The Fusil Automatique Leger, to give it its full name ('Rifle, Automatic, Light' in French
), was designed and built by Belgian arms manufacturer FN
from 1953 until the late 1970s, and was one of the most popular and widespread automatic rifles of the post-war period. Only derivations of the AK-47
surpassed it in terms of production quantity and geographic diversity. Unlike the AK-47, FN's design attracted few myths and was neither particularly famous or infamous, being simply a well-designed piece of technology. Only in the UK and other present and former Commonwealth countries does it have any brand recognition
amongst people who are not fascinated with firearms, and then only barely.
Its genesis was quite tortuous. After the German army's innovative MP42 bridged the gap between a full-sized rifle and a submachinegun, there was a great deal of enthusiasm in NATO to adopt a lighter, less powerful rifle round than the .303 and .306 used by Britain and America during WW2. Both rounds have been developed in the early part of the 20th Century and were simply overkill on the modern battlefield, their great range and power useless against concealed opponents and suppressive machine-gun fire. Unfortunately, whilst Britain and Canada were all for a small-calibre round, the US Army felt it would be more comfortable with a slightly smaller, yet no less powerful, version of the .306 cartridge used in the M1 Garand. The FAL was originally to have been chambered for the former, but American insistence on a high-powered round meant that the rifle was eventually almost invariably chambered for chunky 7.62x51mm bullets, which are nowadays usually used only in sniper rifles and machine guns. After a contest the FN FAL was overlooked in favour of the M14 as the US Army's standard rifle.
Britain adopted the rifle as the L1A1 SLR, and any British person over the age of 25 will be familiar with the weapon from news footage of Northern Ireland, the Falklands War and also from Action Man. And for that matter the UNIT soldiers in Doctor Who. So widespread was the FAL that, during the Falklands War, both British and Argentine forces used it as their main battle rifle; this was a curious state of affairs (although not unique, as both sides also used the Browning Hi-Power and the British Type 42 destroyer). To look at, the SLR was very long, black and intimidating, especially when fitted with a bayonet; whilst the AK-47 looked sinister, and the M16 appeared toy-like, the SLR looked understated but nonetheless brutal. It was serious, grown-up, in a way that most modern polymer-bodied bullpup rifles do not.
Whilst the FAL was accurate and powerful and capable of hitting man-sized targets at up to 600 metres, the heavy cartridge meant that the gun was also heavy, and in non-folding stock form, very long as well. The magazine capacity was twenty rounds, and soldiers were only expected to be able to carry 150 - 200 rounds apiece, not including extra rounds for machine guns. The British Army modified some 30-round Bren Gun magazines to fit, but the excessive weight and size of these magazines had a negative effect on the rifle's accuracy and handiness, and in any case this did not increase the soldier's individual loadout. Furthermore, the force of the round's whiplash in fully automatic fire easily threw the soldier's aim; the British Army modified their version to be semi-automatic only. (There were light machine gun versions of the FAL with heavy barrels and bipods, but these were prone to jams and overheating, lacking a quick-change barrel). For these reasons the Special Air Service adopted the lighter, 5.56x45mm Armalite AR-15 rifle as soon as it was developed, thus using the rifle several years before the US army adopted it as the M16. The volte-face on the part of the US Army with respect to the 7.62mm cartridge irked some NATO members.
By the 1980s the FAL had been replaced in Western armies by 5.56x45mm weapons, typically of bullpup design. The rifle is still available as a reserve, specialist, or training weapon, however, and many countries and military organisations around the world (particularly in former British colonies and commonwealth nations in Africa and the area around the Indian Ocean, and indeed India itself) still use the FAL. As a macabre testment to the rifle's effectiveness, Martin Bryant used a FAL during his Port Arthur massacre, achieving the highest bodycount for a spree killing not involving explosives.
Its major competitor was the Heckler and Koch G3; in comparison, the G3 was cheaper and easier for local firms to manufacture, but less accurate and with a heavier recoil. FN themselves ceased manufacturing the FAL in favour of the smaller FNC in 1977. The FAL nonetheless remains popular on the commercial, civilian market, especially in the US. Its status as an 'assault rifle' ensures that the vast majority of FN FALs sold in the States are actually remanufactured with American parts.