight of the FAL is upon us. Amid the grumbling, breast-beating and teeth-gnashing of those who feel the infantry is inadequately armed with anything less than a 1,000-yard .30-caliber cartridge, most former FAL users are moving to the new generation of true assault rifles in 5.56mm NATO. The Israelis and South Africans (both with a continuity of battle experience) have gone to the Galil, the Austrians to the Steyr AUG, the Belgians themselves to their new FNC carbine, the Canadians to either the FNC, or, even more likely, the M16A2, and the British to their dusted-off "bullpup," while the Australians and West Germans are still scrambling. Although its death will be many years in coming, anyone who wants an FAL should buy a LAR now. The FN FAL, one of the 20th-century's grandest dogs of war, will be remembered fondly and mourned mightily by all those who used it in the flame and sweat of battle.

Originally published in the June 1982 edition of Soldier of Fortune magazine