FN 5.7 Pistol Review

FN 5.7 Pistol

Steeped in controversy over its release to the public, the innovative FN 5.7 (pronounced Five-Seven) is aptly named for its unique cartridge.   This numeric naming system reminds me of the way SAAB changed the names of their cars in the late 1990s.   Like the SAAB 9-3 Viggen is to sports cars,  the 5.7 pistol is an item of entirely European concept and design that departs from the ordinary.

The 5.7 pistol is not anything like any pistol previously produced by FN Herstal, or any other regular firearms manufacturer for that matter.   Oddly, the gun appears to not only take its design cues, but much of its mechanics from airsoft guns.   Given the suggested retail prices running just short of $1000 on the US retail market, one can easily contemplate the Belgian social programs and subsidies that are covered within the “production costs” of these guns when a comparable airsoft gun built with similar materials and similar technology will sell for around $200.

The metalwork on the 5.7 is best described as “high tech crude”.   MIM castings in this weapon’s components are as rare as forgings in most guns that were “modern” by 1990s standards.   The slide is an unfinished sheet metal stamping that is covered in a thick plastic sleeve that encloses the entire slide front to back.   The grip frame involves a much more abbreviated steel skeleton than the now “old” Glock and HK designs and there appears to be no metal at all below the trigger.   All of this plastic makes the gun very lightweight.   Tipping the scale comfortably under a pound, a 5.7 fully loaded runs about the same as a Glock 17 pistol empty.    Adding the Streamlight M6 gives the gun a much better balance.

The grip is long but narrow to accommodate the unique magazines without making the gun uncomfortable.    The feel of the gun reminds me a lot of the Grendel P-30 which was a pistol ahead of its time and I think the inspiration for the development of the 5.7.   The P-30 used a 30 shot magazine loaded with .22 magnum ammunition but the grip on that gun still felt a bit blocky which was not so good in most hands considering that it was necessarily long to accommodate the longer rounds.   The five seven double stack magazine is only slightly wider than the single stack magazine of a 1911 .45 but it is long from front to rear like the magazine of a CZ-52.   The grip of the pistol is only slightly larger than the magazine so it does not have much of the blocky feeling of the CZ-52.

No small amount of the controversy surrounding the public release of this once restricted access pistol is related to the fact that the hyper velocity cartridge used in this pistol was specifically engineered to defeat body armor.   Apart from that unique quality, the round shoots on a very flat trajectory and has the impact characteristics of the .223, or more accurately, the .22 hornet which is an esoteric underpowered centerfire cartridge that although slightly outmatching  the capabilities of the 5.7X28, has never had any controversy in its utility to defeat body armor although it has never been used in an automatic pistol. ..22 hornet revolvers have been on the market for decades along with automatic pistols chambered in 7.62X25 which is well known to defeat body armor.  Neither has been classed as having much stopping power by American standards, but this is indicative of the different weapon philosophies between the US and Europe.    The vast majority of gunfights in the US involve rather unsophisticated unarmored individuals shooting it out at conversational distances where a wounded combatant can still inflict lethal damage on his opponent.    Thus, US experts study pistols as fight stoppers.  Europeans on the other hand study battlefield experience where the conflict is primarily between tactically sophisticated combatants at longer ranges.   The pistol to them is a portable last ditch weapon for people who otherwise would either have a rifle or not normally use a weapon in the course of their duties (sound familiar?).   They are more concerned with range and penetration of cover than stopping a fight at conversational distances.   Thus, they have favored cartridge designs that can penetrate armor like steel helmets and offer rifle-like trajectory at moderate ranges.   What these armor piercing rounds have lacked is significant stopping power, according to American ballistics experts.   This is based on mathematical formulas of bullet weight and velocity, although practical tests against targets simulating flesh are demonstrating that the SS190 and SS192 rounds deliver destructive power that is well beyond what the formulas would predict.

