June 11, 2015
To many, the words Africa and rifle together conjure up images of a side-by-side Holland and Holland chambered in a dangerous game cartridge such as .500 Nitro Express. While these fine pieces have certainly found themselves in the hands of those privileged few who pay the big bucks to travel to the Dark Continent in search of the Big 5, they have not toppled empires, fought proxy wars or defended the colonial interests of aging European monarchies. That title belongs to a few 7.62x51mm battle rifles, specifically the FN FAL, the Heckler and Koch G3 and the regional variants of both.
Prior to World War One, only the African countries of Ethiopia and Liberia were independent states while the rest of the continent existed under European colonial rule. Often viewed as a purely American problem, the Great Depression of the 1930s sent Europe and its colonies into an economic tailspin, causing them to rely more and more on African agriculture, which in turn caused increasing animosity between the native people and European rulers. With the onset of World War Two, native Africans learned firsthand that empires could be won and lost through direct action and violence. The death toll of the great European empires had sounded, and the second half of the 20th century would see the FN FAL and HK G3 become forever carved into African history.
Making its debut in 1954 after a 7-year development process, the Fabrique Nationale Fusil Automatique Leger (FN FAL) took the world by storm. As the first NATO standard select-fire battle rifle, the FAL fires the venerable 7.62x51mm cartridge from a tilting breechlock or bolt, utilizing an adjustable gas block and short stroke, spring-loaded piston. The recoil spring mechanism is contained within the buttstock on fixed stock models and is modified heavily to fit under the top cover of folding stock paratrooper models.
The FAL was quick to success, with 90 countries worldwide adopting the rifle. Many nations bought the firearm directly from FN in Belgium, while others obtained licensing rights to domestically produce their own FAL variant. Notable examples of variants produced under license are the Austrian STG-58 and British L1A1. West Germany briefly adopted the Belgian-built version under the German nomenclature Gewehr-1 or G1. However, negotiations to license the FAL for production in West Germany fell through and interest turned towards a Spanish-built rifle designed by German ex-pat Ludwig Vorgrimler: the CETME Model A. With a fair amount of back-channel wheeling and dealing, eventually licensing was granted to Heckler and Koch as well as Rheinmetall to produce the CETME rifle in the full power 7.62x51 NATO round. The resulting Gewehr-3 or G3 was a closed bolt, roller locked, fluted chamber, delayed blowback select-fire battle rifle that would be adopted by 44 countries. Of these, several, including Portugal, began to produce the G3 under license in their own factories.
By 1960, things had really begun to fall apart in Africa. While tensions between native inhabitants and those who had colonized the land had been decaying for some time, there was a new player waiting in the wings: communism. Western powers who otherwise may have been willing to grant independence to their African colonies suddenly found themselves in the epicenter of the Cold War. And with these proxy wars, the continent was flooded with FALs and G3s. Hollywood would have us believe that Nicholas Cage (portraying an arms dealer) single handedly supplied arms to the 3rd world, but in reality these weapons were streaming in from NATO countries trying in vain to stop the never ending spread of communist wild fires in the region. Some of the more high profile conflicts came to be known as the Congo Crisis, The Portuguese Colonial War and the Rhodesian Bush War.
Rhodesia, a land-locked country surrounded by Zambia to the north, Mozambique to the east, South Africa to the south and Botswana to the west, had its hands full in the 1970s. Rhodesia had declared its independence from Great Britain, and was at war with two separate communist factions: the Chinese-funded ZANLA and the Soviet-funded ZIPRA. No longer a protected colony, its only allies were Portugal and South Africa. Until losing all outside support in 1974, Rhodesia was flooded with Portuguese-built G3 rifles and R1s, the South African version of the FAL. The Bush War saw these rifles serving side by side in Rhodesian infantry units against the AK-47 and AKM rifles fielded by the communist forces. And with the end of the Bush War and the fall of Rhodesia in 1979, many historians have concluded that the AK platform outgunned its NATO counterparts. The same had been said regarding the M16 rifle and America's withdrawal from the Vietnam conflict.
