France's Unmusical Bugle

by Peter G. Kokalis

French soldiers refer to it as "le Clairon." But this bugle spits bullets. It is not a pretty weapon - in fact, it's downright ugly. Esthetics, however, are of small consequence in the design of efficient weaponry.

France's newest service rifle, the FA MAS (Fusil Automatique, Manufacture d'Armes de St. Etienne), has already demonstrated itself to be an effective and generally well-conceived piece of ordnance. First introduced in 1973 and subsequently modified, the FA MAS was adopted by the French armed forces and placed into production in 1979. Manufactured by GIAT (Groupement Industriel des Armements Terrestres) at their St. Etienne arsenal, a semiautomatic-only version of this interesting assault rifle has been imported in limited quantity by Century International Arms.

After generations of discordant calibers - such as the 7.5mm rifle and 7.65mm Long pistol cartridges - the French finally decided to play in NATO's orchestra and chambered the FA MAS for what is essentially the U.S. 5.56x45mm M193 cartridge. It differs only by virtue of its Berdan primed steel case. Compatibility with NATO has been served and France now has a cartridge with proven efficiency in causing casualties.

Hands-on use of this weapon has produced compliments - SOF's Paul Fanshaw, who employed the FA MAS rifle extensively while serving as a platoon sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, awards it a clean bill of health in all regards.

Of so-called bullpup configuration, the FA MAS measures only 30.28 inches in overall length. Complete with flash suppressor, the barrel is 19.5 inches long. Oddly cut with only three grooves, the rifling's rate of right-hand twist remains one turn in every 12 inches. An optional pitch of one turn in 9 inches is available as a compromise to accommodate the SS109 projectile. But in spite of its compactness, the FA MAS weighs 8.0 lbs. empty and minus the bipod - at the outer limits by today's standards. Steel parts are phosphate finished and the receiver has been anodized gray.

Firing from the closed-bolt position, the method of operation is by means of delayed blowback. While this principle smacks of Heckler & Koch (early prototypes of the FA MAS were pictured with the G3 bayonet), the delay system has been taken directly from the French AA 52 General Purpose Machine Gun.

A black plastic lower handguard, pinned to the barrel and receiver, extends back to the magazine well and cannot be removed. To accommodate the bullpup configuration, the trigger mechanism and pistol grip have been mounted to the lower handguard, forward of the magazine well. The ergonomically-designed pistol grip has three finger grooves and a storage trap which contains a plastic bottle of lubricant.

The sheet-metal trigger guard can be pulled away from its rear retaining pin and rotated 180 degrees for firing with gloves under arctic conditions. The trigger is connected to a long, thin strip of sheet-metal which rides in a slot on the right side of the receiver and reaches the hammer mechanism located at the rear of the receiver. Trigger pull-weight was a spongy and variable 8 to 9 lbs. on our test rifle. On the semiauto-only FA MAS, pressing the trigger draws this spring-loaded bar forward to pull both the primary and secondary sears away from the hammer's notch.

A spring-loaded, plastic catch in front of the magazine well must be pressed back to remove a magazine. Magazines are inserted by pushing them straight into the well. No rocking motion is required. There is no hold-open device. But who cares? Thirty million Kalashnikovs have been manufactured without one, as well as millions of G3s and Galils. And they all seem to do just fine in combat.

FA MAS magazines hold 25 rounds and, in my opinion, are superior to those of the M16 series. While not as heavy as Galil or Beretta Model 70 magazines, the sturdy steel bodies are straight-line, without any curvature, with substantial locking tabs punch-welded to the exterior, front and rear, Two-piece floorplates insure rapid disassembly. Only the follower is plastic.

Because the firing pin is withdrawn from the bolt face by the delay lever's rotating cross-piece, there is no need for a spring. Other components of the bolt group include a removable bolt head with a spring-loaded, centrally located "bump"-type ejector, and an extractor and dummy extractor plug.

Being a bullpup, the FA MAS can be modified to fire from either shoulder. To change the FA MAS from right- to left-hand ejection, withdraw the bolt head after removing its notched retaining pin on top of the bolt body, insert the extractor into the left side of the bolt head and the dummy plug into the right side. The extractor will now spin empty cases out to the left. Nothing else is required for left-hand ejection, other than to snap the cheekpiece onto the right side of the buttstock.

