I have more than a passing acquaintance with Fabrique Nationale’s Fusil Automatique Léger, more commonly known as the FN-FAL. I’ve owned a number of examples, from ‘pre ban’ milsurp guns to commercial examples to kit guns built on commercial receivers. Over the years I’ve fired literally tens of thousands of rounds of 7.62×51 through those rifles, many of them in training venues, to the point that at one time I’d become something of a local curiosity: “hey, that’s the guy who shoots .308 all the time!” Putting eight or nine hundred rounds of full-power thirty-caliber fodder through a rifle in a weekend, multiple times, will do that for you.
In addition to my own experience I’ve been pleased to make the acquaintance of a few gentlemen who actually carried the FAL (or its inch-patterned variants, the L1-A1 and C1-A1) in service of their respective countries — some of whom were presented with the opportunity to use them in live fire against people who were (presumably) trying to kill them.
From all this I’ve come to a conclusion about Dieudonné Joseph Saive’s most enduring design, and it’s sure to displease the romantics in the audience: the FAL ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
From an ergonomic standpoint the FAL is from a decidedly earlier era in arms design. The safety/selector is difficult to operate from a firing grip, while the horizontal-style takedown lever has a disturbing tendency to unlatch the receiver if one does try to operate the safety from a firing grip. The rear sight on most examples wobbles, making it difficult to attain decent precision from the gun, while the horrid triggers (which even with the best gunsmithing never get really good, just less horrid) don’t help matters.
The gun gets very warm – hot, actually – in any sort of sustained fire. Shooting a fast-paced 60-round qualification course, which I’ve done more times than I can remember, makes the gun unbearably hot. (Unbearably as in “I’ve sustained burns from trying to hold onto the gun”. It reminds me for all the world of the original HK P7, which was notorious for frying digits in as little as four magazines of rapid fire.)
The worst part of the FAL, and this is sure to annoy fans of the gun, is that it’s just not all that reliable — certainly nowhere near what people make it out to be, largely because of flaws in the piston design. If the gun is not assembled exactly right at the factory, the piston will bind in the extended position and keep the bolt from closing. This is because the front of the piston is carried on the barrel, in the front sight block, while the back of the pistol protrudes through a snug hole in the upper receiver. If those two pieces aren’t perfectly aligned the piston travels at a slight angle relative to the bore and binds at the most inopportune time, the return spring not being strong enough to work it loose. This is particularly the case after there has been some carbon buildup in the gas block, which reduces the tolerances in the system’s expansion chamber.
The piston is also subject to bending, causing the same problem. If the gas pressure isn’t properly adjusted for the ammunition lot, too much gas pushes the piston too hard and bends it slightly. When that happens the piston once again binds in the frame boss and brings the gun to sporadic halts in chambering.
I realize gas piston AR rifles are all the rage these days, but anyone who’s had to fight with an FAL gas plug in order to do the necessary cleaning of the piston will understand why I continue to be less than enthusiastic about the things.
The FAL is not a tremendously accurate gun, at least in its off-the-shelf military configuration. I’ve shot only one FAL that could be justifiably called ‘accurate’, and it was a heavy-barreled Israeli ‘FALO’ once sold by Springfield Armory as the SAR-48. This particular example is a wonderful gun, will easily keep up with a decent AR-10 pattern rifle, and the owner is quite unwilling to sell it. (Of course I’ve only been asking him for the past 15 years, so maybe one of these days he’ll tire of my blandishments and agree to sell the thing to me!) Other than that one, all of the examples I’ve shot have been ‘rack grade’. Not bad, certainly suitable for infantry work, but not something that really interests me in a Whelenist sense.
Over the years the weaknesses of the FAl design have prompted me to divest myself of many examples that just didn’t measure up, none of them proving to have the combination of reliability, ergonomics, and accuracy that I want. Even my favorite FAL was only average in accuracy, but it least it ran – and with a FAL, that’s half the battle.
One veteran of a military force known for their pragmatism once told me “there’s a reason we dumped the things.” Much as I like the FAL – and I do – I understand the sentiment. Living with a FAL must be a little like living with a British sports car; I’d say that it’s like living with an Italian car, but the Fiat convertible I once owned was more reliable than the average FAL!
I’m sure there are those who will disagree with me, but I’ve got a lot of trigger time behind a lot of different incarnations, and they all share the same faults. The fact is that the more you shoot a FAL, the more flaws you’ll expose. It was a great design in its day, but that day has passed.
-=[ Grant ]=-