The FAL is a gas operated, select-fire rifle chambered for 7.62x51 (.308) ammunition. The standard magazine size is 20 rounds. It has been used by most of the non-communist world, at one time or another, one big exception being the USA. It is one of the three main battle rifles chambered for this round, the others being the H&K G3 and the US M-14.
The FAL was developed by Dieudonne Saive, and other engineers at Fabrique Nationale (FN), during the late 1940's and early 1950's. It uses many of the principles of the SAFN rifle, or FN-49, which was developed for the most part during World War II. During the 1950's and 60's the FAL was adopted by many countries, and used in or by many others. Its success was spurred in part by being an excellent platform for the 7.62x51 round the US insisted its NATO allies adopt. FN is no marketing slouch either. When in the late 1960's and 1970's the US decided to move in the direction of a smaller caliber rifle (a direction its allies had been moving in before, when the USA insisted on .30 caliber), and standardized on 5.56x45 (.223), the FAL began to be retired by NATO nations, and others, in a process that continues through the 1990's. One result of this is a large quantity of FAL parts sold in the USA.
All military versions include a neat safety/auto sear in the design, and thus in the USA are considered machine guns, either too easily converted to full auto, or having a machine gun receiver, regardless of whether they were designed to be fired semi-auto only, or not. All semi-autos designs acceptable in the USA do not have an auto-sear, nor the slot in the receiver to accommodate the sear. There are only two exceptions. One are the very early (1959-1963) Browning imported FN "G" and "GL" series FAL's that do have the slot milled in the receiver for the auto sear, although they did not come with the sear installed. They also had a full auto marked lower receiver, with a semi-auto only selector. These rifles are acceptable to ATF in their factory, semi-auto configuration, even though they have a machine gun receiver. They are grandfathered (without a safety sear.) With a safety sear, they are machine guns. They are also (by serial number) on the Curio and Relic list. There were also a handful of FAL's imported in the early 1970's, by administrative error, which are also acceptable even though they have full auto receivers, but they are not C&R gun. These are also grandfathered by serial number, as with the G series guns. I have also been told of British L1A1 rifles in the USA with the slot in the receiver for the sear, but no sear. I was told these guns were legitimate imports by Century in the early 1980's time period. This may be so, however I believe these guns were smuggled into the USA, probably from Canada, and are contraband. Caveat emptor.
Many "real" FAL rifles are available in the USA, as registered machine guns. These include original FN, Canadian, Australian, British, and T-48 guns as well as semi-auto guns imported here, and converted to machine guns domestically, many by Springfield Armory, Inc.
This legal state of affairs is not true in all countries. Canada, for instance, does not consider the Canadian C1A1 to be a machine gun, in issued configuration, although it is regulated as a military pattern semi- auto. Canada also considers the lower receiver to be the regulated part, the USA considers the upper receiver to be the regulated part.
The FN-FAL has been made by FN in heavy barrel squad auto versions, with a bipod; shorter barreled, folding stock paratroop versions; and the standard rifle configuration. Thus a variety of barrel lengths, and overall lengths can be encountered.
The FAL employs the rear locking, tipping bolt design of the SAFN, and SVT-40 (Tokarev) rifles. It uses a gas piston, tapping gas off the barrel, to drive a rod into the bolt carrier, to operate the action automatically. There is a dial at the gas block to set the amount of gas bearing on the rod, one should set the dial as low as is possible to get the gun to operate correctly, so as to minimize wear on the gun. There is a gas plug in the front of the gas block (where the front sight is) which when removed allows access to the rod, and the tube it rides in. The markings vary with the gun, but with the plug in one way the rifle operates as a self loader, with the other side up, the gas port is cut off, for the use of rifle grenades, or for use as a manually operated repeater. "A" and "Gr" are common markings on FN made guns, for "automatic" and "grenade" I guess. The L1A1 uses no letters; with the side with a groove on it up you get automatic function; the blank side is for grenade launching.
The safety/auto sear is a clever part of the rifle's design. On semi-auto it holds the hammer, keeping it from falling until the bolt is in battery, preventing an out of battery discharge, on a rifle with a worn or borken hammer or sear. On full auto the primary sear (disconnector) is disengaged, and only the safety/auto sear keeps the hammer cocked, until the bolt is in battery, when it releases, assuming the trigger is held back. On some select-fire rifles there are in essence two sets of sears (or disconnectors), one works only on full auto, one only on semi; the M-16 is this way. On the FAL the safety/auto sear works in both semi and auto fire, to make a safer rifle. As noted, the auto part of this sear's function means it is not present on title 1 USA semi-auto guns.
