Belgium's MAGnificent MG

by Peter G. Kokalis

Say what you will about artillery, tanks or helicopters, the machine gun remains the ruler of the infantry battlefield. It took a first formal curtain call during World War I and has never missed a combat performance since. The result has been a great deal of military concern regarding the proper form of the machine gun.

When World War II ended the winners opted for a concept conceived by the losers. By the early 1930s the German Army had formulated requirements for an Einheitsmaschinengewehr (universal machine gun). This single gun - fitted with a variety of mounts and accessories - was to serve as a squad automatic weapon, a wheeled vehicle and tank machine gun, antiaircraft gun and medium support weapon. The German Army even proposed its use as an aircraft gun to the Luftwaffe. Production, maintenance and training could be simplified with a standard MG. The result of this attempt to cover all bases with a single runner was the impressive, sinister-looking, less-than-perfect MG34 (maschinengewehr, 1934).

A machinist's nightmare, the MG34 has more than 100 finely-fitted components. Even the heavy mount for the MG34 had some 200 parts. Overly sensitive to ammunition and environment - as battlefield performance demonstrated - it was followed by the far superior MG42. This roller-locked, recoil-operated Grossfuss design had a cyclic rate of 1,200 rpm. For this reason, it was soon dubbed "Hitler's zipper" by Allied troops who became all-too-familiar with its rapid roar. The gun intri-gued Allied small arms technologists who wanted to convert it for use by their troops. An attempt by U. S - ordnance personnel to convert the MG42 to caliber .30-06 failed due to dimensional effors but a number of the MG42's features - and the multi-purpose philosophy - were incorporated into the two most prominent post-war "general purpose machine guns" (GPMGs).

One of those is the U.S. M60 which is a very bad machine gun. The other significant example is the Fabrique Nationale Mitrailleuses D'Appui General (machine gun of general purpose), otherwise known as the Mitrailleuse a Gaz (gas-operated machine gun). This Belgian entry is even more distinguished than its name. Commonly called the FN MAG 58, this epitome of the GPMG genre was the crowning achievement of FN's premier designer M. Ernest Vervier.

The MAG is belt-fed, gas-operated and fires from the open bolt position. It is air-cooled and its 21.4-inch barrel is designed for quick-change by the gun crew. In the ground version, i. weighs 231/2 pounds with an overall length of 49.2 inches. Its adjustable gas regulator permits the cyclic rate to be varied from 650 to 1,100 rpm.

Some of the MAG's features are fascinating but it helps understanding to summarize the gun's method of operation and firing cycle. With the bolt retracted, the first round of a belt in the cartridge way, and the top cover closed, pressure on the trigger will drop the sear and release the bolt. The bolt's feed horns come in contract with the base of the cartridge and move it towards the chamber. The locking lever contacts the ends of the front guides inside the receiver and begins to move downward. The bolt chambers the round while the extactor slips over the rim. At this point, the piston extension continues its forward movement and accelerates the downward swing of the locking lever until the face of the lever is in position in front of the locking shoulder. The system is now in battery. The piston extension keeps charging onward a short distance causing the firing pin to protrude through the bolt face to strike the primer. The piston extension stops all forward travel when its shoulder strikes the face of the gas cylinder.

After the shot has been fired and the projectile passes the barrel's gas vent, some of the propellant, gasses pass through the vent into the gas regulator and cylinder to drive the piston and piston extension rearward. As the firing pin is withdrawn, the link connecting the piston extension and locking lever pivots upward. As the link lifts the locking lever away from the locking shoulder, the bolt's front cams exert a backward leverage on the locking lever. The bolt's rearward travel is thus retarded and primary extraction is initiated. This system, taken from the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), insures particularly smooth and effortless functioning. Free of the locking shoulder, the locking lever pulls the bolt rearward completing extraction of the fired case. The empty case is tipped downward and out through the bottom ejection slot by the bolt's spring-loaded bump ejector. As the recoiling components continue their rearward travel, the recoil spring is compressed. Rearward travel ceases when the end of the piston extension strikes the buffer. If the trigger has been released the piston extension will be caught by the sear and the bolt will remain retracted. If not, the firing cycle begins again.

