The Very Rare FN CAL at the Range

The FN CAL (Carabine Automatique Legere) was Fabrique Nationale’s first attempt at a 5.56mm rifle, and it was not successful. They replaced it with the FNC, which saw much wider success. The CAL is quite scarce today, and it was a very cool opportunity to take one out to the range! It performed rather better than I expected, to be honest…


    • The CAL has a bad reputation, which I think isn’t at all accurate.

      The root of the problem with it was that it wasn’t economical enough, being too expensive to produce. Because of that, nobody bought it, which made other people assume that there was something wrong with it.

      The semi-auto version that I fired once was just fine, as a rifle. I actually liked it better than a lot of other 5.56mm rifles I’d fired.

      • I agree. Both the CAL and later FNC were also more soft-shooting ( read, ergonomic ) in semi-auto mode and much more controllable in full-auto mode than equivalent 5.56mm rifles such as the M-16 and M-4.

      • I suppose it boiled down to tooling and processing costs far outweighing the profits from sales. FN would have gone bankrupt trying to mass-produce the CAL for military issue. I could be wrong.

        • “The root of the problem with it was that it was not economical enough”…
          That does not explain why Ian was for some or other reason expecting poor performance from that very excellent rifle. There must be other bad press out there that he is aware of but nobody else knows about.
          I and thousands of South African soldiers had close experience with the FN FAL and its South African built version the R1) from about 1964 to 1991. It is a 100% reliable fighting weapon capable of excellent accuracy. The CAL appears to be a smaller replica and Ian proved that it too displays flawless operation. “The root of the problem”? When the rifle has no problems?

          • It’s not a smaller replica, if not for the general look. The FAL is tilting bolt, short stroke piston, recoil spring behind the bolt carrier (in much of the versions).
            The CAL is rotating bolt, long stroke piston, recoil spring over the bolt carrier. More than a smaller FAL is a very expensive AK (see for example the very complex interrupted-screw locking lugs. A complete waste of machining for 5.56 NATO).
            The FN-FNC is a simplified (almost crude, if you put them close toghether) and even more AK-ish FN-CAL.

          • I look at the commercial Browning Automatic Rifle (worst hunting rifle name, ever, for causing confusion, BTW…) and I see a lot of design contiguity with the CAL.

            Same sort of multi-lug locking system, same two-part bolt carrier. The similarities are definitely there.

      • Kirk, because I like to read the history by users about their opinions of combat rifles: What was the “bad reputation” that the CAL had, and who recorded this?

        A rifle’s “bad reputation” refers to wide experience by soldiers / users about the unreliability of any rifle. As far as I know and as was proved by Ian it is a most excellent piece with no bad reputation. Expensive – yes, but bad reputation? No.

        • The M16 had a horrible reputation when I was a younger man. Reputation doesn’t reflect reality, in a lot of cases, and the things people say about much of anything can be expected to conform to actual reality.

          I’ve only ever handled a single example of this weapon, and I only fired it on semi-automatic. It seemed like a decent rifle.

          I think that a lot of the people who were rendering opinions on this rifle never actually ever shot one, and went off of the low production numbers and what was published about it, little of which was complimentary. I don’t think any of that was fair, but that’s the way it goes.

  1. And now, just because whe shat enough on the NGSW, and with the only justification that it involves the same manufacturer (FN), let’s talk a little about the US Army Marksmanship Unit and Irregular Warfare Technology Support Directorate side project (that kinda reminds me a certain CONARC side project that ended up swallowing the M14)

    In 2014 the US Army Marksmanship Unit issued a solicitation for a cartridge like this:

