FN FAL Assault Rifle Review
The FAL was probably the second most common rifle in the world during the Cold war, and like the AK pattern rifles, has enjoyed a relatively recent popularity with the shooting community in the US. Almost all FALs currently on the market are in 7.62X51 NATO caliber and feed from a 20 round box magazine. Nearly all are semi-automatic, with a small number being select fire. Select fire is not even common on the military rifles since the .308/7.62 is not controllable in such a lightweight rifle on full auto and usually a waste of ammo. There are subtle differences in design and manufacture that prevent 100% interchangeability of parts and magazines among the rifles, but most operate about the same way with comparable sights and controls. Folding stock models have a slightly different operating system, but handling is almost identical to standard versions. Interestingly, the paratrooper models are often not lighter in weight than the standard models, just more compact.
One factor in the operation of the FAL is an adjustable gas system. This means there is a small knob near the gas block which is rotated to adjust the amount of pressure that is bled off from the piston assembly. The knobs have differences from manufacturer to manufacturer, but all serve the same purpose. Expect to also see some variations in the front sights and a wide variety of muzzle brakes, compensators and even grenade launchers. If adjusting the gas system will not give enough backpressure for reliability (usually only an issue with short barrels), it can become necessary to remove the sight post (not the entire sight assembly) and open up the gas port by drilling it out with a slightly bigger drill bit than the existing gas port hole.
Sight adjustment is a bit tricky on some models, with the “Inch” and “metric” patterns being different from each other. The British pattern rear sights are not just bad, they suck, and reduce the effective range of the rifle t below 300 yards in the real world (maybe even less) due to the fact that they have a lot of wiggle. The front sight, on the other hand, seems as good as any out there, with a sharp top edge to give good contrast. Metric rear sights are more solid, but often lack the range adjustments of the British sights. While most FAL sights can be adjusted with a Leatherman tool, certain metric sights require a specialized tool that is extremely rare. TAPCO has produced a combination tool for adjusting the sights and gas system on metric FALs. It is built of steel and should last a lifetime.
There are a few different scope mounts made for the FALs, and nearly all of them replace the top cover. Some fit better than others, but all of them lock in place semi-permanently and will complicate cleaning and maintenance once they are installed. DO NOT drop the hammer on a FAL before or during disassembly for routine maintenance if it has a scope mount top cover installed. If you do this, the hammer will get stuck in the forward position and is very tricky to recock so you can get the bolt group back in. The FAL has never been a successful sniper rifle, by western standards, but it is not entirely difficult to bring them up to an SVD / DMR standard. Note that mounting a scope on a FAL does not make it a sniper rifle. Also, the fairly thin barrel will heat up quickly under rapid fire, so the LSW role is not really a play either. Once the barrel warms up, it will begin to warp ever so slightly and accuracy deteriorates. This is what I think is the main reason the Russian SVDs only come with ten shot magazines. If you actually do fire 20 shots without stopping to reload (and cool the barrel), you will heat the barrel up and kill the accuracy of the system until it cools down again. As such, the only way to make a FAL into a real precision rifleman’s rifle is to install a premium barrel. That said, the guns are still more accurate than AKs on average, and can shoot more accurately at longer ranges (with appropriate sights) than your average AR in .223. Not so much because of superior rifle design, but because of the 7.62mm cartridge being inherently more accurate and less susceptible to wind drift. At shorter ranges, where the .223 round of the AR will not get much drop or wind drift, the AR will be more precise. Given that the iron sights on most FALs are of pretty inferior design, installing a scope is not a half bad way to bring the average FAL up to speed, just don’t expect it to instantly become a sniper’s long range gun because it has a scope. My suggestion is to set the scope for a 300 yard zero and not attempt to engage targets beyond 500 yards.
Oddly, it is one type of rifle that has actually fallen in price since the import bans of 1989 on nearly all models except for the “original” Belgian imports that were rare even in the late 1970s and 1980s heyday of the survivalist movement. One of the big limiting factors back then was the cost f the rifles, magazines and accessories. At at time when an AR15 could be had for $500, an HK 91 for $650, and M14s ranged from $400 for basic models to $900 for match grade versions, the Belgian FALs were a rich man’s game at $1200 each for most models, with available spare magazines being $35 each. Then came the Springfield Armory SAR-48, which broke the $600 price barrier and made the guns more reachable by the shooting public, but by that time, we were beginning to see the first waves of cheap Chinese imports of AKs, M14 clones and others that eclipsed the FAL on the US market. In all reality and adjusting for inflation, the FALs currently on the US market are the cheapest ever.
By the early 1990s, most NATO countries were in the midst of completing their “upgrades” to rifles in 5.56 mm that would take the standard M16 magazine. That produced piles of unwanted FALs that were not sellable to much of anyone. Even third world markets were flooded with the rifles and prices could drop below even $100 in parts of Africa.
