Update 21 February 2002
After I wrote this article, the Williams Arms Company Aluminum receivers started self-destructing on a regular basis. It seems they did something different with the production models that were not done with the prototypes like the one used by Mark Powell in his torture test. Right now nobody knows what that was. As result I donít at this time recommend you use them for anything other than paperweights. Iím real sorry about that because I would have loved having a 6 pound 308 to carry around with a 20 round magazine on it. Even for hunting having one with a 5 round magazine would have been great. Maybe theyíll figure this thing out and get it to work. But as of yet it hasnít happened.
This discussion is an expanded response I gave to a Rubicon Member who was looking at buying an FAL rifle variant.
There are many on the market now and the demand for this style rifle is quite high due to the current political climate. I wanted to give the reader enough information they would be able to look at a rifle and be able to tell if it would function. I also tried to give the reader some background as to who was building the heart of the weapon, the receiver. I'm not going to discuss pre-1994 rifles since they are not usually encountered because there weren't that many of them and they are bringing hefty prices from the low 2k through upper 4k. Those of us who have pre-ban's are amazed how they went up in price.
Century International Arms who are a major importer of surplus military small arms, ammunition and weapons kits assemble the majority of FALís most people will see. The other major players in the FAL game at this time are DSA, Enterprise Arms and Hesse Arms. There are also probably a dozen good gunsmiths who are nationally known for their work on assembling FALís.
From the beginning DSA has produced a good quality rifle even in the days before they produced their own receivers. Very early on they had teething problems with their product and have worked very hard and corrected that. Theirs are now at a par with the original FN and licensee produced rifles. They have finally tooled up totally and produce a complete American rifle in house. They also offer quality kit built guns using their receivers and surplus kits. They're pricey and you pay for the privilege of owning a DSA.
The next level of production expertise are the Enterprise guns. They are still producing kit built guns using an in house receiver. Their receiver is not to true FN specifications but close enough the gunsmiths who build up FALís for a living have quit charging a premium to do the hand fitting the Enterprise receivers used to require. They make some parts other than the receiver in house and their quality control has gotten better due to market pressure. They do a lot of build ups for private customers.
The next on the list is Hesse Arms. They had lots of problems early on with trying to back engineer a receiver and the horror stories of people buying Hesse receivers and rifles that simply would not work are extremely well known to those of us who have followed the development of the FAL in the United States. They finally got a receiver that would work but the problems they had left such bad tastes in the mouths of many gunsmiths they, to this day, will not assemble a rifle on a Hesse receiver. In all fairness to Hesse, they have been selling receivers to Century. Century then partially assembles them in Canada and ships them state site for the final assembly.
This is due to the supply of the excellent Imbel receivers that were being imported from Brazil drying up. Imbelís were produced under License to FN of Belgium for decades and were true Mil spec receivers. The rifles I've assembled all have Imbel receivers. One was an Imbel receiver on an Imbel kit. Kind of like the GIís tearing down a perfectly good jeep to send it home to reassemble it into a jeep. But they had to get around Clintonís executive orders. That's back engineering at its best. And that gun when we got it put together didn't even need the sights adjusted. Talk about plug and play.
I recently had a friend buy a Century FAL built on an STG-58 Austrian
kit using a Hesse receiver. He had done it prior to talking to me and it
was a done deal by the time I found out. Remembering the horror stories
Iíd observed and heard about I told him to run not walk to the rifle range
and shoot it before he did anything else. He did and surprisingly the rifle
would shoot into two inches at 100 yards. When I handled the rifle it had
a decent trigger also. The receiver still didn't "look" right
but everything worked and in the final analysis of these rifles that's what matters, do they work. Surprisingly this one does, and the triggerís not bad either. Maybe Hesse has gotten better.
A minor player who just emerged is Williams Arms Company. They are CNC milling a receiver from 7075-T651 Aircraft grade aluminum and hard coated. The receiver is machined from US Army ordinance specifications and only weighs 8 ounces. They have only been on the market at the time of this writing, fall 2001, about a year. Some members of the FAL Users Group got their hands on a rifle that had been assembled with a DSA aluminum lower receiver. The rifle was about 7 pounds in weight, normal FAL's weigh over 9 pounds and a Pre-ban I have with a Bipod weighs over 11 loaded. The FUG members conducted a test where they shot over a thousand rounds through it in about an hour using a team of shooters and magazine loaders. The results of this test showed no appreciable wear on or stretching of the receiver. This might be one to look at.
