FN P90 Personal Defense Weapon Review

Times are changing very quickly for police agencies. Criminals today are more determined, not afraid of the judicial system, better armed, and well equipped with items such as personal body armor, radios, and protective (gas) masks. As a result, agencies are expressing the need for lightweight, compact, ambidextrous, and easy to use weapons which fire a cartridge that will be effective against the modern criminal, but not pose the liability risk of a rifle. FN Herstal took notice and developed a weapon system called the FN P90 Submachine Gun to address all of these issues.

This weapon system may be classified as a Personal Defense Weapon (PDW), which is typically a military designation, or as an entry/containment weapon useful in the law enforcement arena.

I seized the opportunity to observe, handle and fire the FN P90 at the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) Regional Conference held in Dayton, Ohio, this past July. I readily admit the futuristic design left me somewhat skeptical; however, my skepticism dissolved after firing only a handful of ammunition. The more I fired the FN P90, the more I admired its futuristic design and unique capabilities.

I will discuss the FN P90’s unique characteristics by focusing on the following categories in order to logically discuss the weapon: ergonomics, mechanism, safety, ejection, magazine, versions, sighting system, ammunition, maintenance, and accessories.

Ergonomics: The FN P90 is very compact (the overall length is 19.7 inches; the width is only 2.2 inches; and the height, including the optical sight, is 8.3 inches). The entire weapon system only weighs 6.6 pounds with a completely loaded 50 round magazine affixed. Not only are the dimensions impressive, the weapon also has smooth sides (there are very few areas which will snag on gear or objects located in the tactical arena). Even fitted with the 50 round magazine, the FN P90 is easy to carry in enclosed areas and store in patrol vehicles. This weapon system takes the term ambidextrous to a new level. The P90 is truly ambidextrous: The safety, charging handle, sling attachment and magazine release functions are identical for either right- or left-handed officers.

The FN90 does look a bit blocky, but it is very comfortable to shoot due to the “bullpup” type configuration (it is very conducive to a steady lockup in the shoulder pocket). Furthermore, the stock essentially has two “thumbholes” – one is a conventional thumbhole built into the stock’s midsection while the other is designed in conjunction with the trigger guard and makes a sort of rounded foregrip. The operator’s hands are held one in front of the other in a straight line. The weak hand thumb is inserted into the front of the trigger guard and the fingers are wrapped around a foregrip while the firing hand thumb is inserted into the stock’s thumbhole and the trigger finger rests on the safety selector, trigger or along the frame. The front foregrip also has an indentation for the weak hand fingers to rest and serves the very important function of blocking, in order to prevent the shooter from extending parts of the weak hand in front of the muzzle.

Thus, the bullpup type configuration and thumbholes readily align the weapon in the proper position for both automatic fire and proper quick reaction response firing (essentially, the shoulders are rolled inward with the elbows). This position does two things: First, it provides a natural shoulder pocket for the weapon to settle into; and second, the elbows pointing inward shift the weapon into the centerline of the shooter’s torso, preventing the weapon from “crawling” out of the shoulder pocket, especially during automatic fire. This “centerline” position also provides the ultimate foundation for recoil control and recovery.

Mechanism: The FN P90 features a straight blowback mechanism designed to operate in the most rigorous field conditions. The weapon can be fired via a safety selector switch in a semiautomatic or full automatic mode (with a 900 rounds per minute rate of fire). Firing is from a closed bolt for maximum accuracy (many other submachine guns suffer from open bolt mechanisms which cause a delay in the firing chain and disturb the aiming process as the bolt slams forward). Furthermore, open bolt systems often allow debris to enter the chamber area which often generates malfunctions. I fired several hundred rounds through the weapon and it never once failed to fire. I also watched a number of officers shoot the system for several hundred more rounds with the same result.

Safety: The FN P90 is fitted with an ergonomic safety selector switch which is accessible from the right or left side. The safety is located inside the trigger guard, just below the trigger (just where it should be). This is important since many weapon systems require the shooter to move the firing hand to a position which prevents the immediate firing of the weapon. Not only does moving the firing hand prevent (or slow) immediate action, but it requires the shooter to reacquire a proper firing grip which is not always easy to do in exigent circumstances. A safety sear blocks the hammer until the bolt is fully forward. Plus, there is no risk of accidental firing if the weapon is dropped.

The P90 safety selector switch has three positions: The first position is marked “S” for safe; the second position is marked “1” for semiautomatic only; and the third position is marked “A” for semiautomatic/full automatic. When the P90 safety selector switch is placed in the “A” position, the weapon may be fired in a semiautomatic mode or full automatic mode via a two-stage trigger (the first stage of the trigger provides the operator with semiautomatic fire, and pulling the trigger through to the second stage provides full automatic fire).