Century Arms of St. Albans Vermont bought one of the first batches of surplus FAL derivatives from the Canadian Army and used parts from them to begin building new rifles combining US and Canadian parts to make “new” rifles in 1991. By 1992, they were hitting the market with mixed reviews. Many had been built with substandard and worn out parts by unqualified low wage employees at Century Arms. To add to the problem, they were forced by legal requirements to use a positively awful “thumbhole” stock made by the otherwise respectable firm of Bell & Carson. Typical cost of one of these rifles wavered in the low $600 range at retail, but as their reputation declined, they could be found as cheap as $450 in some places when the wholesale costs dropped below $400. Owners quickly figured out that while the guns came from the “factory” pretty messed up, a “parts kit” of surplus military parts could be obtained for $100 and a careful hobbyist could bring the gun into good working order. Full auto/select fire conversions on the guns are possible, but not common or desirable. Legal matters aside, the heavy recoil and lack of controllability on the rifle even prompted many militaries to disable the full auto function by using modified selector levers. While these modified levers can be ground down to allow the selector to go to the “auto” position on the commercially available rifles, the civilian models lack the internal parts to complete the mechanism, thus, flipping a modified lever to the auto position or installing a standard lever will not give you functional “full auto fire” or a “full auto conversion”.
The bolt catch on many FALs is modified to NOT hold the bolt open on the last shot. Operate it manually by holding the charging handle back and pushing the plunger up. All FAL mag releases work the same, push lever forward to release the back of the mag and rock it down and forward to remove. Replacing a “disabled” bolt catch with a standard model is fairly easy to accomplish with a standard screwdriver.
Insert a mag by first locking in the front tab, and then rock the rear of the magazine by rotating it up and to the rear. Note in this picture, the smaller lever in front of the mag release is actually a plunger for the bolt catch, with a tab for pulling it down to release the bolt forward. This is almost useless, and it is usually better to just use the charging handle to slingshot the bolt forward than fiddle with the little lever.
The current breed of FAL derivatives from Century Arms are of better quality than they used to be. While they still use a number of surplus British and Canadian components, there is an obvious improvement in quality control, and some modifications of the design. The R1A1 rifles use a precision cast receiver to cut down on production cost, which seems to not take anything away from accuracy or performance. They also now use a more conventional style stock, albeit the butt stock lacks a sling attachment point of any type. Earlier L1A1 sporters lacked sling attachments of any kind. All of the Century Arms FAL derivatives I have seen use the “Metric” pattern magazines however, NOT, the “inch” pattern mags that were normally used by the Brits, Australians an Canadians.
Another quirk about the current batch of Century Arms FALs (designated R1A1) is that they do not come with a rear sling attachment point of any type. Other than that, the furniture is in the Canadian pattern, but without the pebble grain finish. One good thing about this arrangement is that you are open to installing just about any sling arrangement you want. My suggestion is a side mount swivel stud from Uncle mike’s. Watch out where you drill because the stock is hollow, and hitting a screw or a really thin part will interfere with installation of the swivel stud. It is best to dig through your selection of swivel studs and use one of the shorter ones made for screwing into a wood stock.
While all of the current breed of Century Arms guns have the same long barrel as their European counterparts, many American shooters see this as more of a design flaw than a benefit. The long barrel makes the rifle ungainly in close quarters, and does little to enhance accuracy since the barrel harmonic is not so great when the barrels heat up. Fortunately, most makers and assemblers of parts kits are including effective muzzle brakes. A FAL with no muzzle brake can be downright punishing to shoot due to heavy recoil. One common modification is cutting the barrel or installing a shorter barrel. Watch out that you don’t go too short or you can run into problems with lack of enough gas pressure to run the action.
The Paratrooper models were actually not commonly used by any large military, but have proven popular in South America where the smaller stature people gained a liking for the shorter rifle. Americans will often favor the short barrel, but with the longer stock. The Para model uses a different system of springs to operate the action since the normal recoil system of a FAL is housed in the buttstock. The Para system is housed in the topcover and thus, needs to be more compact. One net result is a trade-off of more a more convenient and portable package for a rifle that recoils even more. This is one of the reasons you will rarely (if ever) see precision optics on a paratrooper FAL. If you ever do put optics on a paratrooper FAL, use something that is extremely durable and can handle the recoil. The stock latch mechanism is a bit tricky to close, but once you get the hang of it, you can close the stock in seconds. Unfolding the stock is easy, just give it a good yank outward and pull all the way straight to lock it in place. Note that the sling swivel on a PARA lower is mounted on the left side of the stock hinge, but it is no problem to just loop the sling through the upper tube of the stock if you want a longer pull on the sling.