The FN MAG receiver is constructed similar to the Browning machine guns. The steel side plates are attached to the bottom plate by means of rivets. The front is reinforced to accept the barrel nut and gas cylinder which are permanently mounted. Guide rails which support the bolt assembly and piston extension during their reciprocating movement are riveted to the side plates. The bolt's guide rails are shaped downward to drive the locking lever into engagement with the locking shoulder - also riveted to the side plates. The right side plate is cut out for the retracting handle and the bottom of the receiver body is cut away in front of the locking shoulder to eject empty cases. A spring-loaded dust cover of the MG42 type covers the ejection port. A notch milled into the receiver floor retains the recoil spring and guide rod. The rear of the receiver has been reinforced and slotted to accept the buttstock. Rivets may start to fatigue at about 70,000 rounds on the MAG, although the guns usually will remain serviceable for more than 90,000 rounds. This can cause the side plates to separate. If they break away at the front end, the bolt group might literally fly out the side during a firing cycle. Most often they will fail at the rear and spread the buttstock slots - impeding removal and assembly of this component. One of the Nicaraguan MAGs that I worked on in El Salvador exhibited this problem. The receiver's interior surface is chrome plated to facilitate maintenance.

The piston, piston extension and bolt group have been taken from the BAR with the exception of the locking action which has been moved from a recess in the top of the receiver to a locking shoulder on the receiver floor to permit belt feeding. The piston is chrome plated and has a cup-shaped end. While it is more difficult to clean this type of piston head, it will operate longer without servicing and seems to provide a sharper initial recoil impulse. There are two models of piston assemblies. The earlier variant featured a floating piston. The current version has a fixed piston. While they are interchangeable, the fixed piston requires a shorter firing pin. There are two types of gas cylinders. Model A will accept standard barrels only. Model B, fitted to the British L7A1 and L7A2 GPMGS, will take both standard and heavy barrels. The piston extension is cut out to permit the empty cases to eject downward. At its rear is a massive piston post to which is attached the locking lever link by means of a removable pin. The firing pin is retained in the piston post by a roll pin which is not easily removed. The Israelis have improved this by use of a split-pin that can be removed without a punch.

The firing pin moves through a cut in the locking lever link into its channel in the bolt body. It is not spring loaded. The locking lever link is connected to the locking lever by two nonremovable pins. The front arms of the locking lever are pinned to the bolt body where they ride and rotate in recesses on each side. The recoil spring and guide rod are housed within the hollow interior of the piston extension. Both multiple strand and single strand recoil springs will be encountered. Multi-strand springs avoid the "surging" (wave movement) associated with high cyclic rates by increasing friction. These springs last longer and offer better performance under adverse conditions. An actuator roller which operates the feed system is mounted on top of the bolt body. It is spring loaded. If the top cover is closed with the bolt in the forward position (which some dolt is always trying to do) neither the roller or feed channel will be damaged. In addition, the spring-loaded actuator-roller acts as a self-timing feeder. If the roller is not in the feed channel, as the bolt moves rearward, the second phase of the feed cycle will not take place. Thus, rounds can never be out of sync with the bolt movement. Try this sometime with the M60 and see what happens.

The gas regulator of the MAG 58 infantry machine gun is of the exhaust type. Propellent gases go through the gas block on the barrel and pass into the gas regulator assembly. The gas plug is drilled with three gas escape holes. As the regulator knob is rotated, the gas regulator sleeve slides along the gas block varying the exposed area of the block's three escape ports in alignment with the three gas holes in the plug. In this manner the amount of gas permitted to act upon the piston is controlled. When the gas regulator knob is rotated clockwise all the way home, the three gas-escape holes are completely closed and all of the available gas strikes the piston cup. The rate of fire is at its maximum as is the stress on the gun's operating parts. As the regulator knob is backed off (counter-clockwise), the regulator sleeve progressively exposes the three gas-escape holes, and an increasing amount of gas is vented into the atmosphere rather than striking the piston. When the gas indicator is turned counter-clockwise to position " 3, " the maximum rate of fire permitted is obtained - 900 to 1,100 rpm. Position "2" will yield 750 to 900 rpm. The lowest rate of fire occurs at position "1" - 650 to 750 rpm.

