One of the most distinctive NATO small arms is the French FAMAS rifle. It’s a compact little bullpup, and along with its large top carrying handle that gives it a unique shape. French troops call it le clarion – The Trumpet.
The FAMAS was developed in the late 1960s and trials began in 1972. There were a lot of problems to work out, though, and by 1978 it still wasn’t ready for service. That year 600 French paratroopers fought a major battle with rebels at Kolwezi in Zaire, still using the ancient MAS-49 semiautomatic rifle (their attempts to develop a proper battle rifle had all failed) and MAT-49 submachinegun, and it became obvious better weapons were needed. A batch of license-built SIG 540 assault rifles was produced as a stopgap and the FAMAS designers were told to get their finger out and finish the thing. Eventually, in 1982, it became the standard French assault rifle.
The FAMAS fires 5.56mm NATO ammunition using an unusual lever-delayed blowback mechanism. It’s pretty reliable (especially in desert conditions), and very compact, but has some quirks. The original FMAS F1 uses 25-round non-NATO magazines and has some other minor quirks. AN improved version, the G2, was developed in 1994 to cure these issues; it has a STANAG magazine well that takes AR15-style mags, reinforced fiberglass furniture with a NATO accessory rail, an extended winter trigger guard and some other improvements. The French Marines adopted the G2 but the army stuck with the older F1.
France planned to upgrade the FAMAS as part of their FÉLIN future infantry system, with a forward pistol grip, day/night sight linked to the soldier’s personal data systems (the sight image can be displayed remotely on a screen, so you can use the rifle to look around cover without exposing your head) and some other upgrades, but problems kept emerging. With two versions in service, using non-compatible magazines, barrels and many other components, it was going to be difficult and expensive to bring them all to the same standard. Finally, in 2011, they started considering buying a new design. A competition was announced in 2013 and opened the following year.
It was inevitable from the start that a foreign design would be chosen; France wanted to make sure the winner was able to deliver large numbers of rifles quickly, so they restricted the competition to companies with an annual turnover of at least €80 million (about $89 million). The traditional French rifle manufacturer, Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne, hasn’t produced a new small arms design in years and no other French company was anywhere near large enough to qualify. Entrants included the Swiss SIG 550, the FN SCAR-L, the rather nice Beretta ARX-160 and Croatia’s weird VHS-2. The VHS-2 actually looks almost identical to the FAMAS, but it’s much newer and internally there’s an AR15-type gas system and rotating bolt.
In the end, though, France went for what’s increasingly seen as the safe option – Heckler und Koch’s HK416. With the familiar ergonomic sand light weight of the AR15, combined with HK’s SA80-derived short stroke gas piston, it’s a proven and reliable weapon. It’s also recently been chosen as the new standard Norwegian rifle, and the Netherlands also have some alongside their Canadian C7NLD rifles. Initially France plans to buy 100,000 HK416F rifles from Germany, and will probably buy more in the future – their armed forces have around 208,00 regulars and another 30,000 reservists, and they can’t keep using he FAMAS forever. The first HK416Fs will go to the infantry and other combat troops, but sooner or later everyone will get one.
France is a major nation, with the second most powerful military in Europe, and their choice of the HK416 is significant. The UK will also need new rifles fairly soon, because the controversial L85A2 has burned through a lot of its planned service life in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s talk of rebuilding them as an L85A3 variant, and a few prototypes have been made. The L85 is very accurate and has the political advantage of being a British design (although most of the working parts were replaced by HK ones in the A2 upgrade), but it’s extremely heavy for a 5.56mm assault rifle and the ergonomics are appalling. Replacing it with a new design has to be an option, and the 416 is now an even stronger contender.
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