FNC; Belgium's Compact Carbine

by Peter G. Kokalis

MATURITY of a system - as I've said before - usually determines its reliability. And if there's a senior system for cranking out the tools of war, it's in Liege.

Liege, an old French-speaking city in eastern Belgium, has been selling weapons to foreign belligerents since the Middle Ages. In 1889 a group of Liege armsmakers formed a syndicate called Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (National Manufactory of Weapons of War). They immediately entered into a contract to supply the Belgian government with 150,000 Model 1889 Mauser rifles. They've been busy plying their trade ever since. True to their calling, these unbiased merchants have often supplied weapons and/or designs to opposing sides. A most recent example was the Falklands fracas: Brits and Argies merrily blew each other away with FN's Browning Hi-Power pistols, FN FAL rifles and MAG 58 GPMGs.

In 1963 FN began development of a 5.56x45mm rifle in anticipation of that caliber's adoption by most NATO countries. The rifle was introduced in 1966 as the FN CAL (Carabine Automatique Legere, or Light Automatic Carbine).

It was gas operated in the manner of the FAL. A unique double-interrupted thread on the bolt head locked behind a similar thread on the barrel extension when the bolt was rotated. The recoil spring was wrapped around the short-stroke piston to permit any type of butt configuration. The trigger mechanism, patterned after that of the M1 Garand, provided both full-automatic fire and a three-shot burst control. Upper and lower receivers, as well as the forearm, were sheet-metal pressings and there was a hold-open device. The bolt, carrier and piston were machined from steel bar-stock. Screw-threaded to the upper receiver, the barrel was held in place by a lock nut dropped down from the muzzle and threaded onto a cone on the front of the receiver.

All in all, the FN CAL was a very smart-looking piece. It reeked quality. It had the FN FAL mystique. And it was a dismal failure. During trials conducted in France between 1971 and 1974, the CAL's deficiencies erupted. Expensive to manufacture, difficult to disassemble and properly maintain, the CAL's life expectancy in simulated combat proved all too short. The project was abandoned, and a small quantity of semiautomatic-only samples were sold in the United States.

Within two years, FN designers patched together another effort, called the FNC (Fabrique Nationale Carabine), just in time to enter the Swedish arms tests in 1976. This time around, FN stressed simplicity and reliability. And what better to emulate for these attributes than the works of Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov? The result is much easier to disassemble and maintain, usually reliable and far less expensive to fabricate. Some have suggested that FN's goal was to design a rifle that could be easily produced by Third World countries under the usual license-to-manufacture agreement. Nonsense. FNC's cost effectiveness has been achieved through extensive use of investment castings, CNC (computer numerical control) machinery, robot welding and hammer-forged barrels. Making an FNC takes 421 machine and 98 manual operations. None of this equipment - or the technology required to employ it - is available to any Third World country on this planet. Furthermore, FN and Colt have been burnt badly in recent years by license-to-manufacture agreements with producers in the Far East who have badly abused their relationship.

Most of its components are finished with semigloss black baked enamel. This excellent rust-resistant surface works well in tropical climates and it also masks minor blemishes.

The gas-operated FNC fires from a closed bolt. Mounted above the barrel, the gas cylinder has six ports 1.5 inches behind the barrel's gas vent. At the end of that short stroke, all gases escape the cylinder when the piston head passes those exhaust ports. A handle welded to the rear of the gas cylinder rotates the cylinder, opening and closing a small port in the gas block. When the adjustment handle is rotated to the left, this gas block port is exposed and a small amount of the propellant gases escape before the piston begins its rearward travel. This is the "normal" operating position. Under adverse conditions, the gas cylinder can be rotated to the right which covers the gas block port and re-directs this extra volume of gas onto the piston face: a nice feature but seldom required in this caliber.

Provision for launching grenades with ballistite (blank) ammunition is provided in the form of a sheet-metal, flip-up, combination grenade sight/gas valve called the alidade. The alidade is mounted to the gas block/front sight assembly. When pivoted up to the vertical position the alidade axis turns to close the gas vent. Then all gases propel the grenade. (Of course, when all propellant gases bypass the gas system, the weapon does not cycle and the bolt must be retracted manually.) Once this sheet-metal switch is pulled upright, it acts as a crude V-notch sight which must be aligned with the nose of the rifle grenade and the target.

The piston head is welded to a hollow extension which contains the front portion of the recoil spring and guide rod assembly. The piston extension is pinched in the center and pierced by a hole which retains a roll-pin on the end of the guide rod. The piston head and extension, as well as the gas port block, barrel bore and chamber, are hard-chrome plated by an automated process developed by FN. A sheet-metal backplate is attached to the rear of the guide rod. Three robot welds have been used to mount the bolt carrier to the piston extension.

