The Fusil Automatique Léger, or Light Automatic Rifle, is a weapon which needs little introduction. Widely acclaimed as the “right arm of the free world”, it is a gas-operated, tilting breech design which has served countless nations, and seen innumerable conflicts. A Belgian design by the esteemed Dieudonne Saive, the FAL matured at the same time as the 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge, and the vast majority of rifles would be chambered in this round. However, in it’s nearly 70 year history, the FAL family has seen several fascinating variants which depart from the norms of the design. A few have been described below. Though there is a degree of technical and historical separation between the two “patterns” of FALs, Inch and Metric, variants stemming from both have been included here.
8mm Kurz FAL
A rifle exists for no other reason than to fire a round, and the the choice of what round to pair a new design with is a crucial one. Design work on the FAL began in the aftermath of WW2, and it was natural that early prototypes would look towards an established, effective cartridge. By war’s end, 8mm Kurz had earned itself a sterling reputation as an intermediate cartridge, far more effective at range than a pistol round, and far more controllable than a rifle round in full auto. First demonstrated in 1947, early FALs cambering this cartridge would prove impressive enough to merit further experiments in other cartridge.
The 8mm Kurz FAL. Though unusual to our modern eye, the rough form of the FAL can be clearly seen. (Credit to gunlab.net)
.280 British FAL
With the fundamentals of the design set, the rifle was paired with a newer, ostensibly forward-looking caliber, .280 British. Firing a 140gr bullet at 2400 fps, this was intended to be a compromise between the full power American T65 (later 7.62 NATO) cartridge, and an intermediate such as 8mm Kurz. Viewed as an excellent replacement for .303 British, work to convert the FAL into .280 had been completed by 1950.
The .280 FAL. Note that the rifle bears almost complete resemblance to a modern incarnation, barring a different flash hider, handguard, and lower receiver design. (Credit to Forgotten Weapons)
The FAL in .280, along with it’s counterpart the EM-2, competed to demonstrate the superiority of .280 over the American T65 cartridge, and the winner of these trials would presumably become the new NATO standard round. Unfortunately for .280, it’s lower velocity and lighter weight compared to T65 made it inferior in American eyes, and their superior political clout meant that NATO would adopt the T65 round as 7.62x51mm NATO in 1954.
Markings on the receiver illustrating “Automatic”, “Rapid”, and “Safe”. Controllability in automatic fire of .280 vs .308 was a prime point of consideration. Note also the bolt catch, which Inch pattern guns would later delete. (Forgotten Weapons)
As a point of conjecture, many people wonder if the US would have developed and adopted the AR-15/.223 combination if the FAL in .280 had been adopted. My assertion is that the AR-15 would likely have still been adopted, for though the .280 was superior to 7.62 NATO, the roots of the SCHV concept had already been laid by 1954. The AR-15 as a lighter, flatter shooting rifle would still have gained a great deal of traction, and it’s likely that a similar decision to halt production of the FAL-turned-M14 would have been made in 1964.
Bullpup .280 FAL
In pursuing a new infantry rifle, the British desired not only to replace their Lee-Enfield rifles, but also the plethora of submachine guns then in use. A necessary requirement for this would be for the new weapon to have a short overall length, something for which the bullpup configuration was an excellent choice. This is seen in the consideration of the EM-1 and EM-2 rifles, and the later adoption of the SA80 family. It should thus come as no surprise that a bullpup FAL was produced, chambered in .280 British. However, FN considered the design to be a dead-end, and development continued on the conventional pattern of FALs.
The .280 FAL prototype. The three-position selector suggests select-fire capability. (Credit to Forgotten Weapons)
After having driven NATO into adopting its 7.62x51mm cartridge, the US turned its attention towards replacing the venerable M1 Garand. Contenders included the Army’s homegrown T44 rifle, the forward-looking AR-10 design from Armalite, and a variant of the FAL, designated the T48. Drawing from earlier experiments with the rifles, around 3,200 T48 rifles were built, both by FN itself, and US companies Harrington & Richardson and High Standard Company. Though the rifle performed well, it was ultimately beaten out by the T44, which later became the M14. This decision remains contested to this day, with many alleging the Army was biased in their proceedings.
