How Governments Choose Weapons: Israel

I recently got an email from Clément, asking about the choices Israel has made in small arms for the IDF. Why did they switch from the FAL to the Galil? And then why take M16s to replace the Galil? Isn’t the Galil a more reliable rifle, and what was wrong with the FAL in the first place?

I think the question stems from a common misunderstanding – because the question of what small arms for an army to use depends on a lot more than just the reliability or quality of the gun in question. Factors like cost, political debts/favors/kickbacks, logistics, and more come into play. In fact, the actual quality of the gun is sometimes the least important piece of the whole decision. Take the M14, for example – it was not less expensive, more reliable, or more effective than its competitors, and wound up being the US standard rifle primarily because of political maneuvering. The M16 was supposed to be a temporary thing while the SALVO weapons system was finalized, but it wound up becoming a world standard. The EM2 actually was adopted as England’s new rifle, but the decision was quickly overturned – not because of its technical shortcomings, but to avoid offending the US.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Israeli choices for small arms:

  • Mauser K98k. It may seem odd that the nascent state of Israel was armed largely with Nazi German arms, but those are what were most readily available at the time. Everyone after WWII had huge surpluses of weaponry, although most countries did still have military forces to equip. Germany’s military was nearly wholly dismantled, though, so German weapons were more available than most. As a result, Israeli agents were able to load up on Mausers and 8mm ammo (as well as other things, like MG34s) for pennies on the dollar. The new state didn’t have much money to work with, so cost was a huge priority.
  • FAL. Once they were reasonably well established, the IDF naturally wanted to standardize and modernize. Mausers had been their most prevalent small arm, but there were a lot of other surplus guns in the mix as well, which created lots of logistical problems. The year was 1955, the 7.62x51mm cartridge was the newly-adopted NATO standard, and the FAL was the state of the art in small arms technology. It was a natural choice for Israel, and a high quality rifle.
  • Galil. After the Six Day War, Israel made the decision to move to the 5.56x45mm cartridge, as many other nations were also doing. Trials were held (which included the M16), and the Galil won out and was adopted. It kept the AK’s reliability and durability, while improving its handling with a right-handed safety and longer sight radius (among other things).
  • M16. When the US started offering M16 rifles to Israel at little or no cost, it was a no-brainer decision to accept them. The Galil may have been slightly more reliable in extreme cases, but the difference was slim enough to be meaningless in practical terms. The M16 was also lighter than the Galil, which made it popular with many troops. It wasn’t and particular flaw in the Galil that drove the adoption of M16s, but rather the opportunity to stock up the armories at far lower cost than making a bunch more Galils.

Did I get this right, or am I way off base somewhere? Let me know in the comments – it is surprisingly tough to find books on the details of Israel small arms…


  1. M16 was definitely a deal. But not that popular with IDF soldiers. The cotter pin holding firing pin was called “saturday night pin”. You last it(which is easy to happen) and you had night on base instead of out.

  2. As I was told by a noted gun expert-author in the late 1970s, the problem with the FN FALs (and I guess the M16s too) was that the rail systems, integral to the interior of those rifles, was that they collected the fine “sand” of the Middle East which led to stoppages. AKs didn’t have that problem.

  3. The lack of sand cuts ( as the Brit L1A1 had) in the Metric FAL is always mentioned as a problem but I have never seen it substantiated. I have spoken to a former IDF man who served in the Yom Kippur war in the 70’s and he said he did not like “ the FN gun” as he called it, because they were too heavy. Of course his usage was after the Six Day war of 1967 so he had already been exposed to lighter rifles which allowed him to have that gripe. He also said they made frequent use of captured AK’s as most everyone does.

    How about a little something about the IDF M14 SWS ( Sniper Weapon System) made on US M14’s. Lots of local engineering went into that. Special cheek piece stock, Khales 6x ZF scope. Proprietary Israeli 26 mm mount, Night vision mount, and a super heavy duty sniper case. In fact the earlier 98K Sniper has some pretty cool Swiss mounts and glass in it’s own right.

  4. I agree with John Ryan about the FAL. Metric FAL’s have served reliably in many similar battlefield scenarios without the supposed issues associated with sand ingestion. At the opposite end of the spectrum, they have also functioned flawlessly in prolonged jungle warfare campaigns when full of mud, water, sand and debris.

    The Czech vz.58 assault rifle’s bolt carrier also rides on integral rails within the receiver, and it has an enviable record of reliability under the same extreme conditions.