Williams Arms is also rumored to be assembling rifles and if they are the home builder would be well off having them at least barrel the receiver due to the special problems aluminum to steel mating techniques pose. They are not producing assembled rifles at this time.
FALís come in two types, inch and metric pattern. Personally the inch pattern guns were better than the metric ones because they were a little later and some of the engineering problems were taken care of. How ever there aren't that many of them.
That said, I have all metric guns because there were so many of them and parts and magazines are real cheap.
Examining the Rifle
Even though I used Century's rifles in the discussion, the examination details I described are accurate for all kit built rifles encountered and I was not "picking" on Century. They just happen to be the main contributor of rifles in the American gun stream at this time. If it is a post ban rifle (after the Brady Bill) and you didn't build it or have it built by a known gunsmith or DSA or Enterprise in my measured opinion these guidelines apply.
First make sure the gun's clean. Dirt hides problems.
Look down the barrel from the muzzle, unloaded with the gas plug and piston/spring removed . Does it look right? By that I mean does the gas tube look centered on the receiver? Does the front sight look like it's balanced right and left with relation to the receiver, not canted to one side?
Also look at the bolt where it touches the barrel and the barrel it's self. Are there any peening marks where the extractor fits into the cut out of the barrel, top and bottom is the problem. If there's no marks or the bright rub mark's centered don't worry that sometimes occurs due to the barrel timing process.
Take the bolt carrier out and remove the spring from the gas piston. Tilt the gun barrel up to about 45 degrees and slide the piston in. It should slide freely for the whole range of travel without any binding.
Remove the top cover and grasping the bolt carrier by the rat tale on the end slide it back and forth in the receiver ways. Does it bind up anywhere and/or is one of the ways wider than the other? If so that indicates the receiver may be warped due to over torquing the barrel.
Do the same thing with the charging handle. Binding means misfitting which may mean warpage to the receiver. If any of the answers to any of the alignment questions are not right then shoot it before you buy it.
Franken FAL's are very reliable but like horses you have to know what you're looking at. The majority of the problems with them are associated with poor assembly techniques both by professionals and garage mechanics like myself. The nice thing is if they are not "right" and the receiver is a good one and not damaged, you can fix or get it fixed easily. Stay away from Hesse if you're gonna work on it yourself. If the barrel timing is off you can shim or mill it to the receiver, and having done that by using a pin gauge you can gauge and buy the right locking shoulder if the bolt head space is excessive. The FAL was designed to use the locking shoulder to compensate for head space change over the life of the rifle.
The only other thing is keeping them clean and maybe replacing the 40 something year old springs in them.
If it's a known good shooter, and you can get it for under or about five bills, go for it. That's what they should go for with a modest markup. The kits are $130.00, the receivers are retailing for about $350.00 at the shows, the seven American parts to make it street legal run another hundred if you look around. If you have a smith assemble it that'll cost about $150.00. So if you build it you're looking a minimum of $600.00 to DIY and $850.00 to have a smith do it for you. That's why the demand for the off the shelf and out the door guns.
I've built 3 in my garage using a drill press, a vice, files and some barrel blocks. Two were for me and one was for my buddy. Mine were STG-58 kits on Imbel receivers and his was the Imbel on the Imbel described above. I didn't have any problems. But you have to pay attention to detail while doing it. The Trick for the home builder is to use quality kits and receivers.
They've had over 2000 rounds through them combined and other than adjusting the gas systems and cleaning the crystallized grease from the recoil spring tubes I haven't had to do anything special to them. I'm not necessarily recommending that you build your own but it can be and is being done every day across the US by people who are mechanically inclined.
I've also seen and handled maybe 20 more FAL's assembled in North America and Murphy's laws still apply. Of those, three of them were real basket cases. One was an early Hesse that was just not right. The dimensions were off and by the time it ran the guy who had it was a year older and much lighter in the wallet. Hesse receivers have gotten better but the stigma remains.
The other two were Century guns which were put together sloppily. Give
me another LaBatts eh'. No offense to you Canadian readers. They were fixed
but why should you have to fix them. They should be right or not peddled
in the first place. I've also heard enough complaints about Century guns
that I'd look them over closely. For the most part they are good. But some
times they don't pay attention to detail. Century has a good replacement
policy but you shouldn't have to use it if you
follow the inspection guidelines I laid down above.
Thanks for the read.
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