Origins of the famous FAL lay in Fabrique Nationale's previous design, the SAFN/Modele 49, a self-loading, semi-automatic rifle designed in the lead-up to World War 2 (1939-1945) though delayed in its service entry until 1949 due to the Nazi occupation. The weapon proved sound and effective, available in a wide variety of chamberings, though still proving expensive to procure and ultimate sales were limited to a few select national powers due to the influx of ex-British, American and Soviet weapons emerging from stocks required during the fighting of World War 2.
Design work on what would become the FAL began prior to the war and resulted in a first prototype form being made available in 1946. At this time, the weapon was chambered for the German 7.92x33mm Kurz ("short") cartridge which saw considerable use by the German Army during World War 2. The rifle then appeared in a more finalized form by 1950 and consequential orders were first realized in 1953. Political factors, and a growing market need for assault rifles, ensured that the FN FAL would become a Cold War fixture along the lines of the American M16 and the Soviet AK-47. In its completed form, the rifle was chambered for the widely-available 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge.
The FAL was technically categorized as a "Battle Rifle" which described it as a selective-fire/semi-automatic-capable service rifle chambered for a full-powered rifle-caliber cartridge. This allowed such weapons to be set apart from the growing use of "intermediate-caliber" cartridge weapons such as the American M16 assault rifle. Other comparable Battle Rifles went on to include the American M14 and German HK G3 while, on the whole, these long guns were also considered assault rifles due to their base qualities remaining similar.
Unlike the earlier SAFN rifle by Fabrique Nationale, the FAL was given a selective-fire function which allowed for full-automatic fire (the SAFN was limited to semi-automatic fire). However, the FAL was best served in the "Battle Rifle" role firing through a semi-automatic action as full-automatic tended to produce noticeable "muzzle climb" due to its inherent recoil effects. A Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) version attempted to rectify this issue through use of a heavier barrel as well as a bipod assembly and this found success for some users. Battle Rifle forms included support for bayonet fittings and variable muzzle attachments based on customer needs and mission requirements. Interestingly, FN engineers elected to set the charging handle to the left side of the receiver (as opposed to the largely traditional right side) in an effort to allow the operator to keep his trigger hand on the pistol grip. In this way, the supporting hand could manage the charge. A folding carrying handle allowed for easier transport and could be collapsed out of the way when the weapon was in action. Sling loops at the receiver and barrel allowed for a shoulder sling to be used. Optics were wholly optional due to the iron sight fittings and transformed the FAL into a Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) for sharpshooters and snipers.
Outwardly, the FAL appeared quite utilitarian in its general form. The receiver was relatively clean and well-contoured while the pistol grip was ergonomically angled and set just aft of the trigger group. At its core it remained a gas-operated system with tilting breechblock and utilized a top-mounted gas cylinder with tappet, these fitted over the barrel. A perforated heat shield protected the supporting hand of the firer. Sights were affixed at the rear of the receiver and at the front of the gas cylinder. The stock was usually solid through a wooden or plastic design though another form utilized a two-strut skeletal stock hinged to fold over the receiver, resulting in a more compact footprint. One of the key identifying physical characteristics of the FAL was its 20-round straight detachable box magazine which was inserted into the feed well in the usual way. Overall length of the FAL was 41.5 inches with an unloaded weight of 9lbs, 8oz. The barrel measured 21 inches in length. Muzzle velocity reached 2,800 feet per second. Indeed, the FN FAL became the European symbol of the classic Cold War Battle Rifle for the West.
In practice, the FAL proved its worth as a reliable weapon system. It was completed to the high standards expected of Fabrique Nationale with attention given to simpler maintenance and operation, making it a favorite among many NATO powers of the period. A slew of variants soon arose, some feeding from the classic 20-round box while others from a 30-round box or 50-round drum magazine. Muzzle velocities, measurements and performance therefore expectedly varied across the types available but all provided the same robust action expected of the base design form.
Production of FN FALs spanned from 1953 to 1988 to which over 2,000,000 units were produced. These served well over 90 individual countries the world over and have included (among others) Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada (as the "C2A1"), Greece, India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Venezuela and West Germany. This reach also spurred local licensed production of the weapon as was the case in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, Nigeria (as the "NR-1"), South Africa (as the "R1") and Venezuela. The British Army L1A1 was nothing more than the FN FAL with British-requested modifications. The Austrian Sturmgewehr 58 (StG 58) is the FN FAL though produced under license by Steyr-Daimler-Puch (since replaced by the Steyr AUG line).
The breadth of users has resulted in the FN FAL seeing considerable combat service in a short span of time. The rifle saw service during the Suez Crisis (1956), the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961), the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979), the South African Border War (1966-1990), the Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975), the Six Day War (1967), the Yom Kipper War (1973), the Gulf War (1990-1991), the Rwandan Civil War (1990-1993), the Balkan Wars (1991-1999), the Libyan Civil War (2011) and the Syrian Civil War (2011-Ongoing) among many other regional and localized conflicts. While many first-rate powers have retired use of their FALs, the weapon still finds favor in the inventory of some national armories as well as in the hands of rebel/guerilla fighters and terrorist groups today (2014).
Fabrique Nationale led production of several notable variant forms based on the original FAL. This includes slight variations of the baseline model such as the FAL 50.61 (folding stock) versus the FAL 50.62 (folding stock with shorter barrel). A bullpup FAL design was trialed in 1951. Armtech of the Netherlands produced the L1A1 SAS, a carbine form of the full-length British L1A1 SLR. The Brazilian IMBEL MD rifle is based on the Belgian FAL.