Twenty years ago (as of this writing), I decided I wanted a .308-caliber “battle rifle”. I was a young man who was still developing his tastes in firearms. Like the young fool I was, only recently old enough to own guns, I bought, sold, and traded guns frequently (and let me tell you, I regret some of the things I let go over the years). One thing that did stick with me, though, is my love of and preference for a “major caliber” (as Jeff Cooper would have put it) autoloading rifle; that is, not an intermediate cartridge like 5.56mm or 7.62×39, even though I had AR and AK type rifles as well. I wanted one of the big dogs.
At one point I even managed to get my hands on a Century Arms FAL rifle, albeit one with a quality receiver made by Imbel of Brazil, but I traded it away without ever even having fired it. This was a pretty tumultuous period of my life and shooting was still just an occasional hobby for me. Despite all that I knew I wanted a battle rifle, but I needed to make a decision about which one to get. The only three real contenders, at the time, were the Springfield Armory M1A, the DS Arms FAL, or the Armalite AR-10. I actually wrote a paper on my decision-making process for a freshman English composition course, and the professor liked it so much she used it as an example for years after.
One big consideration was magazines. Kids these days don’t know how good they’ve got it. They don’t have to worry about finding quality “pre-ban” magazines. They can go to almost any gun store, buy a MagPul PMAG for $13.00, and have every expectation that it will work just fine. It wasn’t so in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Quality pre-ban AR magazines were running $40 and $50 each. The cheap ones were junk and often wouldn’t work very well.
This wasn’t the case for the STG 58 FAL: 20-round magazines, surplus from Austria and Israel and other places, were being imported in quantity and could be had for $10.00 each. Pre-ban M14/M1A magazines were available, but they were significantly more expensive. Pre-ban AR-10 magazines were even more rare, and many of those were converted M14 magazines.
Ultimately the STG 58 FAL won out for a variety of reasons, many of them related to cost: DS Arms had an offering that was significantly less than those from Armalite or Springfield Armory. Surplus parts were cheap and available, and moreover, the FAL is an easy rifle for an amateur to work on. There was an entire sub-culture of enthusiasts who built their own rifles on US-made receivers from cheap, imported parts kits. Over on The FAL Files message board, the term WECSOG was coined. That is, the Wile E. Coyote School Of Gunsmithin’. Their motto? MORE DREMEL.
The FAL had a lot of history to it. Developed by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium in the 1950s, it went on to be one of the most widely-used rifles in the world, second only to the AK-47 family. It was used as the main service arm of 90 countries during the Cold War, including the British Commonwealth. This is how it earned the moniker “The Right Arm of the Free World.” It saw a lot of combat around the world and earned a reputation as a solid, reliable rifle. Jeff Cooper himself had once said that while the AK-47 was the rifle for the masses, the FAL was the rifle for the classes.
By early 2002 I had finally saved up enough to purchase the rifle I wanted. I had my gun shop order me a DS Arms STG-58A “Authentic Austrian FAL”. This rifle was made on a forged DSA receiver, surplus Austrian rifle parts, and enough US parts to ensure Section 922r compliance. It had a plastic stock, steel handguards with a folding steel bipod, a 21” barrel, and a long muzzle brake (a flash hider was a no-no on a rifle which also had a pistol grip) which served as a loudener. The rifle was a heavy steel beast and I loved it.
Back then, surplus 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition was cheap and abundant. Many nations had only recently transitioned to 5.56mm rifles and their sold-off ammunition was just hitting the US market. Ammo could be had by the case from countries like Austria and South Africa for significantly less than what bulk .308 from any source will cost you today. I shot this rifle as much as I could as a young man, taking it to the range every weekend. I even mounted a cheap 3-9x scope on it, as seen below.
As the years went by, I got the idea in my head that my rifle needed to be shorter. Like many young shooters, I was enamored by the flashy CQB-style shooting seen in publications like SWAT Magazine and thought my rifle was too long for that. (The fact that I never needed to do building sweeps with a personally-owned rifle was entirely beside the point.) I decided I wanted a shorter barrel.
