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
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
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
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
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.