    While the M-16 and M-4 are definitely more sensitive to sand, mud and debris, they have still proven to be generally reliable when subject to harsh environments as long as proper maintenance is carried out.

    The reasoning surrounding FAL stoppages due to fine sand becoming packed into the receiver rails may be a battlefield myth that has perpetuated over time and become accepted as fact.

    Ian’s analysis concerning the whys and wherefores of small-arms acquisitions is pretty accurate.

  5. The only thing I heard about the FAL, was the heavy barrel squad auto version, having a bang bang jam habit, though I can’t confirm that.

    There may also have been an element of the AK being more conscript proof than a FAL – the Israeli backpackers I’ve come across who’ve just finished their national service do not appear to be mechanically (or anything else) sympathetic individuals.

    The Galil’s bottle opener was another concession in that direction.

  6. Mauser K98k Nazi German left over Got it free
    FAL Got it free
    Ak47s Got it free
    Galil another caliber Ak’s made it with US Aid,
    M16 Got it free from USA
    Tavor made it from US tax payer money but didn’t adopt it & Sold it To Some Corrupted countries!!
    Ian’s analysis is pretty accurate. politics come into play.

    • I very much doubt that the Czechs (former German weapons including Me109 fighters) or the Belgians (FN) gave the weapons away at no charge. Quite the contrary.
      Also that the Americans had some supporting role in developing, of all weapons, the Galil sounds not very convincing.

      • Some time ago I read a historical study on armaments and training of paratroopers and tank crews of new state of Israel from and in postwar Czechoslovakia. There were as I recall numerical amounts and they were substantial – mostly ex-German small arms. Not much about pricing though; that may be state secret to this day. It also included mentioned fighter planes (those were Czech built however with Jumo engines instead of BMW). What is most interesting part is that these transfers were continuing even after communist government takeover in 1948.

        • “What is most interesting part is that these transfers were continuing even after communist government takeover in 1948.”

          The whole thing continued after the communist takeover because it meant good business and a timely opportunity for the Czechoslovak military for get rid of obsolescent and/or inadequate stuff (esp. the Avia S.199 fighters, which were, after all, planned from the start as interim aircraft, before something more modern and efficient could be built/bought)…

        • The Soviets (and thus, the ComBloc as a whole) were actually quite sympathetic to the Israelis, until Arab oil and the rise of the Pan-Arab Socialist movement made the Arabs more attractive as the people to back.

          After all, the founders of the Israeli nation were, by and large, inclined towards socialism. From about 1944 on, Stalin supported the pro-Zionist movement (while officially maintaining Lenin’s anti-Zionist policy on the surface), because he thought that a socialist Israel would undercut British strength in the Middle East.

          The Soviets didn’t start changing their stance until 1951.

  7. A study, objectively, of every country since the Romas substantuates what you have said concerning “selection” of the nations small arms to arm their soldiers. A fine reference concerning US selections since the Revolutionary War is “Missfire” by William H. Hallahan. Seldom has the soldier gotten the “best” weapon that was in fact available. What is “best” is in what is it’s use to be. A weapon that can be .. Rifle, carbine, automatic rifle, sub-machinegun, sniper rifle, light weight,comapct, maintenance proof, single shot kill at 300M, fire AP, Ball and Tracer operate in ever climate from arctic, jungle, mountain, and of course “the sand box” … OK. All for a doller three ninety eight each! OHH yea.. lets not forget suppressor, NVD and glass/electro optic capable. The bigger the army the bigger the problem.
    A word on the FAL: Served 96 days with 1 RAR in 1965 in VN. I had M16 they had FAL’s and Owens 9mm. I got issued a FAL (nice to have same ammo as all the guys around ya) It never burped once. Several 100’s rds over 90 days, rain, mud, and goo! A bugger to carry, mags are HEAVY when ya carry 10-12. But punched BIg holes in things. I never saw an Aussi switch his FAL for a AK or SKS. But they stole my M16! hahahaha
    While I was in a SOF organization in 1980’s was “given” the opportunity to excell by carrying a Galil. I will never do that again. As they say.. been there.. done that.. and do want to doit ever again.
    Some weapons are better designed to do some thing great.. and other things only so so. You wanna drive nails.. get a hammer.. How big depends on the nails and what you wanna drive’em into//

  8. My informations said the Mauser K98K and also the MG-34/MG-42s had not been of German Origin, but had been Mausers made Czecholslovakia after WWII on captured German Factory Equipmnet at BRNO / Bruenn. Israel also bought some of the Me-109 Fighters made there after WWII. I also believe the reason for selling these weapons is in early 1950 the Czech Armed Forces had to change their equipment so soviet standards.
    maybe there had been also some original German Weapons used by IDF, but I believe firearms with Swastika markings will not liked in Israel.