The infantry MAG's rates of fire are too high in my opinion. Without a chronometer it's impossible to distinguish between the highest and lowest cyclic rates. Four rounds is the shortest burst possible, even at the lowest rate. The trade-off is a smaller cone of fire down range when firing four to six-round bursts - desirable when engaging point targets, but cetainly not when area targets are to be covered. To minimize component failure, conserve ammunition and maximize hit potential always operate the MAG 58 with the regulator knob at position "1" unless fouling and adverse conditions require more gas to be diverted into the system.

The MAG 58 infantry version can be seriously faulted in only one area. Two split rings hold the gas plug onto the barrel's gas block. When the gas regulator sleeve is unscrewed and removed during maintenance, one or more of these rings will invariably fall into the weeds. I always carry an extra set.

The MAG's air-cooled, quick-change barrel is 21.4 inches long and weighs six pounds with flash suppressor, carrying handle and gas regulator. The bore and chamber are chrome lined. The flash suppressor resembles those on the M14 rifle and L4 series Bren guns. The baffel has two sets of external interrupted threads which mate with the barrel locking nut threads on the receiver. To change the barrel, first retract the bolt and push the trigger mechanism's cross bolt to the right to the "safe" position ("S"). Depress the baffel locking catch button (located on the left side of the receiver) and at the same time rotate the carrying handle up to the vertical position without pulling out on it (old style - Model A with ribbed handle and integral barrel nut catch) or pulling up on the separate barrel nut catch of the new style carrying handle (Model B with smooth plastic handle grip). This will rotate the barrel's threads out of engagement with the receiver's locking nut threads. Move the barrel forward and lift it off. Replace in the opposite manner. This method is taken from the Belgian FN Model D Browning Automatic Rifle, except the direction of rotation has been reversed.

The front sight is a blade type with a threaded base. Two blades are available - a high blade (11.8mm) and a low blade (9.8mm). The blade is screwed into a dovetailed block with heavy protective ears. Elevation zero is adjusted by screwing the blade down to raise the mean point of impact (M.P.I.) or up to lower the M.P.I., after the retaining stirrup has been lifted. This can be done only with a special spanner wrench issued to armorers. The MAG is usually zeroed at 200 meters. Horizontal zero is altered by use of the same tool. To move the M.P.I. to the left, the sight block must be slid to the right in its dovetail. Securing screws on each side are alternately loosened and tightened. Front sight adjustments are always in the opposite direction of the desired change.

The folding-leaf rear sight provides a peep aperture in the down position for ranges from 200 to 800 meters in 100-meter increments. When raised, an open U-notch is used for ranges from 800 to 1,800 meters in 100 meter increments. The rear sight is hinged to a base with protective ears that is integral with the receiver's upper forging.