The gun is incredibly easy to take down; there is a latch on the left side, pushing it up, or back, depending on the gun, will open the upper and lower receivers on a hinge, and the bolt and carrier may be removed. That is all the field stripping normally required. The two halves may be separated entirely by unscrewing the pin on which the two halves pivot.
I have two criticisms of the FAL, which I otherwise consider to be as fine a semi-auto rifle in .308 as there is. One is the rather flimsy magazines; they dent easily on the sides, and then the follower can no longer move in the mag body. Second is that they are too long; most FAL's have a barrel around 22" long, and an overall length around 43". That is too long, in my opinion. The design of the FAL uses a captive recoil spring in the buttstock, which does not lend itself to a folding stock. The paratroop version employs a totally different lower receiver and recoil spring set-up to allow for a folding stock. I think having the barrel cut down to 18" or even to 16" is a nice idea. You may lose some velocity, and gain some muzzle blast, but you will have a much handier rifle.
Inch verses Metric
There are two basic kinds (patterns) of FAL's, inch and metric. All inch pattern FAL's, except those made as squad autos, are meant to be fired semi-auto only, and the selector will not go into the full position. There are dimensional differences in some parts between the two. Among the parts that don't interchange: the charging handle, the dust cover, and most internal parts; trigger, selector, hammer, and sear. A complete inch lower receiver generally speaking can be fitted to a metric upper.
The inch pattern guns were made in Canada, Australia, and Britain, and parts should interchange among them, as there is Rifle Steering Committee agreement to that effect between the UK, Australia and Canada. The Indian made guns, according to the FAL Story book, are reverse engineered from British guns, and are more or less inch pattern, but are not really compatible with any other FAL. Indian mags work fine in inch pattern guns, in my experience. Inch pattern guns use a magazine that is dimensionally identical, or nearly so, to a metric FAL. But they use a differently shaped front catch on the mag itself. On the inch pattern mags it is a longer, more solid ridge welded or soldered across the front of the mag; on the FAL it is a smaller protrusion stamped out of the mag body itself. Thus a spec metric mag should work in an inch pattern gun, but unless the shape of the front catch is modified on the inch pattern mag it will not fit into a metric gun. An illustration of these magazine differences may be seen in E. Ezell's Small Arms of the World, 12th Ed., page 343. Inch pattern guns also, generally speaking, use a folding cocking handle.
Countries with notes
The following countries made the FAL, many others used it, over 90. Most had it made to their specs by FN.
Austria - adopted the FAL in 1958 as the STG 58. Initially Austria purchase FN guns, later guns were made by Steyr-Damlier-Puch under license. Austrian guns had a unique flash hider/wire cutter/grenade launching front attachment, and also had sheet metal handguards. Austria now primarily uses the AUG rifle, as does Australia.
Australia - adopted the inch pattern FAL as the L1A1, and made it for New Zealand, as well as its own use, at SAF Lithgow. Australia also made semi-auto versions for civilian sale, although I believe the domestic and international political climate toward civilian ownership of military style guns has ended that activity. The L2A1 was a squad auto version similar to the Canadian version, Australia also made a 30 round mag for it.
Argentina and Brazil - both made the FAL under license in their own countries. Brazil makes the Model 964 at the Ijatuba Arsenal, Argentina at FM (Fabrica Militar, where they also make licensed copies of the High-Power pistol). Both nations also make USA legal semi-autos, for commercial sale. I believe Brazil is now making a conversion of the FAL pattern in .223 taking AR-15 type mags, a few were/are imported into the USA as thumbhole sporter guns by Springfield Inc.
Belgium - the home of the FAL rifle, adopted it themselves, and FN made it for many other nations.
Britain and India - also made and used the FAL. Britain made it, as the L1A1 (SLR), at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield, and at the Birmingham Small Arms Company, (BSA). India made it as the 1A SL, at their factory in Ishapore (RFI). Britain used it with the SUIT scope, available minus the tritium illuminator, here in the USA. British 30 round .308 Bren mags work with the inch pattern FAL, and are curved, unlike the straight 30 round Canadian and Australian mags. British and Indian rifles have milled diagonal cuts into the bolt carrier. That, combined with an altered hold open was supposed to keep the guns functioning in sandy environments, both by preventing the dirt from getting in through an open bolt, and by providing a place for dirt to accumulate, without interfering with the functioning of the rifle.
