In the lead up to World War 2 (1939-1945) (and during the war), there was a noticeable shift towards Self-Loading Rifles (SLRs) by several world powers. Several major armies had already adopted SLRs in standardized issue forms, replacing their slower-firing, bolt-action service rifles of decades prior old. The self-loading rifle allowed an infantryman repeat-fire through a semi-automatic trigger action/system, providing considerable advantage against an enemy still relying on a manually-actuated process. During World War 2, nearly every major power utilized some form of self-loading rifle which included the famous American M1 Garand and Soviet Tokarev SVT series.
The Belgian concern of Fabrique-National began work on such a rifle prior to the war. The design would take on the well-accepted "rifle form" with its long stock, integrating the grip and butt, while introducing a gas-operated mechanical function within. A patent for the rifle was secured by FN engineer Dieudonne Saive in 1936 and he produced a working prototype in the following year. However, the product was stalled with the German invasion of Poland in September of 1939 and indefinitely shelved with the Germany invasion of Belgium in May of 1940.
Saive managed to continue work on the rifle from Portugal where he now resided. Belgium was finally cleared of Axis occupation forces in September of 1944 which allowed Saive to return to Liege to continue his work. With the war in Europe over in May of 1945, the rifle was more or less completed by 1947. It was given the designation of SAFN Model 1949 by Fabrique Nationale but also came to be known as the "FN-49" and "Fusil Automatique Modele 49" over the course of its career. Interestingly, the Belgian Army did not become its first purchaser - the honor falling to Venezuela who ordered the type in March of 1948.
Saive created a solid functioning, quality rifle worthy of the Fabrique Nationale brand label. It weighed 9lbs, 8oz and sported a length of 43.5 inches with a barrel measuring 23 inches long. The weapon would eventually be chambered for a variety of cartridges to suit customer tastes. The action relied on a gas-operated function with a tilting bolt - similar to the one as found on the Soviet Tokarev SVT line. The gas cylinder was fitted over the barrel with a tappet providing the needed access for the escaping gasses. Feeding was via a 10-round fixed magazine set under and ahead of the action - fed by way of 5-round "stripper clips" or loaded through individual cartridges. Stripper clips allowed for a quick reload by way of five ready-to-fire cartridges seated on a clip. The cartridges were individually "stripped" from the clip during the semi-automatic action. The stock encompassed the curved grip handle behind the trigger group as well as the shoulder stock. Finger grooves along the wooden forend provided an improved forward grip area for the supporting hand. The action was set within the wooden body and featured a charging handle set to the right side (as well as an ejection port). A single barrel band was featured at the forend for rigidity. The barrel protruded only a short distance ahead which made for a relatively compact rifle system. Sighting was through conventional iron sights fore and aft while optics were supported for truly ranged firing.
The SAFN appeared just in time to find relative sales successes in the post-World War market where there proved a noticeable desire by many for modern, self-loading, repeat-fire weapons. However, as much of Europe partook of ample supplies of British and American firearms left over from World War 2, other nations were already aligned with the communist Soviets and taking stock of Soviet-produced small arms. This left Fabrique Nationale with a rather limited pool of possible suitors for which to market their new rifle to. Therefore, customers were generally non-aligned in their standing with either West or East and included Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Luxembourg and Venezuela. As such, chamberings ranged from .30-06 Springfield, 8x57mm IS, 7.57mm Mauser, 7.62x51mm NATO, 7.65x53mm Argentine and 7.92x57mm Mauser forms. Argentine forms were eventually converted for feeding from a 20-round detachable box magazine.
The SAFN gave a good account of itself in service and managed a healthy service life for the operators who used it. However, as with other Fabrique Nationale guns developed to high standards and of quality finish, the SAFN proved an expensive weapon to procure in number. This resulted in a limited reach when compared to contemporaries of the time. Regardless, the SAFN provided the groundwork for perhaps the most important Fabrique Nationale product of the Cold War still to come - the famous FN FAL Battle Rifle detailed elsewhere on this site.
On the whole, the SAFN rifle found combat service in the Korean War (1950-1953), the Congo Crisis (1960-1966), the Suez Crisis (1956) and the Falklands War (1982).
Manufacturing Fabrique Nationale - Belgium
Argentina; Belgium; Brazil; Colombia; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Egypt; Indonesia; Luxembourg; Venezuela
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