Accurate, reliable and powerful, the FN rifle was remarkably free of vices and built itself an enviable reputation, free from controversy. Alas, the 7.62mm NATO calibre it made famous (commercially adopted as the well known .308 Win.) has been overtaken in military circles internationally by the newer 5.56mm/.223. Now regarded as obsolescent, the FN rifle and the 7.62mm NATO calibre are now being put out to pasture world wide. Every cloud has a silver lining though, because this has meant that limited quantities of FN and SLR rifles have been released on the surplus market. Ordinary, suitably qualified citizens now have the opportunity to own one, and it is time to have a closer look at these fine rifles from the perspective of individual ownership.
The FN rifle saga actually began during the troubled years before the Second World War. The FN (Fabrique Nationale) plant in Belgium was actively working on a design for a new self-loading rifle, but then came 1939 and Belgium was invaded and over-run by Nazi Germany. The FN design engineers escaped to Britain, along with their plans and blueprints, and work on this new rifle continued. There was, of course, no prospect of it being adopted by anyone in the middle of a war (certainly not by the conservative British, at any rate), but after the cessation of hostilities the FN team moved back to Belgium, and in 1949 the new rifle was a commercial reality as the SAFN (Semi-Automatique FN). Bearing little superficial resemblance to the later FAL, disassembly of the SAFN shows how similar the breech mechanism and gas piston designs actually are. Produced in 7.9mm, .30-06, 7.65mm and 7mm calibres, the SAFN enjoyed a modest success in the immediate post-war era and was adopted by about ten different nations.
Then came the great Intermediate controversy. Most nations, from the experience gained during the war, had come to the conclusion that their traditional military rifle rounds (like the .303, .30-06 and 7.9mm) were needlessly powerful. The Germans had shown the way with their 7.9mm Kurz (or short) round in the MP-43 assault rifle, and it was realised that a less powerful round would allow rifles to be lighter, permit more ammunition to be carried, have less recoil and still be effective at all practical ranges at which the infantry rifle was normally employed. Such a round would have a power level between pistol rounds in sub-machine guns and the older too-powerful rifle rounds, hence the Intermediate term. The Russians lost no time in adapting their 7.62mm Intermediate round in the AK and SKS rifles, and the Western nations also started casting about for a suitable new calibre. FN were not slow on the uptake, and promptly modernised the basic SAFN design into the FAL form. They chambered it to fire the German 7.9mm Kurz round, and everyone was very excited about the new rifle and the Intermediate concept.
Everyone except the Americans, that is. They steadfastly refused to even consider this new heretical idea, and insisted on a full power .30 calibre rifle round. They designed a new round which was basically their old .30-06 cartridge shortened somewhat (but retaining virtually all the power of its parent), and forced it down everyone’s throats. This new round was to become the 7.62mm NATO. Nothing daunted, FN re-designed their modernised rifle to handle this new ammunition and the FN-FAL in 7.62mm NATO calibre was born.
It was an immediate and unqualified success. Adopted by some 90 nations, it was also the standard military rifle of the then Rhodesian army, and is still in use with some units of the Z.N.A. Zimbabwe is actually one of only a very few nations which still use rifles of 7.62mm NATO calibre, but even so a batch of old FN rifles was recently phased out of service and released to the surplus market. Also retired from service were quantities of S.L.R. rifles, which are the British equivalent of the FN, and both types have found their way into the eager hands of the buying public.