The Para FAL is one of my personal favorites for portability, but for handling, the better ones seem to have a shorter barrel and the standard fixed butt stock. This picture illustrates the size relationship between the Para FAL and a standard AK. You can imagine that an AK with a side folder would be about the same length, an AK with a down folder type stock would fold up to be more compact. The advantage of the FAL Para folder is that once it is locked in the open position, it is 100% secure, with no wiggle and probably more strength than most fixed stocks. Note, however, that the Para FAL saves on size, but not on weight.
While the rifles are readily available on the current market since most models comply with the 1994 crime bill in the US, and nominally can be made to comply with various restrictive state laws, the supply and low prices could be cut off if there is a significant change in the parts import situation or a renewal of the AW ban in 2004.
The current value of the average FAL on the US market is directly tied to the quality of manufacture and performance of the rifle, not any particular value assigned by rarity or legal status. That is what makes the average FAL a sound investment for the collector, and a survivor can use one as a utility rifle with no special regard for “ruining” a collector value. A FAL is sufficiently accurate for hunting and retreat defense and can serve satisfactorily in several different roles with little modification . Thus, the FAL has proven to be one of the most highly recommended rifles for use by survivalist groups in the US and Canada.
|Cost – Low (home built around $400) to high (preban Belgian guns around $2500) Average guns on the US market are around $600. Most better models that are current production will run around $1000. A typical Century Arms rifle will price around $500 retail.||Accessories – a smaller selection of accessories is available for the FAL than the AK and AR type rifles, but what is available is pretty much sufficient for the market at fairly reasonable prices. Major changes in configuration are another story as they can be more costly and difficult.|
|Mags – cost is very low and availability is high. Watch out for metric/inch compatibility issues and damaged mags in batches of cheap surplus. Some mags will not work with some rifles even though they appear to be compatible. Take advantage of low prices to buy lots of mag to test with your rifles and keep the ones that work, sell off or discard the ones that will not.||Longevity and durability – The guns are built largely of steel and plastic. Apart from many models being made from 50 year old parts, the guns should easily last the lifetime of the owner, if not for several generations with normal maintenance. The FAL was designed for harsh battlefield conditions and makes an excellent backwoods rifle.|
|Ammunition – Cost is moderate, availability is very high. You can find .308 Win at just about any sporting good store that sells ammunition and it will almost always work with the rifle. There are on and off supplies of very reasonably priced NATO surplus 7.62 ammunition on the market. Note, this is NOT compatible with 7.62mm (7.62X39) AK ammo.||Power – the 7.6mm NATO cartridge is the benchmark of full power battle rifles. The FAL lacks nothing in long range power. Recoil will be an issue for some people, but the rifle will handle nearly all varieties of 7.62 NATO and .308 Winchester ammo. Will defeat most common body armor and even the skins of light armored vehicles at close range. Capable of felling most game animals.|
|Parts – low cost, moderate availability. The parts market is served by a relatively small number of vendors who are supplied by very cheap military surplus, thus prices can be low, but not many sellers wish to compete with the low prices of the core vendors and importers. Actual new production upgrade parts cost on a par with other new production gun parts of comparable quality but that can lead to sticker shock for those who have been conditioned by the cheap prices of surplus guns and parts.||Ergonomics and handling – arguably as good as anything out there. There is little “handicap” for left hand use, but unfortunately, no known commercial availability of an ambidextrous safety. Controllability on full auto is bad, so consider it a semi-auto only rifle. Several variants are much longer than they should ever have been which can make them rather ungainly for use in close quarters. Recoil can be an issue in a lot of these rifles with the Para models having a stiffer kick than standard versions. It is definitely a man’s gun and not for the gentle of touch.|
|Reliability – Depends a lot on the particular rifle, but the design is sound and the guns are usually reliable, or can be tweaked to become reliable. There are minor variants that do better in some environments than others and the standard stock models seem to be a little less temperamental than the Para models which use a slightly different recoil spring system.||Maintenance and repair – The rifle is relatively easy to maintain and repair. Watch out for compatibility issues among various parts makers and surplus from different countries that never anticipated a need for compatibility.|
|Accuracy – Usually good, but nothing to brag about. This is limited by poor sight design and barrels which are vulnerable to overheating. Both problems can be dealt with by using custom barrels and or adjusting tactics to work around the rifle’s limitations. I can only conclude that the British claim of 40 to 60 well aimed shots per minute rate of fire from their L1A1 variant is either a lie or a fantasy.||Popularity – The FAL and variants are still used by several militaries worldwide, although it has been dropped as a primary rifle by most modern western armies. Several survivalist groups recommend the FAL to members.|