    SPECIFICATION: Develop, load, and deliver mature test sample ammunition of two defined intermediate caliber cartridges with lightweight (threshold), polymer (objective) cartridge cases representing a reduction in cartridge case weight over conventional brass cartridges cases of more than 20 percent (threshold), more than 30 percent (objective). Two cartridges will be provided: 264 USA and 277 USA. The contractor will furnish technical and performance information, delivery time, and unit cost for a quantity of 100 rounds (test lot for verification) and then 1,000 and 2,500 rounds each (production lots) of 264 USA cartridges loaded with the 107 grain .264” diameter Sierra HPBT MatchKing projectile (PN 1715), 264 USA cartridges loaded with 123 grain .264 in diameter Sierra Hollow Point Boat Tail (HPBT) MatchKing projectile (PN 1727) and 277 USA cartridges loaded with 135 grain .277 in diameter Sierra HPBT MatchKing projectile (PN 1833) assembled in a lightweight cartridge case. The cartridge case head stamp shall include the cartridge designation (264 USA or 277 USA) (threshold), production lot number (objective), and manufacturers marking/symbol (threshold). The completed cartridges shall adhere to the applicable accompanying dimensions and specifications. The overall length of the cartridge shall not exceed 2.650 in. These cartridges will function in modified, purpose-built AR-10 rifles and magazine in the semi-automatic and fully automatic modes of fire with and without the use of a muzzle-mounted signature suppressor. When fired from a 16.7 in test barrel, the 107 grain 264 USA projectile shall achieve a muzzle velocity of 2875 fps +/- 50 fps with an extreme muzzle velocity spread of no greater than 50 fps (threshold), 25fps (objective). When fired from a 16.7 in test barrel, the 123 grain 264 USA projectile shall achieve a muzzle velocity of 2657 fps +/- 50 fps with an extreme muzzle velocity spread of no greater than 50 fps (threshold), 25 fps (objective). When fired from a 16.7 in test barrel, the 135 grain 277 USA projectile shall achieve a muzzle velocity of 2527 fps +/- 50 fps with an extreme muzzle velocity spread of no greater than 50 fps (threshold); 25 fps (objective). All ammunition will provide 1.5 MOA (threshold), 1.0 MOA (objective) accuracy to 600 m (threshold); 800m (objective). The average chamber pressure shall not exceed 55,000 psi +/- 5,000 psi for ten rounds fired. The port pressure should not exceed 16,000 psi +/- 300 psi. All cartridges will be assembled using Federal 205MAR small rifle primers (threshold). The propellant used should induce a flash retardant (threshold) and provide minimal (threshold) to no (objective) muzzle flash from a 16.7 in barrel with no muzzle device fitted. All cartridges shall include waterproof neck and primer sealant (objective). All ammunition should meet generic SAAMI rifle ammunition test standards (threshold) and MIL-STD1461E, MIL-STD-1168, MIL-STD-709D, and MIL-STD-636 specifications (objective).

    So, from a 16.7″ barrel and with 55.000 PSI pressure:
    107 gr, 2875 fps, 2662J
    123 gr, 2657 fps, 2614J
    135 gr, 2527 fps, 2595J

    A bit on the “hot” side, but right in the “from 2200J to 3000J” interval I talked earlier: “decent for personal semi/auto fire, good for SAW, decent for GPMG”. It roughly does, from a 16.7″ barrel, what a 6.5 Carcano – 6.5 MS – etc. round does from a 24″ one.

    The cartridge had been made, using shortened Carcano cases (thus the AMU was interested in polymer cases), but then the IWTSD joined the party and, in 2018, they issued a solicitation for the rifle, in different barrel lengts, and SAW, while keeping on developing the cartridge. In 2019 FN was chosen, and now they presented the new rifle, in the now called, and stainless-steel cased, .264 LICC (along with the EVOLYS MG adapted for the new cartridge).

    Three locking lugs bolt, long stroke piston, with the recoil spring over the bolt carrier. From the description, more a scaled-up FNC than a SCAR. Oddly simple for these times.

    Apart for the odd choice of a stainless steel case (to me it seems like a waste of nickel and chromium, since mechanically there is nothing stainless steel does that carbon steel doesn’t, and Russian-Soviets and Chinese stored their cheap copper-coated or lacquered steel-cased ammos for decades without problems) it seems like a valid alternative to the NGSW (it had never been presented as that, but since there is now a rifle with three barrel lenghts, from carbine to DMR, and a SAW, it’s hard to not consider it like that).