The 5.7 cartridge  is an attempt at having the best of both worlds.   It is designed like the .223 to “yaw” (tumble) after a short amount of soft tissue penetration or immediately after penetrating a hard surface.   In my personal tests, the SS192 hollowpoint bullets will often deform and tumble when hitting a thin aluminum pop can.    I have not seen this behavior from any other bullet fired from any other gun.     I would normally see a fairly standard bullet holes in pop cans shot with any other bullets from any other gun.    IE, a 9mm bullet, whether it is solid or hollowpoint would make roughly 3/8″ round holes in both sides of a pop can.    .22LR and standard .223 bullet holes would be identical, through both sides of a pop can.    SS192 holes however, show a standard entrance and a jagged ragged exit, shredding the back of the can.    This demonstrates that the bullet would destabilize wildly upon contact with just about any surface although my informal test results are inconclusive.    I will be testing this cartridge combination against some body armor and will publish the results in the future, although others have tested SS192 ammunition against level 2 and 3A body armor and claim that it penetrates.   The destructive power retained by the bullet after penetrating armor remains in question since if the bullet loses shape and significant velocity upon penetration of the armor, it may have little power left to cause major damage to the wearer of the armor.   This is the primary reason why the old Soviet 7.62X25 cartridge and .30 carbine cartridges have not been incorporated into many newly designed military weapons anywhere in the world although both are capable of being used in some handguns and submachineguns.

It should be noted that while considerable research and development has gone into the 5.7 ammunition, there is very little real world data on the stopping power of the 5.7 round and the stopping power of the .223 is disputed.  This is complicated by the fact that the primary ammunition for this pistol (a solid nose SS190) remains restricted to use by government agencies and the ammunition that has been made available on the civilian market is quite different.   The “civilian legal” round has not been on the market long enough to have results one way or the other, and it is much less likely to be used by the government agencies that would be compiling data on the lethality of the cartridge.   Recent restrictions on the distribution of the SS192 hollowpoint ammunition bring further question to the utility of the 5.7 cartridge for survivalists if suitable combat ammunition is not going to be available to non-government users.

The civilian legal ammunition for the 5.7 pistol is the same as the “training ammunition” used with the P-90 submachinegun and earlier restricted variants of the 5.7 pistol.   The bullet is roughly the same profile as a 45 grain .223 bullet, but comes with an aluminum core and most of the front of the bullet is a hollow cavity in the jacket with an open tip.   It is not like normal expanding hollowpoint designs.   It appears that when the bullet strikes a target, the shape of the bullet will allow for penetration to a short depth, then the bullet jacket will collapse in one direction or another which will turn the bullet into something of a bent angular shape that will flop end over end until its energy is expended.   As the bullet will flatten and turn sideways, it will gain surface area and deliver more shock along an irregular path inside the target than a conventional small sharp bullet that would just pass through.   This is unlike normal hollow points which will expand in something of a flower shape as the bullet tip opens up as it encounters resistance in the body of the target.    The 5.7 SS190 combat round which is currently restricted to government agencies will tumble in a similar manner, but since the nose of it is solid, it can retain its shape and not begin to tumble until it has penetrated a little further, and since the nose will not collapse as readily, it has superior armor penetration to the SS192 hollow tip.   The big issue on the physics of bullet design and the advantage of the 5.7 is that the hollow tip bullet will deform and tumble 95%+ of the time upon impact while normal hollow pointed expanding bullets commonly fail to expand upon striking targets after passing through soft material, losing velocity or hitting at a slight angle.   While the theory of the 5.7 is sound, the application remains a mystery in part because the government agencies that are using it are very secretive about their operations and are not sharing data to the public about their shooting incidents.   What does seem evident is that the 5.7 pistols are apparently only seeing use as special purpose weapons and as companion weapons to the P-90, not as general issue with anybody.   The guns are, however, quite popular with dealers and vendors who seek government contracts.   I suspect part of that popularity is due to the profit potential these guns may represent to well connected dealers because the manufacturer has a lot of profit margin to play with when it comes to sales commissions and advertising money.   As I had stated before, these pistols cannot “cost” over $200 each to produce, and in reality may cost as little as $50 each to produce once tooling costs are recovered.

