Fabrique Nationale’s Fusil Automatique Leger (Light Automatic Rifle) or FAL was at one time one of the most successful service rifles in the world. Its 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge provided the accuracy and stopping power needed to counter the Warsaw Pact and the 7.62x39mm used in its AK rifles.
This venerable rifle was used in forty-five countries and over seventy countries but got its first major blooding during the Rhodesian Bush War of 1964. Britain had pledged to give independence to only majority-ruled governments in Africa, but the ruling white minority of Rhodesia feared this could result in chaos, and unilaterally declared independence.
In response to Rhodesia’s brazen refusal to comply, the United Nations set up an arms embargo around the country, blocking all UN member nations from shipping arms and vehicles to the Rhodesians, while the Soviets provided a steady supply of arms to black nationalist forces, mostly AK-47s and SKS rifles.
Initially, Rhodesian troops were equipped with L1A1 rifles, semi-auto only cousins of the FN FAL, so designed because British military thinkers believed well-aimed semi-auto fire was always more effective than full-auto fire in all situations. However, because of their semi-auto only limitation, the L1A1s were not very effective for suppressing fire.
In contrast, the FN FAL was a select fire rifle on the same platform. Capable of both semi-auto and full-auto fire, these rifles were smuggled into Rhodesia by South Africa’s apartheid government. Whether this was done out of a sense of solidarity or if it was done simply for the sake of profit, Rhodesia was flooded with FN FALs as well as R2 rifles, clones of H&K’s G3. Both smuggled weapons were chambered in 7.62x51mm NATO, which eased the burden on logistics.
To make sure the UN couldn’t accuse South Africa of violating the terms of the embargo, they sanitized the rifles sent into the country by cutting off and filing down every serial number or identifying mark which could be used to trace the guns back to their country of origin. The South African seal on a FAL was cut out before it was exported, leaving a huge hole in the magazine well. To this day, many FAL collectors consider these holes as marks of authenticity that add value to the firearms.
One of the defining characteristics of the Rhodesian FAL was its odd paint scheme, usually hand-painted over the rifle in broad strokes of seaweed green and a type of mustard yellow reminiscent of diarrhea, hence the American name “baby poop camo.”
While garish and ugly up close, this camo scheme, made with brushes and spare aircraft paint, was apparently effective from afar. First used when captured rebels remarked that black rifles were identifiable at great distances, the so-called “baby poop camo” scheme was applied to many of the L1A1s, FALs, and R2s in Rhodesian service.
Another modification to the Rhodesian FAL was the removal of the carry handle. The result of a single freak accident, Rhodesian rifles had their carry handles removed after an incident in 1972 when a soldier fired his weapon and the ejected brass bounced off the improperly stowed carry handle and into his eye, making him blind in one eye forever.
Even though the FN FAL had select-fire capability, the Rhodesians operated these weapons the same way they used their L1A1s. Semi-automatic fire was generally favored over full-auto since the violent recoil of the 7.62x51mm round was hard to control.
However, this powerful round had the power to punch through thick tree trunks the African rebels used for cover, while the AK’s 7.62x39mm round generally did not. Because of the FN FAL’s sheer penetration power, Rhodesian troops were trained to shoot directly into cover. This technique, known as “drake shooting,” relied on the FN FAL’s hard-hitting 7.62x51mm to kill enemies without the need to see them. It was not a random spray and pray, but rather a systematic technique that used penetration and fire volume to kill or flush out enemies from behind cover. By shooting low toward the ground, Rhodesian troops increased the likelihood of killing enemies who were kneeling or in prone positions.
When more precise fire was required, the SUIT (Sight Unit Infantry Trilux) scope was the FAL’s standard optic. Designed as a DMR (Designated Marksman Rifle) scope, this 4x optic utilized radioactive tritium illumination for low-light shooting. Its battery had a long life of 8-12 years but would eventually die due to radioactive decay, and it featured a unique upside-down obelisk reticle designed so it wouldn’t obscure a target’s body.
The SUIT was mounted on the FAL’s dust cover, which had a tendency to rattle when the rifle was fired, making it unusable for precision fire. Its objective lens was also off-center of the bore, so neither the front sight nor the heat mirage from the barrel would obscure the shooter’s vision. No modern scope would take these factors into consideration, mostly because a front sight rarely obscures a scope’s sight picture and the distortion from mirage is negligible, especially when the FAL is only expected to engage targets at a maximum range of 500 yards.
Ultimately, the SUIT was the forerunner of the modern ACOG scope, with its similar 4x magnification and illuminated reticle. It also featured rugged “soldier-proof” construction, capable of withstanding years of abuse and the harshest environments the African battlefield could offer.
Nowadays, the SUIT’s once-revolutionary features come standard with many of the modern scopes on the market, such as the Citadel 1-10x LPVO riflescope. Unlike the SUIT, the Citadel is a low-powered variable optic, with a base magnification of 1x and a max of 10x, making it great for engaging targets at both short and long ranges.
As far as low light shooting functionality, the SUIT’s tritium sights might last for eight to ten years, true, but getting a tritium replacement would be difficult and expensive. The Citadel, by contrast, has an illuminated reticle powered by inexpensive and relatively common CR2032 batteries, easily found at gas stations everywhere.
Just like the SUIT, the Citadel is “soldier-proof” with its rugged aircraft-grade aluminum construction. It has the added benefit of being waterproof and fog-proof thanks to its nitrogen-purged tube.
Optics technology has improved a hundredfold since the SUIT hit the shelves in the 60s, and a modern FAL shooter has better options than its standard mid-range optic.
The SUIT’s unusual obelisk reticle is so thick it could obscure the top half of one’s target (even though it’s specifically designed not to) and makes estimating shots at long distances very difficult because of its lack of subtension lines and upside-down orientation. In contrast, the Citadel’s reticle is a precise 1 MOA dot with a 9.65 MOA circle for quick shot placement. It also has handy subtension lines helpful for calculating shots up to 600 meters away.
Even though Rhodesian troops were almost always victorious on the battlefield, Rhodesia ultimately lost the war due to politics and transformed into Zimbabwe. Today, the FN FAL remains in service with the Zimbabwean police. This sleek 7.62x51mm rifle remains a powerful and accurate beast to rival the AK-47. With its powerful but accurate cartridge and solid construction, it became the mainstay of anti-communist forces throughout the world throughout the Cold War, thus earning its nickname as “the Right Arm of the Free World.”