    • Israel bought every kind of small arms they could manage. They got lots of WW2 surplus Mausers, and they also bought new-made K98k-pattern rifles from Czechoslovakia, as the Brno factory reopened and went back into the export business after the war. At some point, Israel converted various other Mausers they’d picked up to K98k configuration, as I’ve seen Israeli K98k’s that started life as everything from WW1 Gewehr 98s to Mexican Mausers to Ethiopian Mausers. Then later they bought some new K98k’s from FN with the IDF crest on the receiver.

      As for swastikas on the ex-Nazi Israeli Mausers, I’ve seen some with the Nazi marks pinged out, and others with some or all of the Nazi eagles intact. I’ve even seen an Israeli K98k with the “single rune” stamp on the receiver indicating it was made using slave labor from the Mauthausen concentration camp.

  9. Denny has a good point – the pin was indeed called the “Saturday pin” (originally “Pin Shabbat”). The typical way of keeping it safe from loss was to attach it to the open end of the bolt carrier while cleaning the weapon – which usually worked.

    Ian also mentioned some good points as to why this gun and not another was chosen; and an interesting – and recent – addition to the list of guns used by the IDF is of course the IMI Tavor (TAR-21), which is definitely out there with the best of them, and even more interestingly, had much less to do with ‘foreign considerations’ than its predecessors.

  10. I don’t have any particular insights into Israeli history, but for international arms sales, there are several other considerations:

    1) For some of the dodgier countries, they have to buy rifles from whoever will sell to them. You can’t always just pull out your cheque book and get someone to accept your order.

    2) There are a lot of “we’ll buy your radars if you buy our rifles” type deals. A number of countries which use AR/M16 style rifles are actually using Canadian made versions because of these types of deals. The decision to buy that type of rifle had nothing to do with the merits of the rifles themselves (the same goes with a lot of other types of arms sales as well). A long as the weapon meets some minimal standards, then other considerations can take precedence.

    3) Canada ended up with the Ross rifle in the early 20th century because of difficulty in getting Lee Enfields during the Boer War (due to shortages). Britain wouldn’t license the Lee Enfield design to Canada (although they did change their minds later) Sir Charles Ross however was willing to set up production of a militarized version of his hunting rifle in Canada.

    4) Quite a few countries want production of critical arms under their direct control (see the point above about the Boer War for why). However, new rifle designs are covered by patents and the patent holder isn’t always willing to license them to you. So, that means you might have to poke around for a design where all the relevant patents have expired. The AR/M16 style rifles are actually one of the oldest designs still in service and any original patents will have long since expired.

    5) If you want to go into the rifle business, then you need to invest a lot of money into production tooling. If you decide to build M16 clones, then you can buy a lot of component parts off the shelf from third parties. That lowers your investment risk when starting up. If all your parts are unique to your rifle, then you have to fork out a lot of money on tooling before you have any sales bringing money in the door.

    6) Some designs require bigger investment in tooling (dies, moulds, assembly lines, etc.) than others. The resulting rifle may be cheaper when produced in large numbers, but if you don’t *have* a large army, then tooling costs matter a lot.

    7) In the case of the Galil, I believe that production of that was set up with the help of Valmet (Finland). I read that Valmet sold Israel a complete production line without any after sales strings attached. Not many other arms companies would be willing to do that because they don’t want to set up a potential competitor.

    8) By the way, did you know that the Lee Enfield rifle is still in official service in Canada? It’s the standard service rifle for the Canadian Rangers, who are a local militia operating in the arctic. The Canadian Rangers were organised in 1947, and when deciding what sort of rifle to issue them the original thoughts were to give them commercial hunting rifles (their rifles are actually mainly used for subsistence hunting while on patrol and protection from polar bears). However, commercial hunting rifles and their ammunition weren’t standard issue for the Canadian army, but Lee Enfield rifles were, and there were plenty of those available. Today, Canada is planning to replace the Lee Enfields because of shortages of spare parts. They will be replaced with some sort of bolt action rifle in 7.62x51mm, because that is a standard military calibre.