The FN MAG 58 bipod is attached to the end of the gas cylinder about 12 inches in back of the muzzle. Its aluminum legs, with their distinctive splayed appearance, cannot be adjusted for height. They can be folded back - for carrying or use as a crude forearm - and secured in slots under the receiver by their hooks and a spring-loaded catch. When firing in the hip assault position, the bipod legs should remain extended and the left leg grabbed as a brace by the support hand. The bipod can be removed from the gas cylinder by inserting a punch through the hole in its head and tapping the roll pin in the gas cylinder head until it's flush and the bipod can be rotated enough to clear the gas cylinder's retaining lugs. I recommend this procedure each time the weapon is cleaned back at the barracks after a combat operation, as considerable carbon fouling accumulates in this area. The tripod is elaborate, complex, beautifully designed and executed and practically worthless. It is what we call a "soft mount." Which is to say, the gun is attached to a spring-buffered assembly on top of the mount. By this means recoil is further diminished and the accuracy potential at extreme ranges is enhanced. The gun's components are also subjected to less mechanical stress . Mounts of this type were designed by the Germans in WWII for the MG34 and MG42 GPMGs. They are supposed to overcome the lightweight GPMG's disadvantages as a long-range, sustained-fire support weapon. While they certainly increase the weapon's hit potential, they do not address its inability to provide heavy, sustained fire without frequent barrel changes. Tripods of this type are expensive (the FN MAG 58 or Minimi tripod will set you back close to $2,500 - the cost of the gun itself) and contain far too many components for rugged field operations.

The trigger housing is an anodized aluminum casting. Early versions had an enlarged trigger guard for winter firing with gloves. Current models have a removable trigger guard. The trigger mechanism is exactly that of the MG42 and a fine one it is. The cross bolt safety operates directly on the sear and can be manipulated only when the gun is cocked. Pushing the cross bolt all the way to the right will expose the letter "S" (Safe) and engage the safety catch against the heel of the sear. Moving the cross bolt all the way to the left will expose the letter "F" (Fire) and disengage the safety catch from the heel of the sear. There is no provision for semiautomatic fire.

Because of its high rate of fire, the MG42 trigger mechanism incorporated a unique sear trip which has been wisely retained on the FN MAG 58. The sear trip is spring-loaded and attached to the top of the trigger. The front of the sear passes through this sear trip and a T-bar at its end restricts the sear trip's forward rotation. When the trigger is pulled the sear trip descends, allowing the front of the sear to rise while the rear end is lowered, releasing the piston extension. As long as the trigger is held back and ammunition remains, the piston extension/bolt group will continue to reciprocate back and forth. When the trigger is released, its front end rises, taking with it the sear tfip as well as the front end of the sear. As a result, the rear end of the sear is lowered even further. The sear trip now projects into the piston extension's path of travel. The piston extension heel shoves the sear trip rearward. This frees the front end of the sear and permits the sear spring to drive the rear end of the sear upward to grab the piston extension with the full face engagement in one sudden, sharp movement.

The sear trip fulfills two important functions. It keeps the sear bent in a low position except at the final moment of engagement with the piston extension, which reduces wear and chipping of the two mating surfaces. It also prevents the trigger mechanism from being placed on "safe" when the piston extension/bolt group is forward, as the sear could be damaged if the operator attempted to retract the bolt with the cross bolt on the safe position.

The trigger pull weight on this gun is primarily a function of the heavy recoil spring which is under considerable compressive force when the piston extension is retracted. My MAG 58 breaks at a very crisp and consistent 10 pounds.

The MAG's great reliability is in large measure due to a component never seen. Hidden within the distinctively shaped wooden buttstock with its seven vertical grooves on each side is a most successful buffer system. Because of its high cyclic rate, the MAG must use a "hard" buffer, as did the MG42. Thus little energy is lost, counter-recoiling forces remain strong, functional reliability under adverse conditions is high and the operator gets jolted a little harder. Machine guns with lower cyclic rates, like the Bren and M60 can use "soft" buffers which absorb more recoil energy and reduce felt recoil, but drain the available power reserve. The Bren design along with its adjustable gas regulator needs no additional power reserve, the M60 unfortunately does.

When the piston extension reaches the end of its rearward movement, it slams against the buffer's face, or "bush," forcing it to recoil slightly. The bush transfers its movement to a braking cone which penetrates the braking ring, causing it to open. As it expands, the braking ring contacts the interior wall of the buffer cylinder, exerting a braking action through friction. It also moves back, flattening a series of 11 Belleville (saucer-shaped) washers. When this strain energy is released as the washers return to their original shape, the energy surge throws the recoiling parts forward with almost the velocity they possessed on contact with the buffer.