Personally, I think communism won in Africa and Vietnam not because of a rifle but because of an idea. It's easy to fight on the side of change. It's harder to convince people to preserve what they have when they weren't terribly happy with what they had to begin with. Communism was the hot new idea in a place where people were tired of colonial rule. It obviously hasn't worked for them, but it sounded great at the time.
What we here in America are left with is a lot of interesting history and a lot of debate about the usefulness of the G3 and FAL platforms. There's no doubt that the .308 Winchester / 7.62 NATO is a fine round. Possibly the best universal rifle cartridge ever produced. But what of these old rifles? Is there any practical use for the FAL or G3 in the modern American's personal arsenal? Of course there is. The question is which compromise are you willing to make? Every AK or AR guy compromises kinetic energy in favor of lighter ammunition that they can carry more of. The energy produced by the 7.62 NATO cartridge is hard to argue with. Even in a 16-inch barrel, the round will produce velocities of 2500 feet per second (fps) and over 2000 foot-pounds of energy with a 147-grain bullet. For the sake of comparison, a 16-inch M4 fires a 62-grain bullet around 3000 fps but produces only 1239 foot-pounds of energy, and the Soviet 7.62x39 round fired from the 16-inch barrel of an AK-47 or AKM produces just over 1500 foot-pounds of energy.
So if the AR and AK crowd compromise ballistics to save weight and space, essentially the FAL/G3 crowd compromise magazine capacity, weight and monetary cost per round in order to achieve superior ballistics. That's a start but there's more. Surplus magazines for the G3 or FAL are plentiful and inexpensive. G3 mags can be had for as little as $3 a piece if you know where to look. The most expensive ones are in the $15 range. FAL mags range from $10-$20 with the new production polymer "Moses Mags" retailing for just under $30. Take that SCAR-17 and HK 417. Replacement parts for the FAL and G3 platforms are also readily available from multiple online sources, some cheaper than others.
Of course these platforms are not for everyone. The AR world has its fair share of 308 models, and Springfield Armory is still turning out their M1A, the civilian version of the M14. A lot of people go that route, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, if like me you mix your history and firearms together on a daily basis and enjoy running your weapons in classes; shooting hundreds of rounds a day; and pushing the handling envelope to the point that some would call abuse, you may be a candidate for the dark side.
My personal collection of these rifles is always changing. It was hard to continue owning a legit HK-91 (Heckler and Koch's semiauto-only G3) when I saw them rising in price and knowing full well I beat the crap out my guns. A couple years ago I picked up a PTR-91, which is a US-built clone of the G3. I've been very happy with it. The only thing one really needs to be concerned about with G3 variants and clones is their ammo selection. The delayed blowback design utilizes a fluted chamber that can actually clog with certain ammunition. However, I have had no problems using even the lowest grade commercial ammo. Yes that includes steel-cased Wolf. I've also owned quite a few FALs over the years including factory Imbels, DSA STG-58s, a Rhodesian kit build, G1 kit builds, Century R1A1s and DSA SA-58s. For the money, you cannot go wrong with a DSA. For those wanting to spend the big bucks for the most authentic historical look, there are still original Belgian FN semiautos on the market, although they will fetch a pretty penny.
As Colonel Jeff Cooper once said: The AK is a rifle for the masses, and the FAL is a rifle for the classes. I can't say that I agree. The FN FAL and HK G3 have been and continue to be a rifle of the masses. There are 54 countries in Africa. That's over a quarter of the countries in the world. From the Horn of Africa, to the Cape of Good Hope, and the Sahara Desert to the Zambezi Valley, the FAL and G3 stand alongside the Kalashnikov as a rifle of the masses. A reminder of empires past. A piece of iron and wood that was built so well that it outlasted the ideas that defeated it in battle.
Keep Learning and Training.
Vincent Buckles is the founder and owner of Mesa Kinetic Research LLC in Gonzales LA.