WWII Saw the first widespread use of semi-automatic battle rifles. The U.S. M-1 Garand, Soviet SVT 38 & 40, and the German G-43 all saw action. There were other designs in use as well but they were not mass-produced or issued for general military use. Added to this history is another design that could have ended up on either side of the conflict but instead spent the war on the design table. I am referring to the Fabrique National model 1949 rifle. It is also known as an SAFN (semi-automatic Fabrique National) model of 1949.
It was actually designed just before the outbreak of WWII. Dieudonne Saive, chief design engineer at FN in the 1930s came up with the design for a self-loading rifle that used a fixed magazine. Unfortunately for Saive and FN, Germany occupied Belgium in May, 1940. Mr. Saive vowed he would never work for the Nazis or allow his design to fall into their hands. He fled Belgium, taking the plans for the design and several other FN engineers with him.
He ended up in England and went to work in the Royal Ordnance Corp Small Arms Design Unit. During this time the SAFN-49 design was perfected. A few prototypes were made but wartime production demands did not allow for diversion of resources to an un-tested project.
In late 1944 the Allied forces liberated Belgium. Saive wasted little time before packing up his expatriate design team and moving back. The FN factories had been looted and stripped by the Germans and the next few years were spent getting FN back up and running. After the war FN was actually in better shape than much of the arms industry in other nations. Most arms production facilities had been bombed repeatedly and were nothing more than piles of rubble.
With a perfected SAFN design, they began marketing it to the post-war world. Of course, there were tons of surplus military weaponry in Europe at the time and it was difficult to find buyers for the new rifle. The Belgian Army was the first to buy the new rifle, adopting it in 1951 chambered for the .30-06 cartridge.
There were 125,072 FN-49 rifles made in .30-06. The Belgians used a majority of the .30-06 guns. Luxemborg and Columbia acquired them as well. In all, there were more than 176,000 FN-49s built. Venezuela purchased 8,003 in 7x57mm; Argentina bought 5,541 in 7.65mm; Egypt received 37,641 in 8x57mm. The Columbian, Argentine, Egyptian and Venezuelan rifles all bear their respective national crests on the top of the receiver. The Belgian FN-49s are marked “ABL” and the Luxemborg guns are marked “AL.”
There were small quantities of the rifle purchased by other nations as well. These were mostly samples and prototypes and were not adopted for military use. There was even a handful of the rifles imported to the U.S. by Browning Arms Co. for commercial sales.
These were chambered in .30-06 and had a flash hider similar to that found on the Venezuelan 7mm model. The only way to distinguish them from military contract pieces is by the lack of any national crest on the receiver. It is assumed these Browning rifles were assembled from left over SAFN parts since they were listed in the Browning catalogue in 1961, at least five years after production stopped. The FN 1949 was in production from 1949 to 1956.
There were some minor production variations in the rifle, including a sniper version. These have a dovetail rail on the left side of the receiver and the FN factory markings are on the right. The mounting system usually used was purchased in the U.S. from Echo Co. of Boise, Idaho. The scopes used were a variety of European-made models. There were many FN-49s made with the scope dovetail that were never issued as sniper rifles. In my own experience I would guess that about half of the FN-49s I see have the dovetail.
The Belgian-issue .30-06 rifles marked ABL actually had the option for select-fire operation. With the fixed 10-round magazine, I can’t see where that was worth the effort. You might get two short bursts. The receiver is slightly different to accept the select fire components. Because of this fact, there will never be any Belgian issue FN-49s on the U.S. market as the BATF would consider it a machine gun. Some might have been imported into Canada and carried into the states before they tightened border crossings.
Some of the trigger groups have been sold in the U.S. but a semi-auto receiver requires modification to install them. Of course possession of an FN-49 with such a modified receiver would be totally illegal unless it was registered as a machine gun prior to 1986.
The Venezuelan version is the only one that was issued with a flash hider. The other contracts use a simple threaded steel cap to cover the threads on the muzzle. There is even a bit of difference in these. The Egyptian 8mm rifles have a cap that covers the end of the barrel. The various .30-06 rifles have a cap that covers the threads but leaves about 1/8 inch of the barrel protruding out the front.
The Argentine FN-49s were originally made in 7.65mm.
The Argentine Navy received many of these. The navy rifles are marked “ARA”(Armada Republica Argentina) next to the Argentine crest on the receiver. In the early 1960s the Argentine Navy converted their FN-49s to 7.62mm Nato. This was done by installing a new barrel. At the same time they were modified to use a detachable magazine. This was a 20-round magazine that resembles a FN-FAL magazine but it is not interchangeable. This was the only official conversion of the SAFN to use a detachable magazine. Some Argentine Navy FN-49s were imported to the U.S. in the 1990s.
