Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Free World's Strong Right Arm

Oh yeah. They used them in The Troubles too
In the years before the First Persian Gulf War in 1990, the world was organized somewhat differently from what we have grown used to today.  The overarching organizing principles for geopolitical relations were shaped by the US vs. Soviet bipolar "Cold War" on the one hand, and centuries of colonial rule on the other.  Particularly as the colonies began to resist their (mostly) European masters and seek, and ultimately achieve, independence, the end of the colonial era provided a fruitful geography for proxy wars.  So much of the cold war conflict in the English, French, German and Portuguese colonies and former colonies came down to which super power was providing the necessary resources for rebellion - mostly money, weapons and ammunition.

Recognizing that these indigenous forces were largely illiterate and unfamiliar with modern technology, the weapons and tactics were limited to the most basic options.  For the Soviet proxies, that was easy. The SKS rifle and AK-47 assault rifle were ubiquitous. They were simple, robust, cheap and deadly, utilizing the 7.65x39 cartridge which simplified and streamlined logistics.  So what would the western democracies use to stand against this tidal wave of Russian firepower?

You might find it difficult to believe, but the US had very little to say about this. In the immediate postwar years the world found itself awash with weapons, including American M1 and M2 carbines and BARs, but as the Russians and their manufacturing partners began to pour the more modern and effective AKs and SKSs into Africa and Asia, the West realized it needed to provide something comparable.  In the 1960s, the US was transitioning from the full power M-14 to the modern 1st generation intermediate power M-16. The M-14 was inappropriate for use in the colonial wars, and the M-16 was brand new, and was years away from being available for distribution to third world proxy armies.

Enter the Bloody Belgians. While the US and NATO countries were struggling to develop and adopt a modern infantry rifle, the Belgian arms manufacturer Fabrique Nationale had been producing the FAL since 1954. It was a modern, select fire full power battle rifle, firing the 7.62x54 NATO cartridge that was similar in performance to the American .30-06 and the British .303 rounds used in WWII. Because of the recoil of the big NATO .30 caliber round, the FAL was less effective in full automatic fire than the the less powerful Russian intermediate cartridge, but to many it made up for that with much greater range, penetration and stopping power.

It's not something that has made its way into the American historical gestalt, but around the world the FAL was the iconic arm of the colonial powers in thousands of post-colonial proxy conflicts, large and small, around the globe.  At its peak, the FAL was in use by 90 countries around the world. But that wasn't all.  The British adopted the FAL, re-engineered to an "inch pattern", as the L1A1 Self-Loading rifle and issued it to Commonwealth troops until its replacement by the L85A1 in the late 1980s.

Americans tend to see the world from the inside looking out, so their understanding of cold-war era proxy conflicts sort of begins and ends with Vietnam.  And so they see the iconic weapons as M-16 vs. AK-47.  But in the rest of the world they know about Congo, and Eritria, and Biafra, and Angola, and Suez and the Indo-Pakistan war of '71. And while you'd see the SKS and the AKs in those bloody fights so few remember, what you also saw was the FN FAL chugging out those big, heavy bullets, drowning out the sharp bark of the smaller Russian rounds in desperate fights that made the world what it is today.

Roland might have been a Thompson Gunner, but when he ran out of .45 ACP I guarantee you he had an FAL near to hand.

Ultimately, the world left big, powerful battle rifles behind. Oh, there's still some out there - the Marines and special forces community are busily restoring old M-14s into something called a Designated Marksman Rifle and issuing them at the squad level to increase the effective range and firepower over the 5.56 the rest are carrying.  But before it fades out of modern memory, we need to recognize that millions depended on the "Free World's Strong Right Arm" the FN FAL, to defend a million nameless bridges, crossroads and villages. There are untold graves holding those who never knew that there was a bigger stick than the AK.

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