Prototype .280 FAL

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).

Prototype FAL in .280/30 caliber
Prototype FAL in .280/30 caliber

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. For more details on this and the rest of the FAL development story, I highly recommend Blake Steven’s excellent three-volume work on the FAL (published by Collector Grade, but now out of print).

We have a gallery of photos of one of the .280/30 FAL prototype, courtesy of the UK MoD:

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  1. COL Studler was only the Chief of the Small Arms Division of the Ordnance Corps’ R&D Branch. While we may think small arms were its most important task, the Ordnance Corps had multiple responsibilities. Until the creation of the commodity commands in the mid-1950s, the Ordnance Corps was organized along three functional branches: R&D, Industrial Service, and Field Service. The exact names varied over the years, but the roles pretty much stayed the same. R&D developed ordnance, the Industrial Service built ordnance, and the Field Service maintained ordnance. Each commodity, such as small arms, was represented under each branch. Just as Studler was Chief of Small Arms R&D, there were individual chiefs of small arms in the Industrial Service and Field Service branches.

  2. sounds like the 7-08 cartridge (.280/30) was invented for the FAL. I suspect if they had produced a 7x45mm cartridge back then ( a 140 grain at 2600) we would have solved the whole 5.56/7.62/6.8/6.5mm issue we still have today?

  3. “we will c0ver this rifle”

    A zero for an o? Ian’s turning into a 14 year old kid with an IM client! Oh no!

    On a more serious note, it’s interesting how Britain keeps on coming up with innovative cartridges – .276 Enfield, .280 British, 4.85x49mm – almost adopts it, and then decides against it at the last minute.

    • The .280 actually was adopted, but only for a few months, in a fit of nationalism by the British Labour party government.

    • Jeremy, you forgot the .402 Enfield-Martini. It seems like every time the British come up with a smaller caliber cartridge that has superior ballistic performance to what they were using at the time, fate intervenes and they use something else.

    • There’s a recurring reason the UK keeps coming up with innovative ideas then ultimately don’t adopt them… Care to guess why? 😉

  4. Hey Mike,

    FN invented 7-08 in a way. They later necked down the T-65 cartridge down to 7mm, and cut 2mm off the case and called it 7×49 Liviano. I think the commonwealth tested it and Venezuela adopted it for a short time. Nothing new under the sun

  5. Yes, El Gato is right. Despite the promise of the cartridge, it was only adopted by Venezuela, in 1952 if I recall correctly. Apparently, it was also tested by other South American countries, but no one adopted it, other than Venezuela.

  6. 6.8 SPC seems to be around 120 grains. I still say pretty much the same cartridge sorry not really a hairsplitting type person.

    • That would be very close in size, capacity and performance to 6.5 Japanese, Carcano and Greek Mannlicher Schauner…

      a 1916 Fyoderov Avtomat in 6.5mm Jap anyone?

  7. Blake Steven’s FAL books are NOT out of print, they seem to still be available from the website, along with a new book “The Fabled FAL” which is a collection of material left out of the earlier three volume set, and an FN produced complete armourer’s manual.

  8. PLEASE NOTE: One of the original three (3) prototype .280 FAL’s ever manufactured is on display at the FN Museum (in the factory) at Columbia, South Carolina. I own the only .280 prototype example that FN ever released to the general public along with all military accessories, sling, 6 Magazines, Bayonet, extra folding stock, spare parts kit, 500 rounds of .280 AP ammo and the dies to make the ammo. I have never fired the weapon. It is absolutely brand new inside and out. I will sell it to the first persons who comes up with $110,000.00 – The third .280 FN prototype is in the BATFE Museum at Washington, DC because they stole it from the original importer after the tests were completed. They (BATFE) are today, have always been and will always be a bunch of no good thieving bastards until such time that Congress finally refuses to fund their illegal activities!

    • There may have been only three imported to the US, but more like a dozen were originally made. The one we photographed was in a UK MoD collection, and I believe I recall seeing one in the FN reference collection in Herstal.

      However, I’m extremely jealous that you have one! If I hit the lotto jackpot I’ll be in touch…and if you decide to take it out to the range, we’d love to come along. 🙂

      • There is also one at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Rather shamefully stuck in a case with almost no explanation or info other than a nametag. There are also supposed to be several EM-2s in their collection as well, including one in 7mm x 51. Apparently Canadian Arsenals made several tool room prototypes in the various 7mm “compromise” caliber, and a couple in 7.62 NATO. (See EM2 Concept & Design, sadly long out of print by Collector Grade Publications).

  9. Are there any of the original 8×33 FAL prototypes still in existence? Had one of those been adopted, the world might never have seen or heard of the M-16 or any of its misbegotten offspring.

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