Gun Review: SCAR 17S (Semi-Auto Civilian SCAR-H)

The United States hasn’t fielded a true .30 caliber battle rifle since Vietnam when the M-14 was replaced. And for good reason. A “full size” rifle cartridge like the 7.62 NATO has a lot of muzzle energy and consequently a ton of recoil compared to the gentle 5.56 NATO round and creating a gun that can operate well with those kinds of forces acting on it is a challenge. Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal (FNH) thinks they’ve got a winning design in their SCAR-H, which the military is in the process of adopting. Not to leave us civilians out (and our pocketbooks) FNH USA introduced the SCAR 17S, a semiautomatic version imported from Belgium that one of our readers let me play with this past weekend…

SCAR stands for “Special operations forces Combat Assault Rifle,” a name indicating who the intended client of the version with a giggle switch was. The rifle is designed around a short stroke recoil system much like the M1 carbine or even the Saiga shotgun, where the expanding gases are mostly contained within a telescoping piston which briefly acts on the bolt carrier. The short stroke recoil system allows for cleaner operation than direct gas impingement, with FNH claiming a 90% reduction in carbon in the action compared to an AR-15. That, in theory, should reduce the maintenance required to keep the firearm operating.

Short stroke recoil has another benefit, especially with larger calibers. The power behind short stroke recoil comes from a rather heavy bolt carrier assembly — the piston is only in contact with the bolt carrier for a short period of time. The bolt carrier needs enough momentum from that contact to successfully cycle the action, momentum provided by a beefy carrier. Having all that mass sliding around means that the force of the recoil is spread over a longer period of time, making it feel remarkably lighter and allowing for more accurate follow up shots. But we’ll get into that later.

With the SCAR, the controls are mostly ambidextrous. The safety and magazine release can be operated from either side of the firearm but the bolt catch is only on the left. So left handed shooters would either need to figure out how to manipulate the bolt catch despite their sinister characteristics or use the charging handle, which can be swapped from one side of the bolt carrier to the other depending on user preference.

And that’s where we run headlong into the first complaint I have about this weapon.

The charging handle on the SCAR is directly attached to the bolt carrier. While it’s fantastic that the charging handle is forward of the chamber (as this allows for better manipulation), the fact that it’s directly attached means that it reciprocates. Every time the gun fires, the thing moves back and forth, exactly like the charging handle on an AK. This sucks for a number of reasons.

First, a reciprocating charging handle sucks because it has the potential to injure the operator. The DP-28 machine gun had a similar reciprocating charging handle mounted on the bottom of the gun. I had welts for weeks after firing one that reminded me to never try and fire it offhand ever again. If you get your meat in the way of that metal, it might hurt you and being hurt in a gunfight is an extreme disadvantage. Plus, pain sucks in general, even if you’re not being shot at.

The second reason a reciprocating charging handle sucks is that it has the potential to get caught on something and fail to cycle. From my own 3-gun experience I can think of a couple of scenarios where I had to fire through a tight space. There were plenty of opportunities to catch a charging handle on a strategically placed curtain or a particularly tight corner. In addition, the age-old trick of bracing the gun against the side of the obstacle might in fact cause the failure to cycle if you brace it in the wrong place. It adds one more thing that could go wrong.

Third, it throws off the balance of the firearm as it cycles. On a firearm like the AR-15 or the SCAR, almost everything about the action is symmetrical so that the recoil from the round going off and the action cycling goes straight back into the shooter’s shoulder and moves the barrel as little left or right as possible. Adding a big chunk of metal to the side of the gun that moves back and forth seems to be a good way to make the gun “walk” to one side or the other when firing. It’s unbalanced, and that annoys me.

There is one nice thing about a forward charging handle, though — press checks are amazingly quick and simple. Your thumb is already right there, you just need to reach up and slide it back. I thought that was nifty, but it probably could have been done without making me worry about smacking my thumb. I’ve already been to the emergency room once for a firearm related thumb injury and I’d rather not do it again.

Moving on…

Unlike the AR-15 which uses a buffer assembly in the stock to accept the moving bolt carrier and return it to battery, the SCAR uses a spring which fits entirely in the upper receiver. A number of companies have started fitting various AR-15 models with this feature, but it’s probably best implemented in this design. The internal spring means the receiver itself needs to be a tad longer but the buttstock can be folded to the side to allow for a smaller package for transport. It’s a nifty feature. Not necessarily one I require, but nifty nonetheless.

Speaking of the stock, one of the reasons that the M-14 was replaced with the M-16 was the stock. The M-14 used a traditional stock that placed the shooter’s eye level with the barrel and that recoil from full-auto fire was being directed over the shooter’s shoulder instead of directly into it. This led to uncontrollable muzzle climb, an issue fixed with the AR-15′s in-line recoil system. And while it may appear at first glance that the SCAR has the same issues as the M-14, in reality the barrel and bolt carrier are still directly in line with the shooter’s shoulder just like in the M-16. The swell in the stock you’re seeing is from the rail being placed above the gas piston system, which adds about an inch of height over the bore compared to the AR-15 and allows for optics to be placed on the rail without risers. Well, mostly.