    • I think the key thing that needs to be done, going forward? Acknowledge the reality of the dual-caliber solution down at the lowest levels.

      The 7.62mm NATO is a compromised support weapon round because they had to try and shoehorn it into an individual weapon. I think that the NGSW has recapped that line of thinking, as well.

      What we need, if we need anything at all, is to procure an actual individual-weapon optimized cartridge, and a cartridge optimized for the support role. Nothing else really makes sense.

      These FN cartridges might make sense for the individual weapon, so long as they are controllable enough on full-auto, and can reach out and kill at 400-600m. The support weapon, the one that goes into the role filled by the PKM in the Soviet system, needs to be on the order of the Swedish 8X63, deadly and effective out to around 1800m off of a tripod, which also needs to be procured along with a full set of things like binoculars, range finders, and other accessory tools. Then, they need to train the snot out of all of it, in dynamic situations.

      Also, while I’m playing God? Revamp the qual standards for machineguns to reflect their actual role in movement-dynamic operations. Machineguns: They’re not just for static defense positions, any more…

  2. Ian mentions the FN FNC used in the shoot out scene in “Heat”. It should be noted that the police officer played by Al Pacino only ever uses aimed semi-auto fire, because he wants to reduce the risk of stray rounds to civilians. The crooks, on the other hand, use full auto from their M4 carbines because they have no such inhibitions.

    I have read that the actors were trained by ex Special Forces operators before filming this scene, and thus their use of cover and concealment and moving as a small unit is seen as being realistic. Val Kilmer’s slick mag change is also well regarded.

    Of course, the FN FNC was never an issue LAPD firearm, so why it was used must remain a mystery. It looks cool, and maybe that is enough.

  3. The only FN CAL “in the wild” I’ve seen in photographs was being used by the Colombian ELN guerrilla/terrorist group.

  4. Seems not having STANAG Ar15/M16 magazines was a major detractor from sales, no?
    Also, U.S. troops requested 30-rd. magazines almost immediately after the XM16 was issued in the Vietnam War, since the issue 20-rd. mag was often downloaded to 18-rds. I don’t think they got any until, when? 1969? 1970?

    • Per what I’ve seen, the 30 round magazine was in production as early as 1967. When they got to Vietnam? No idea; I know that they were high-prestige items for guys in SOCOM and MACV-SOG circa ’68-’69, and could be used as trading material per reports from vets who were there. With the mentality of a lot of the people running the Army back then, I’d wager that many felt that the troops needed to “wear out” their perfectly-good 20 round magazines before they started handing out the newer ones. You also had the issues surrounding the lack of web gear appropriate to the 30 round mags; the guys going in on Son Tay had to put theirs in canteen pouches they’d modified. I don’t know for sure when the 30 round ALICE pouches started showing up, but I think it was actually after they issued the magazines… I remember hearing from vets about that issue, but the details have long since fled my memory.

      The qualification ranges being built around a 20-round magazine mentality was still in force for nearly all of my career, so you had the spectacle of people keeping boxes and boxes of 20 round magazines in the Arms Room just for running ranges, with predictable results. For a goodly chunk of my career, the only reason I had a full set of 30 round magazines was because I’d gone out and bought my own. During the late 1980s, money was so damn short that I had to acquire my own set of range magazines if I wanted to run a range. You were supposed to be getting 7 magazines and a cleaning kit from supply when you inprocessed a unit, but… That often didn’t happen. With the way money was tight, you either had to go through the goatscrew of getting magazines back from all the troops, signing for them from them (and, because they were responsible for cleaning them, they weren’t happy about it at all…) and then getting them back out. Since this was a couple of hundred magazines, it was always a huge pain in the ass, because supply often didn’t have the money to buy a range set of magazines. Which was why I sighed heavily and bought my own set from a surplus dealer that was going out of business. Saved me a hell of a lot of time, running ranges, let me tell you.

