Where were we? Oh, right: World War II was over and it was time for the world’s armies to adopt some self-loading rifles already. The Soviets had whole-heartedly subscribed to the theory of the assault rifle with the AK-47. For some reason, they were also churning out the SKS, an odd weapon that seemingly was meant to combine the disadvantages of assault rifles and full-power battle rifles in one ugly package. The SKS isn’t terribly relevant to our story, although forty-five years later the rifle would become available for $79 in the United States and cause all sorts of havoc, both real and perceived . . .
The newly-formed NATO knew it would need a rifle for the next European shooting war, which was sure to happen any time now. The western allies had been no less assiduous in their study of the Stg44 than the Russians had been. To make things more interesting, there were two separate groups of former Mauser employees looking to make a splash in the post-war firearms business. So the stage was set for NATO to choose a forward-thinking infantry weapon for the Cold War and the hot wars to follow…
Perhaps the most interesting rifle to come from the development frenzy of the late forties was the British EM2. It fired a brand-new .276-caliber high-medium-power cartridge (174 grains at 2400fps) and was configured as a so-called “bullpup” with the magazine behind the pistol grip. The folks over at FN had their own bullpup rifle, first chambered for an experimental cartridge but later on re-barreled for the British .276. A non-bullpup version was also built. Remember the non-bullpup FN .276, we’ll see it again shortly.
A small group of ex-Mauser employees landed at the Spanish national arms factory, CETME, after the war. They built a roller-locking recoil motion rifle that fired a unique lightweight (105 grain) 8mm cartridge with a muzzle velocity in the 2600fps range. In the mid-fifties, CETME would ask another group of ex-Mauser folks, the newly formed firm of Heckler & Koch, to undergo a manufacturing feasibility study of the CETME rifle. Remember that, too. We’ll come back to it.
The United States took a conservative approach to post-war rifle design. Although various factions within the country’s armed services had been arguing for a lower-power rifle round since World War I, their voices had been effectively silenced by John Garand’s ability to create a .30-06 semi-automatic rifle. When it came time to plan the M1’s replacement, two factions arose.
There was the “individual marksmanship” faction, which continued to believe that conscripts would effectively deliver aimed fire out to six hundred yards. Then there was the “people who had actually paid attention during World War II” faction, which recognized the vastly superior role things like artillery and combined tactics had over aimed rifle fire.
For a while, it seemed like the realists had the upper hand. Everybody agreed that there would be a new rifle round with a much smaller logistical footprint than the old thirty-ought-six. Then, in a series of maneuvers well beyond the scope of this article, the marksmanship folks rose from the grave and managed to mandate that the new lower-power round meet all the ballistic standards of the old high-power one. Improvements in metallurgy and powder composition made it easy as pie for the new 7.62 “NATO” round to match the .30-’06 as the latter round was commonly supplied in that era. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
And new boss it was. The United States unilaterally adopted the 7.62×51 without bothering to consult any of their NATO allies, promptly converting a bunch of Garands to fire the new round by means of a highly suspect barrel insert and new clip. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but everybody followed suit in a big hurry.
Britain discarded their new rifle design and strangled the “.280 British” in its crib. FN stretched their new non-bullpup rifle to create the FAL. HK advised CETME on how to adopt its design to the new, larger round, and used the roller-lock design as the basis for its “G3” rifle. (I don’t know what the “G2” was, but the “G1” was the FAL, which was ready for production years before the CETME/HK effort was.)
The FN FAL had a lot of political momentum in Europe. It also appeared to be an exceptional design, relying heavily on modern manufacturing techniques and promising a relatively low production cost. The United States was interested in the FAL, too, and entered it into a test where it promptly whipped the ass of the second-place contender. By rights, the US armed forces should have been carrying FALs by 1955. Instead, a decision was made to develop that distant second-place rifle, the Springfield Armory T44.