Last but not least, I want to talk about the muzzle brake. While you might be able to get away without a muzzle brake on a 5.56 NATO rifle it’s practically required equipment on a “tactical” 7.62 NATO firearm. In order to make faster follow-up shots you need to be able to control the firearm and minimize any movement resulting from firing the gun, something which a muzzle brake was specifically designed to do. And despite the strange shape, this one does its job extremely well. Even from a standing position, I was able to keep the gun under control and recoil was close to nonexistent. It’s a nice touch that adds a ton of controlability to the firearm.

Oh, and the gun has side and bottom rails as well as a full length top rail and can be disassembled and reassembled easily. FYI.

A quick note about import restrictions before we move on to the end of our journey.

The “real” FN SCAR-H is manufactured at a plant in South Carolina, but the civilian version comes from a plant in Belgium. Yes, the country in Europe – a place where the market is significantly smaller for the civilian variant of a military firearm. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me for FNH to be importing these guns, especially considering that once you import the firearm into the country it comes under the control of that pesky 922(R) law that makes it a felony to slap a high capacity magazine in a freshly imported firearm.

FNH USA changes out a couple of minor parts to become 922(R) compliant and modifies the lower receivers to take the high capacity magazines once they enter the country (the remnants of the crippling process is the rib on the back of the magazine and the corresponding slot in the receiver) but it still doesn’t make sense to me that they would set up a shop overseas to make the SCAR 17S for the US market when they already have a plant tooled up right here in the States. I’m sure it adds some dollars to the final price of the gun, which is not an inconsiderable amount.

A side effect of the crippling and de-crippling process for the magazines is that only FNH’s proprietary magazines will fit in the gun. Not even the much loved AR-10 PMAGs will fit — only FNH’s 20-round aluminum monstrosities. Which will make getting additional magazines not only difficult, but expensive.

The real question is how well it shoots. And while the FNH 3-gun team seems to be in love with it I’m not so enamored.

There’s nothing technically wrong with the rifle. It’s accurate, it functions and recoil is negligible. It’s just a question of how the thing feels and to me, it’s too bulky.

There’s a lot of mass in that rifle, and moving it from one target to another (let alone manhandling it around a course) takes some effort. It feels like I have a German shepherd in my hands instead of a nice svelte rifle.

If I’m flying full tilt down a course of fire in competition shooting, I want something that I can maneuver quickly, not this oversized fish-like firearm. Unless I’m shooting heavy metal division, in which case this firearm would actually be a perfect replacement for the M1A and AR-10 currently being used.

If I’m out hunting, I want something that I can keep a low profile with and carry for miles without getting tired, not this eight pound monstrosity. Unless I’m hog hunting and using a vehicle, in which case the bulk would be much more manageable.

If I’m on the range I want an inexpensive caliber that I can fire without my wallet trying to strangle me. Unless I don’t particularly care about accuracy and am using cheap milsurp ammo.

If I’m getting a home defense rifle I want something with enough power to put down a bad guy without blowing out my eardrums and a round that stops or significantly loses velocity after hitting flesh instead of continuing through the next few walls. Unless I live on a ranch and expect my attackers to be at a distance.

The place where this kind of firearm works best is the military where you need to project firepower over great distances. I can definitely see improvements over the M-14 and AR-10 for that application, but not much else. There are some rather specific niches into which the SCAR can fit in civilian shooting, but the question is whether the benefits of the platform in those very specific situations warrant the hefty price tag.

In short, the FNH SCAR 17S is a perfectly viable solution to an existing problem for the military, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into a good firearm for civilians. It’s a cool firearm that’s fun to shoot, but save for a handful of very specific scenarios I just don’t see much of an application for it beyond that. I could see spending $500 or $1,000 on a gun just for the cool factor, but $3,000 is too much in my opinion especially when you take into account my problems with a reciprocating charging handle.

FNH SCAR 17S

Specifications
Caliber: 7.62 NATO
Barrel: 16.25″
Overall: 38.5″ (28.5″ folded)
Weight: 8.0 lbs Empty
Capacity: 10 or 20 rounds
MSRP: $2,900

Ratings (Out of Five Stars)
All ratings are relative to other similar guns, and the final score IS NOT calculated from the constituent scores.

Accuracy: * * * * *
We were singing steel at 250 yards with this rifle. Accuracy is not an issue if in the right hands.

Ergonomics: * * *
This gun is chubby. Yep, chubby. That’s a good word to describe it. I can’t even get my big hands around the gun for my typical aggressive “thumb forward” grip.

Ergonomics Firing: * * *
That’s (-3) stars for making me worry about the safety of my thumb but (+1) stars for the fantastic job they did mitigating recoil. There’s also a bit of creep in the trigger which I find slightly maddening.

Reliability: * * * *
I’m dropping a star off for the external reciprocating charging handle. Other than that it works like a Swiss clock.

Customization: * * * *
There’s tons of stuff you can do to this rifle. In theory, at least. Changing out barrels and swapping accessories is easy as pie, but I haven’t seen that many aftermarket parts for these guns yet. Tango Down has some good stuff, but not many other places have parts.

Overall Rating: * * *
For three grand I was expecting… more. I was disappointed. It’s a fun range toy and probably great for hog hunting but I don’t see much of a use beyond that. There’s nothing this rifle does any better that an M1A or an AR-10 or even an FAL can’t do equally well for half the price besides looking cool and having slightly better ergonomics.

And let the FNH fanboy flood commence…