This checkpiece was neoprene-covered sheet-metal on early specimens. It is now a light plastic molding, but still quite comfortable. Both ejection ports are cut into the plastic buttstock molding - one or the other being blocked by the cheekpiece. A spring buffer in the top of the buttstock compresses about an inch before rebounding. To reduce costs, it has been eliminated on the semiauto-only version as its cushioning effect on the reciprocating parts is not required in semiautomatic fire. There is a stippled, neoprene buttplate with fixed sling swivels on either side.

The upper handguard certainly contributes more than its share to this rifle's grotesque appearance. It also acts as a carrying handle and protects the sights which rise 3 inches above the bore's axis. A lightweight tubular aluminum bipod has been bolted to a bracket under the handguard. The non-adjustable legs, with plastic feet, fold along the sides of the handguard when not in use. To employ, simply pull out on the leg and rotate to the extended position. This useful feature adds only 6 oz. to the overall weight.

Each FA MAS is equipped with a cleverly designed, ambidextrous web sling. The rear portion attaches, in the conventional manner, to either of the sling swivels on the buttstock. The front clips mount on either of the bipod legs' axis pins, which permit rotation of about 220 degrees and a wide variety of carrying positions.

A spare parts and cleaning kit is also included and it consists of an ejector and spring, extractor, dummy extractor plug, bolt-head retaining pin, plastic cleaning rod with brass tip, bore and chamber brushes, camel's hair brush and a really useful prismatic bore scope.

While bayonets have certainly become an anachronism on today's battlefield, armies continue to issue them. Little time was wasted on designing a bayonet for the FA MAS. What is essentially the MAS 49/56 (French army rifle which preceded the FA MAS) bayonet was adopted. Blade shape resembles that of the U.S. M4-M7 series of knife bayonets. Grip panels are black, uncheckered plastic. There are two muzzle rings. One fits over the flash suppressor, the other on the barrel collar. The rear muzzle ring diminishes the bayonet's value as a fighting or utility knife. The black plastic, locking scabbard has been riveted to a web frog in the U.S. manner.

Firing the FA MAS, or any bullpup assault rifle for that matter, can be somewhat unsettling the first time around. With your face directly over the action, fleeting thoughts of what might happen if the weapon self-destructs are bound to occur. They are but fantasies of course, and nothing we stuffed into the FA MAS brought us anywhere close to red-lining its engine.

Most of the firing sequences were conducted with Portuguese M193-type ball ammunition of 1982 manufacture (headstamped 'FNM 82-17'). What a pleasure it is to fire an assault rifle in this caliber and not have to contend with bolt-over-base stoppages such as those induced by an M16 magazine. There were no malfunctions of any kind.

Accuracy potential was more than acceptable. With winds gusting at 25 mph, 3 MOA, with horizontal dispersion only, was the best we could do at 100 yards.

Felt recoil was quite low, but the perceived muzzle blast, because of the bullpup configuration, was loud. Ejection patterns, which are either to the right or left in direction, varied from 10 to 20 feet from the rifle with a high trajectory for the empty cases. Some cases spun back to scuff the stock slightly.

While they have no heat shields, the handguards are far enough from the barrel to permit a substantial volume of air to circulate. Neither handguard overheated at any time during the test. Balance and handling charactefistics are excellent and the rifle can be shifted quickly to engage multiple targets.

The more I shoot it, the more this grotesque hunchback grows on me. Its unsightly geometry becomes quickly muted by its superb performance. Regardless of the U.S. military's antipathy toward them, bullpup designs will continue to proliferate as the quest for ever more compact individual weapons marches forward. Fit for anyone's front line, the FA MAS should give both the Austrian Steyr AUG and the British Enfield SA 80 a stiff run for the money.

Military organizations and law enforcement agencies can obtain versions with scopes integrated into the carrying handles, training rifles firing 4.5mm pellets by means of C0&sub2; and short-barreled models with 16.5-inch barrels. A new carrying handle that will accept any NATO STANAG scope is also under development.

Design Features

First published in the January 1987 edition of Soldier of Fortune Magazine