Canada - the first country to adopt the FAL design as the C1 (June 1955), in inch pattern. All the guns were made at Canadian Arsenals Limited, a state factory. The C1A1, and C2A1 followed. The C1A1 (adopted 1959) is a slightly modified version, including a two piece firing pin and a plastic carrying handle. The C2A1 is a squad auto version of the FAL, with a built in full auto function, as well as a heavier, longer barrel, and a bipod that folds into up to become the front handguard. The C2A1 also uses a rear sight mounted on the top cover, not the lower receiver. The squad auto inch pattern guns apparently did not work very well in that role. The Canadian version is the only inch pattern version that lets the last shot hold open actually hold open the bolt on the last shot. The British and Australian rifles have the peg that would engage the magazine follower ground down, so the bolt stays closed on the last shot, and the bolt must be retracted and the hold open pushed up manually, to hold the bolt open. The standard mag is 20 rounds, a 30 round straight mag was made for the C2A1. The Canadian FAL also uses a neat revolving aperture sight, which will fit, per the commonwealth agreement, on any inch pattern FAL, although the UK and Australian guns don't come with such a sight. There is both a sight configured in yards, for the C1A1, and a later 800 meter sight.
Israel - Israel had the receivers made by FN, and made the rest of the gun, and assembled it, domestically. Much of the spare metric parts on the US market are of Israeli origin. The cocking handle on this gun will also function as a manual bolt closing device. Israeli barrels supposedly have a different thread pitch on the chamber end of the barrel, making them a little hard to install on a standard inch or metric receiver. Entreprise Arms has just started marketing an Israeli spec receiver in the USA to help folks use some of the many Israeli parts available here to make up a rifle.
South Africa - bought some rifles from FN, and them made it under license as the R1, at ARMSCOR Lyttelton Engineering Works - Pretoria.
USA - The US considered, and rejected, the FAL rifle in the trials that led up to the adoption of the M-14 (T-44) rifle in the 1950's. In addition to rifles made by FN, Harrington & Richardson made up 500 T-48 rifles, and High Standard made 13. The T-48 was basically an inch pattern FAL. These rifle trials are a controversial subject, with the suggestion that the best gun didn't win out, for non-merit reasons. T-48's are very rare today. Although meant to be semi-auto only, they, like all military made FAL's had the safety sear, and thus were classified as machine guns by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax division of the IRS, (ATT), the predecessor to the ATF. There are (expensive) registered examples for those who wish to own one.
Common versions seen in the USA
One FAL variant seen in the USA now is the Century FAL Sporter rifle. This rifle is assembled by Century International Arms in Canada. It is made out of an inch pattern British L1A1 parts kit assembled onto a metric Argentine or Brazilian made FAL receiver. As such it is a mixture of metric and inch pattern parts. It has a thumbhole stock, (made by Bell & Carlson, and available as a part from them) rather than the original pistol grip separate from the shoulder stock, as well as having the threads turned off the muzzle, and lacking the flash hider and bayonet lug combo the guns originally had. These cosmetic changes were made to permit the rifle to be imported into the USA after the ban on the import of military looking semi-auto rifles in 1989. It uses metric FAL type mags, not inch pattern ones. A write-up on this rifle can be found in the July, 1993 American Rifleman magazine.
Other semi-auto FAL rifles seen here include Belgian FN made ones for the civilian market, all are pre-import ban, to my knowledge. These are generally considered the best FAL rifles available in the USA, and will command the highest price, for a given condition. Brazilian and Argentine rifles were imported by Springfield Armory and later Springfield Inc., in both pre ban (SAR-48) and post ban (SAR-4800) configurations. Also a very few SAF Lithgow made Australian semi-autos were imported by Joe Poyer. Armscorp USA also made complete metric rifles, and makes both inch and metric pattern receivers as well.
There are also stripped Argentine and Brazilian receivers, and barreled upper receivers imported into the USA, most, to my understanding, after the 1989 ban. Also a company called Entreprise Arms is making inch and metric pattern receivers in California. These seem to me to be very nicely done, and the Century imported British parts kit drops right on their inch receiver. To my understanding all Entreprise receivers were made after the 1989 ban, thus assembling a parts kit in the original configuration on to them is, generally speaking, a violation of 18 USC sec. 922(r), as well as possibly 18 USC sec. 922(v) (a post ban semiautomatic assault weapon).
DS Arms has started production (11/96) on a US made FAL; this one has enough parts made here to not be considered imported, and thus need not have a thumbhole stock. It is subject to the Crime Bill "assault weapon" regulation, so it cannot have a flash hider or threaded muzzle (together with a pistol grip). It does have a muzzle brake, probably permanently attached to threads on the muzzle, thus avoiding being classified an assault weapon. Depending on whether it is a quality item, this could be a great alternative to an imported rifle, which is subject to greater restrictions.