Beware The General – the FN MAG

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The FN-MAG General Purpose Machinegun – an L7A2 in action in Afghanistan

Many weapons have changed warfare since the beginning of the 21st century – aircraft, the tank, submarines – but perhaps none have made as much difference as the machinegun. It gave infantry units the ability to put down firepower that, within their range, was as devastating as artillery. It paralysed movement for four years during the First World War, forcing the most powerful armies in the world to burrow into the mud for survival. It made war in the air possible by providing a relatively light weapon that put out enough lead to hit an agile target flying at 100mph.

Vicker Mk 1 MMG
Early machineguns like this Vickers Mk 1 were immensely heavy, but extremely reliable and capable of firing for days.

Of course the early machineguns were only relatively light; a 1918 Vickers or MG08 could weigh up to 150 lb (69 kg) mounted on a tripod and with its cooling jacket full of water. By the 1920s armies were trying hard to make them lighter, and the result was weapons like the 23 lb (10.4 kg) Bren gun. The Bren and some of its rivals were excellent, but they were mostly magazine fed and had a low rate of fire. For practical purposes they were limited to about 60 rounds a minute, or they would overheat. A Vickers, on the other hand, was belt-fed and water cooled and could put out 300 rounds a minute for hours – sometimes days – without stopping. Something in between was needed, and in 1934 Germany invented it. The MG34 weighed 27 lb (12.1 kg) with its built-in bipod, so it was light enough to be carried and used by one man. It could also be fitted to a heavy tripod, though, and it was belt fed. Being air-cooled it couldn’t fire as steadily as a Vickers or MG08, but it could still put out heavy sustained fire. It was the first general purpose machinegun (GPMG) and it, and its terrifying successor the MG42, made a big impression on everyone who faced them.

MG34 machinegun
The MG34 was a new type of gun. Light enough to be an LMG but able to provide sustained fire from this Feldlafette tripod, it was the first GPMG.

After the Second World War ended every major army went looking for a general purpose machinegun of its own. The USA developed the abysmal M60. The reformed German Army simply took the old MG42 and changed the calibre from 7.92mm to 7.62mm NATO; it’s still in service and still terrifying. The world leader, though, came out of a factory in Belgium in 1958.

Fabrique Nationale, usually known as FN, had been making weapons since 1889. They had produced some very successful designs, many of them developed by their famous American designer John Moses Browning. By the 1950s they were working on the FN-FAL rifle, which would soon be adopted by most of the free world and turned out to be the most successful battle rifle ever produced. They also had their eye on the GPMG market though, and with competition from the excellent MG42 (and the appalling but US-promoted M60) they knew their offering would have to be good.

M60 GPMG
The M60. Don’t believe the Rambo movies; this gun is really, really awful.

It was. Designer Ernest Vervier took the locking mechanism of the old Browning Automatic Rifle (another FN product) and beefed it up to take a higher rate of fire, then added the feed mechanism and trigger of the MG42. A modified Bren barrel change system completed the working parts, and Vervier encased them all in a rugged steel body that looks like a baby tank. Then he added some outstanding features of his own, like a gas regulator that can be quickly and easily adjusted to compensate for fouling or adjust the rate of fire. A bipod mounted on the gas system (not on the barrel, as some fool did with the M60) and a NATO-standard tripod attachment let it be used in either the light or heavy role, and it could be fed with either NATO or German ammunition belts. At 26 lb (11.8 kg) it wasn’t the lightest gun out there, but it was the sturdiest and it could put out a devastating weight of fire. Depending on the gas setting and how clean the gun is the rate of fire varies from 650 to 1,000 rounds per minute, and the practical rate is about 200 per minute. From the bipod it’s effective to 800 metres and on a tripod with a dial sight it can deliver harassing fire at 3,500 metres – over two miles. Closer in it can saw down trees or demolish brick walls, and the beaten zone it creates is almost impassable to enemy infantry.

With performance like that it wasn’t long before the new gun, known as the FN MAG, found buyers. The British Army was the first major customer, buying the rights to produce it as the L7 before it was even officially released. Sweden followed shortly afterwards. Israel bought hundreds and still uses them; none of their own designs even come close to its performance. MAGs were used by both sides in the Falklands War. By the 1970s the MAG was in use by over 80 countries. The USA, sick of the M60 and three failed designs of tank-mounted gun, gave up developing its own GPMGs and bought thousands of MAGs from FN’s US factory; in the US military it’s called the M240, but it’s the same gun. With the possible exception of the Soviet-designed PKM it’s the most widely used medium machinegun in the world, and it’s still the best.

M240L MAG GPMG
The titanium-bodied M240L is the first of the new lightweight MAGs.

What does the future hold for the MAG? Most likely nothing bad. Several armies who tried to replace it have brought them back into service, and it’s still finding completely new customers on a regular basis. Both FN and the UK are developing titanium-bodied versions to reduce the weight. FN’s version is already in service with the US Army as the M240L. There have been many attempts to develop a more modern general purpose gun, but none of them have achieved the MAG’s perfect mix of reliability, ruggedness and awesome firepower. It looks like The General will continue to rule the battlefield for decades yet.

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