October 1999:

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SAFN-49 Battle Rifle Type:  Self Loading Battle Rifle
System of Operation:  Gas
Calibers:  7x57mm, 7.65x54mm, .30-06, 7.92x57mm, 7.62mm NATO
Capacity:  10 rounds (20 in 7.62mm NATO conversions)
Sights: Fixed blade front, adjustable rear aperture
As early as the mid-1930's the savvy businessmen who ran the Belgian arms giant Fabrique Nationale (FN) realized that the days of the bolt action battle rifle as the infantry's main arm were numbered.  Consequently, it was during this time that  FN designer Dieudonne Saive developed the short stroke, valved gas system and the tilting bolt that would form the heart of the SAFN-49 rifle.

Interestingly, similar work was being done on a self-loading rifle with a tilting bolt, the Tokarev SVT-38, in the heart of Soviet Russia at around the same time.  However, it is unlikely that Saive was influenced by Tokarev's work.  Not only would Saive have found the doors to Russia barred to him, but Tokarev's work and writings, like all Soviet weapons development at the time, was considered to be a state secret and was subject to the strictest security.

The similarities between Tokarev's and Saive's solutions have more to do with the similarities with the problems both faced than any intrigue.  Both designers were required to use the full power cartridges then in vogue with the world's militaries.  It is then not surprising that they would both use a bolt which dropped down to lock against a hardened steel bar in the receiver.

Saive's design was ingenious.  In order to understand how the rifle's self loading mechanism works, it is useful to imagine the rifle as a pair of tubes, one mounted above the other and connected by a short "capillary" tube between them, about three quarters of the way down.  At the rear is a tray connected to the bottom tube, and in the tray is a block of metal.  Inside the top tube is a closely fitting metal cylinder.  The front end of the top tube is closed by a plug, and the rear of the cylinder is against the metal block in the tray.  When a cartridge in the lower tube is ignited, the bullet moves toward the open end of the tube, propelled by expanding powder gases.  As the gas expands, it passes the capillary, and some of it enters the top tube through the capillary.  This portion of gas strikes the cylinder in the top tube with sufficient force to drive it rearward with great force.  The cylinder, in turn, strikes the face of the metal block, forcing it rearward in the tray.  The tray in turn has a rear wall that arrests rearward movement of the metal block.  Additionally, there is a spring between the rear wall of the tray and the rear of the metal block that is compressed with the rearward motion of the block.  As the spring returns the metal block to its forward position, it will push a cartridge in its path forward into the lower tube to start the cycle anew.  In order to prevent the metal block from moving rearward prematurely, and thus releasing the expanding powder gases from the wrong end of the tube, it must be locked into place temporarily.  A step cut into the tray that the metal block can drop into and be wedged against provides such a locking mechanism.

Saive's new rifle was ready for series production in late 1938 - early 1939, and FN made plans to market a version of the rifle with a five round magazine.  These plans were shelved on September 1, 1939, when German armies poured across the border into Poland.  FN, along with the rest of Europe's arms manufacturers shifted to a war footing and increased production of bolt action rifles and machine guns.  This continued until May, 1940, when the Wehrmacht slammed into Belgium, defeating and occupying the country.  Saive and his FN design team fled, via Vichy France and Portugal, to England where they went to work with the Royal Ordnance Corps Small Arms Design Unit.  There, Saive perfected the design using the 7.92x57mm Mauser cartridge.  The choice of the German Army's service cartridge was not as strange as it may seem.  The British service round at the time was the rimmed .303 British.  Rimmed rounds simply do not feed well from box magazines in self-loading rifles.  Since the British were already producing the 7.92mm Mauser in large numbers for their BESA tank machine guns, there were large quantities of the cartridge on hand.  The finished rifle was christened alternatively the SLEM (for "Rifle, 7.92mm, Self-Loading Experimental Model No. 1") or EXP-1.

Fifty EXP-1's were begun at the Royal Small Arms Factory (RSAF) Enfield, made up by tool room methods.  At this time the 7.92mm caliber was an expediency; the final caliber was to have been 7.62x63mm - the American .30-06.  An order was placed with RSAF Enfield for 2,000 rifles for field trials, with production scheduled to start in 1947.  Two EXP-1 rifles were built and submitted for testing.  During these tests, it was observed that the gas regulator was unable to moderate the gas pressure at the vent effectively, and modifications to the system were needed.  This order was almost immediately cancelled, and the 2,000 trials rifles were never built.