In 2006 I sent the weapon off to a reputable FAL gunsmith to have the 21” barrel removed and replaced with a 16” one I had purchased from DSA. When I got back the shorter, handier carbine I was excited, as I’m sure you can imagine. It almost felt like a new rifle, and it certainly was handier. There was just one problem: the rifle was now non-functional.
Putting a 16” barrel on a full-length FAL gas system requires adjustment of the gas port, more than what the rifle’s adjustable gas system can accomplish. The dwell time from when the bullet passes the gas port to when it leaves the barrel is very short in this configuration. In fact, none of the countries which mass-produced the STG 58 FAL ever, to my knowledge, made a 16” barrel. The shortest they furnished was the roughly 18” barrel of the FN FAL Para model. In any case, the gunsmith who had rebarreled my rifle hadn’t adjusted the gas port and it wouldn’t work at all. I had to find another gunsmith, this one local, to work on my rifle. He was more successful and I finally had my FAL carbine.
The rifle never did run as well as it had originally, though. It became finicky about ammo and would occasionally malfunction, more so than it ever had before. I didn’t let this deter me, though, and decided that a new rifle from DSA was in order. Around 2008 finally managed to put together enough money for my new STG 58 FAL rifle.
This one was 100% US-made from DS Arms. It was their SA-58 Para Carbine model. It had a 16” barrel, folding paratrooper stock, and Robar NP3 coating on the internals and small parts. It came with a factory-installed scope mount and rail handguards. I threw my Aimpoint Comp C3 on it.
Over the next few years I customized it further, adding a cheek pad, a weapon light, and eventually replacing the Aimpoint with an IOR Valdada 3x scope.
The new rifle had much better reliability than my rebarreled one, but even it wasn’t as good as the first rifle had been with its original, 21” barrel. It was still finicky with ammunition and would occasionally get the most bizarre malfunction. I was never able to get a picture of it, but it would flip the ejecting brass 180° and smash it, backward, between the bolt and the breech face.
Eventually I moved on. A couple of friends of mine had a small rifle-building startup called Crusader Weaponry (now defunct) and built me a custom AR-10 type rifle. Not only was this more reliable than the Armalite AR-10s of the 1990s, it was more reliable than either of the FALs I had. Magpul .308 magazines were inexpensive and readily available. As the years went on and times got hard, I sold both of my FAL rifles. Just last year, though, I was able to get my original FAL rifle from 2002 back, complete with the original 21” barrel and all the parts. I intend to send it to a gunsmith and have it restored to its original configuration.
DS Arms is still in business and you can still get a FAL rifle from them should you want one. I understand that at some point they stopped manufacturing their receivers from steel forgings and went to cast ones. Fabrique Nationale did the same thing in the 1970s to save money. Manufacturing cost was always the bane of the STG 58 FAL rifle; mass-producing guns from steel stampings, like the AKM or the G3, is cheap. Machining them from steel billet requires more work and, subsequently costs more. Bear in mind that this was during the 20th century, before the era of cheap and easy CNC machining.
The FAL rifle market isn’t what it used to be, though. The supply of surplus parts and magazines has largely dried up. Import restrictions enacted during the Obama Administration limited the availability of surplus barrels. The days of building a cheap, quality FAL from a parts kit are probably over. STG 58 FAL magazines now cost as much or more than comparable ones for the AR-10 series of rifles, and the sunset of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban means people no longer have to worry about the prices of pre-ban magazines. Where AR-10 type rifles are available from many manufacturers now, in every conceivable configuration, DS Arms is the only source for a FAL rifle in 2020 (at least as far as the American consumer is concerned). Even the G3, the FAL’s longtime commercial rival, continues on in frontline service in some places, whereas the FAL has been all but retired.
The STG 58 FAL was, and is, an outstanding rifle. Some may find the stock a little too long (factory length-of-pull is 14.25”), but the ergonomics are otherwise fantastic, especially compared to the G3 and (in my opinion) the M14. It may not be capable of sub-MOA accuracy but it wasn’t designed for that. It was designed as an infantry rifle, able to hit a point target out to 600 meters, and it does very well in that role. If you have a good one and take care of it, it will take care of you.
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