The Great Rifle Controversy: 1955

Controversy over small arms is nothing new. Back in the early 1950s, when the 7.62x51mm was called the “.30 Light Rifle” and NATO still believed it could achieve the goal of a universal standard rifle, there was (quite naturally, given the large number of parties involved) what was called more than once “The Great Rifle Controversy”. An apt name, I think.

A good time capsule back to that era is the May 1955 issue of Guns Magazine, which covers this controversy with an article of the same name by Williams C. L. Thompson. While the rifle’s featured in it are familiar, the opinions of the writers are not. For example:

But men high in private industry-the production genius of US arms makers have not given up their fight to debunk the FN. And they have an ace in the hole. Stated simply, it is this: The FN is essentially identical to a Russian rifle abandoned by the Soviets during World War I1 as unreliable! The Belgian gun the US. is considering for adoption is of the same pattern as the Russian Tokarev, a gas-operated shoulder rifle of tipping bolt design, resembling in some principles the old Savage Model 99 lever rifle so familiar to American sportsmen. And to shoot in that rifle, which the Army test officers presently designated the “T-48,” we have adopted a cartridge which is remarkably similar to the .300 Savage, old, reliable deer killer!

Today the FAL is not considered an unreliable weapon; indeed, civilian-owned rifles like “Ol’ Dirty” have given the gun a reputation for tremendous reliability. Of course, at the time this article was written, the FAL had only just been adopted by the Canadians. Continuing:

Fighting in cold so extreme that rubber snapped like glass, the Russian troops found their lovely automatics did not run so well. Frost-proof oils and incantations alike proved unavailing; the Tokarevs were retired in favor of slam-bang machine pistols and the ancient bolt-action Nagant rifles.

Perhaps that was a little exaggerated. It is true, however, that the SVT was produced in dramatically lower numbers after 1943, and it is true that reliability was a factor in this. However, the Soviets were also heavily besieged by the Germans, and in need of every possible weapon, even if that meant producing older, but cheaper designs instead of newer more sophisticated ones. The next Soviet rifle design to see service, the SKS, was very similar to the SVT, and gave many years of good service to the Russians, Chinese, and American hunters alike. They also say a few words about the ancestor of the M14, the T44:

2014-12-23 03_05_51-www.gunsmagazine.com_1955issues_G0555.pdf

“Lightweight” and “easily handled” are not terms you normally hear these days to describe the M14. The GI in the photo has quite the grimace on his face, as well, as he struggles to hold up an eleven pound automatic rifle with just his shooting hand. I can’t imagine full auto accuracy was good from this position.

Though I’ve mostly covered those perceptions that changed, there is still a lot of correct information in that article. The article helps date the extended and often laborious NATO rifle trials between their commencement in 1950 and the eventual American adoption of the M14 (which, coming after several NATO nations’ adoption of the FAL, sealed the fate of the NATO standard rifle) in 1957. For all its faults, I definitely think the article is worth a read.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Pete Sheppard

    I remember the excited mention of the M14, touted as replacing everything but .50BMGs and .45 pistols. Even to a kid, it seemed a bit much.

    • Zebra Dun

      The Jonny OMA!

  • Rick

    The FAL suffered from the dreaded “NIH” design flaw. (Not Invented Here.)

    • The kicker was that FN had even offered the US a royalty-free production license for the FAL.

    • MountainKelly

      Pretty much

  • Don Ward

    As I’ve learned recently, if you fire a rifle one-handed these days, it becomes a pistol!

    And now there are about a half a dozen things that I’m finding wrong with literally every article in that magazine.

  • CommonSense23

    What rifles in the last decade would have actually been worth switching over to? As for the SCAR, that isn’t exactly a competition you should be using to back your case. It was pretty flawed and ignored all user feedback. There is a reason the SMUs don’t use them.

  • Zebra Dun

    I’ve fired an M-14 on full auto, it had a Bi-pod attached.
    In the prone I sprayed the landscape from about three feet from the muzzle to the top of the target berm. The rifle jumped like an ass pinched gal and if it wasn’t for the fold up buttstock would have flipped around and shot me in the ass. As it was it kicked me so hard my eyes were doing an earthquake in my head. I was 18 and this was my first Fam Fire as an AR man.
    Fo’ Shizzle!
    I personally knew only one Marine who could control an M-14 on full Auto and he was 6′ 9″ and weighed 275 lb.
    I love the M-14 wish I had one today, but in semi please. The addition of a two shot burst device would have helped I believe.
    From what I’ve read the FAL had what the Israeli’s called the Bang, Bang, Jam, Bang, Bang, Jam in the desert sand in the Middle east.
    It led to the manufacture of the Galil in the Kalishnikov style.

    • Riot

      The israelis used the metric FAL rather than the british inch pattern version
      Which had some of the benefits from previous british rifle sand tests – that version might of lasted longer

  • joe

    And yet, the FAL has been used by so many countries (roughly 90) that it has earned the moniker “right arm of democracy.” Missed opportunities indeed.

  • Zebra Dun

    The open hand, palm up is a poor way to grab and hold down a rifle in 7.62 x 51 during automatic fire. Likewise the bent wrist of the C shaped standard rifle stock of the time.
    The pistol grip front and back clearly makes for a better gripping and holding stance.

  • CommonSense23

    I guess you don’t have much experience with the SCAR. I have years of experience with the SCAR family, using them and maintaining them. The MK20 is a absolute abortion of a gun. Last time I saw the FN reps at Atterbury they still couldn’t explain the random POA/POI shifts of 5MOA, or the random full auto burst some like to randomly do. The 17 started off absolutely horrible, but at least has improved to be a reliable rifle. And the MK16 offered nothing better than our MK18MOD1s, or the HK416s and had a lot of negatives.
    As for the M4 replacement, what rifles gave enough of a benefit to justify replacing the current M4. None of them. It makes no sense to replace a rifle for a marginal couple percentage points of improvement, especially considering how reliable the rifle is.

  • usriflecaliber.30

    The .276 Peterson would have been perfect. But John Garand was pressured out of it by the U.S.

  • MountainKelly

    Eh, not surprised it happened though all things considered.

  • Colin

    I carried the FNC1 in the army it was a great rifle and quite amusing to watch your US army guys shoot “a real rifle” generally ending up with a bruised face as they hugged the sight. The older guys smiled as it brought back memories of the M14. Both the FN and M14 were good rifles and anyone armed with them should have been happy. Most of the US Army M16’s I saw back in the 80’s were worn out junk, which led to a lot of issues. This was before the US started to renew the rifle in inventory. As for full auto, I also carried the FNC2, amn ok squad weapon and reasonable accurate. Not as good as the Bren as a fire support weapon through,. also very easy to burn you hands on the exposed barrel.