Adopted by over 90 countries, the FN FAL (the Fusil Automatique Léger for Light Automatic Rifle,) is a semi-automatic produced by the Belgian armaments manufacturer Fabrique Nationale de Herstal (FN) correctly earned the nickname, “The right arm of the free world.” However currently only half of those 90 countries still issue the rifle in appreciable numbers. The rest have long since replaced the reliable battle rifle with lighter carbines firing smaller-caliber projectiles. Which begs the question, “is the FN FAL obsolete?”
Obsolescence should be an objective trait. However, firearms are more than the sum of their parts, and are in fact a system of components. This, plus the fact that firearms as a whole are considered mature tech, and the issue starts to become more subjective. Especially since it’s possible to upgrade portions of a design, and modernize it enough to stay relevant.
While this would be fairly easy to determine with something like computers or performance vehicles, it’s more difficult with firearms. After all, a black powder muzzle-loader is a terrible close quarters weapon, but in the hands of a marksman or a motivated insurgent, can be just as deadly to a single soldier as an M4 carbine decked out with all the latest tech.
So how does one determine if a military firearm is still relevant?
By examining how well it fills a specific role, and if it would be useful on a modern battlefield.
But before we get to that, a little background info is necessary to get a better understanding of the whole picture. The FN FAL was designed by Fabrique Nationale de Herstal from 1947 to 1953. Its design follows in the footsteps of the FN49. Both rifles ended up directly competing with the M14 and the G3 battle rifle in various military adoption trials.
So why was the FN FAL selected over competing designs?
Unfortunately, there’s no single answer, but rather a combination of logistic, political, and performance factors that influenced its adoption. Around the time of its development, NATO was looking to adopt a universal rifle among all its member nations, along with a standardized cartridge.
Initially, the British were leaning towards (and even adopted for a single month) the FAL and EM-2 in .280 British. However, America pressured NATO (and had some backroom agreements with England) in to adopting 7.62×51 NATO as its standard rifle round.
That said, the FN FAL took lessons learned in the Second World War, and applied them to this new rifle. Unlike some early auto-loading designs, the FAL feeds from detachable, box-type magazines. Few full-powered rifles of World War 2 fed from detachable mags, but those that did offered better adaptability to various combat roles, and faster reloading.
Another innovate design feature of the FAL, is its adjustable gas system. The recoil spring on any automatic firearm is designed to both delay the recoil impulse, and return the bolt to battery. If a firearm becomes too dirty, or the ammo available is simply too lightly-loaded to cycle the action, the shooter is stuck with an awkward single-shot rifle.
By allowing the shooter to adjust how much gas is syphoned back into the bolt/carrier, they can increase the backpressure to permit firing under less than ideal conditions. Civilians looking to buy an FN FAL today might not need this capability as often, but if they intend to run custom-loaded ammo, or a sound suppressor – the adjustable gas valve makes dialing their rifle to these very easy.
But back to the question at hand – is the FAL outdated and obsolete?
In general, I’d argue it’s not. Personally, any semi or fully-automatic rifle chambered in a battle-proven cartridge that feeds from a reasonably capacious detachable magazine that can function reliability without regular maintenance, is still a viable combat arm.
In my experience, most so-called, ‘outdated’ rifles that fulfil the criteria above, are only considered so because they were shoehorned into a role they were never designed for. For example, cutting the barrel of a select-fire FAL to eight inches and running it as a PDW for close quarters fighting just doesn’t make sense.
The combination of massive recoil, blinding/deafening muzzle blast and limited magazine capacity make it ill-suited to that role. Just as tossing a 40 times magnification scope on an MP5 wouldn’t make it a great DMR.
Thus, my response to the question is a semi-noncommittal, ‘it depends’.
If the question were framed as, “Is the FN FAL a suitable weapon to issue a modern military to replace all of its man-portable, shoulder-fired small arms?” I would say no, it’s not.
The FAL is a great rifle, but one that should be employed as part of a suite of small arms in a squad’s arsenal, to expand the unit’s adaptivity and combat effectiveness. Its 7.62mm cartridge makes short work of light barriers and enemies wearing light body armor at close range, but these ballistic advantages come at a price: weight.
Bigger rounds weigh more, and require more powder to propel at the same velocities as their smaller caliber counterparts. This translates into increased felt recoil, which makes light weapons like the FAL unsuited to automatic fire. (with exceptions like the heavy-barreled versions used by the Israeli military).
Really, the only thing about the FAL that’s outdated in my professional opinion, is its lack of integral Picatinny optics rail. Solid optic-mounting solutions from companies like DSA exist, but modern firearms need standardized optics rails built in to them.
That said, any engineer worth their salt could easily modify the FAL receiver to incorporate a rail, but for the sake or parts compatibility and cost of production/tooling, no company has made a production run of optics-friendly FAL rifles. Which is too bad, because frankly, if the FAL had a solid, integral rail, it would be a vastly superior DMR platform than the M14s pressed into service in the Middle East. But that’s a different story, for a different time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The FAL is one of those weapons that history will consider an “almost great” design because it was overshadowed by the quickly evolving market that included smaller caliber battle rifles capable of almost infinite modifications and refinement. As Jim says, the FAL’s lack of a Picatinny rail means that it in its current state it just cannot compete with even its own contemporary designs let alone modern ones. Although the 7.62×51 NATO round will definitely persist, gas platforms that use it are rapidly collecting around the AR style of rifle first proven to be effective by Reed Knight’s SR-25 and now built by many manufacturers so without the ability to easily mount the current variety of optical, red-dot and night-vision sighting systems and despite that the FAL is truly beautiful, effective, accurate and classy, it has seen its day.