The FN MAG 58 can be had in versions that accept either the German DM6 nondisintegrating belt or the U.S. M13 disintegrating links. The position of the feed tray's cartridge stop differs and the pawl angles in the top cover are different. MAG's set up for the DM6 belts can be field altered to accept the M13 link (See "Gunning for Gs," SOF, December '84), but the reliability will be reduced slightly.

The feed mechanism operates in two distinct phases. When the bolt begins its forward travel, the actuator roller moves in the straight part of the top cover's feed channel rail and the feed pawls remain stationary. During this movement, the bolt's feed horns chamber the first round. During the second half of the forward movement the actuator roller reaches the bend in the feed channel, forcing it to pivot to the right on its axis. This movement actuates the feed link, pushing the upper feed slide to the right, taking the front and rear feed pawls with it. At the same time, the lower feed slide moves the next cartridge to the right until it's in contact with the sloping face of the cartridge guide pawl. With its springs compressed, the inner feed pawl rides to the left over this cartridge. All three pawls are engaged behind the cartridge when the bolt ends its forward movement.

In the second phase, the actuator roller's rearward movement pivots the feed channel rail on its axis to the left. The upper feed slide, with the front and rear pawls, now moves to the left - The lower feed slide, with the inner pawl, moves to the right. The inner feed pawl pushes the cartridge on top of the bolt, as the cartridge guide pawl rises into position behind the inner pawl. The front and rear pawls are now riding over the third cartridge moving into position to recommence their cycle. The pawls do not move as the actuator roller travels rearward down the straight portion of the feed channel. As the bolt clears the feed tray the second cartridge takes its final position in preparation for the cycle's repetition. Thus each set of pawls acts, in turn, as feed and stop pawls as the cartridge slides half way across with each forward and rearward motion of the bolt. This method, adopted from the MG42, produces a smooth belt flow instead of a series of herky-jerky movements. A similar system is employed on the M60. The feed channel rail, feed link, both feed slides and the feed tray are chrome plated. The top cover body is an anodized aluminum casting.

Two types of assault packs can be used on the FN MAG 58. The Belgians and British produce a sheet metal box that clips onto the left side of the receiver and holds 50 rounds. The South Africans issue a metal and rubberized-fabric soft-pack that snaps in place and holds 100-plus rounds. This latter is the best I have ever used. Metal and plastic assault packs jam you in the guts, M60 cotton bandoliers rot in the bush after a few days and 25-round teaser belts are a pathetic field expediency .

In July 1961, the British Army, after extensive trials dating from 1957, adopted a modified FN MAG known initially as the L7A1. A heavy barrel with stellite lining was to be used for the sustained fire role. The stellite liner - a non-ferrous alloy of cobalt, chromium, tungsten and molybdenum - will maintain its strength at high temperatures. They were an interference fit and FN was unable to manufacture them to the close tolerances required. The project was abandoned with success at hand and a conversion kit consisting of a tripod, dial sight and two spare light barrels was issued for the sustained fire role. The current L7A2, as manufactured by Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) at Enfield Lock, differs in several minor, but significant ways from the FN produced weapon. The gas regulator has 10 positions (the minimum rate of fire is obtained at adjustment notch "8"), the bipod legs are adjustable for height, the buttstock is made of plastic, the gas cylinder permits installation of a heavy barrel (which does not exist), the chrome bore plating is thicker, the sear has two bents, to engaged a special piston extension (for safety when cocking, should it slip accidently from the operator's hand) and the cartridge guide pawl is a two-piece component.

By 1974 the deficiencies of the M73/219 had overwhelmed even its most resilient supporters (See SOF, FULL AUTO, October '82) and tests commenced to find a replacement coaxial machine gun for U.S. fighting vehicles and tanks. The MAG 58 was pitted against the M60E2, M219, German MG3, British L7A2, French AAT NF1 (vehicular version of the AAT 52), Canadian C1 (Browning Model 1919A4 in 7.62mm NATO) and the Soviet PKM. By1975 all were eliminated except the M60E2 and the MAG 58. Heavy emphasis was placed upon reliability. Two criteria were closely examined: Mean Rounds Between Stoppages (MRBS) and Mean Rounds Between Failures (MRBF). Stoppages are malfunctions which require no more than a minute to clear. Failures require more than a minute to correct and usually involve component breakage. The test results were as follows.