The rifle itself has an interesting set of features, in part stemming from Canadian and British influence on its design. Though it uses Inch pattern magazines, it retains the bolt catch which other Inch pattern rifles deleted. Similarly, it uses a gas block with open front sight ears similar to other Inch pattern rifles, while many rifles were supplied with select-fire capability, which was far more common amongst the Metric pattern. As with Canadian C1A1s, the dust cover has a stripper clip guide to allow the firer to top-off the inserted magazine.
An FN produced T48 rifle.
Detail of T48 receiver, stripper clip guide is clearly visible. (Credit to The FAL Files)
Winchester Salvo Rifle – the Duplex FAL
An uncomfortable lesson many countries learned from WW2 was that the marksmanship ability of the line infantryman was dismally poor, especially as ranges grew past 100 yards. Post-war, a number of countries launched programs to address this, and one camp held that the best solution was mechanical – that is, to provide more shots per trigger pull of the firer. Chief among these was the US Project Salvo, under which several prototypes firing multiple rounds per trigger pull were produced, featuring outlandish concepts such as multiple bullets per cartridge and double-barreled rifles.
Winchester Salvo Rifle, currently kept at Springfield Armory Museum
A combination of these two concepts was produced by Winchester in 1957, produced on a modified T48 receiver. The 11.8lb rifle featured two barrels, each with their own magazine and operated with a single bolt. A variety of ammunition types, produced by Olin, were based on 7.62mm NATO rounds necked down to 5.56mm bullets. Though weights of each round were lighter than “normal” (and as-of-yet uncreated) .223/5.56, in combination each duplex round had a higher mass than typical ball rounds, and comparable or superior velocity. When fed into the Winchester Salvo rifle, 4 bullets would be simultaneously fired by a single trigger press of the shooter.
Table showing Project Salvo ammunition type, duplex 5.56 shown in center. 5.56 duplex ammo had an average impact radius of 7″ at 150 yards. (Credit to Guns Holsters and Gear)
Australian L1A1 F1
With combat deployments in both the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam war, the Australians gathered a vast pool of experience on fighting in tropical environs. Much of the infantry’s work, particularly in Vietnam, was conducted with L1A1 rifles. Though certainly excellent weapons, their extremely long flash hiders added to the already considerable length of a full-sized SLR, a clear detriment in jungle fighting and when issued to small-statured users. Thus, the Australians produced a minor modification to their L1A1 rifles, the L1A1 F1, no later than 1967. This was a combination of the shortest buttstock available being paired with a redesigned flash hider which provides a measure of recoil compensation. Unfortunately, though the rifle was almost 3 inches shorter, it suffered a reduction in accuracy, and was only issued to Papua New Guinea and sold to the Royal Hong Kong Police.
L1A1 and L1A1 F1, note comparitive sizes, even though barrel length is identical. (Credit to Small Arms of the World)
ANZAC field-modified L1A1s
A far more radical variant of the FAL was that undertaken in the field to satisfy the desires of ANZAC SAS units. Though it’s ad-hoc nature meant that conversions were hardly uniform, it often consisted of cutting down the barrel of an L1A1 or L2A1, attaching an XM148 40mm grenade launcher, issuing larger 30 round magazines, and modifying the sear group of the L1A1 to permit firing fully automatic. Though the sound and concussive blast of 7.62 NATO firing from a cut-down barrel were considerable, this was considered to be a positive, as it helped small SAS patrols to gain fire supremacy in the opening moments of a firefight.
SASR patrol about to depart, note the modified L1A1/L2A1 amidst several AR-15 rifles.