The FN FAL is best known as the 7.62x51mm battle rifle that armed the NATO powers during the Cold War. However, the Fusil Automatique Léger or ‘Light Automatic Rifle’ was originally designed to fire a very different cartridge. In 1947, even before Dieudonné Saive’s first post-war rifle the FN-49 had entered production, Saive and Ernest Vervier (who later designed the FN MAG) had developed the first prototype of the FAL. Using the gas system and tilting-bolt locking mechanism used in the FN-49, the new rifle was chambered in the radical 7.92×33 Kurz intermediate cartridge first used in the StG-44.
FN-Herstal’s chief designer and designer of the FAL Dieudonné Saive (source)
Saive and Vervier had been impressed by the capability of the new smaller cartridge but in 1949 they were impressed by the characteristics of a new round being developed by the British, .280 (7×43mm). Capable of firing a 140-grain bullet at up to 2,600ft/second it was hoped by the British that this new round would be selected as the new NATO standard rifle round. With this in mind the FN design team developed a series of prototypes chambered in .280. In 1950 these new prototype rifles were tested in tandem with Britain’s new EM-2 rifle, also chambered in .280, the trials found that the FAL was comparable to the EM-2 but was simpler in design and easier to manufacture. (Having handled and stripped both of the weapons the FAL has a much simpler bolt with far fewer machined parts, the original paratroop carbine FAL was especially handy.) During the 1950 Light Rifle Trials in the US both the .280 rifles and the American T25 prototype were tested with the board of officers reporting that the FAL was the best all round rifle.
Long model FAL in .280 (source)
American reluctance to adopt the .280 round saw the British attempt a compromise with the .280/30 cartridge which used the dimensions of the .30-06’s case with a necked down .280 projectile. The FAL was again re-chambered to fire the new round and was found to handle the changes better than the EM-2 (see image #1).
By 1951, the FAL was seen by the British government as the best rifle design available and it was hoped that the US might also adopt the rifle. However, the US had developed its own new cartridge the T65 (which would become 7.62x51mm) and a new rifle to fire it – the T25.
The US’ T25 ‘Light Rifle’ developed by Harvey Earle (source)
The US proved reluctant to adopt the any of the British intermediate cartridges or the Belgian rifle preferring instead their own T65 round which was slightly lighter but had characteristics similar to that of the full power .30-06 round. There is some evidence to suggest that the US agreed to adopt the FAL in turn for British and Belgian support of their 7.62×51 round.
In 1953, the US Army conducted another series of testing involving just FN’s new ‘Lightweight Cal. 30 Rifle’ and the pitted against their own T44 rifle. This trial found that the FAL was the superior weapon and urged the purchase of a limited run for further trials. However, during cold weather testing later in the year specially-adapted T44’s outperformed the FAL. As a result in 1954, under pressure from the US NATO standardised its rifle cartridge to 7.62x51mm, the US however, did not adopt the FAL instead in 1957 they adopted the T44 as the M14 rifle.
British troops trialing the FAL during operations against the Mau Mau in Kenya c.1954 (source)
British troops on patrol in Malaya c.1964 armed with the L1A1 (source)
In 1956, Canada became the first country to officially adopt the FAL as its service rifle. The same year the newly formed German Bundeswehr adopted the FAL as the G1 purchasing 10,000 rifles from FN. The British had adopted the rifle in 1954 but it was not until 1957 that the first British-made rifles were issued. In 1958 the Austrian Army adopted the FAL as the StG-58.
FAL during the Rhodesian Bush War (source)
Women of the Kataeb Party’s militia training during the Lebanese Civil War (source)
The FAL quickly became the battle rifle of choice to replace the aging arsenals of countries around the world from South America to South Africa, from India to Israel the FN FAL became known as ‘the right hand of the Free World’. It has been used in dozens of conflicts since the late 1950s and with over 2,000,000 manufactured it remains the standard service rifle of over a dozen countries.
The FN FAL Battle Rifle, B. Cashner, (2013)
EM-2 Concept & Design, T. Dugelby (1980)
The Great Rifle Controversy, E.C. Ezell, (1984)
Military Small Arms, I.V. Hogg & J. Weeks (1985)