Bullpup Assault Rifle
The French-designed FAMAS never lived up to its billing, resulting in a French Army search for its inevitable replacement.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
In 1981, the French Army gave up use of their MAS Modele 49 self-loading, semi-automatic service rifles in favor of a completely new, standardized automatic design in the MAS "FAMAS" - "Fusil d'Assaut de la Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Etienne" ("Assault Rifle from the Manufacturer of Arms from Saint-Etienne") (now Nexter). The French bypassed a traditional assault rifle design in favor of a "bull-pup" configuration where the action and feed are concentrated aft of the pistol grip. The shortened, compact form allows for a full-length barrel to be retained and - with the tighter dimensions - the weapon can serve both frontline and secondline troops with equal lethality.
French development into bullpup automatic weapons began shortly after World War 2 (1939-1945) amidst the rebuilding military-industrial complex. Tests were carried out through the latter part of the 1940s to which, after much testing, more refined designs began to emerge. Formal work on the project began in 1967 and the cartridge of choice became the 5.56x45mm NATO round. The initial prototype unit was unveiled during 1971 and, in the following year, the French Army took on evaluation models. Trials lasted some time before the French Army adopted the "FAMAS" in 1978 with service beginning in 1981 as the standard French Army assault rifle. Its characteristic shape garnered it the nickname of "Le Clairon" or "The Bugle"
The first FAMAS production mark was designated the "F1" and these were taken on in the hundreds of thousands by the French Army, replacing several outgoing types including the MAS 49 rifle. It took on the now-widely-accepted bullpup form with its enlarged, fixed shoulder stock housing the critical internal working components. The butt was padded for some comfort when firing and the straight, detachable box magazines were inserted into a well under the stock, aft of the pistol grip. The receiver was, as a result of the enlarged stock, allowed a rather slim profile with finger grooves found under the forend. Over the receiver lay a large, integrated carrying handle which also served to house the optics unit in the provided channel - a rear aperture with tritium night inserts coupled with a front post. The charging handle lay within the open loop of the carrying handle and accessible by either hand. Select fire allowed for single-shot, three-round burst and full-automatic fire. The pistol grip was slung under the design, in the usual way, at about its midway point. The trigger loop was purposely large enough for a gloved finger. The barrel protruded a short distance ahead of the receiver body with a majority of its length shrouded by the compact design. The body incorporated plastics where appropriate to make for as-light-a-design as possible. The barrel was further capped by a slotted flash suppressor and supported a bayonet for close-quarters work. The barrel could also fire rifle grenades to broaden its tactical usefulness in the field. Another unique quality of the FAMAS was its standard, folding bipod which folded up against the sides of the receiver. Sling loops were also standard, allowing for a traditional shoulder strap to be added. Internally, the weapon relied on a lever-delayed blowback system of firing and could be quickly configured for left-handed use with a few changes to the mechanics.
Despite its relatively good showing, the F1 found troubles once in wider circulation as its plastics proved weak within the rigors of regular military abuse. This deficiency led to the development of an improved mark in the proposed "G1" though this model was never adopted for service and thusly never entered serial production.
Improvements found in the G1, however, were soon put into use with the upcoming G2 model of 1994. The G2 was born through an initiative to produce a more "NATO-centric" end-product with full STANAG magazine support. As such, the barrel underwent tighter rifling and a 30-round magazine was introduced. Other changes included a whole-hand triggerguard (running from the base of the pistol grip to a point on the forend), increased use of stronger fiberglass (over plastics), a structural "lip" ahead of the forend to prevent the firer's hand from passing in front of the muzzle, and reinforced internals for improved rifle grenade support. Specifications for the G2 included an overall length of 30 inches with a barrel measuring 19.2 inches, an unloaded weight of 3.8 kilograms, a cyclic rate-of-fire of 1,100 rounds per minute and a muzzle velocity reaching 3,035 feet per second.
The French Navy (Marines) was the first to adopt the G2 during 1995. The French Army followed, though acquiring only limited stocks to date due to its heavy investment in the 400,000 or so F1 units already in circulation. Other variants to emerge became the G2 "Commando" with its 15.9" barrel, the G2 "SMG" submachine gun form with its 12.6" barrel and the G2 "Sniper" precision model with its 24.4" barrel.
Since its adoption, the FAMAS has become a combat veteran, serving in the 1983-1984 Chad French intervention and the 1991 Gulf War. Foreign operators include Argentina (limited), Djibouti (standard service rifle), Gabon, Indonesia (special forces), Iraq (Army), Lebanon, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, Serbia (police, special forces), Tunisia (presidential security), the United Arab Emirates and Vanuata (Republic of). It has also been identified in the hands of Syrian rebels (F1 models) in the current Syrian Civil War (2011-?).
While the FAMAS has had its notable issues, the most damning aspect of the line has become its rather powerful action which tended to have a negative impact when firing the NATO brass-cased 5.56x45mm cartridge. This led the French Army to use non-standard, steel-cased cartridges instead, negating any logistical benefits in shared ammunition with other NATO members. The tighter rifling of the barrel also never proved wholly sound in stabilization of the cartridge leading many to consider the FAMAS as generally inferior to competing frontline types - essentially meaning that it does not represent a long-term solution for the French Army. As such, its successor - most likely to become foreign in origination - is already being sought.
October 2016 - The French Army has announced the official replacement of the FAMAS assault rifle, this to become the German-originated Heckler & Koch HK416 series (detailed elsewhere on this site).