The T44 was a scaled-up version of Bill Ruger’s existing Mini-14 rifle. I’m kidding. I just wanted to see if I could get TTAG readers to spit out their lunch. Looks like it worked, too. It was actually a product-improved M1 Garand with a box magazine. Like the M1, it had a mechanically complex action open to the elements and requiring some amount of precision in the manufacture. Very much an old-style rifle compared to the FN FAL.
A simple examination of the two side-by-side reveals that one of them lags the other by an entire generation of design experience. Still, the T44 was Invented In America, in an era where that actually mattered to people, so it was declared the retroactive winner of the tests it had just lost. Thus, the M14 became the battle rifle of the United States of America.
While the M14, the FAL, and the G3 weren’t the only battle rifles to enter series production in the fifties, they wound up becoming the enduring trio of Western 7.62 NATO-chambered weapons. The FAL in particular is the only rifle that could even conceivably challenge the AKM for the title of “universal rifle”. In the thousand little brushfire wars that swept the world during the Pax Americana, the FAL and AKM were shouldered side by side and exchanged fire in the hands of revolutionaries, government troops and mercenaries from Cambodia to Sierra Leone.
As American gun enthusiasts, we tend to gravitate to odd stuff like the reanimated Armalite AR-10 or the immensely satistfying don’t-call-it-an-M14 Springfield M1A. But in places where guns are delivered in crates and used by soldiers who are often functionally illiterate at best, the FAL is the battle rifle of the global conflict.
In the shadowy proxy wars of the sixties and seventies, a plane or boat full of FALs with no end-user certificate was tantamount to a statement of Western support for the side shouldering them. The Rhodesian Independents carried the FAL. Bob Denard’s African white mercenaries carried the FAL when they could get them. Closer to home, the FAL was the “boom boom” wielded by Tom Sizemore in the movie Heat while his compatriots operated the “bang bang” AR-15.
Had the United States selected the FAL as the official battle rifle of the armed forces, there’s no telling how long it might have stayed in service. The rifle they did select, the M14, proved to be particularly unwieldy in the jungle backdrop of the next war. My father arrived in Vietnam carrying an M14, provided by the United States Marine Corps for his use. After the first few times he saw the proverbial elephant, he ditched the M14 for a Remington 870 shotgun. The M14 may have been an excellent choice for the open fields of France or Korea, but in Vietnam it was a massive liability with its long barrel and a wooden stock that split in the tropical humidity.
We all know what happened next: the United States unilaterally adopted a low-power assault rifle, causing the British, Spanish and French to spit out their lunch and say “But… but… but…” while the armories loaded ball powder instead of IMR “stick” into the 5.56 ammo and inadvertently turned the M-16 into a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of troops. The fait accompli of the .223 Remington meant that everybody in NATO had to rechamber their designs for that cartridge. And then when that cartridge turned out to not satisfy the Marksmanship Geeks we got the SS109/M855, and so on, and so forth.
The verdict of history is in on the 7.62 NATO battle rifle in all its forms. It was a mistake. Any other choice would have been better, from the .276 British cartridge to the low-power Spanish round. The vast majority of 7.62 NATO ammunition expended in battle has been at ranges and in conditions where a 7.62×39 Soviet round would have sufficed — and often did, to the fatal consternation of the men holding the Western rifles.
Once again, the theorists out-maneuvered the realists on the battlefields away from the battlefields, and soliders went into combat loaded down with weight they didn’t need to carry and a tool that was far from suited for their actual experience. M14, FAL, G3, BM59, all the rest — a deadly waste of money and time.
For the civilian shooter, however, it’s not that simple. The virtues of marksmanship and patience that conscripts rarely possess are taken for granted. The long ranges and individual targeting that made no sense in the Vietnamese jungle are important parts of many shooters’ survival plans. Finally, the care and feeding of a finicky machine like a Springfield M1A may be well beyond the capabilities of an illiterate African child soldier, but they’re no problem for an educated and dedicated American enthusiast.
In the articles to follow, we’ll look at 7.62 NATO rifles available to those enthusiasts and consider their merits. In the meantime, you might want to stock up on your .308 Winchester ammunition — but aren’t you stocking up on everything in the current legislative climate?