Another roll-pin holds the firing pin in place on the bolt carrier and a 3-inch firing-pin spring fits tightly over the pin itself. Patterned after the Kalashnikov system, the rotary bolt has two locking lugs which run in guide rails welded onto the upper receiver walls and the feed lug on the bottom of the bolt head drives the magazine's top round into the chamber. Rotary movement is begun and primary extraction is provided by a small lug on top of the bolt head.

A double roll-pin retains the extractor to the bolt head. I don't like this feature. Extractors take a lot of stress in selective-fire weapons. They break - usually when no armorer is present. The operator should be able to replace this component himself, without special tools. FN has now corrected this problem by changing the extractor attachment to a single roll-pin. This allows freer extractor movement and easier repair.

A stud on the bolt body moves in the carrier's cam track and rotates the bolt into the locked and unlocked positions. The retracting handle fits in a hole on the right side of the bolt carrier. It has a thin stem, and it appears to me that several kicks with the heel of a combat boot would bend it. Canted slightly upward, it can be retracted with the left hand, but not quite as conveniently as that of the Galil.

A fixed ejector is riveted to the upper receiver above the rear of the magazine well and it puts one hell of a dent in the empty case (of no consequence to military users). Marked with the weapon's serial number, the upper receiver body is of robot welded, sheet-metal construction. An ejection port and retracting handle slot are cut into the right side and a peculiar six-component dust cover is mounted over the rear portion of the cocking handle's slot. Spring-loaded, it remains closed at all times. In my opinion, its primary function is to mesmerize observers, as it continuously oscillates open and closed in a strange elliptical pattern during burst-fire sequences. Ejecting cases frequently spring back to scuff the dust cover and receive a second dent.

The upper receiver is also welded to the barrel extension block. In turn the barrel is threaded to the extension and held in place by a heavy lock nut. Two barrel lengths are available: 19.1 and 15.8 inches (including the flash suppressor). Hammer forged, with six grooves, right-hand twists of either 1:12 or 1:7 can be ordered. Twelve ports arranged in four rows of three surround the barrel's muzzle device. Tapped at an angle to the bore's axis, these ports throw gas forward to propel rifle grenades and also to slightly moderate muzzle climb. The FNC's effective flash eliminator (taken directly from the FN FAL series) accepts the current hollow-handle FAL bayonet. A blank-firing adapter is available as well as an optional lug attachment to take the U.S. M7 bayonet. Rotating a full 360 degrees, the front sling swivel is attached to the barrel by two snap rings.

Annular ribs around the barrel in back of the sling swivel are used to attach a lightweight cast-aluminum bipod. Nonadjustable, the bipod offers a command height of 11 inches. It's sturdy and quite superior to the flimsy bipod supplied with the M16-series rifles. However, it costs $78.43 and cannot be folded against the handguards.

Ergonomically pleasing handguards effectively dissipate heat radiating from the barrel during burst-fire sequences. A sheet-metal ventilated heat shield is riveted to each plastic handguard with six brass nails. A large rib, molded into the front end of the plastic handguard, prevents the support hand from sliding onto the heat shield. That's neat. But removing these handguards is only slightly less irritating than disassembling those on the M16A1. Since they are retained in the rear by a sheet-metal barrel collar, you are supposed to force the handguards' front retaining clip out of its notches with your thumb. You'd do better to keep a knife blade or screwdriver handy for this purpose.

Protective ears for the front sight have been machined into the gas block assembly. They contain a conventional round front sight post which can be adjusted for elevation zero with the same tool used for this purpose on the M249 SAW (FN Minimi). The rear sight assembly has been welded to the end of the upper receiver body. Inside its protective ears is a flip-type sight with two apertures marked 400 and 250 meters, respectively. It can be adjusted for windage zero, but only by means of a special tool or pair of pliers. I don't like that. I suppose people who think soldiers are too stupid to zero their own rifles will.

A notch on top of the barrel extension block and a fork in front of the rear sight accommodate a scope mount of rather unusual design. The mount, which costs $101.96, will accept optics configured to NATO specifications, such as the FN 4x28mm scope (suggested retail price is $638.92, actually manufactured by the now-defunct Hensoldt company). This superb piece of glass carries a reticle used by the German military ever since World War I. Although never popular in the United States, the single, thick, pointed post at the bottom of the field of view with horizontal side bars and stadia lines excels in subdued light and permits faster target acquisition than standard crosshairs. A special Steyr-manufactured NATO-type rail can be substituted with SSG rings so that almost any scope you desire can be mounted.

