The Untold FN Story
March 24, 2016
It's very unusual to find a company more than 125 years old that appears to have more history ahead of it than it does behind it, but such certainly seems to be the case with Fabrique Nationale (FN). FN Herstal is part of the Herstal Group, which focuses on both defense and the shooting sports. In addition to FN, the group contains other iconic brands such as Browning and Winchester Firearms.
One of the interesting things about FN is that it is Belgian. Belgium never set out to conquer the world. The country never was a large military power. Yet it has produced the legendary Hi-Power 9mm pistol, the FN FAL, the M240- and M249-series of crew-served machine guns, not to mention the work performed on other Browning machine guns as well as many other designs. While Belgium certainly never set a course for world domination, the firearms produced by FN have greatly expanded this modest nation's sphere of influence.
Belgium especially had long been recognized as one of the preeminent arms manufacturing countries in the world. There were a number of larger and smaller firms manufacturing everything from some of the finest, most highly decorated sporting arms through contract military weaponry down to simple, inexpensive handguns, gallery rifles and shotguns.
FN's story begins in 1889, when Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (National Factory of Military Weapons) was formed to manufacture 150,000 Model 89 Mauser rifles for the Belgian military. Originally designed in Germany, this rifle was produced under contract from Ludwig Loewe and provided excellent service to the Belgians through World War I and well into the 1930s.
In 1897, FN contracted American firearms genius John Moses Browning. It was one of the most important, far-reaching partnerships in the history of firearms. Beginning with the world's first true pocket automatic, the FN Model 1900, the team introduced the most cleverly designed, best-built handguns, long guns and military small arms ever conceived.
A short list would include not only the 1900 but the 1910 pocket auto (one of which was nefariously used by Bosnian anarchist Gavrilo Princip to assassinate heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand, precipitating World War I), Auto 5 shotgun, Browning Superposed shotgun, .25 Baby Browning vest pocket auto, Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), several .22 repeating rifles of various stamp and, in a joint effort with FN's Dieudonne Saive, the P.35 Hi-Power pistol — one of the most important handguns in history.
Having origins in a contract with the French government for a service handgun, the P.35 Grande Puissance was actually regarded as an improvement over the legendary Browning M1911 design in that it did away with that handgun's most questionable feature — a swinging barrel link. As well, the magazine capacity of 13+1 rounds of 9mm Parabellum ammunition gave the pistol the greatest capacity of any mainstream handgun during that period.
The P.35 was made in a number of different variations and became popular with civilians as well as the military and police of many nations. During World War II when the Germans overran Belgium, FN was forced to produce the P.35, along with other arms and equipment, for the Nazi war effort. Retitled the Pistole Modell 640 (b) by the Germans, many thousands were turned out before war's end. Before the factory's capture, however, FN sent the plans for the Hi-Power to Great Britain, which forwarded the designs to Canada. These Hi-Powers were subsequently manufactured in Canada by the John Inglis Company for use by British forces. Despite modern advances that have been made in handguns, many by FN itself, the Hi-Power remains a favorite with many shooters and is still a viable military and self-defense arm.
To digress slightly, FN has produced many non-Browning firearms and other products, such as motorcycles and automobiles, making the company one of the most important, vibrant firms of its time.
After World War II, FN rebuilt and again began making military and civilian arms of many different types and varieties — too many to recount here. Two arms that particularly stand out, both designed by Dieudonne Saive, are the superb Model 1949 FN Semi Automatique Fabrique Nationale (SAFN), commonly known as the FN-49, and the later FN Fusil Automatique Leger (FAL).
The SAFN was adopted by a number of countries in different calibers, including Belgium, Argentina, Luxembourg, Colombia, the Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil and Venezuela. The rifle saw action during the Korean War, in the Congo and the Suez, though it remained in some inventories well into the 1970s.
Saive's FNFAL [also called LAR (Light Automatic Rifle) and SLR (Self-Loading Rifle)] is simply one of the finest military arms ever designed. It was rugged, reliable, accurate and incredibly effective. First appearing in 1953, this selective-fire 20-shot repeater is still an important component of many armies throughout the world. It remains one of the most important pieces of military equipment ever designed.
What about FN today?
Some of the major hurdles FN has faced in more recent decades have been the fall and disintegration of the Soviet Union, the changing political situation today and the start of the Global War on Terrorism.
With the end of the Cold War, the worldwide arms race came to an abrupt halt. This had a dramatic effect on all European small arms manufacturers. Some survived, others didn't. FN leaders overcame this period by reshaping and resizing the company. Eventually, it was downsized to approximately 1,000 employees in Belgium. At the same time, the focus and strategy became one of consolidating FN's position as a worldwide leader.
Within the last 15 years, the company's management also had to face the fact that their facility and much of their machinery was becoming old and worn. So they set out to modernize, but with the catch of doing it without compromising the quality of their product. To accomplish this they invested 150 million euros in Herstal and completely rebuilt most of the plant. Production was streamlined and made to the highest quality standards.
FN also realized that the only way to survive is to be a leader. In the past, that required doing it alone. Today, it requires networking with partners. While FN has managed to successfully consolidate its worldwide position concerning machine guns (its 7.62x51mm and 5.56x45mm machine guns that continue to serve worldwide), the company continues to push the envelope.