      The epic shenanigans surrounding what should have been treated as essentially disposable items for the end user were insane. You’d be on a range, find a magazine that was non-functional, and the only way you could ensure you wouldn’t keep having to deal with it was if you took a sledgehammer to it there at the range. I remember one unit where I went through enough worn-out or actually recalled magazines that I wound up with a heaping MRE box full of them, which I took back to the supply room. Supply sergeant didn’t take them out of service, and I got them back again on the next range I ran, which was when I started using a sledgehammer on them. He was not at all happy with me, but I had policy backing me up on that one. Sorry sumbitch tried giving me a statement of charges for about 80-90 magazines that I crushed, and I went to the commander over it. Last I heard was the supply sergeant getting his ass chewed, because the commander had tried qualifying with some of those magazines, and he’d BOLO’ed for the first time in his career, much to his embarassment. I’d told him about getting the deadlined mags back from the last range (commanders had changed in the interim, this guy was new…), and he was less than impressed with his supply section.

      I think that supply sergeant lasted about another month before he’d finally pissed the CO off to the point where he got fired.

      This site has the dates and a bunch of other stuff:

        • Pretty much. It was the 20 round Colt marked magazines and the M1950 multi-purpose mag pouch that could hold 5 magazines for most of the war… You’d have a single magazine laid on the bottom (or, top… depended on taste, I suppose) and four more in line stacked side by side, typically facing forward.

          It was not an optimal solution. I tried that specific format once or twice, just to see what it would have been like, and I rapidly abandoned it.

          Most of the Vietnam-era guys I knew described using that same setup, with a single 30 round magazine carried in the weapon, when they could get them. One guy described his platoon sergeant or platoon leader doing some sort of illicit deal to get the entire platoon a full issue of 30 round magazines, and then being unable to carry them easily with what they could get for pouches. So, they put them into their buttpacks or rucks…

          One of the things a lot of people miss is that the standard US Army bandoleer for 5.56mm was originally set up for 20 rounds on two 10 round stripper clips, and that you could take your loaded magazines and then slide them into each cell in the bandoleer. Lots of units had their spare ammo packaged up like that, ready to fire.

          The most recent bandoleers I’ve seen came with 30 rounds on three 10 round stripper clips in each cell, and there was a quick-release seam you could pull that’d expand the cell to accept a 30 round magazine. Given that the bandoleers are super-cheap cotton fabric, I’m not a fan of doing that. The UK 5.56 from Radway Green has the bandoleer made out of vastly superior nylon, but they’re not set up to work with 30 round magazines the way the US ones are. Ideally, they’d combine the two approaches, but… This is the Army, which was issuing its 7.62 NATO linked still in cardboard boxes with similarly chintzy cotton fabric bandoleers for each 100 round belt. Not much sense in that, I fear… There are reasons you see so many US MG crews wandering around looking like bit actors in a Mexican bandito movie. The ammo carrying systems sucked, and are only recently somewhat better.

      • Kirk:

        I’ve seen a lot of photos from Vietnam, but I’m not sure if I have ever seen a 30 round mag. The 20 round mag was ubiquitous.

        I am disappointed you had these troubles in the 80s, that was meant to be the time that Reagan was showering money on the DoD. But I expect they pissed it away on Star Wars and the MX missile, rather than the guys with rifles but no magazines. You clearly didn’t buy lunch for enough senators.

        • It wasn’t the budget, it was the prioritizations they made. They had the money; it just never got out into the line units where I was. Ranger Regiment and everyone else that was “sexy” had all the cash money they wanted. The rest of us? LOL… It got exponentially worse during the Clinton years, and didn’t really improve until about 2004 after we came back from Iraq the first time.