    So, yes, there are a lot of considerations involved which have nothing to do with what what the rifle feels like on the range.

    • Speaking of Ross rifles – it would be nice if Ian came up with a test piece. From what I read they were not reliable when dirty; so make sure you get clean one and keep it clean!

    • Nationalism can also be a major factor; governments are often inclined to choose a domestic design even if other weapons beat it out in performance, cost-effectiveness, or even both.

    • Regarding Canadian adoption of the Ross. The Oct/Nov, 2003 issue of BEAVER magazine (retitled CANADA’S HISTORY) had an article about Sir Samuel Hughes who headed the Canadian militia. Hughes greatly disliked the British military and it’s officers after Hughes’s service in the Boer War. Hughes pushed to adopt the Ross to thumb the collective Canadian nose at the British by using a Canadian built rifle.

      The Ross company proposal also included a “plant in Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Quebec City constituency.” Even after the Lee-Enfiled bested the Ross in trials. Problems were found in testing and addressed: “[the Ross] had undergone some eighty major modifications that had added two pounds to its weight and two inches to its height, rendering it badly balanced and awkward to handle in trenches. Its latest version was the Mark III, and it evinced the same jamming problems that had plagued the earlier marks.”

      The rifle was pulled from service in August, 1916 but not before the powerful Hughes, “threatened the careers of officers who spoke against [the Ross].”

      • Sam Hughes could be very insistent, but his opinions weren’t always listened to at the highest levels. To put it bluntly, he was a bit of a pain, and people tended to discount what he said. Don’t get the impression that just because Hughes said something that anyone paid attention.

        Lee Enfields simply weren’t available in quantity at the beginning of the war. In fact, Britain ended up purchasing Japanese Arisakas and issuing them to some units (e.g. the Royal Navy) to free up Lee Enfields. When enough Lee Enfields became available, the Ross rifle was replaced for normal front line service.

        Part of the problem with the Ross was that it was issued to large numbers of new troops who didn’t have the same degree of training as the pre-war army. The Ross was preferred over the Lee Enfield by both Canadian and British snipers as it was more accurate. However, for normal troops a simpler and more durable rifle was needed.

        The Ross rifle could be said to have incorporated all the lessons of the Boer War. Those lessons were that accurate long range fire by well trained troops was the future of warfare. The quotes from contemporary literature that I’ve seen show it being highly regarded by hunters and recreational target shooters. WWI came however, and turned all that upside down. Simplicity, durability, and ease of maintenance by inexperienced troops was critical.

        Canada currently uses a locally made copy of the AR/M16. It is also a “target range” rifle which requires much care and cleaning by well trained troops. I think that if a WWI type conflict were to come again, we would see the same problems with it as we saw with the Ross.

  11. I’ve seen a few “German” WW2 weapons that went into Israeli service in the 40s. Some swastikas were struck out, some where still visible, some were never applied … factories in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia weren’t too concerned about what marks were on parts in the parts bins, and the young Israeli army couldn’t be too picky. “If you don’t like it, soldier, scratch it out.”

  12. I am a gunsmith for the US DOD and Ian hit the nail square on the head with “Factors like cost, political debts/favors/kickbacks, logistics, and more come into play. In fact, that actual quality of the gun gun is sometimes the least important piece of the whole decision.”

  13. Other issue is if a country has a good inventor on hand when it is time to adopt a new arm. Germany had Paul Mauser for the ’98. Browning and the transplanted Garand dominated the arms selected by the US military for decades. Isreal had Uziel Gal for the Uzi and for the derivation of the Galil. Without Eugene Stoner the “space age” AR15 would not have come about.

    If Garand (and Johnson) had not been inventing rifles in the 1930’s it is likely the US would have stuck with the Mauser-inspired Springfield for WWII, then with no M14 to derive from the M1, it would have probably gone with an Americanized FAL thereafter. If 7.62 FAL’s were around in the mid-50’s, why not scale it down to 5.56 in the mid-1960’s? If Browning had not made the BAR, maybe BRENs would have been used in WWII and if BRENs were in inventory in the 1950’s would the M-60 have been developed when it was? Without those three people the small arms history of the US would be unrecognizable.

  14. It’s worth noting that the IDF has always liked the M1/M2 Carbines, and consistently sought a replacement for them. The M16/CAR-15/M4 are about as good replacements as there are.

