September 2002

FAL Rifle Test: Do Less Expensive Models Make Sense For You?

In our testing, we found Brazil’s Imbel to be okay, and Century Arms’ lower-cost R1A1 rifle was worth a look, but we would avoid Century’s budget-priced carbine rifle.

Recipe for fun: Take a good FAL and add cheap
ammo. This loose .308 ammo was salvaged from
machine-gun belts. Of mixed origin and slightly
faulty, its cost was low.

Is there such a thing as a bad FAL? FAL is an acronym for the French words meaning Light Automatic Rifle. In our very limited experience prior to this test report, we had seen only variations on excellence in a dozen or so different FAL rifles. In the July 2000 issue, we tested the U.S.-made DSA, Inc. “shorty” version of the FAL, which at the time was listed at $1,495. We have long wondered if you could buy a functional FAL for less money, and decided to find out.

First, understand that we cannot fire enough rounds in our limited tests to find every little flaw with a semiautomatic rifle. As with a .45 auto, we consider that the firing of 1,000 rounds with zero malfunctions is a good first step in evaluating the reliability of a semiauto rifle. However, when you get to 500 rounds, or even 200 with zero problems, you’ve got a pretty good idea the rifle is a good ‘un. If it fails time and again for reasons unrelated to ammunition, you’ve got a problem child on your hands, and any problems will generally show up pretty soon in the evaluation of a given rifle.

One of our test shooters had a British L1A1 FAL, built around an early Entreprise receiver many years ago, and it performed perfectly with both types of magazines (inch and metric) and with a great variety of ammunition types. It was not a tack driver, but served its owner well until he upgraded, and sold the old rifle. The best FAL (not a match rifle) any of our shooters have personally tested would print 1.5-inch groups, with good ammo and a scope, at 200 yards. The worst would put ‘em all into about 4 inches at 100 yards. This, then, gives you some background on what good versions of the FAL may be expected to do.

The current test trio offered us an updated look at some of the currently available FALs. Two of them — one with full-length barrel, the other with carbine-length — came from the same supplier, Century Arms International. Both actions were labeled “R1A1 Sporter,” though one rifle was inch and the other, metric. The third rifle came from Imbel in Brazil, and it had a full-length barrel. All three FALs had pistol-grip stocks and ventilated forends, detachable 20-round magazines, and synthetic butt stocks. All were finished in flat black Parkerizing or something that looked like it. All three had muzzle brakes, sling swivels, windage-adjustable aperture rear sights mounted on a ramp for battle-range adjustments, and wing-protected, elevation-adjustable front sights.

The FAL design in all its configurations is fully discussed in an excellent three-part book entitled The FAL Rifle by Blake Stevens and Jean E. van Rutten, published by Collector Grade Publications, Inc., Cobourg, Ontario, Canada. Our “Classic Edition” reference copy was published in 1993, and we highly recommend it to serious students of the FAL.

The FAL is a gas-operated rifle featuring an adjustable gas bleed to control the force of operation, so it can be set for different types of ammunition. Reloaders may want to set it so the rifle drops empties just barely clear of the rifle. The gas plug can also be rotated to a position where the bolt must be hand-cycled for each shot, which is handy for training and for a few other purposes. The rifle has its bolt contained within a carrier. The rifle opens easily like a break-open shotgun to permit easy access to the workings, and to allow breech-end cleaning of the barrel. The barrel and chamber are usually chrome-plated, which can be verified by inspection at the breech.

The action is covered with a stamped sheet-metal piece that may be withdrawn by sliding it off the back of the action when the rifle is broken open. The rifle may be fired with the cover removed. This cover can be replaced with a variety of options, such as the mount for the outstanding L2A2 scope that the British soldiers liked so much. Some of the mounts and options are very scarce.

Opening the FAL for cleaning requires cocking the unloaded rifle, and then pushing on a lever located behind the safety, to break open the action. Depending on the origin of the rifle, this lever is pressed forward, backward, or in the case of the Imbel, upward to open the action. Once the rifle is open, the bolt and its carrier, and the top cover, may be withdrawn for easy access to the chamber and barrel.