Research and development has always been pushed as a very important ingredient to success. FN allots more than 5 percent of its budget to research and development. It should be noted that the Herstal Group takes in nearly 675 million euros a year, of which more than 55 percent comes from its military sales.
Top military products include the FN SCAR rifle series, FN M240- and M249-family of machine guns, FN F2000/FS2000 rifle and a number of sophisticated light, medium and heavy arms that are readily adaptable to a number of different platforms and delivery systems. FN Herstal has made integrated weapons systems a priority in its defense business, including portable firearms and remote weapons stations for land and naval applications.
Another of FN's key strategies is to remain in the front working in the United States. In this regard the company has done extremely well, especially with the U.S. military adoption of the FN M240 machine gun across several branches. FN is also very much involved in supporting the continued war against terror, developing and refining systems to meet the needs of those in the field.
It should also be noted that, in the 1980s, FN established a manufacturing facility called FN Manufacturing in Columbia, S.C., that is producing small arms for military consumption, as well as certain products for commercial customers. This facility has been revamped in recent years and is now a state-of-the-art factory. The product line includes the families of M16 rifles, FN M249 light machine guns, FN M240 medium machine guns and FN pistols. In 1998, the company established FNH USA as the U.S. sales and marketing arm for FN products.
In the late 1980s, FN took the position that conventional 9mm-chambered firearms were rapidly becoming obsolete in the face of modern body armor. The military flak vests at the time — not to mention soft and hard body armor — had advanced to the point where they were able to successfully defeat NATO standard 9mm handguns. This, FN felt, essentially negated their combat effectiveness. The situation was not improving, as body armor was both becoming more common and rapidly improving in performance.
In 1990, NATO not only recognized this problem, but (in Doc D296) officially began looking into the need for a modern personal-defense weapon (PDW) system. This new system was intended to replace current 9mm firearms in NATO service. It should be understood from the outset that this new PDW was intended to be just that, merely a close-range defensive weapon.
The difficult question became what to replace the 9mm with. This cartridge was a world standard, well bloodied during two World Wars. To replace the 9mm, the NATO officials first needed to objectively decide what performance was going to be required from its successor. This work was performed by NATO starting in 1992 and was completed in 1996. The performance and technical characteristics required from a new system had been defined.
In addition, a target was developed and then standardized to evaluate the performance of PDW systems put forward for consideration. This new target was designated the CRISAT target and consisted of a 1.6mm titanium plate with 20 Kevlar folds. As would be expected, this target was capable of defeating a standard 9mm NATO round. It should be noted here that the Russians developed and fielded helmets and vests utilizing titanium plates, so the implications are obvious. The mission of a new PDW was to be able to successfully penetrate this target. In addition, it was decided that a light, short-range (50m) PDW and a medium-range (150m) close-defense weapon weighing less than 6.6 pounds were needed.
To meet this requirement, FN Herstal created an entirely new cartridge family as well as two new systems. As the requirement called for the ability to pierce body armor, FN developed a small-caliber round generating a relatively high muzzle velocity. This is designated the 5.7x28mm by FN and is commercially available in non-armor piercing forms. This smallbore cartridge was then chambered in a new innovative compact submachine gun designated the FN P90 as well as a large handgun called the Five-seveN. Civilians can purchase the Five-seveN pistol as well as the semiautomatic version of the FN P90 known as the "FN PS90."
For decades, the standard law enforcement precision rifle has been some form of bolt action, usually a Remington 700, but some departments fielded quantities of Winchester Model 70s, Savages and various other examples. Semiauto designs, such as the M1A and AR-10, have always been rare exceptions, the common thinking being that a bolt-action design was required simply for its accuracy. However, combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to renewed interest in the potential of semiautomatic sniper systems. One company that has recognized this interest is FN. The FNAR, a new self-loading sniper rifle based on the Browning BAR, was developed expressly for the LE market circa 2008. A step away from the mainstream in concept, if not design, the FNAR is yet another demonstration of FN's forward thinking.
One of the company's most exciting new products is the SOF Combat Assault Rifle (FN SCAR), manufactured in Belgium and imported for the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Available in two calibers, 5.56x45mm NATO (SCAR-L) and 7.62x51mm NATO (SCAR-H), the military-issued versions of these rifles have a cyclic rate of fire of nearly 650 rounds per minute and are beginning to be offered in other variants. The aftermarket has begun to respond with clever enhancements, also. The FN SCAR has proven to be a real winner in the wake of its service with the special-operations community.
In 2014, FN consolidated its U.S. operations into one single entity known as FN America, LLC. With headquarters in McLean, Va., and manufacturing operations in Columbia, S.C., the company is the U.S. subsidiary of FN Herstal, S.A., a manufacturer of firearms for military, law enforcement and commercial customers worldwide.
Today, FN America currently produces the M4A1 and M16 standard-issue rifles, FN M249 series of light machine guns, FN M240 series of medium machine guns and the MK19 grenade launcher for the U.S. military as well as the FNS and FNX series of pistols and the FN 15 series of modern sporting rifles.
It's difficult to sum up the legacy of such far-reaching company as FN in so few words. As we noted at the beginning of this piece, the history of this brand appears to just be at its beginning.