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DS Arms’ “FAL Improved”

DS Arms SA58 Improved Battle Rifle – FAL Improved

The year is 1951. The jubilation of worldwide Allied victories is fading with the ominous realization that global totalitarianism hasn’t died, but merely shifted shape. The dread of the thousand-year Reich is replaced by the ever-extending tentacles of a global Soviet. If Nazism was the plague of the free world, Communism would prove to be its cancer. But large-scale clashes of armies, like those seen a decade prior, are no longer. Instead, a new model of warfare emerged, with large groups of powerful nations collecting up smaller, less sophisticated lands like so much loose change on the world floor. Admirals and generals accustomed to laying down force like brick-and-mortar are now reduced to playing checkers with peasant guerrillas and insurgent commandos who don’t even speak their language. The beginning of MOOTW: Military Operations Other Than War.


It’s against this backdrop that legendary arms producer Fabrique National releases their FAL — Fusil Automatique Léger, or Light Automatic Rifle. Though originally produced for the intermediate 7mm NATO cartridge, more commonly known as .280 British, it was eventually adopted in the larger 7.62mm NATO by over 90 countries worldwide. As the FAL saw steady use by Allied forces around the world during various Cold War hot spots, it became known as “The Right Arm of the Free World.” Despite this, its failure to win the hearts and minds of American military leadership (who instead placed the M14 on a dubious pedestal) would eventually cast the FAL into pop culture obscurity. The U.S. military’s adoption of the M14, rapidly overwritten by that of the M16 and its smaller 5.56mm cartridge during Vietnam, would be the death knell for the FAL’s role as the global vanguard of democracy. In the U.S., anyway.

Many of the original FAL’s design features were retained, including the single-sided magwell to aid in lining up reloads. Note the addition of QD sling swivels on the handguard.

Since then, the FAL’s place in the modern American lexicon has been confined to first-person-shooter video games and movies about various conflicts in Africa or South America. FN USA doesn’t even produce it for the American market. Instead, fans of this historical battle rifle most often turn to DS Arms, which maintains a stable of FAL variants — branded as the SA58, representing a scrapbook of Cold War history told through the differing configurations of its flagship product. Roughly two years ago, DSA quietly released the SA58 I Series: a version with some refreshingly practical upgrades that are, albeit, visually incongruent to purists and historical cloners. On the whole, we’re not normally aficionados of septuagenarian battle rifles. But the I Series’ striking appearance and post-facto improvements … plus all of the alternate-history television we’ve binge-watched this year … gave us some interesting food for thought. As we said earlier, the final nail in the coffin of the FAL’s service life was the shift from 7.62mm to 5.56mm NATO, driven forward by the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. But, ironically enough, we weren’t the first free people to try and tourniquet the spread of Communism through Southeast Asia.

If I Could Turn Back Time …
Let’s go back to 1951, when two relevant events occurred in parallel. A few months prior, in the fall of 1950, the French Army (backed by Legionnaires) suffered their first major military defeat against Communist guerillas in Indochina at the battle of Route Coloniale 4. This battle was part of the Border Campaign of 1950, wherein insurgent forces worked to clear a dedicated supply line from Vietnam to the newly minted People’s Republic of China. The French were fighting to close this wound and prevent Mao from filling the colonies of the French Union with Communist arms and ideology. Unfortunately, French forces were routed so severely that several battalions of both the French Army and the Foreign Legion were all but erased from the rosters. At the time, French forces had just started issuing the MAS 49, a direct impingement rifle firing France’s own 7.5x54mm cartridge from a whopping 10-round magazine.

The Space Force-style stock is fully adjustable for length of pull and comb height, to accommodate a variety of optics.

Back on European soil, the British, who had been examining prototype FAL designs since 1948, requested that FN produce the rifle in .280 and presented the result to the United States for comparison against our own current prototype, the T25. It was the British who proposed the idea of a NATO standard caliber, suggesting that .280 (7x43mm) was just the tool for the job. So vested in the effort was FN, that they offered an allowance for the U.S. to produce the FAL domestically with no royalties owed.

Had the French more rapidly adapted to their hemorrhaging casualties in Indochina, they might’ve paid closer attention to the Brits’ concept of operations. An automatic rifle firing a smaller cartridge from a larger magazine, also equipped with a piston-driven operating system that would need less maintenance in the unforgiving jungle, should have looked like a turnkey solution for the mounting pressure of Communist guerillas in distant lands that offer little opportunity for supply and support.

The U.S. too could have, and arguably should have, seen the proverbial writing on the wall. But our eventual decisions to adopt both a direct impingement rifle and a sub-caliber cartridge would come back to haunt us with unflinching irony in the Global War On Terror. Elite U.S. forces would eventually adopt piston-driven rifles in the form of the SCAR (another FN design) and the HK 416, and multiple attempts to seek an intermediate caliber cartridge continue to start and stall with alarming frequency. The most notable of these ballistic experiments, when hoisted up against the .280 British, is the 6.8 SPC — measured as 6.8x43mm. Our most fervent attempt at an “ideal” combat round in the early 2000s produced a case the exact same length as .280 British with a projectile only two-tenths of a millimeter smaller. If that’s not enough to make you want to turn back time, certain 6.8 SPC loads sling a 120-grain projectile at 2,460 feet per second. The original .280 British accelerated a 140-grain slug to 2,549 feet per second. The difference in muzzle energy between the two loads is less than 300 foot-pounds.

What if we had listened to our partners across the pond? What if the French had gone running to the neighbors with bad news from the Orient, asking for good ideas on how to keep the reds at bay? While anything .280 British and 6.8 SPC are both unreasonably difficult to attain, even for us, we can certainly take a look at the rifle that may have resulted from just a couple of different decisions on the part of NATO’s chief war-makers.

For the rest of this article, subscribe here: RECOIL Issue 49

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