The M249 is one of the most successful squad automatic weapons ever introduced. Where previously an entire crew was required to set up and run a machine gun, the M249 allowed a single soldier to carry all of the necessary equipment and operate the firearm. It was a major leap forward, but the gun wasn’t perfect. As nice as the FN-produced firearm looks, there are some improvements to be made. Israel’s IMI figured out a way to fix all of those issues and produced a light machine gun that is superior to the M249 in almost every way. They call it the Negev, and I had a chance to get familiar with it this past weekend . . .
Side by side, the guns are very similar. There are some minor visual differences, but since the guns function almost identically and are built to fill the same role, they share many of the same design elements. The devil is in the details, though, and once you take a closer look at the differences you’ll realize that there’s a clear winner here.
The most obvious difference is the feed tray cover.
With FN’s design, the entire top section of the gun rotates up in order to expose the feed tray and allow the gunner to insert a new belt of ammunition. There’s a problem though — having a feed tray cover that large means working the gun in small places (like a culvert or small bunker) is difficult if not impossible. The design also exposes the bolt assembly to the elements, adding one more route for sand or rain to get in there and screw things up.
The Negev takes more of a “just the facts, ma’am” approach and has a much smaller feed tray cover. The cover is only big enough to perform its job, keeping the gun as compact as possible at all times and minimizing the exposure to dust and other elements.
Speaking of dust, that’s another benefit of the Negev. The M249 has a small dust cover over the charging handle slot, but otherwise the gun is pretty much open to the elements — both sides of the feed tray are left open. On the Negev, there’s a spring loaded dust cover that folds down over the feed tray to keep as much dust and dirt out of the action as possible. It’s a feature that seems pretty common sense for a gun designed to work in the Israeli desert.
While the smaller feed plate is indeed an improvement, down on the safety selector switch there’s an actual honest-to-goodness new feature. The M249 doesn’t do that whole semi-auto thing — it only runs in “party all the time” mode. The Negev is slightly more conservative with its ammo consumption, and so includes a helpful semi-auto feature in addition to the old fashioned bullet hose setting.
Not only is it functional, but the trigger in semi-auto mode is actually quite pleasant. There’s a ton of slack in the trigger, but the break is nice and crisp and the reset is positive and present. Not exactly Geissele level quality, but better than I expected from a belt fed gun.
Speaking of common sense…
Machine guns fire a staggering number of rounds of ammunition in their lifetime. In order to keep the guns running and in service, manufacturers have designed them to have easily replaceable barrels. It not only allows for barrels to be changed when they reach the end of their usable lifetime, but if you’re ever in the middle of a firefight and need to cool off your barrel you can swap it quickly and easily for a new one while the old one cools.
On the M249, the barrel replacement process takes two hands. With the Negev, you only need one. Open the feed tray cover, pull back the bolt, and hit one button — the barrel slides free immediately and is quickly replaced. It’s a nice upgrade on a feature that doesn’t seem to get much use when the gun is used properly, but the Israelis nevertheless improved this feature as well.
While we’re talking about taking things apart, I just want to note that cleaning this gun is an absolute snap. That was the deal with the guys who let me play with their machine guns — I can have some trigger time so long as I clean them afterwards. I was able to take down and clean this gun without looking at the instruction manual once, and to be honest it wasn’t really any more complicated than an AK-47. Everything kind of just falls out the back, and then you shove it back in when clean. Grunt-proof, almost.
The most important difference between the M249 and the Negev, however, is that the gun actually feeds from a magazine.
In theory, the M249 can feed from a standard M16 magazine. Just in case the gunner runs out of belts of ammo to feed the beast, it gives them a second source of ammunition in the field. In practice, however, the thing never works properly. Every gunner that I’ve talked to who used the M249 said that getting a full magazine of ammunition to feed through the gun was as likely as getting an engraved invitation to a night of passionate romance with the entire Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.
With the Negev, the gun feeds from standard M16 magazines like a champ. No malfunctions at all even running magazine after magazine through the gun. The configuration actually makes sense too — the M249 feeds from a side-mounted magazine, but the Negev positions the magazine in the bottom of the receiver for easier feeding into the chamber. The controls are also a lot easier to manipulate for ejecting and inserting magazines, instead of the M249’s design which seems like an afterthought that someone tacked onto the gun.
While the M249 was a great design, IMI took the initial concept and refined it just a little bit more. Slight improvements might not seem like such a big deal on their own, but when you add them all up what you get is a definitively superior firearm. Easier to maintain, easier to feed, and easier to operate in the field, this Israeli masterpiece is a definite improvement over the original Belgian design.
I can see why Robert prefers Israeli models . . .
IMI Negev LMG
Caliber: 5.56 NATO
Barrel: 18.1 inches
Size: 40 inches extended, 35 inches compact
Weight: 16.31 lbs empty
Capacity: 150 round belts, or 30 round magazines
Ratings (Out of Five Stars):
All ratings are relative compared to the other weapons in the gun’s category.
Accuracy: * * *
I was able to keep the gun on target even in full auto, but without a scope mounted to the gun to shoot good 100-yard groups it’s hard to really rate this category one way or the other.
Ergonomics: * * * *
The stock is a little uncomfortable and the gun is heavy.
Ergonomics Firing: * * * * *
A heavy gun means the the recoil is excellent. Even firing full auto offhand the gun is controllable and comfortable.
Customization: * * *
Shorter barrels and different stocks are available, but (on this model at least) the lack of a picatinny rail is definitely a big detractor.
Overall Rating: * * * *
Better than the M249, but still a hefty, chunky piece of engineering.