Type Rounds Fired MRBS MRBF
FN MAG 58 50,000 2,962 6,442
M60E2 50,000 846 1,669
M219 19,000 215 1,090
Minimum specified 850 2,675
Minumun desired 1,750 5,500

Only the MAG 58 met the specified minimum. In fact, it even exceeded the "dreamsheet" (minimum desired). The MAG 58 coaxial machine gun was type classified in 1976 as the M240. The first 10,000 were produced by FN in Belgium. The M240 is now manufactured by FN Manufacturing, Inc..

The M240 is distinguished from the infantry version in the following ways. There is no bipod or carrying handle. There are no sights as the vehicle's main gun sights are employed. The buttstock is replaced by a special short buffer block. There is no front sling swivel and the flash suppressor is a closed type. Because it is in the interior of a vehicle, the gas regulator has no escape holes. The principle of gas inlet, rather than gas exhaust into the atmosphere is used for obvious reasons. The elusive split rings have been eliminated. The normal rate of fire is 750 rpm and this is obtained by setting the regulator on position "1." (Unlike the MAG 58 ground version, the M240's barrel must be removed to change the cyclic rate.) The retracting handle is replaced with a cocking cable and pistol grip trigger mechanism is of an abbreviated configuration.

Product improvement continues at FN Manufacturing, Inc., and reliabiliy has now been improved to an incredible mean average of 25,600 Mean Rounds Between Failures. Current M240 top covers use steel pins and rollers, instead of the aluminum pins found on Belgian produced M240s. Very shortly the original stamped, riveted and welded feed tray will be replaced by a hardened, investment cast stainless steel version. The new tray will reduce link wear at the feed slot, preclude the loosening of the cartridge stop rivets, eliminate the need for chrome-plating and end failure of the tray's ears. U.S. tread-heads are equipped with the world's finest coaxial medium machine gun.

FN Manufacturing has designed a modular kit, called the GMAK (Ground Mount Adaptation Kit), to convert the M240 to an infantry configuration in a matter of seconds. The kit includes a skeletal buttstock resembling that of the Soviet PKM, pistol grip for the trigger mechanism, colimator-type sights, sling and a bipod. It will be marketed worldwide.

It takes no more than 10 seconds to disassemble a MAG 58. First, lift the top cover, remove the belt and clear the weapon. Ease the operating parts forward by holding one hand on the retracting handle while you pull the trigger with the other. Remove the buttstock by depressing its spring-loaded release latch on the underside. Lift it up and away from the receiver. Push in and up on the guide rod and withdraw it and the recoil spring. Pull back on the retracting handle with the muzzle tilted upward and the piston, piston extension and bolt group will slide out the rear of the receiver. The bolt group can be separated from the piston group by driving out the locking lever link's retaining pin. The trigger group and top cover can be removed from the receiver body by depressing the spring on their retaining pins and drifting out the pins. Remove the barrel in the manner already described. Unscrew the gas regulator sleeve all the way and try to keep your eye on the split rings as they disappear into the bush. Tap out the gas plug.

And now the fun begins. The FN MAG 58, especially the gas system, is more complex and difficult to maintain than the M60. The Belgians have invented, for this purpose, about a dozen fiendishly clever armorer's tools. The function of some of these esoteric appurtenances is not even addressed in the FN MAG "Bible" (the telephone-book-sized technical manual). Not to worry, as they can all be replaced by one very sharp Swiss Army knife.