The 20-round magazines were shortened to hold 10 rounds to make them compliant with the Clinton-era high-capacity magazine ban. These guns also had the muzzle cap welded in place so an evil flash hider could not be installed. A few years after the magazines were shortened, the government changed the interpretation of the import rules to allow standard-capacity magazines to come in if they were made before 1994. There are now some 20-round magazines available. I do not think the 7.65mm rifles have yet been sold by Argentina. I have never seen one nor heard of any in the U.S.
There were two patterns of bayonet made for the FN-49. The more common version has a 9 ¼-inch double-edge blade. These are marked by the nations that used them. For example the Belgian-issued piece is marked “SA 30”, the Argentine is marked “ARA”, and the Egyptian version has Arabic numbers. The 9 ¼-inch bayonet was issued with all versions of the FN-49 except for the Venezuelan contract. The Venezuelans used a bayonet with a 15-inch single edge blade. This was actually a FN-produced M-1924 Mauser bayonet that had the barrel opening in the muzzle ring enlarged to fit the flash hider on the FN-49. These bayonets have no markings except for a serial number on the back of the handle. Both types of bayonet will fit any SAFN.
The FN-49 could be considered a “grandfather” of FN’s biggest success in post WWII military rifles, the FAL. Some of the FN 1949’s features were used in the FN FAL, including the bolt and gas system.
The FN 1949 uses a piston-type operating system in which a small amount of the breech pressure is bled off through an opening in the top of the barrel. That pressure drives back a steel piston that operates the action to eject the spent cartridge, re-cock and re-load the weapon. There is a collar (gas regulator) on the piston housing that allows the rifle to be tuned for best function. Turning the collar opens or closes a small hole that vents gas pressure from the piston tube.
Military ammunition can be found with significant variations in chamber pressure. Some might have been loaded “hot” for use in machine guns, while other arsenals might load it to a lower pressure to be safe in older weapons that remained in use. The front hand guard must be removed to adjust the regulator.
The FN-49 is fairly easy to field strip for cleaning. Make sure the rifle is not loaded. Start with the bolt in the forward, closed position. On the back of the receiver cover is a latch that needs to be turned a half turn so the flat piece is to the top. Now, push the cover forward until it stops, then lift up from the rear. The receiver cover along with the recoil springs can now be removed to the rear. Pull the operating handle back to the rear. Lift the bolt/carrier assembly out of the receiver when it reaches the cuts in the rail that permit removal.
After cleaning and oiling, the rifle can be re-assembled in reverse order. Watch the sliding dust cover that can move forward and block re-insertion of the bolt/carrier. When replacing the receiver cover and recoil springs be careful not to kink the springs. They can fold downward and the cover will still fit on, but the carrier cannot be retracted. Once this has happened the springs are bent and will be harder to get in line for proper assembly.
I have fired a lot of rounds through several FN 1949s over the years. As long as consistently loaded ammunition is used there have been few failures to feed or misfires. I’ve only actually needed to adjust the gas regulator a couple of times. If one was to reload for the FN-49 it might be necessary to tune the regulator to a specific load. Ejection is quite violent and the brass is usually dented where it hits the top cover. The gun is fairly accurate, for a military rifle. The rear sight can be adjusted right or left by loosening or tightening the screws on both sides of the aperture.
One word of advice. Try to find charger clips that fit the loading slot in the top cover. Each caliber of SAFN uses a unique size clip and it is sometimes hard to find the right size. Stripper clips are almost never marked beyond a manufacturer’s letter or number code. Just try different types until one fits. Loading single rounds into the magazine is fine but be careful not to bump the bolt handle or hold open the piece while loading. If you think M-1 thumb hurts, FN-49 thumb is worse.
All versions of the FN 1949 are popular with American collectors. Many 7mm and .30-06 rifles were imported before 1968. The Egyptian 8mm rifles were imported in the late 1980s. These Egyptian-contract rifles are the most commonly seen SAFN in the U.S. today. Many of the Egyptian rifles came in with broken stocks and Century Arms sold them with a new stock. These stocks are made of a light colored wood that is stained dark walnut. They frequently have a black plastic butt plate.
The metal parts of these rifles were usually re-blued. The re-stocked 8mm rifles run $400 to $550 on the U.S. market. Original 8mm rifles will usually be in well-used condition and can run $350 to $800 depending on condition. The 7mm and .30-06 versions will currently bring $800 to $1200. Many of the 7mm guns are in un-issued condition. The Argentine Navy rifles in 7.62mm will run $800 to $1200.
This article appeared in the January 31, 2011 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.