The FAL – Right Arm of the Free World

FAL

I have always liked the FAL’s lines. It has a certain elegance about it, especially with wood furniture.  Designed by Fabrique National just after World War Two, the FAL has been in continuous service since the mid-1950s, and though we tend to think of it as a British service rifle, it has been used by countless nations all over the globe. Though the FAL has now largely been retired in favor of 5.56 caliber weapons, “the right arm of the free world” is still a meaningful selection for the civilian collector or anyone who wants a hard hitting rifle that is immune to the elements.

The FAL weighs in at 9.06 pounds empty. Not too bad when compared to a Garand. Now, add on a sling, bi-pod and a loaded twenty round magazine and go for a run. This is not a rifle for anyone who avoids the gym. Save money on exercise equipment and just do curls with an FAL. Also, while we are on the topic of punishment, some say that this rifle kicks. So man up on the firing line.

The FAL is gas operated via a piston that strikes the bolt carrier to unlock the tilting bolt. There is an excellent, adjustable gas regulator and a gas cut off for launching grenades. The gas system is easy to access and clean. Many shooters who have no experience with the rifle need to study the gas system before they take it to the range. If the system is turned off, the rifle will fire but not eject the empty case leading the uninitiated to think that there is something wrong with the weapon. The gas system is an impressive bit of kit, but in truth we really only need three gas settings: normal, fouled bore, and closed/grenade.

With the gas system properly set, the FAL uses the minimum amount of gas necessary to reliably cycle the bolt. This increases the longevity of the rifle, softens recoil and adds to accuracy. When I want to get the most out of my FAL on the target range, I turn off the gas and make the rifle into a single shot straight pull.

With the exception of sandy environments, the FAL is said to be very reliable. I have never experienced a jam with any of mine on the range. I have seen other people’s FALs jam due to bad surplus magazines.  Buy new mags and save a little frustration.

The rifle does have one semi-serious design issue. If the FAL’s bolt fails to close completely, on most models, there is no way to grab the bolt and push it into battery. The operator has to retract the bolt, shake out the offending rounds and then let the bolt fly home again to chamber a new round from the magazine. This is a common design flaw that was shared by many weapons of that era.

The ergonomics of the weapon are very good. The bolt latch and hold open devices are what make this rifle slick. Magazines rock into place, and the bolt release is easily reached by either hand. The charging handle is located on the left side of the receiver so the master hand never has to leave the grip… until the operator’s thumb has to find the safety. For some odd reason you have to break your grip to go hot.

Those who have fired the FAL will likely say that the trigger pull is a mushy military mess with a lot of creep. Tim Mullin, author of Testing The War Weapons (1997) loves the FAL, but he laments that the rifle’s poor trigger detracts from its over all accuracy potential. He warns against FAL trigger jobs as, “you will start getting follow-through with its resulting malfunctions.” Lest we think that Mullin is not a real FAL fan, he writes that, “[The FAL’s] day in the sun may be over, but it will bask in its reflected glory until the first decade or two of the 21st century, if my guess is anywhere near correct.” (p. 49-50)

The FAL has classic good sights, but they are not easily adjusted for windage. One has to loosen a screw on one side of the sight and then tighten an opposing screw on the other side. It is not precise. However, once it is set, it is not likely to change.  Some complain about this and point out how sights on American issue rifles are fully adjustable. The Europeans have decidedly less faith in the individual marksman’s skills. To them, eliminating windage adjustments is just one less thing for the average Tommy to fidget with.

My full size FAL was wholesaled by Israeli Military Industries. It is a clone rifle built with an IMBEL receiver and a metric parts kit. From the collector’s point of view, it will always be a second best when compared to guns made before the original assault weapons ban. There are two FAL patterns: inch and metric. The Inch Pattern was used by the British and their Commonwealth forces that included Canada, Australia and India. These were semiautomatic only rifles. The metric model was used by everybody else. Some of these rifles are select fire weapons.

I have shot the FAL on full automatic. Let me make two suggestions. First, if you have the means, I urge you to try one. It’s a rush. Second, make sure the backstop at your range is at least a small mountain because while the first two rounds in your short burst might be on target at point blank range, the third round and all those thereafter are on their way to Spain. Muzzle rise is significant. Be careful. Don’t hand the rifle to your significant other unless he or she shares your passion for shooting. Doing mag dumps with an FAL leaves me a little swimmy. It is far too light to be fired in full automatic, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the fun of shooting it!

In fact, that’s the whole point.

The FAL is not completely immune to the elements. Keep your bolt and carrier lubricated and the gas system clean and dry. Anyone who buys an FAL should also pick up the stock removal and installation tool. There are two springs in the stock, and without the tool you will never get the stock back on. There is also a tool for removing the extractor and a wrench for adjusting the gas system.

