An In Depth Look at the FN FAL

The AR15 and its variants are, by a long way, the most popular choice of SHTF (Shit Hits The Fan) or general-purpose rifle in the USA. You can find them chambered for a range of rounds, including 7.62x39mm Soviet and .308, but the vast majority are in .223 or its military equivalent, 5.56mm NATO. That’s all fine; the AR15 is reliable enough, extremely light and it’s pretty much the same weapon as the US military’s M16 and M4. Is it actually the best rifle, though? That’s arguable; and I would say that if you have a short-barrelled one chambered in .223 it definitely isn’t. Even if you’re happy with the AR, it’s definitely worth looking at alternatives because there are some other excellent rifles out there, and one of the best is the FN FAL.

The first prototype of the FAL was produced by legendary Belgian gun maker Fabrique Nationale in 1946. Based on an earlier experimental design, it was a selective-fire assault rifle chambered for the German 7.92mm Kurz round. A later prototype in .280 British – a very similar round to the modern 4.5mm Grendel, with excellent ballistics out to 1,000 yards – was part of the 1950 trials to find a standard rifle and cartridge for all NATO nations. Unfortunately, the US Army – which would adopt the 5.56mm just over a decade later – decided that the outstanding .280 wasn’t powerful enough and the new rifle had to be chambered for the US-developed 7.62x51mm round. This was basically just a reworked .30-06 with the case shortened by half an inch to allow for more modern propellant, and in military loadings the two rounds had identical performance.

FN reworked their design to take the 7.62mm, in the process growing it from assault to battle rifle. That weapon went on to become the FN FAL, and was adopted by almost every NATO nation. One of the few exceptions was the USA; in the interests of economy, the Pentagon opted for the M14, which could use most of the tooling for the M1 Garand. As it turned out, the M14 was a troublesome weapon that had one of the shortest careers of any US infantry rifle, although it still hangs on in some specialized roles today. Meanwhile, the FAL went on to become the most successful post-war western firearm, used by over 90 countries and only exceeded in popularity by its Cold War rival – the Kalashnikov AKM.

The final FAL design is a highly engineered rifle with some complex machined steel parts, making it expensive to produce and fairly heavy (9.56 pounds empty for the British variant). The compensation for that was an extremely rugged weapon with reliability matched only by the AK series. Like the M14, it’s too light to be used effectively in full automatic, so many armies converted their weapons to semi-auto only, but it can deliver rapid, accurate fire out to 400 or 500 yards – further with a good optic in place. An adjustable gas system with a piston rod compensates for fouling or less hot ammo while the machined receiver, built to accommodate the tipping-bolt locking system, makes the weapon immensely strong. It’s every bit as robust as an M14 or M1A, but the more enclosed action keeps dirt out of the working parts much more effectively.

FN FALMost importantly, for a right-handed shooter the FAL is probably the most ergonomically perfect rifle ever made. The safety catch/change lever falls neatly under the right thumb; the cocking handle is placed on the left of the receiver where it can be quickly operated with a very natural motion. The magazine release is a sturdy lever at the rear of the magazine well and, again, the thumb naturally falls on it when you’re removing an empty mag. A simple lever – not an easily damaged captive pin – lets the weapon hinge open for maintenance, and for normal daily cleaning it breaks down into only six parts. If you don’t have time to clean it, just turn the gas regulator up two notches – it has eleven – and it’ll keep booming away flawlessly for another few days.

FALs are easily available in the USA, but it has to be said that quality is highly variable. Most of the ones on the market were built from “parts kits” that were sold off – often for well under $100 – in the late 90s, and there have been problems with a lot of these guns. The issue was that the federal government classified all FALs as machineguns – even ones that had been built as semi-auto weapons – and, to import them legally, they had to be “demilitarized” by torching the upper receiver in half. A variety of US companies began making legal replacement uppers that, with the addition of a parts kit and a few screws to make up the legally required number of US parts, could be assembled into a working FAL, but some of the receivers were pretty awful. Ignorance of the FAL design itself didn’t always help.

There are two main kinds of FAL; the standard “metric” model was produced by FN and also widely licensed for production, but there’s another variety on the market too. The UK-led Allied Rifle Commission developed a somewhat improved version of the FAL known as the L1A1. This added a folding cocking handle, larger and more ergonomic change lever and various other minor improvements, plus one significant one – angled sand-clearing channels were cut into the outside of the bolt carrier and some other internal parts. The result was a weapon even more reliable than the standard FAL, especially in dusty or muddy conditions; any fouling that did get into the rifle would be immediately blasted back out again.

The problem was that the plans for the L1A1, manufactured in the UK, Canada and Australia, used Imperial dimensions instead of the original metric ones, so many parts aren’t interchangeable. One interesting quirk is that FAL magazines will fit in an L1A1 (although they wobble a bit) but not vice-versa, a fact that the L1A1-armed British made good use of when they kicked the FAL-armed Argentinian invaders off the Falkland Islands in 1982. Major subassemblies do usually work fine together, so you can generally fit a complete Imperial (“inch”) upper to a “metric” lower, but mixing smaller parts – say, a Belgian bolt in a British carrier – is asking for a lot of stoppages.

So, unfortunately, it is using most of the 1990s US-made receivers. The majority of them were produced by small shops that just couldn’t manage the precision the design demands, so some of them have truly terrible reputations. The good news is that there are also a few excellent ones, with DS Arms being the gold standard. If you want a FAL and can’t get one of the fairly rare factory guns, look for one built around a DSA upper – they make both FAL and L1A1 variants.

I’ll look at how to choose the ideal SHTF FAL in a later article; for now, if you’re looking for a new rifle and want something that’s been battle-proven from Iraq and South Africa to Vietnam and the South Atlantic, add this one to your shortlist.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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3 thoughts on “An In Depth Look at the FN FAL

  1. I’m surprised that the FAL is so popular, given that the majority of them are so LONG. Even the slightly shorter M16A-4 fell out of favour with the Army and now the Marines because they’re tough to use when wearing body armour.

    Good that you mention the AKM by name – most writers keep on referring to ‘AK-47s’ even though the original Russian models were only produced from 1949 – 1959.

    1. All my FAL experience is with the L1A1, mostly with the plastic furniture fitted. My personal weapon came with the original walnut stock but got refitted. One nice feature was that there were three different buttplates, all giving different pull lengths. The short one was fine with body armour.

      Personally I don’t buy most of the arguments in favour of carbines, especially 5.56mm carbines. A shortened stock will take care of any ergonomic issues caused by armour, so I’d sooner have a long-barrelled rifle. It’s not as handy for house-clearing but you can definitely manage, and it wins hands-down in open country. The Australians preferred the L1A1 to the M16 in Vietnam, because it was much better at blowing through cover.

  2. The first FAL was not made in 1946 that is when the study started with BSA, RSAF, and FN to build a new prototype around the 7.92 kurz. FN Universal carbine made its appearance on Nov 24, 1947 chambered in 7.29 Kurz. The first rifle designated FAL came about March 2, 1949 in .280 programme.

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