There has been a legal and political fallout accompanying the 5.7 pistol due to the fact that it utilizes a high capacity magazine and the nominal armor penetrating capabilities of the SS192 ammo at short ranges.   The best line I have read is a reference to the 5-7 pistol as the “assault rifle that fits in your pocket”; perhaps overstated, but impressive in relaying the concept.  Note, however, that the SS192 does not retain nearly the armor piercing ability of the SS190 cartridge, and cannot qualify as armor piercing ammunition under federal guidelines.   First, the bullets are technically within the range of .22 caliber, second, the bullets are not made of or contain metals in the necessary amounts to qualify as armor piercing ammunition.   The official ATF position on the FN pistol and ammunition can be found at this link.   Note, however, that FNH has decided to withhold SS192 ammunition from public distribution in spite of the fact that ammunition is still legal for civilian use.    The SS192 is being replaced by another commercial cartridge with a 40 grain bullet that is designated the SS196.  The SS196 suffers from a significant loss in velocity and will not penetrate level II body armor.   I have not had a chance to test this ammunition yet, but the ballistic information on it appears suspiciously similar to .22 magnum, a cartridge that few people have ever taken seriously as a combat round.

From a survivalist standpoint, it is too early to tell if the 5.7 will have any practical purpose apart from being a curiosity piece that puts many law enforcement groups on the edge of shock and awe if a survivor or small group is equipped with these pistols.   Again in theory, the cartridge is a practical answer to the ever more fashionable shortening of guns chambered for the .223 Remington rounds because the 5.56 NATO ammunition was originally engineered to get its full powder burn in a  20″ barrel.   Thus,  many survivalists look at the handgun as a backup weapon to the rifle,  and while not carrying any firearms regularly,  seek the utility of a single portable weapon that can have some extended range performance.    Such weapons need to be small and lightweight, yet retain enough power to be of utility for both subsistence hunting and defense against determined and tactically sophisticated adversaries.   With AR15 pattern pistols, Krinkov variants and even some custom revolvers running the .223 in barrels down to 8″, we have to look at what will happen when using that round in a portable format.    The .223 is only marginally practical in automatic pistols that are in an “assault pistol” configuration and are not very concealable, even more notable is the fact that the 5.56X45 cartridge is inefficient in anything with a barrel shorter than 14″.   The primary appeal of .223 assault pistols is that users can simplify ammunition and spare parts supplies with their carbines and come up with weapons that will often perform better than similar weapons in traditional pistol calibers.   The issue with the cartridge originally designed to be fired through a much longer barrel is that you simply end up wasting energy from the cartridge in a louder bang and muzzle flash instead of in the barrel propelling the bullet.   That is why such short barreled  “assault pistols” tend to be a hell of a lot louder than rifles that use the same ammunition.   The utility of a pistol with rifle like capabilities is definitely worth looking into and if a development team were looking to reduce the flash and noise signature of such weapons down to a more reasonable level,  then cartridges like the .30 carbine, 10mm, .357 SIG and 5.7X28 come into play because they can be tuned to achieve full powder burn in shorter barrels.   The 5.7 cartridge for example, is tuned to achieve its maximum efficiency in the 10″ barreled P-90 subgun, but it will be interesting to see how the performance will be in the semi-auto 16″ barreled P-90s due to arrive on the scene in late 2005.

First, the gun is very lightweight, has a large capacity magazine, and shoots on a flat trajectory well over 100 yards.   Questions remain how well the civilian ammunition performs against body armor or what stopping power it has, but according to many government fears of the public eventually gaining access to the restricted ammunition and the performance of the “unrestricted” ammunition being comparable but at shorter ranges, the gun may prove to be a valid tool when the user is faced with a technologically advanced and tactically savvy adversary who may be using cover, body armor and movement techniques that would have to be dealt with by employing a weapon capable of penetrating armor and putting out the volume of fire that tends to be needed to win the more dynamic confrontations between skilled adversaries.