The lower receiver body is milled from aluminum alloy stock by computer numerical control (CNC) machinery. Slab-sided and ugly, there are machine marks all over its exterior surface that no thickness of paint can hide.

Its magazine well is neither flared nor beveled. That's bad. FN engineers have obviously never inserted a magazine under stress. Located on the right side, the magazine catch release button is under heavy spring pressure, but can be manipulated with the trigger finger. The catch system is similar to the M16's.

Constructed entirely of steel, the FNC 30-rd. magazine is sturdy and reliable - far more reliable than the M16 magazine. Since the FNC does not feature a hold-open device, these magazines - although they can be used in the M16 series - will not hold back the M16's bolt after the last round has been fired. When the bolt flies forward into battery after the final round has been fired, the feed lug on its underside strikes the magazine follower, gouging its soft sheet-metal surface. Also disconcerting is the magazine's floorplate which can be pivoted inward about an inch, along with any amount of sand and/or debris you might want to pour into the magazine. Both 20- and 30-rd. M16 magazines can be used in the FNC. Thirty- and 45-rd. Thermold plastic magazines, as adopted by the Canadian Armed Forces, will also function in the FNC, although they will not fall freely away when released. Those of us accustomed to buying cheap, used M16 magazines at local gun shows will wince at the $37.65 charge for spare FNC magazines, but you can never own too many magazines.

The trigger mechanism remains the same as the old CAL. There are two spring-loaded sears - the rear sear is secondary. An auto safety sear in front holds the hammer at all times until locking has been completed. Pulling the trigger releases the hammer to fire a round. In semiautomatic fire the recoiling boh carrier is held back by the secondary sear. When the trigger is released, both sears move with it and the hammer is once more caught by the auto safty sear. Placing the selector lever on automatic locks the secondary sear so that it becomes inoperative. Each time the bolt carrier goes into battery the auto safety sear releases the hammer. The cycle continues until the trigger is released and the hammer is once more captured by the primary sear. Cyclic rate in fuh-automatic fire is 625-700 rpm.

A removable three-shot burst mechanism is fitted inside the lower receiver. A three-tooth ratchet on this mechanism contacts a spring-loaded pawl on the hammer axis. When the selector lever is set to '3,' the secondary sear is retained by the rear of the ratchet device. The ratchet rotates with each round in the burst and after the third it slips off the secondary sear which moves forward to hold back the hammer. Unlike the mechanism on the M16A2, any interruption in the burst cycle will still result in another three-shot burst because the mechanism resets itseff each time the trigger is released. Each three-shot burst lasts only two-tenths of a second, enhancing hit probability significantly.

Semiautomatic-only versions of the FNC are distributed as "police models" throughout the world. Those imported to the U.S. are marked, "CAL. 223 REM. SPORTER," since the 1968 Gun Control Act prohibits the importation of military small arms (the recently passed Dole amendment applies only to firearms manufactured before 1946). In addition to the deletion of the full-auto and three-shot burst modes and their respective selector markings, FNCs brought into the U.S. have other modifications to the trigger mechanism (including the absence of the auto safety sear) to inhibit their conversion to selective fire. In all other regards they are unaltered; for instance, these "sporters" can launch grenades.

"Black" guns are not noted for crisp, light triggers. Yet, most production series M16s or AR15s will break cleanly at 6-7.5 lbs. That's more than acceptable in a military rifle. The 10.5-pound-plus trigger pull weights commonly encountered on FNC rifles are not - by any reasonable standard. I don't think I'm particularly trigger sensitive, but it's mighty difficult to concentrate on the sight picture and breathing while pulling back on an immovable object.

The selector lever is located on the left side just above the pistol grip. That's exactly where it is on the FAL series and, like the FAL, only Plastic Man will be able to manipulate it with the thumb of the firing hand. Moving down from 'S' (safe) to 'I' (semiautomatic) is not too difficult. But as for continuing onward to '3' (three-shot burst, of course) and 'A' (automatic), or going back up to 'S' - forget it. You must use the support hand for this.

The plastic pistol grip is right off the FAL series, so it accepts the FAL cleaning kit which consists of an oil bottle and brass cleaning tips with nylon pull-through. You get all this for a modest $26.35. Nice for appearance' sake, but far more useful - and expensive - is the FNC combo tool at $43.56. This clever Walloon device can be used to scrape the interior of the gas block, gas vent, piston head and groove. It's much faster than a Swiss Army knife, but you can't peel mangoes with it in the Salvadoran bush.