The MAG gas system is a veritable labyrinth of grooves, channels, ports and inaccessible surfaces. There is a trade off. The MAG will operate far longer under adverse conditions without maintenance than the M60. One of the Somozista Nicaraguan MAG 58s I brought to the Atlacatl Battalion had a gas system so fouled that I could not remove the gas regulator adjustment sleeve no matter how hard I beat upon it in the vise or how large the pipe wrench I torqued it with. In desperation, I took the entire gun to the battalion range to observe the magnitude of stoppages that would result. The gun fired and continued to fire without malfunction of any kind. Amazing.

Lubricate everything except the gas system and piston and re-assemble in the reverse order. The trigger and feed mechanisms should be detail stripped only by trained armorers. You can teach anyone to field strip a MAG 58 in just a few minutes. On your first attempt you will probably try to replace the buttstock upside down. All else is self-evident.

Belgian, British and South African SOP specifies the MAG is to be carried with the bolt forward and a belt in the feed way. The weapon must then be cocked first to bring it into operation. No matter how you slice it, that's pure baloney. The MAG's cross-bolt safety engages the sear directly. The possibility against its failure is astronomical. On combat operations the MAG should be carried in "condition 1" with bolt retracted, the safety on (until engagement is imminent) and a belt in the feed way.

To load the MAG, squeeze the top cover's two spring-loaded catches and rotate upward to the vertical position. Retract the bolt and place the system on safe. Place the belt, with the open portion of the links down, across the feed tray with the first round resting against the cartridge stop. Rotate the gun clockwise on the bipod so the belt will remain in position and gently close the top cover. Slamming the top cover down with an iron fist looks professional - to amateurs, but only hastens damage to the top cover catches.

The MAG should be carried by the sling with the bipod legs extended so that it may be fired from the hip assault position at the instant of contact. Carrying guns of this type across the shoulders or by the carrying handle looks cool, but it's downright dangerous. Whenever there is time to do so - and most often there is - GPMGs should be fired off the bipod from the low prone position behind cover and concealment.

Sturdy, reliable and accurate, the FN MAG 58 is the very best GPMG ever fielded. More than one million have been manufactured and issued. It has cut terrs in half from just 10 meters away on the jungle trails of Rhodesia. It shot back at itself in the Falklands. It waves proudly from the turret of Israeli Merkava MBTS. I have even set a few to snapping angrily at the communist guerrillas of El Salvador. The MAG 58 has proven itself many times over on the field of battle in the last quarter of a century.

Does that mean the GPMG concept has proven viable? I think not.

At 23 1/2 pounds, machine guns like the MAG 58 are too heavy in the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) role. An Israeli "MAGist," the No. 1, must carry the gun and 450 rounds of ammunition. His No. 2, the assistant gutiner, carries his Galil, nine 35-round magazines and another 500 rounds for the MAG. This is a tremendous burden for each. While the MAG 58 can certainly lay down an effective base of fire at the squad and platoon level, it fails to provide the effective sustained fire base still sometimes required during battalion level operations. Too heavy as a SAW, the GPMG is too light for the sustained fire role without the heavy barrels that have never been manufactured.

The solution is to reject this "neither-fish-nor-fowl" concept and return again to both squad automatics and medium machine guns. The M249 SAW weighs only 15.5 pounds. Its ammunition weighs only half that of the 7.62mm GPMG. The 7.62mm NATO cartridge is an excellent medium machine round. Water cooled guns like the Browning M 1917A1 or the Vickers, chambered in 7.62mm NATO, would be ideal sustained fire weapons - as they already have proven themselves to be. The M249 is with us. But, it's unlikely the U.S. armed forces will ever again return to the Browning M1917A1. Instead, we can expect to see GPMGS, like the MAG 58 and M60, shuffled upstairs to fulfill the sustained fire role.

That's a mistake, as the FN MAG 58's future is clearly in the form of the M240 coaxial vehicular machine gun. We grunts rarely ever get everything we need or want. Far too much emphasis is placed on high technology these days, when all we really need sometimes is a few more water-cooled guns.

First published in the March 1985 edition of Soldier of Fortune Magazine