Ejection: Empty cases are ejected downward and are not a hazard on the range or in tactical operations where fellow officers are working close together. Downward ejection also prevents unburned powder, bullet particles, and case shavings from blowing into the shooter’s eyes.

Magazine: The 50 round magazine is made of a translucent polycarbonate. The magazine sits horizontally directly on top of the weapon just below the operator’s cheek and does not protrude at any angle. This position, in combination with the translucent material, allows for an instant ammo check.

Versions: The P90 TR (triple rail) incorporates an optional accessory rail (if the secure mounting of a tactical light or external laser is desired). Another version, known as the LV or LIR, fully integrates a laser sight into the weapon’s receiver. This integration causes no changes to the weapon’s outer shape, balance or ergonomics.

Sighting System: The FN P90’s standard sight is an integral sight, without magnification, for improved acquisition of the target. Performance is fully retained in low light conditions. A tritium capsule provides an aiming crosshair. A wide variety of other day and night sights can also be fitted to the weapon.

Ammunition: The FN P90 is chambered for a unique cartridge – the 5.7 x 28mm. This round is a 1.6 inch long bottlenecked cartridge and weighs 93 grains. This cartridge propels a projectile weighing 31 grains at a muzzle velocity of 2,346 feet per second. Furthermore, this round generates a low recoil impulse (40% less than a 9mm.) The low recoil impulse is also made possible by a very effective muzzle break – ported at the top and solid on the bottom. Muzzle flip and rise are essentially nonexistent. Several shooters (including myself) kept all of the rounds on a standard silhouette target from a distance of nearly 50 yards on full automatic mode. It was so easy to hit the target in the head area using the semiautomatic mode that the process was almost boring. Remember, all of the officers had never fired or handled this weapon before. This low recoil impulse makes training easier, and provides quick follow-up shots and controlled bursts.

This round also generates a flat trajectory, enhancing accuracy and allowing a high hit ratio out to 200 meters. The 5.7 x 28mm will penetrate soft body armor up to Level IIIA. The full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet is designed to be stable during flight, but goes “base over nose” inside the target, greatly improving terminal ballistics (target incapacitation) and avoids overpenetration. The 5.7 x 28mm can also be ordered in subsonic loads, training rounds, nonexpanding, hollow points, and tracers.

This round really shines because it fills the niche between pistol calibers and rifle calibers. For example, pistol calibers are generally too anemic for use in more distant containment roles and offer poor performance in comparison to the size of many submachine guns and carbines. Further, traditional rifle calibers are often considered capable of launching overpenetrating bullets which may endanger the public at greater distances, especially if misses occur.

Maintenance: The FN P90 is constructed from a mix of steel and synthetic materials which strive to make it as rustproof and maintenance-free as possible. Of course, no weapon is entirely maintenance-free and, when the time does come for operator maintenance, the disassembly and reassembly process is simple and logical. Few officers will have difficulty completing the process. The P90 is easily broken down (without the use of tools) into six major groups (including the magazine.)

Accessories: The FN P90 can be ordered with a triple rail, sound suppressor, tactical light, laser (visible and infrared), carrying sling, cartridge catcher, and cleaning kit. More accessories will be made available in the future. The sound suppressor for the P90 is an external system made of steel and aluminum, weighs 0.88 pounds, and is 7.9 inches long and 1.6 inches in diameter. Unlike most companies, FN developed the weapon, suppressor and ammunition at the same time to ensure an optimized system in function, noise reduction and accuracy.

In conclusion, the FN P90’s ergonomics, firing mechanism, safety, ejection operation, magazine, accessory rail, sighting system, ease of maintenance, and ammunition make the weapon not only unique, but extremely effective. The FN P90 is lightweight; is stowed easily; can be carried hands-free; can be used to rapidly acquire and engage targets; and has a high hit probability. This weapon is effective in extremely close quarters (vehicles, buses, rooms, buildings, aircraft and ships.) Indeed, the FN P90 can even be operated with one hand, if necessary. Furthermore, this weapon is also at home in more open terrain to distances well beyond 100 meters. I can think of few other weapons which impressed me so quickly and completely. Needless to say, improvements will be hard to develop. Indeed, FN is actively working on a handgun which fires the 5.7 x 28mm cartridge. This submachine gun/handgun team will provide officers with a truly impressive firepower capability.

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