Key point: Paris wanted excellent home-made rifles to use in battle.
Forty years ago, the French Army adopted a new assault rifle that catapulted the country’s infantry from the rear to the forefront of small arms technology. The Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de Saint-Étienne, or FAMAS assault rifle replaced antiquated rifles and submachine guns in French service with a fully modern weapon. Short and compact, the FAMAS was a good fit for both France’s European and colonial military responsibilities.
In the 1960s, the French Army was outgunned on the battlefield. The bulk of French troops were equipped with the MAS 49/56 battle rifle. The 49/56 was a gas operated, semi-automatic rifle that fired the French 7.5x54 rifle cartridge from a ten-round detachable magazine. The lightweight rifle weighed just 8.5 pounds and could fire rifle grenades.
The 49/56 would have been fine weapon for World War II, but by the 1960s it was woefully outgunned by the AK-47. The AK was both lighter and used a much larger magazine than the French rifle. In terms of raw firepower, ten French soldiers firing a single magazine each could put 100 rounds downrange. Soviet and communist bloc troops equipped with the AK-47, on the other hand, could fire 300 rounds.
The French Army began its search for a new rifle in the 1960s. Although it could have easily procured a proven 7.62 battle rifle such as the German G3, it was inconceivable that Gaullist France would adopt a foreign weapon. French Army officer and small arms designer Paul Tellié went to work on developing a weapon that could function as both a replacement for the MAS 49/56 and the MAT 49 submachine gun. By 1971 he had a working prototype and the weapon underwent field trials from 1972 to 1973. In 1978, the French Army adopted Tellié’s new rifle as the FAMAS.
The FAMAS was one of the first bullpup assault rifles, weapons that achieved a short overall length by placing the action and magazine well behind the trigger. This allows the weapon to have a long barrel while still staying relatively compact. FAMAS has a 19-inch barrel with an overall length of 29 inches—the American M4 carbine, by contrast, has a 14.5-inch barrel but an overall length of 33 inches. The drawbacks of a bullpup design are generally a lack of firing options for left-handed shooters and a fixed length of pull.
Unlike many contemporary infantry weapons, whose internals are largely based on the AR-15, AR-18 and AK-47 series weapons, the FAMAS uses a unusual lever-delayed blowback system. The original FAMAS rifle, FAMAS F1, utilized proprietary 25-round magazines firing steel-jacketed rounds. The barrel had a 1 in 12 inch twist that, like the original M16, was optimized for the 5.56-millimeter M193 cartridge.
The next generation FAMAS G2, was introduced in the 1990s. G2 used NATO standard 30-round magazines and featured a 1 in 9 inch twist pairing it with older M193 rounds as well as newer NATO SS109 armor piercing rounds. The G2 was largely confined to French marine and naval commando units, with the French Army continuing to use the F1.
FAMAS had a relatively high rate of fire for an assault rifle, firing from 900 to 1,100 rounds per minute. The rifles are capable of single shot, three round burst, and fully automatic fire. The FAMAS can augment French infantry firepower by firing rifle grenades from the muzzle. Despite the weapon’s short length it still came standard with a fighting bayonet, a peculiar accessory for a weapon just over two feet long.
FAMAS has served in a number of conflicts, including 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, the NATO intervention in Afghanistan, and numerous security deployments across French colonial Africa and even France itself. In the early 2000s, the French Army’s FELIN—Fantassin à Équipements et Liaisons Intégrés (Future Infantry Soldier System)—paired FAMAS F1 rifles equipped an image-intensifying sight with a soldier worn electronic monocle. The result was a weapon that could be fired entirely from cover, with the soldier using the rifle sight to aim at targets outside his own line of sight. The French Army purchased 20,000 FELIN systems.
In 2017, nearly four decades after entering service, the FAMAS is being replaced by a new assault rifle. German arms contractor Heckler and Koch will supply 93,080 Heckler and Koch 416 Fs to the French Army between 2017 and 2028, replacing the FAMAS in frontline combat units. The French Army’s total strength is approximately 135,000, meaning some units will likely continue to use the FAMAS into the late 2020s-and perhaps beyond.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national-security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami. This first appeared in December 2018.