Issue 49 DS Arms SA58 “FAL Improved” Tom Marshall Join the Conversation 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. The DS Arms SA58 I Series has a unique appearance that may be off-putting to purists, but includes a full suite of modern upgrades. 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. 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. 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. Both the front and back ends of the SA58 I Series include thorough modernization. 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. The Space Force-style stock is fully adjustable for length of pull and comb height, to accommodate a variety of optics. 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. If I Could Find a Way … During and after the U.S. foray into Southeast Asia, the FAL was pressed into stringent use against all kinds of guerrilla forces on almost every continent. As the L1A1, the British used it during both “The Troubles” in Ireland and in the Falklands War — where both sides were armed with them. South African and Rhodesian forces used them during a series of Bush wars on the African continent. While the United States was experiencing teething troubles with the M16, Aussie and Kiwi forces carried FALs into Vietnam. The list goes on. Ironically, Syria is also among the list of countries to adopt the FAL, where it served both sides of the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Now, let’s trace our alternate timeline to present day: a post-Soviet world where the U.S., and most of the free world, continues to use intermediate-caliber FAL variants to great effect as the balance of power ebbs and flows across Southwest Asia. But no rifle of post-World War design has remained untouched by the progression of technology, and even the ubiquitous FAL is no exception. The SA58 I Series includes just about all the modern upgrades one could expect to fit on this rifle. The plastic handguard has been replaced with an aluminum model with five sides of M-LOK slots. The magazine release is oversized and ambidextrous, able to be activated by either the trigger finger or support side thumb during mag swaps. We would’ve liked to see the bolt release and safety selector retooled into ambi configuration as well, but this was perhaps a bridge too far for DSA. The ambidextrous paddle mag release can be reached with the trigger finger to facilitate rapid reloads, even for southpaws. The top of the receiver, from rear sight to gas block, is an uninterrupted Picatinny rail with more than enough space for any modern optic plus a laser designator. But perhaps the biggest single improvement is to the stock. Original FALs sported a standard fixed stock. Later variants featured a side-folding tubular metal stock of fixed length. The DS Arms SA58 I Series went several steps further and includes a side-folding polymer stock, adjustable for both length of pull and comb height. The latter comes in handy particularly when using LPVO mounts, especially taller 1.93-inch mounts for night vision applications. Even though the stock itself is polymer, the folding mechanism is still steel, snapping open with no wiggle or rattle whatsoever. We admit it looks out of place, aesthetically. Frankly, the stock looks like it was transplanted off a Bush- master ACR. But the practical features and reduced weight gave it a free pass on fashion points. Our test sample featured an 18-inch medium barrel, although a 16-inch fluted version is also available. Back to the Future We outfitted our test gun, keeping with modern trends. Our optic of choice was a Vortex AMG UH-1 holographic sight with their new 3x “micro mag” flip-to-side magnifier. On this note, the factory irons on the FAL are set up such that a “see-through” optic mount is impossible to configure. But, for those who want them, there’s more than enough room on the top rail for add-on offset irons. To the M-LOK handguard, we added a forward grip from Aim Sports, which we happened to have in the parts bin, and a SureFire M600-series scout light with a Malkoff Devices upgraded lamp assembly. Aptly kitted for deployment, we took our DS Arms SA58 I Series FAL to the range. Shouldering it for our first five-round volley led us to our first complaint: the weight. Despite the ergonomic and modularity enhancements, the I Series is still built like a battle rifle. Weighing in at 12.6 pounds as configured (unloaded and naked), it’s nobody’s lightweight assault rifle. We’re sure the shorter, fluted barrel would’ve saved a few ounces. But there’s no getting around it — the FAL is a corn-fed rifle. Speaking of well-fed, we ran a steady diet of mostly Black Hills through it, favoring 168-grain boat tail loads, with a sprinkling of 175-grain rounds for good measure. Both loads use match-grade open-tip rounds. Our test gun chugged through mag after mag of both types of ammo, with the regularity of an oversized staple gun. While the I Series does feature an adjustable gas block, we had no need to tinker with it at all. The recoil impulse is substantial, but manageable in steady-paced semi-auto strings, thanks in part to the substantial weight factor. The factory muzzle device is a closed-cage flash hider, but DS Arms has a whole section of their website dedicated to compatible muzzle devices including comps and brakes from BCM and SureFire, respectively. Our other big bitch was the trigger. Despite the I Series’ earnest attempt at modernization, the aftermarket hasn’t been generous to FAL pattern rifles. The factory trigger repeatedly popped our digital gauge at a whopping 9 pounds, 13 ounces, which is downright repulsive to most AR shooters. However, we’re aware of a lone aftermarket option from JARD triggers offering pull weights as low as 3.5 pounds. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to procure one for testing. In fairness to the gun, what you get in exchange for weight and recoil is range and barrier-penetrating power. While we missed the chance to stretch this gun out to max effective range, high-quality, heavy-for-caliber 7.62 projectiles are easily capable of 800-yard-plus hits. At closer ranges, we were able to literally break rocks with it. With just a couple magazines, we reduced an 8-inch-wide chunk of rock down to a pile of palm-sized pieces. There are far more effective ways to reduce structures on the battlefield but, as counter-insurgency warfare becomes more urban-centric, troops will only see more and more well-built structures being utilized as firing positions by insurgent forces. In an alternate future, even the slightly heavier .280 or 6.8 would have better potential against these kinds of barricaded threats. But that’s a story for another time(line). For those of us stuck in the present, the DS Arms SA58 I Series is only available in 7.62x51mm. But if you’re looking for an extensively battle-tested design with longer range and better barrier penetration than is possible with a 5.56mm carbine, the I Series is a thoroughly modernized option capable of using all the peripherals now deemed essential on a duty rifle. While we’d love to know how an example in .280 British or 6.8 SPC would’ve looked in an alternate version of the Global War On Terror, the version we wound up with is still a steadfast partner to have in whatever future you find yourself in. DS Arms SA58 Improved Battle Rifle Caliber: 7.62x51mm NATO Overall Length: 39.75 inches Barrel Length: 18 inches Weight: 8.83 pounds Capacity: 20 rounds MSRP: $2,245 URL: dsarms.com ACCESSORIES SureFire M600 Scout Light:$390 Malkoff Devices Replacement Head: $140 Arisaka Side Scout Mount:$40 Aim Sports M-LOK Vertical Grip:$17 Vortex AMG UH-1 Optic: $650 Vortex 3x Micro Magnifier: $450 As Configured: $3,932 [Editor's Note: This article first appeared in RECOIL Issue 49.] Explore RECOILweb:Preview - Zeroed In Julie GolobReview: Springfield Armory SAINT Edge ATCNew Cloud Defensive REIN Weapon Mounted LightSureFire 2012 New Product Video NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. 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