The rifle may easily be broken into two parts by unscrewing and removing the hinge bolt. The recoil spring is located within the butt stock, and its force is transmitted to the bolt through a “rat-tail” extension on the back of the bolt. Folding-stock FALs have a different spring setup.

The FAL’s front sight is placed on top of the end of the forend/gas tube, not on the end of the barrel. This gives the rifle a generally shorter sighting radius than the M14, but is more than adequate for battle situations.

The FAL also features a carry handle, which is supposed to fold and unfold with noticeable resistance. All three of our rifles had the handle, but only the Imbel worked properly, in our experience.

Military-use FALs are generally select-fire weapons, but those for sale in the U.S. as “sporters” have the full-auto parts removed and the three-position safety altered for only two positions. With the Imbel, the latter was accomplished by the polymer pistol grip. With one of the CAI rifles, nothing had been done, and the safety gave problems.

Here’s our evaluation of these three lower-priced FALs.

Imbel FAL, $680 dealer
This is the published dealer price, so you can negotiate with a local FFL for what you agree is a fair markup. On these guns, a common street price is $800.

Click here to view the Imbel FAL features guide

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Easily the best-looking of the trio, the Imbel-receivered FAL looked thoroughly professional with its even, matte-black finish, The first Brazilian FALs were made under contract by FN, but Brazil initiated production on its own, and our test rifle was made in its entirety in Brazil. The markings on the receiver indicated the maker was Fábrica de Itajubá, the government-owned company that is part of the government-owned IMBEL arms complex. The IMBEL logo and name also appeared on the upper receiver. The name “Pacific Armament Corporation — Modesto, CA” also was on the receiver. Beneath the ejection port was laser-stenciled “MODEL 444 308 SPORTER” and “LIBERTY ARMORY LIBERTY, TX.”

Fit and finish were excellent. All the parts fit as though they were made to go together. The detail work was not as good as on other samples of the FAL we’ve inspected, but there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. The polishing and Parkerizing were all very well done. A clever touch was that within the pistol grip were a pull-through with bristle brush, and a container for the cleaning juice of your choice. These were held in with a spring clip, useful yet unnoticeable.

The Imbel was a “metric” FAL, as opposed to the first “R1A1” tested below, which was assembled from British “inch” FALs. Proper British FALs, like the L1A1 sporter we had on loan several years ago, would take both British and metric magazines, and function perfectly in all respects. Metric FALs including the Imbel will not accept British magazines.

Part of our reasons for all this magazine discussion is that British mags are more costly and harder to find than metrics, which have sold as cheaply as $5 each within the past two years. Brit mags sell for about five times that.

Our Imbel had a fixed protrusion for manually opening the bolt, which we call the bolt knob or bolt lever. Some FAL bolt knobs have a provision for forcing the bolt forward, which is done by first pressing inward on the bolt knob. This one did not, and like all three rifles tested here, the bolt could only be drawn rearward. The bolt knob did not follow the cycling bolt. Unlike the M1 Garand and M14 rifles, nothing external moves on any of the FALs as the rifle fires and ejects.

The pistol grip was angled sharply to the rear, which made it hard for most of our test shooters to move the safety (down is off) without repositioning the shooting hand. The British version was a whole lot easier to access and, we believe, a better setup than this one. None of the three FALs had provisions for lefties. The trigger broke at just under 10 pounds, and it had significant creep.

The adjustment for gas escape, just behind the front sight, was very stiff. Its dial had sharp-edged serrations for good grasping with the thumb, or for levering with a screwdriver or similar tool. Normally this is not changed, once it’s set for your favorite ammunition.

