The Fabrique Nationale Fusil Automatique Leger (Light Automatic Rifle), or FN FAL as it is more commonly known, began life in 1946 when FN and Great Britain created a piston-operated prototype rifle that utilized the German intermediate 7.92x33mm cartridge. This new round was a first attempt at a cartridge that could do the job of both the short-range submachine gun and longer-range rifle. Proof of this came from the world’s first true assault rifle, the Sturmgewehr 44, which was used to great effect during the closing months of World War II.
Despite its promise for future designs though, both FN and the British decided to go with an indigenous creation based on the 7.92 called the 7x33mm, or .280 caliber intermediate round. This round remained within the realm of the assault rifle cartridge. Numerous rifle prototypes were created and, just as with the German round, testing showed great promise, and all predicted it would be adopted.
That is, until the Americans got involved and wielded their influence.
A standardized cartridge, and not rifle designs, were the driving force in the late 1940s due to a desire by the new NATO organization to field a common caliber for logistics and interchangeability among weapons. With advances in gunpowder, U.S. Army Col. Rene Studler offered a shortened .30-06 case, firing the same weight bullet as the famous war winner and submitted it for NATO testing. Colonel Studler’s cartridge was intended for full power, and was not an assault rifle cartridge; it was known as the 7.62x51mm or .308 Winchester. It was also the primary cartridge for a new U.S. weapon, then in prototype form, designated the T25. What happened next has never been made clear.
In 1950, the T25 underwent tests against the prototype FAL and a British EM-2 bullpup design, both in .280 caliber. Afterwards, the U.S insisted changing both weapons over to the new .30 caliber round, which FN did without argument, and even offered the United States a deal for it to build the FAL royalty-free with Studler’s cartridge.
It meant nothing to the British, as they dismissed the caliber change and continued to develop and adopt the EM-2 with the .280 round that same month.
Then came a reported conversation between President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill that ultimately sealed the fate of the rifle and the round. It was believed there was an agreement made that the U.S. would adopt the FAL as its standard rifle if the British adopted the 7.62x51mm. Britain gave in, and not only adopted the round, but the FAL as well. The same couldn’t be said for the U.S. It continued dragging its feet and developed the T25 further until it defeated the FAL in trials, and went on to be produced as the M-14 in 1959. By that time, the FAL had been in production for five years, and was successfully finding makers and buyers, dealing a kind of poetic justice to the not-invented-here mindset of the U.S. government.
Britain was among the first to put the FAL into production, designating it the L1A1 self-loading rifle. More NATO countries followed suit and introduced two distinctive variants based on different countries’ units of measure: inch or metric. Apart from that, the weapons basically looked the same, and quickly grew in popularity as the first examples were used to good effect by the British against the Communist insurgency in Malaysia in the late ‘50s. Its counterpart, the M-14, started service only to be challenged shortly thereafter by a newer design called the M-16.
Because of this, the FAL became the primary weapon to defend the banner of freedom throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, as it confronted its main adversary, the Soviet AK-47, in the many proxy wars between the United States and Soviet Union raging around the globe. On rare occasion, it even faced off against itself, such as when it equipped the armies of Great Britain and Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.
This period is perhaps the weapon’s high point, as it was then being used by over 90 countries. The FN FAL’s slender shape found itself being updated to meet heavy demands, as variants emerged with folding stocks for paratroopers, heavy barrels for Squad Automatic Weapons, and short barrels for Commando roles. Armed with a 20-round magazine, its accuracy and power bested the AK in distance, and found itself matched in such situations as the West German G3, also in .308.
Only in the 1990s, as more nations went to the smaller 5.56mm .223 round, did the FN FAL really start to see its use fall, with its finest champion, the once-reluctant Great Britain, finally saying goodbye in 1986. Attempts to convert the FN FAL to .223, known as the CAL, were unsuccessful as other nations followed suit. Today, only a few (mainly Third World) countries use the FN FAL, and even that number is shrinking.
“The Right Arm of the Free World,” as it’s been affectionately called, may rightfully claim its place as being the greatest rifle that answered the call during those uncertain days of the Cold War. While never an assault rifle, it made its mark as the last of the great battle rifles, a lineage that goes back far longer.
Article contributed by Mike Perry