          There was a lot of stuff that didn’t get fixed during the 1980s. Little housekeeping stuff… Like, where were all the NBC kits for stateside units? In Korea or Germany, we had the full package of 3 MOPP suits and all the extra filters for the masks. Stateside outfits? We were told we’d get them when we deployed… Yeah. About that? My NBC specialist buddies just laughed and laughed and laughed when I blithely mentioned us drawing those for a Korean scenario during a Command Post Exercise. Apparently, the warehouses full of those things I envisioned being there at our base… Weren’t. I have zero idea what the hell the plan was, if we’d flown into an airfield that got slimed on a real-life REFORGER, but… We weren’t gonna have our stuff. Same thing proved to be true when I went looking for all the “float” weapons we were supposedly going to exchange our deadlined stuff for, if the balloon went up. At the time, they had like two or three M60 machine guns to hand out, and they were prioritized for the aviation bubbas.

          We went to war in April of 2003, deploying to Iraq. All we had for body armor was the old-school PASGT stuff, and a couple of our Reserve/National Guard augmentees were actually issued the Vietnam-era nylon vests. There was, at the time, a full warehouse of the then-new Interceptor Body Armor, complete with ballistic plates there on post, which they issued out to the Stryker Brigade they were standing up while we were waiting to leave. They trained for the year-plus we were gone, in a combat zone doing route clearance and other risky things wearing PASGT if we were lucky, and we weren’t issued the new vests until about a year after we came back.

          The Army prioritization skills are non-existent. I’d be willing to bet that during Vietnam, there were unopened crates of 30 round magazines in the warehouses and supply rooms, but they remained unissued until they wore out the 20 round ones. You can find similar stupidities going all the way back through history, and in all armies. The guys at Isandlwana had to present proper paperwork to draw more ammo from the supply sergeants, even as the Zulus were within spear range…

          Supply stupidities are one major continual theme throughout military history. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any campaign, any military anywhere where that wasn’t a truism.

          • I wish it were merely theory. At this point? It’s taken on all the trappings of natural law.

            One of the things you have to wrap your head around early in your military career, if you’re to retain even a vestige of sanity, is that it’s not “the best army wins”, it’s “the least bad army wins…”

            Right now, the Russians are looking like they’re not gonna achieve that. At. All.

            Not to mention, they’ve got the flashier uniforms. That’s always a bad, bad sign…

          • Kirk:

            Yes, the chocolate soldiers who open the big golden doors for Putin don’t impress me much. A better gig than fighting in Ukraine though.

          • The epic Three Stooges Gotterdammerung that is the war in Ukraine ain’t much of a gig. And, Putin’s supposed “elite” like the 200th Kola Brigade and the 155th Marine Brigade out of Vladivostok…? Not looking all that professional or proficient in the combat footage.

            Swear to God, if those assclowns had shown up with their VDV buddies at the National Training Center for training, I think they’d have shut the rotation down for a safety stand-down before they even got done unloading off the trains, let alone got let into the maneuver area for actual training. The sheer ineptitude…? Dear God. I think some of the Iraqi units we dealt with in 2003 actually looked better, and did more of a professional job.

            The initial invasion footage of the columns going to Kyiv? Yikes. Just makes my soul hurt, and watching all the infantry hypothermically laying around and dying of exposure to the elements, drones, and grenades? I would feel sorry for them, if they weren’t on someone else’s territory conducting what amounts to a nation-state level drive-by…

  5. “I think some of the Iraqi units we dealt with in 2003 actually looked better, and did more of a professional job.”


    Ouch! That’s got to hurt. I suppose when you have an organisation which suppresses initiative and promotes yes men decade after decade, you end up with the Russian army. Other armies too, but perhaps to a lesser extent.

    • Give us a few more years of “gender initiatives”, and we’ll look just like the Russians.

      Readiness and fitness for combat are highly perishable things that you have to continually pay attention to maintaining, as well as grounding them in reality through occasional real-world combat. Don’t do it? You’re going to look a lot like what Russia is looking like, right now. Could be us, with a little more “reality neglect”.

      • Kirk:

        Agreed, it is too easy to look down on the Russians. Sleepy Joe and his bitch Thoroughly Modern Millie are busy hollowing out the martial tradition of the US armed forces. I doubt the 101st Screaming Queens and the USS Genderqueer will strike fear into China much.

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