We had to do significant sight correcting of the Imbel to get it to hit our target. This involved shifting the rear sight, via its opposing screws, to the left, and lowering the front sight to get the bullet impact high enough. A clever spring lock held the front sight adjustment securely. The rifle had more than enough adjustment for these corrections, but we felt the rifle ought to have been better sighted-in by the maker. The Imbel alone of the trio had a pinch-lock on its rear sight ramp, which made coarse range adjustment much easier than with the other two rifles. The base setting on all three rifles is for 200 yards (or meters), with graduated marks for 300, 400, 500, and 600. The rear sight blade, which held the aperture, was fixed on the Imbel, but folded on the other two.

Click here to view "Accuracy and Chronograph Data."

On target, the Imbel did its best with the Barnes X-bulleted PMC ammunition, averaging about 2 inches. In this particular rifle it outshot the Winchester match ammunition, which was a big surprise to our shooters. There were no problems with the rifle except for one failure to feed the last round in the magazine, but that was with an old and obviously worn magazine. With good magazines, it was a very good rifle.

Century Arms International R1A1 Sporter, $390 dealer
As we noted above, the published price for this CAI model is $390, which would make $450 a fair street price, in our view.

Click here to view the Century Arms International R1A1 Sporter features guide

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We didn’t think this full-length rifle was all that pretty. The newly made polymer butt stock and pistol-grip fit was very poor. The finish on the upper and lower receivers was not at all the same, one appearing decidedly green, the other, matte black. The carry handle flopped loose on the gun, which was a great annoyance. The action would not stay open no matter what magazine we put into it. We had to press upward on the bolt stop to get the bolt to stay open, and with a metric magazine in place, the bolt always slammed shut when we removed the magazine.

This rifle was apparently built around some surplus British L1A1 parts, from the evidence of markings and the dust cuts in the bolt. However, we thought the workmanship was slap-dash at best, with rough edges left here and there, plus the mismatched finish. The chrome-lined barrel looked to be in outstanding condition, so we hoped for good performance on the range. Yet we already had a faulty rifle that would not hold open its bolt, so we had low expectations for the firing-range tests. We measured the trigger pull at 8 pounds, with significant creep.

The safety and grip configuration were of the easily operable British style. The safety was easy to take off or put on without shifting the grip on the rifle. The bolt knob, also of British Commonwealth style, folded forward out of the way, which gave the rifle a trimmer appearance than those with protruding knobs. Yet we found that if you have a rifle with problems, that folded-down bolt handle was a real pain, because we constantly had to dig it out to pull the bolt back and attempt to lock it open after emptying the magazine.

There was a significant gap between the front of the bolt carrier and the rear of the receiver with the bolt in the closed position. This didn’t appear at all on the Imbel, which was tightly closed, but did appear slightly on the Hesse-actioned rifle tested below.

On the range, we found the rifle didn’t always feed from one of the British magazines that came with it. The other, nearly new, British magazine was not much better. Commonly the rifle failed to pick up the last round from the magazine, and sometimes missed a round in mid-magazine. We tried a nearly new metric magazine and had better feeding luck, but again it was not perfect. Our best guess is that the cut for the magazine within the action was a bit too low, so the rounds were not held high enough in relation to the bolt. Pressing upward on the magazine didn’t help cycling. We had several rounds rammed into the front of the magazine well by the bolt, and the bullet was driven into its case. This was with both match ammo and the Barnes-X-bulleted PMC ammo. We considered this to be another indication of the magazine being held too low in the rifle.

The trigger was easy to use despite its heavy pull weight. Unfortunately, we got the accuracy we expected, which was poor. The smallest three-shot group we got was 4.4 inches, and most were closer to 6 inches. Along with the failures to feed, we got a distinct impression you’d have to be a real fix-it shooter to get your money’s worth out of this rifle. However, this FAL fired every round that made it into the chamber, and ejected them with a good degree of regularity, but feeding was problematic. We had better luck feeding the rifle from a near-new metric magazine, but it seemed to interfere with the correct function of the bolt stop.