From a collection standpoint, a lot of people think it is just a matter of time before these pistols become restricted items again and will subsequently go up in value as an investment.   Given that they are vastly overpriced to begin with, there is also some question on whether or not they would simply flood the market and drop in value, or really hit the floor in value due to the fact that the ammunition can only be obtained through one manufacturers supply chain and that manufacturer has already restricted availability of some items without a government mandate to do so.  Thus, anyone who buys one of these pistols would be well advised to secure a supply of the ammunition while it is still available, but it is plausible the ammunition could drop in price if it becomes more popular.   It could, in theory, drop to the levels of 9mm since it uses less component material to manufacture.

Longevity of the gun is highly in question.  Lets face it, plastics don’t last as long as steel, and we are beginning to see component failure on Glocks that were made in the 1980s and have been subjected to various treatment over the years.   On that note the 5.7 is not an heirloom grade pistol like the Browning FN Hi-power or 1911 variants on the market.   The 5.7 is, however, definitely a “right here right now” happening item in the gun world and could quite possibly be the future of combat handguns.

I don’t think the Five-seveN is going to be a major hit with the paramilitary market, but it might well find a niche as a survival gun.  The system set up for 24 hour shooting is very lightweight and compact.   While not exactly an “assault rifle that fits in your pocket”, the piece is a lot of firepower in a small package, assuming you are not going to be taking on a platoon of paratroopers.   It gives better range and accuracy than most handguns while a total system weight of the gun with five magazines is less than half the weight of just about any usable .22 magnum survival rifle on the market.   This weight savings is very appealing to backpackers and travelers who are sticklers for traveling light, but don’t want to compromise their capability to deal with hostile predators or do some subsistence hunting.

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Cost – Entirely out of whack considering the actual production costs and materials used in the pistol.    Dealers often sell the gun at a very nominal markup and it still seems vastly overpriced for what it is.   FN easily trumps HK in the contest to overprice their product for the civilian market. Accessories – The integration of a well designed Picatinny rail on the pistol opens up a lot of options in the long term.    In the short term, there is not much available specifically for the gun.   Owners must either be satisfied with general fit holsters or get them custom made.
Mags – Definitely a weak point in the system.  Reliable and practical, but only available from one source.   Some dealers and vendors are stocking up on  mags for this pistol.  Prices are on the high side of reasonable.    We are stocking the mags at for immediate shipment. Longevity and durability – Unknown at this time, but not promising for long term use considering the extensive use of plastics in the construction of the gun.  Short term harsh environment longevity might actually be pretty good due to the lack of parts that are vulnerable to rust.
Ammunition – Difficult to obtain and expensive.  The situation is unlikely to improve  unless more manufacturers sell guns chambered for the 5.7 cartridge.  Most ammunition for this pistol has become obscenely expensive on the open market. Power – Questionable stopping power, but holds a lot of promise, especially as a midrange survival pistol.   The power of the bullets fired from this pistol are roughly equal to .22 magnum fired from a long barreled rifle.   The rare and costly hollow point bullets will even tumble when they hit a pop can, so there is some real potential for stopping power with this gun if the ammo supply gets sorted out right.
Parts –  Spare parts for the gun are practically unavailable. Ergonomics and handling – Excellent, although the safety takes some getting used to.   Extreme care must be exercised when handling this pistol because the safety can be inadvertently flicked on and off, even when inserting it in a holster.
Popularity – The 5-7 is not a popular gun and at current prices is not likely to ever become popular with the general public.   It is likely to be well recognized due to the notoriety that some gun control groups are giving it and the guns have gained some interest with specialized law enforcement and security personnel.    The price of the pistols and ammunition makes it unlikely that they will ever see common use by criminals as feared by some law enforcement and gun control groups. Maintenance and repair – The clean burning powder and largely plastic construction makes this a particularly low maintenance pistol.   The lack of any cost effective availability of spare parts can be cause for concern.   Very few, if any gunsmiths who work in the private sector are schooled specialists in working on this pistol.
Accuracy – Seems good for man sized targets out to 50 meters, and probably 100 in the hands of a capable shooter.   The gun is quite usable on small to medium game out to 50 meters. Reliability – The test specimen has been 100% reliable.   We have not heard of any of these guns suffering from reliability problems.

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