Either of the two FAL-series buttstocks are available for the FNC. The excellent rigid stock provides a superior firing platform, but somewhat more popular is the folding stock featured on the so-called "para" models. Collapsing to the right, the FN para buttstock is the most stable folding buttstock ever designed. The trade-off is that a spring-loaded latch on the support block must be moved to the left while the stock is simultaneously pushed down out of the support block and then folded up against the receiver. The same process must be repeated to re-extend the stock and some may find this confusing. Two light alloy tubes are fitted to a heavier alloy buttplate. The upper tube is plastic coated for comfort in both arctic and tropical environments. It's all a bit too short for me.

Eyelets for sling attachment to the para models are provided on top of the buttplate (an excellent location) and on the left side of the support block, presumably for use of a sling with the stock folded. At the end of the web sling is a spring-loaded snap hook for rapid attachment to one position or the other. On the standard rigid buttstock the sling swivel is located in the conventional, but less useful, bottom position.

So, what does all this add up to? With the 19.1-inch barrel, all 121 components of the para model weigh 8.4 lbs., without the magazine. Heavy, by today's standards. Overall length of this version is 38.9 inches with the stock extended and 29.9 inches folded.

The FNC is a sturdy and reliable performer. I have fired thousands of rounds through two selective-fire specimens and two semiautomatic-only "sporters" without a single stoppage whenever FN magazines were used. Although hefty, its handling characteristics are excellent. Felt recoil is very low. Its handguards are the best of any assault rifle and significantly contribute to the operator's ability to acquire targets quickly. The ejection pattern is quite erratic and varies from three feet to the right at 90 degrees to 50 feet at 30 degrees to the right of the muzzle.

FN barrels exhibit outstanding accuracy potential. I recently had three FN M249 SAW barrels air-gauged and they were very close to match grade. This attribute is unfortunately muted in the FNC by the extremely heavy trigger pull. Because of this, I have never fired a group smaller than six MOA with any of these rifles. Nevertheless, the hit potential remains above average when the three-shot burst device is employed in snap-shooting exercises.

Ease of maintenance has been improved by a considerable margin over the earlier FN CAL. To disassemble the FNC, first remove the magazine and clear the weapon. Push the rear retaining pin from the left to the right as far as it will go. Pivot the upper receiver away from the lower group. Push out the front retaining pin and separate the upper and lower receivers. Both of these pins are captive and are held in the lower receiver body by a snap spring. Pull the retracting handle to the rear, lift up the dust cover and pull out the handle: The bolt group can then be withdrawn out the rear of the upper receiver. Press in on the recoil spring's backplate and rotate it 90 degrees to the right or left. Pull the spring and guide rod out of the piston extension's hollow. Rotate the bolt body until its cam clears the carrier's track and remove it. Current firing-pin springs have a crimped end to prevent their inadvertent loss. Remove the handguards in the manner previously described. Rotate the gas cylinder to the left until the thumb piece is past the normal setting and perpendicular with the upper receiver's baffel block. Push the gas cylinder to the rear and lift away from the gas block. I suggest no further disassembly be attempted.

The barrel extension is difficult to reach and clean, but no more so than the M16. After cleaning, lubricate the receiver guide rails, bolt locking lugs, barrel extension locking recesses and recoil spring with either LSA, white lithium gtease or PARR All Weather Weapons Lube (A.R.M.S., Dept. SOF, 230 W. Center Street, W. BTidgewater, MA 02379). G-96 in an aerosol spray will do for the rest. Do not lubricate the piston, interior of the gas cylinder or gas block. Re-assemble in the reverse order. Make sure the grenade launching sight is vertical when you re-install the handguards.

Semiautomatic-only versions of the FNC are distributed in the U.S. by Gun South, Inc. (Dept. SOF, P.O. Box 129, Trussville, AL 35173). The charging U.S. dollar and sagging U.S. sales have dropped the suggested retail price of these rifles by $335 over the past three years. The standard model with rigid buttstock now sells for $729 and the para for $760. This price puts them in line with the Colt AR15A2, but the gun itself is not as good as the Colt.

Only Indonesia and Sweden have adopted the FNC. Members of the Assault-Rifle-of-the-Month Club (like myself) will have to put an FNC in their racks. But it's not my choice for humping the bush. Too heavy and not quite up to the usual FN standards of user-oriented excellence.

first published in the December 1985 edition of Soldier of Fortune Magazine