Century Arms International R1A1 Carbine, $390 dealer
Pricing for this CAI gun follows the track of the Long Rifle R1A1 above. About $450 is what you might expect to pay at retail, if you were to buy the gun. But we would not do it.

Click here to view the Century Arms International R1A1 Carbine features guide

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This FAL had a Hesse (U.S.) receiver. The receiver indicated CAI had assembled the rifle in Vermont. The receiver’s edges had an unfinished look, with roughness, burrs and sharp edges. Although none of the parts resembled the British L1A1 FAL, the rifle was again designated “R1A1 Sporter.” It accepted only metric magazines. Again, the bolt failed to stay open after the last shot, or by cycling the bolt by hand with an empty magazine inserted. The bolt knob was a big steel spool (the Imbel’s had been polymer covered) that didn’t fold.

Again the carry handle was loose on the receiver. The barrel measured 18.8 inches with its brake. The muzzle brake was crudely welded to the barrel, which made us strongly skeptical of the rifle’s performance potential. The grip conformation, butt-stock, and forend covers were not British L1A1. There were insufficient markings to tell their origin, but the forend covers resembled those of Greek FALs. This rifle had three different finishes on butt stock, pistol grip, and forend covers. The latter were dark-gray Parkerized steel. The polymer butt stock had a pebble-grained finish, and the polymer pistol grip was smooth matte black. The latter had the Imbel’s sharp grip angle and associated difficulty reaching the safety.

The lower receiver’s smooth polish did not resemble the brushed or matte finish of the upper receiver, though they were both roughly the same color. The folding-blade rear sight may have been British, because it was marked in English, “YDS.” The front sight configuration was similar to the Imbel’s.

The safety could be rotated into all three original positions. The detents were weak, and the safety routinely went too far, and got placed into a position just below the fire position, where the gun would not fire. The safety needed a positive block, which was not provided. But the bad stuff was just beginning.

Unfortunately, we could not look inside the action, because the rifle was missing its action-opening lever. The holes were there in the lower receiver, but the lever was not. In other words, the rifle was not all there. At this point in our inspection we rejected this rifle. Whatever its performance, we expect to get a complete rifle for our money.

Still, we did shoot the rifle, and found it didn’t hit the paper from 25 yards. We cut the range to 12.5 yards and found the bullets were striking 6 inches low. That’s 4 feet low at 100 yards. By moving the rear sight fully up to the 600-yard mark we got the strike about two feet low at 100 yards, but never fired the rifle at any range other than at 12.5 yards, because from that range, the bullets were striking more than a little sideways. Three shots landed into a two-inch group, which translated to 16 inches at 100 yards. With the bullets yawing badly at 12.5 yards, we chose to cease all shooting with the rifle.

Gun Tests Recommends
After our testing, we still consider the previously tested DSA rifle to be among the very finest FALs ever made. Is it necessary to pop for the best? Maybe, if your life depends on perfect function of your rifle. Most of our test shooters would choose the DSA, Inc., FAL over the Imbel, despite the extra cost. The idea seems to be that if you want a FAL for serious purposes, it makes the sense to get the very best one available. We know you won’t regret owning the best, but might come to regret a lesser rifle.

Imbel FAL, $680 dealer. Buy It. We would be quite happy with the Imbel, although we didn’t like the angle of the pistol grip because we could not touch the safety without shifting our grip. Recoil was nearly negligible, and that was the case with all three rifles. Blast from the brake was tolerable with all ammunition. Although we felt the DSA rifle would make its owner happier in the long run, some of our shooters stated they’d be happy enough with the Imbel.

Century Arms, Inc., R1A1, $390. Conditional Buy. Use extreme caution before you buy one of these. The only thing going for it was its relatively low price.

Century Arms, Inc. Carbine, $390 dealer. Don’t Buy. The rifle would not eject at all, nor would it feed from any magazine including a brand-new one. The tipping bullets were almost certainly the result of the welded barrel, and that feature may also have accounted for the bullet strikes being so low.