Why the FAL is one of the most popular modern military battle rifles of all time
It's no secret that there are solid arguments against the American M4 rifle. Its "varmint" caliber chambering and fouling-prone gas impingement operating system have formed the foundation of complaints against the platform for decades.
In fact, U.S. Special Operations Command responded to those concerns in the early 2000s with the SOCOM Combat Assault Rifle program, which sought to replace aging M4 carbines with something more powerful and reliable. The one that was ultimately fielded turned out to be the Mk-17 SCAR Heavy battle rifle.
An Army Special Forces soldier armed with a Mk-17 SCAR-H, America's modern variant of a classic battle rifle. (Photo: USASOC via Flickr)
Chambered in 7.62x51 and feeding from detachable box-type magazines, the SCAR-H took the world-class ergonomics of the M4 and married them to a harder-hitting round and a more reliable operating method — a short-stroke, piston-driven action. The SCAR is an awesome weapon; literally every unit fielded with it raves about its performance, reliability, and incredibly-light recoil.
Plus, the short-stroke piston system is adjustable, so shooters can crank the gas to high if their SCAR becomes too dirty or fouled up in a prolonged firefight. This same system makes the platform more modular as well, since unlike the M4 it doesn't require a different buffer or spring with different barrel lengths.
With all the inherent advantages of the SCAR, it's hard not to wonder how someone didn't invent something like it before.
Except they did. In fact, the same company responsible for the SCAR's production and development designed a rifle with many of the same features more than 70 years ago – the FN FAL.
Irish soldiers armed with the FN FAL rifle in The Congo. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
For the uninitiated, the FAL or Fusil Automatique Leger (light automatic rifle), isn't some unknown prototype that never saw action. It was fielded by more than 90 countries, many of which belonged to NATO, earning it the nickname, "The Right Arm of the Free World."
Having seen more than 60 years of combat use, the FAL also holds the distinction of being one of the few rifles to be fielded by two opposing armies, including during the Falklands War where Argentine and British forces both wielded FALs. Hell, the FAL has been fired in anger on nearly every continent on Earth, cementing its reputation as a die-hard reliable battle rifle.
Given that much of America's war on terror groups takes place in the Middle East, it's important to note that Israel's armed forces, the IDF, equipped its soldiers with the FAL before replacing it with American-donated M-16 rifles.
In all fairness, some in the IDF claimed issues with the FAL in dusty and sandy conditions led to its replacement by the M-16. This claim should be viewed with heavy skepticism for several reasons, the largest being that no politician wants to be seen as the impetus behind equipping their military with, 'cheaper' equipment. Plus, the FAL served all over Africa without similar concerns emerging.
In fact, many believe the FAL should have been the rifle America adopted as its DMR for use in both the plains of Europe, and the Middle East.
British troops modified the receiver to accommodate optics. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Truth be told, the FAL isn't perfectly suited for the role as it ships from the factory. If it were to see even a small fraction of the developmental evolution of the M16, it would have been a world-class fighting rifle in no time.
For instance, as it arrives from the factory, the FAL lacks an optics rail, and the available solutions aren't suited to hard, combat use. However, the receiver itself could easily be modified by a competent engineer to incorporate a full-length, integral optics rail — much like the A3 version of the M4.
Just like the SCAR-H, the FAL features an adjustable gas block, similar heavy-duty box-type magazines and a robust, piston-driven action. The biggest difference between the FAL and the SCAR-H is the FAL's lack of a railed receiver and its weight.
The SCAR utilizes extruded aluminum to reduce both cost and overall weight. The FAL, however, uses steel stampings and a milled receiver. The FAL's use of all-steel components makes it very durable but also vastly heavier than the SCAR. Still, the mothballed M-14s that were pressed back into service post-9/11 were even heavier (especially with some of the accurizing chassis that were attached to them later).
Talk about harsh conditions...The FAL has also been the chosen weapons of many of the world's insurgent armies. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Another advantage of the FAL over the M14 is its ability to retain proper zero under harsh conditions. The M14 and its civilian counterpart, the M1A, both have a bad reputation for losing battle zero if the upper handguard is disturbed. Plus, since the rifle uses a hunting-style stock, the action needs to be bedded (essentially a fancy term for glued) into the stock to ensure it doesn't shift inside it.
Overall, the FAL is objectively a superior combat arm than the M14; one designed for harder use, while offering similar performance. The FAL isn't an ideal designated marksman rifle in its current form. But it could have been an incredible asset to infantry dealing with distant treats and priority targets.