It could have the United States’ main battle rifle. Instead, it became “the right arm of the free world.”
Name a war, revolution, or revolt during the Cold War that involved the British Commonwealth, Western European nations or their allies and you found the Fabrique Nationale FAL in the hands of the soldiers fighting the battles.
No wonder the FAL earned its nickname and became a symbol of the struggle against Communism.
Starting immediately after World War II, FN produced two million copies of the Fusil Automatique Léger—or Light Automatic Rifle. More than 90 nations adopted the weapon. At one time, the FAL was even the official rifle of most NATO countries.
One of the most famous examples of the FAL’s ubiquity was during the 1982 Falklands War. The Argentine army carried the full-auto version of the FAL. British troops had the semi-auto L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle version.
After capturing Argentine troops, British infantry and Royal Marines often walked over to the stack of Argentine weapons and retrieved the full-auto FALs.
In Argentina, thousands of FALs underwent armory rebuilds in 2010, a sure sign that nation will continue to use the weapon.
Or consider the 1967 Six-Day War. A common misconception is that the nine-millimeter Uzi was the Israeli Defense Force’s weapon of choice. Actually, Israeli soldiers carried more FALs than Uzis when facing Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian forces.
In many ways, it was the West’s answer to the Kalashnikov, albeit firing the heavier 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO round instead of the AK-47’s 7.62 x 39-millimeter intermediate round.
How the FAL saw the light of day is a story that combines the tactical realities that emerged out of World War II and the politics of who would lead who during the Cold War.
The success of Germany’s innovative Sturmgewehr 44 assault rifle convinced ordnance officers and weapons designers that era of the bolt-action battle rifle was dead and gone. Lighter cartridges in select-fire assault rifles captured the imagination of weapons designers.
Only the United States fielded a heavy caliber semi-auto battle rifle, the well-regarded M1 Garand .30–06 weapon that Gen. George Patton called “the greatest battle implement ever devised.” But the future was one that fired full auto—and the Garand did not.
But the other question was, what caliber? As weapons designers on both sides of the Atlantic toyed with prototype battle rifles, the British tested a seven-millimeter round in the new FAL … and liked it.
In the United States, the Army wanted to stick with the .30-caliber round, flatly stating that no other cartridge could hold its own on the battlefield.
With the formation of the new NATO alliance in 1949, generals and civilian planners both talked of the necessity to standardize equipment, weapons and supplies.
“The laudable aim was one that had been much in the minds of many forward-looking military thinkers for a long time,” writes David Westwood, author of Rifles: An Illustrated History of their Impact. “For experience had shown that the United States and Britain often fought side by side, and commonality would be to the benefit of all including soldiers in the field.”
One thing was certain. The British were impressed with the FAL. They deemed the firearm superior to competitors because it was easy to maintain, field strip and clean. It reassembled without special tools and it was a select-fire weapon—but it fired the lighter round.
The “gravel belly” U.S. generals would accept nothing but a .30-caliber weapon, insisting on the superiority of a prototype called the T25, a forerunner of the M14 that was nothing more than a glorified Garand.
Soon, there was a “Battle of the Bullets” that went as high as the White House and 10 Downing Street. Pres. Harry Truman and Prime Minister Winston Churchill even held a mini-summit, where rumor has it they struck a quid pro quo—the U.S. would adopt the FAL as its main battle rifle if Britain backed NATO adopting the 7.62 x 51-millimeter round.
NATO adopted the round. However, the U.S. reneged, developed the M14—which fired the NATO 7.62-millimeter cartridge—and adopted it as the American military’s main rifle. In the end, it didn’t matter to FN because NATO countries, including Britain, began snapping up the FAL chambered for the NATO round.
Many consider that combination of weapon and cartridge the quintessential pairing of battle-rifle and bullet during the 20th century—the FAL went into production in 1953 and FN continued to produce the rifle until 1988. The M-14 fell by the wayside as the main U.S. battle rifle within a few years, replaced by the M-16.
“Regardless of the political activity that went on before its adoption, the 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO turned out to be an excellent, powerful military cartridge,” writes Robert Cashner, author of The FN FAL Battle Rifle. “With millions of FALs manufactured and internationally distributed, the rifle played a large part in making the 7.62 x 51-millimeter NATO the success that it was.”
The FAL also proved a success in Vietnam in the hands of Australian troops. More than 60,000 Aussies served in the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1972, including the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. The Aussies often faced well-equipped Viet Cong who carried new AK-47s supplied by the Communist Chinese and Eastern Bloc countries.
Despite its weight and size—the FAL is one of the longest battle rifles of the 20th century—Australia’s 1RAR’s troops considered their weapon well-suited for jungle warfare.
The powerful NATO round could punch through thick foliage. It was also a far more reliable weapon than the early version of the M-16 U.S. forces carried. The FAL rarely jammed or misfired—problems that plagued the M-16 for years.