In need of a modern automatic service rifle, the South African government trialled the American AR-10 rifle, the West German G3 rifle and the Belgian FN FAL battle rifle and decided that the FN FAL most fit the needs of the South African Defense Force. As such, local-production facilities were set up by the mid-1950s to produce the Belgian product under license. Lyttleton Engineering Works (now Denel Land Systems) was created as a result (with British assistance) and manufacture of the FN FAL began under the designation of "Rifle R1". The rifle was formally adopted in 1960.
The R1 was essentially a South African copy of the Belgian battle rifle design including overall dimensions, construction methodology and performance specifications. It proved a hardy weapon for the bush wars required of it and was as reliable and well-liked as its foreign counterpart. As it followed the FN FAL to a tee, the R1 was also chambered for the large and powerful 7.62x51mm NATO standard cartridge which gave it good accuracy and penetration abilities at range. The firing action remained the widely accepted gas-operated, tilting breachblock system and the R1 fired from a 20-round straight detachable box magazine as in the FN FAL. Sighting was through an aperture rear sight and front post sight out to 600 meters. Some 30,000 South African R1 rifle examples were also shipped to purchasing Rhodesia.
Over time, production and operational use of the R1 broadened considerably to the point that the rifle family line incorporated various other useful guises. While the family already included the base R1 service rifle, there soon came the "R2" with its folding buttstock for a more compact offering. This was followed by the "R3" with its semi-automatic fire only mode (intended for police and security forces), the "R1HB" with its heavy barrel and bipod for the squad-level fire suppression role, the "R1 Sniper" accurized repeating fire weapon system and the "R1 Para Carbine" with its integrated IR sight, shortened barrel and more compact length.
The "R4" of 1975, while following the same designation pattern of the R1 before it, was based on the Israeli Galil assault rifle, the "R5" being a shortened carbine form of said model.