The first prototypes of the FAL rifle were produced by Fabrique Nationale on the company’s own initiative in the aftermath of World War II, and presented to the British government for testing in early 1947. Initial tests were made at the Enfield ranges in April of 1948, comparing the FN Carbine in 7.92×33 Kurz (later to evolve into the FAL) against a Sten gun, an M2 .30-cal Carbine, and a German MP44. The FN Carbine performed will in the testing (we will cover this rifle more extensively in a separate article later on), but the British government was looking for a cartridge larger than the German Kurz round. The result was the first FAL (Fusil Automatique Leger, or light automatic rifle).
This first FAL was chambered for the .280/30 cartridge, which was a compromise cartridge using the .280 (7mm) bore diameter believed ideal by the British at the time and the general case dimensions of the American T65 cartridge (which would become the 7.62×51 NATO). It fired a 140 grain bullet at 2400 fps, with the intention of being an intermediate cartridge that could be used accurately with full-auto shoulder fire. The rifle itself was remarkably similar to the final production versions of the FAL, differing only in details. The locking and operating mechanisms were well enough developed in the early design that they did not need to be changed throughout later development.
Testing of this rifle took place in 1950 at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland,alongside the EM2 (also in .280/30 caliber) and the American T25, a development of the M1 Garand chambered for the T65 .30-caliber cartridge. The FAL performed well in testing, and was much admired by the British troops present. It also gained respect among the Americans for reliability. In fairness to the T25 rifle, the T65 ammunition used at the trials was an experimental batch and had consistency problems which led to malfunctions in the T25.
There were three written American objections to the .280 FAL, and one unwritten. The written complaints were its low velocity, poor arctic performance, and small bullet volume. The low velocity was deliberate to improve automatic fire accuracy, but the Americans were concerned that when firing at 700 yards the bullet would be 8 feet high at 400 yards, thus entirely missing a target at that distance. The British counterpoint to this was to note that the declared maximum range of the round was 600 yards. Considering the USSR as the most anticipated enemy at the time, arctic combat was a more significant concern than today, and low temperatures would only exacerbate the trajectory issues claimed by the American observers. Finally, the US military had a stated need for tracer and observation (explosive) cartridges for its infantry rifle, and it was claimed that the 7mm bore was too small to contain enough material to make effective projectiles of these types (later experience would prove this claim wrong). The major unwritten objection to the FAL was that it was not an American development. The head of the US Ordnance R&D, Colonel Rene Studler, was fundamentally unwilling to adopt a foreign rifle design.
Unfortunately, a major opportunity to reach a compromise was lost when the American and British delegations came to different understandings of the testing results. The British came away with the understanding that the .280 cartridge needed further development, while the American take-away was that the .280 was fundamentally unsound.
One of the .280/30 prototype FAL rifles built for 1950 trials, courtesy of the UK MoD (click here to download the gallery in high resolution)