FAMAS 5.56 NATO Rifle History

The FAMAS rifle, or Fusil D'Assaut De La Manufacture D'Armes De Saint-Etienne, has been the standard French service rifle since 1978. The acronym stands for assault rifle (Fusil D'Assaut) Manufactured for the Army by the French government's armory in Saint-Etienne.

FAMAS 5.56 NATO Rifle History
French soldiers from the 27th Alpine Rangers Battalion and French Task Force Tiger patrol the many valleys of Kapisa province, Afghanistan, April 21, 2009. (DoD photo by Maj. Patrick Simo)

The FAMAS rifle, or Fusil D'Assaut De La Manufacture D'Armes De Saint-Etienne, is the standard French service rifle and has been since 1978. The acronym stands for assault rifle (Fusil D'Assaut) Manufactured for the Army by the French government's armory in Saint-Etienne.

What would become the FAMAS started in the 1950s with France's experimentation with the bullpup rifle concept. This was en vogue with French military circles in the 1950s and '60s, though defense cutbacks toward the end of that time forced the new design to be temporarily halted. The bullpup concept had not seemed to gain any traction during the mid-20th century, but with the decision to make the 5.56x45mm the NATO standard, designers once again began to examine the bullpup. Perhaps one reason bullpup designs may never have gotten off the ground (aside from their ungainly appearance) was that the smaller size and weight with full-power rifle cartridges created too much recoil to allow average soldiers to operate them effectively on full auto. With the lighter recoil of the 5.56, bullpups shooting their way right out of soldiers' hands became less of a concern.

The FAMAS was one of the first bullpups adopted for large-scale issue to a First World military. Other examples soon followed around the same time, such as the British SA-80 and the Steyr AUG rifles, both of which are still in use today.

FAMAS rifle firing party
The firing party is pictured here, ready for action. Its members, from the left, are Sgt. Stephane Graff; Lt. James Thompson, U.S. Navy; Maj. Ed Brady, U.S. Army; Lt. Col. Pierre Verborg; Lt. Col. David Antonik, U.S. Marine Corps; and Maj. Matt Neumeyer, U.S. Army. All U.S. members were assigned to Combined Joint Task Force-101.

Operation

The FAMAS family of rifles are all chambered in 5.56 NATO, and while the F1 model only takes special 25-round magazines, some later derivatives reportedly accept AR-style magazines. The action is a unique delayed-blowback design, which was first used on the successful Model 52 French GPMG. Unlike piston-operated rifles like the AK47 or direct-impingement systems like the AR, the FAMAS uses the rearward force from the cartridge case to push back on the bolt. This in turn pushes on a fulcrum or lever, which then rotates up, unlocking the bolt. It is also the bolt's only locking mechanism; unlike the AK and AR, there are no locking lugs on the bolt. This slight delay allows pressures to drop to safe levels before extraction occurs. This allows the bolt to reach the end of its travel within the bolt carrier. The force of the bolt then moves the bolt carrier rearward with sufficient energy to overcome the recoil-spring tension. The entire menagerie moves to the rear, ejecting the spent case, until this momentum lessens and the spring tension overpowers the bolt and bolt carrier, forcing it forward, stripping off a new round from the magazine in the process. The spring drives the action forward until the lever is again rotated down in place, locked and ready to fire.


The FAMAS has several other intriguing attributes. The sights are the first that come to mind. The FAMAS uses a standard military favorite, the peep sight. While the AR rifle has a standard large-diameter aperture rear sight, the FAMAS goes one better with a very large-diameter ring for CQB fast acquisition, the standard sight and also a long-range, very small (almost NM) aperture that can be flipped up into place. Again, with its small sight radius this may be overly optimistic. Additionally, with the huge rear aperture comes the option of an oversize front sight. There is also a wide plastic front sight post permanently mounted in front and below the standard front sight for those special close encounters, and if that encounter happens to be in low-light conditions, the larger front sight also has luminescent material — a perfect feature for low-light encounters with the local Jihadi trying to sneak through the wire of your beloved FOB.


FAMAS rifle locking lever
Close examination of the locking lever used with the delayed blowback operation - note also the extended disassembly pin. This pin, when out of battery, allows the lever to rotate up far enough to permit the bolt/bolt carrier to be slid farther aft and removed from the receiver. After removal from the receiver, the bolt can pivot down in order to be removed from the bolt carrier.

Disassembly

As usual, make the rifle safe. First, remove the bipod legs (optional) by applying inward pressure and rotating them forward, aligning them with the barrel. Once they are lined up, a detent in the bipod post allows their removal. Next, remove the push-pin on the rear of the upper handguard. The handguard then slips up and to the rear and is removed. The next push-pin slightly lower and behind the first can then be removed, facilitating removal of the butt assembly. By pushing out a pin in the rear of the bolt carrier, the entire bolt and bolt carrier are slid to the rear and removed. Last, there is one pin permanently attached to the receiver (somewhat like an AR front lower receiver pin), which allows removal of the sear/selector switch assembly.

The pin at the rear of the bolt carrier, once pushed to the side, also allows the bolt assembly to pivot down, allowing its removal from the carrier. The (tank-looking) lever and firing pin can then be removed from the bolt. Once the bolt is free, a small metal cylinder or stud that keeps the extractor, spacer, ejector and bolt face ensconced in the bolt assembly can be removed. By pulling this cylinder up and out, this assembly is pushed out by the ejector spring and disassembly is complete. A feature of the FAMAS is that once the rifle is disassembled, it can be easily converted into a left-handed configuration by swapping the extractor and the spacer from one side to the other on the bolt face. Once the rifle is reassembled, a plastic cover snaps over one of the ejection ports on either side of the stock. Quite ingenious.

The rifle also has the ability to fire several types of grenades of two designs, one of which is for use with blanks, the other designed to actually be shot with standard ball ammo (utilizing a bullet trap to launch the grenade). The barrel has a series of ribs for use in adjusting the range of the grenades. When turned on the rifle's side, there is a lever just forward of the op-rod handle that can be set at 45 degrees or 90 degrees as the rear portion of the grenade sighting system.

FAMAS rifle removable plastic cover on the mid-right-hand side
Note the removable plastic cover on the mid-right-hand side. This is the cover that can be snapped into place on either the left or right side depending on which side the brass is set to eject. The stock below it has an ejection port on both sides.

At the Range

The FAMAS performed quite well in live fire. The rifle can be shot on single, three-round burst or fully automatic, with the select lever located on the bottom rear. On full auto, the rifle seemed quite controllable and at 100 meters put most rounds into a silhouette. Having only 100 rounds to play with eliminated an endurance test, but there were no stoppages or problems of any kind. Granted, that is a pretty minimal amount of operation to judge by, but my French allies tell me the rifle has few stoppages and they are quite happy with it. The integral bipod was also a nice feature, though I was too stubborn to try it, preferring the standard prone position (in non-combat situations, bipods are cheating; in combat, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'). The FAMAS is a capable little rifle that will undoubtedly be in use for some time to come.


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