    • This would seem to provide additional support to John Ryan’s previous comment concerning the IDF soldier who complained about the weight of the FAL, keeping in mind that that story is anecdotal and does not constitute an army-wide survey on the subject.

        • That’s certainly true — but one soon gets used to the extra bulk and weight. I had an L1A1 when I was in the armed services, I still own an FAL today, and the weight doesn’t bother me at all.

          • I had two FN FALs (para and standard) and I had no problem with the weight (same as the M1 Garand) ….guess because I was a full male. 🙂
            Love the feel of the FALs and how they shot, very accurate.

        • RE: FAL weight, it’s not so much an issue of whether a 6’2″ man has an easier time handling a 10lb rifle as a 6lb rifle, as it is how stringent your physical standards for infantrymen have to be.

          If you issue FALs, you might not be able accept a 5’4″ enlistee who might have no problems at all handling an AR-15.

  15. The FALs were in fact a trade-off for Uzi license. IMI licensed FN to manufacture Uzis for the Bundeswehr (handful of wooden stocked MP2 and helluvalot folding stock MP2A1) – so in a sense, they were indeed for free, meaning they were not paid for in cash.
    Czechs were not only supplying German-designed weapons, they were also instructing Haganah soldiers. If you ever come to Prague, you can see a HUGE thank-you plaque from the Israeli government unveiled at the Military Museum (an absolutely MUST-SEE place for any gun lover, anyway) on the 50th Anniversary of the Jewish State in 1998. The machines for manufacturing German weapons and ammunition were not captured – but left behind rather. Czech weapons industry was the most prolific source of K98s, MG 34s (Brno “dot” coded factory was the only manufacturer of the type left after all German factories re-tooled for MG 42) and ammunition (all “ak” and “dou.” coded ammo is Czech-manufactured). Their aircraft factories were turning out the Bf-109G (ca. 50 with DB-605 engines called Avia S-99s were made during the period 1945-47, then further 500 S-199s were assembled 1947-49, the only difference was a weaker Jumo engine, instead of DB-600 series on a real thing) and Me-262 jet fighters (called Avia S-92). Communists had nothing against Jews in Israel until about 1950, when Stalin targeted Kremlin doctors as possible “cosmopolite plotters and terrorists” – only then started a long love affair between Moscow and Arabs, especially after Nasser nationalized Canal and declared himself a socialist in post-Stalin times. For Moscow it was just “an enemy of thy enemy is thy friend” thing.

  16. While I agree with Ian about the fact that a heavier rifle and corresponding ammunition load does reduce the amount of other equipment a soldier can sustainably carry ( everything else being equal ), one still has to consider very carefully the overall balance of trade-offs within the restrictions imposed by the parameters involved and how one best tailors that balance to match the existing mission or battlefield scenario. Carrying a lighter weapon with a larger amount of smaller-caliber ammunition is good as far as total number of rounds available to shoot at the enemy is concerned, but is this necessarily better than a smaller number of more powerful rounds that can inflict far more damage per round, especially when penetration of cover, accuracy and other factors are taken into consideration?

    Herein lie two obvious, and usually opposing, schools of thought. Most of the fellows in the infantry and special forces units I worked with much preferred the superior performance of the 7.62mm x 51 round over the 5.56mm x 45 round, and were willing to sacrifice the larger potential ammunition load and lighter weight of the M-16 for the reliability and firepower of the L1A1. On the other hand, the armored infantry I also worked with clearly preferred the M-4 carbine first and the M-16 rifle next for obvious reasons. This only goes to show that, like any tool, the right weapon must be chosen for the right task. To make things more complex, one also has to take into consideration the sort of mission scenario one is likely to be involved in, the other weaponry, ammunition and supplies one may have to carry within a given weight limit in order to successfully fulfill the requirements of that scenario, the ability of the weaponry ( both primary and secondary ) to obtain maximum lethal effect against the objective, and the penalties thereof. It is all a balancing act with a certain minimum to maximum range of acceptable limits, and one must decide how best to strike up the correct balance vis-a-vis the mission requirements while still inflicting maximum damage upon the enemy and / or achieving the desired end result.

  17. The Galil was phased out in favor of the M16 mostly for lack of accuracy: the back sight was installed on the detachable receiver cover, and lost zero once opened for maintenance and cleaning. Weight was also a lesser factor. Phasing out was done in two stages: Infantry & SF units phased it out in the early 90s, while armour and artilery continued use for another decade before final complete phase out.

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