The standard full size FAL battle rifle will shoot into three inches or less at 100 yards from the bench using fresh 147 grain NATO ammunition. I find that groups open up after the first magazine rather considerably, but the first ten shots or so can be impressive. The shooter can improve the performance with commercial shells or hand loads. My rifle likes the 168 grain boat tail hollow points that I use in matches. The FAL leaves a slight dent in brass cases, but I have never had a problem resizing them. It also shucks steel case ammo without complaint, though accuracy is only so-so with Tula and Wolf ammunition.

It is not difficult to mount a scope on an FAL, though it can be expensive. The iconic Sight Unit Infantry Trilux scope is designed to fit the inch pattern guns only but can easily be modified to fit metric guns. It is rather heavy unit and mounted on the dust cover as it is, the efficiency of the mount is suspect. The reticule is a spike, whose tip is illuminated, though most of these sights have had the radiating element removed so they could be imported. It has been my experience that these scopes do not seriously improve groups, but they do aid in finding targets. My biggest complaint with the sight comes from how difficult the S.U.I.T. is to use when shooting from the prone position.

Both Metric and inch pattern rifles work well with the excellent DSA FAL scope mount that is quite heavy and has several set screws on each side to clamp the whole thing down. Any scope can then be mounted effectively. Do not skimp on the mount as it is the only way to reach the maximum accuracy potential of the FAL. The inevitable trade off comes in the all up weight of the system. I can’t imagine lugging around a rifle/scope combo that comes in somewhere north of twelve pounds empty. I put the optics on an AR-10 instead.

FALs can be had with 16”, 18” and 20” barrels. These can be heavy or standard weight. I have found that 16” FAL rifles are a handful and not particularly accurate. I recommend buying the 18” or longer barrel.

A bipod that folds under the forearm looks cool, but it is heavy and useless on the bench. Another annoying option is the folding stock of the paratrooper model. The stock itself works well, but it is too short and it raps you in the cheek rather harshly. There can be no real cheek weld, and so with the shooter’s head floating behind the rear sight, groups open up a bit. It is oh so light and wonderfully compact. I wouldn’t hesitate to use one as a survival weapon in bear or alligator country.

The FAL rifle has been used all over the world in battle zones from Aden to Zaire. It was the South African weapon of choice and glamorized in the film The Wild Geese staring Richard Burton and Roger Moore. The Israelis used them against the Arabs until the early 1970s when they replaced it with the Galil. They were carried by Aussie troops in Vietnam. FALs fought each other, metric versus inch pattern, in The Falklands War. British troops preferred to use the Argentine’s rifle because of its full auto capability.

If I could have only one .308 caliber rifle, I would be torn between the FAL and M-14. I would prefer the M-14s adjustable sights and its slightly lighter weight, but the FAL is perfectly accurate and built like a dreadnaught.

The wonderful thing about the FAL class of weapons is their ability to deal with anything from a beer can to an airplane. I have never killed deer with my FAL, but there is no reason to believe that I could not hunt with it in a survival situation. I have used mine mostly for long range plinking on an abandoned strip mine near my West Virginia home. Even with open sights, so long as I am wearing my glasses, I can reach out to strike a certain old trash can at four hundred yards with boring reliability.

As a collector of military rifles, I have to say that no collection is complete without at least one FAL. It was an expensive rifle to make and current prices show how well it has held its value. An authentic, factory made FN “LAR” (Light automatic Rifle) will cost a collector somewhere close to three grand on GunBroker.com. A clone, however, may well cost half that. DSA has great customer service and makes a very respectable FAL. Enterprise Arms made FALs of many flavors that are quite excellent.  Their British model L1A1 is highly sought after. I urge you to avoid rifles made by Century Arms without a test fire. The parts kits they are made on are more than fifty years old. The used clone FAL is a rifle the buyer must see to appraise.

Guns are a good investment. At least that’s what I tell my wife. In the FAL’s case, this happens to be true. Even in a market where gun values are dropping, the better made and pre-ban FAL rifles have held their wholesale values.

It isn’t by chance that I chose the FAL to grace the cover of my book. It is an archetype, finely made and supremely effective. Its lines reflect the lessons learned on a thousand battlefields. Like the M-1 Garand, it reflects a free people’s choice to arm their soldiers with nothing less than an ass kicker in a firefight. I must also confess that the survivalist in me likes the FAL as well. If the zombies come, especially in trucks or helicopters, I have a much better chance of surviving the encounter with a stack of magazines and my new right arm.

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