The Belgians at FN, however, not to be dissuaded from making a profit, persevered.  They fixed the gas regulator problem and began to look for markets for the rifle.  The communist bloc countries were out as they were required to buy or build arms of Soviet pattern.  Western European nations, on the other hand, were awash in American and British military aid weapons which were either extremely inexpensive or given away gratis.  Finally FN settled on the non-aligned (what we today think of as the "Third World") nations that were unwilling to accept the policy impositions and restrictions that came with free western military aid.

The final rifle was traditional in apperance, with a machined steel receiver, heavy wooden stock, fixed protruding box magazine, and a separate wooden handguard attached to the upper portion of the barrel using a barrel band.  It had an adjustable tangent sight mounted on the rear portion of the receiver close to the shooter's firing eye.  Like its contemporaries (the M1 Garand and Tokarev SVT-40) it was a big gun, weighing in at 9.6 pounds unloaded and with an overall length of some 44 inches.

The Belgian Army was the first to adopt the rifle, between 1949 and 1951, in caliber 7.62x63mm (.30-06), designating it the ABL SAFN-49.  ABL is an interesting acronym that recognizes the lingual bifurcation of Belgium between the French speaking Walloons and the Flemish speaking Flemings; the "AB" of ABL stands for Armeé Belge - the French words for "Belgian Army," while the "BL" stands for Belge Leger - the Flemish words for Belgian Army.  SAFN stands for, depending on which story you choose to believe, either Saive Automatique, Fabrique Nationale, or Semi-Automatique, Fabrique Nationale.  The rifle gave a good account of itself in the Korean War in the hands of Belgian troops.  One major criticism was the rifle's tendency to break the original one piece firing pin.  Some 125,072 SAFN's were manufactured in 7.62x63mm caliber for the armies of Belgium, the Belgian Congo, Luxembourg, the Dutch East Indies, Colombia, and Brazil.

Venezuela adopted the SAFN in 1950 -1951, buying some 8,003 rifles in 7x57mm caliber.  The Venezuelan guns are notable for their corrugated sheet steel buttplates and muzzle brakes.

Argentina purchased some 5,541 SAFN's in caliber 7.65x54mm for the Argentine Navy ("Armada de la Republica de Argentina-" ARA).  In 1962, under an upgrade program devised and supervised by FN, the ARA upgraded their SAFN's in the following manner:  A new barrel in 7.62mm NATO was fitted, a new triggerguard with provision for retaining a 20 round detachable box magazine was installed, and the converted rifles were provided with a supply of 20 round detachable box magazines.

The Egyptian monarchy, under King Farouk purchased 37, 641 in caliber 7.92mm Mauser.  The Egyptian version was very similar to the original EXP-1 developed in England.  The Egyptian guns bear King Farouk's royal cypher above the chamber and have the sight graduations marked with Arabic numerals.

At least five were manufactured in caliber 6.5x55mm Mauser for testing in Sweden, one in caliber 7.5x54mm for testing in France, and one in caliber 7.62mm NATO for testing in the United States.

Several variants of the SAFN-49 were created:

* Sniper rifle. The sniper rifle was the standard rifle fitted with a telescopic sight and mount.  The 7.62x63mm and 7x57mm guns were made with a scope mounting rail milled into the the left side of the receiver.

*Select fire rifle.  The select fire version of the SAFN-49, manufactured only in 7.62x63mm, was not an outstanding success, suffering from the same shortcomings as its contemporaries (the US T20 and the Soviet AVT-40) and heirs (the M14, FAL, and G3).  Specifically, while the rifle functioned flawlessly, the heavy recoil, severe muzzle jump, and ten round magazine combined to limit the AFN-49's (as the select fire rifle was called) effectiveness.  Additionally, firing the rifle in fully automatic mode tended to exacerbate the rifle's tendency to break the early one piece firing pins.  Not to mention that some 48 pounds of pressure are needed to move the selector lever out of its detent to move between full and semi-automatic firing positions.

* Caliber conversions.  See the information on the Argentine SAFN-49's above.

The SAFN-49 was an excellent battle rifle by World War Two standards - easily as good as, if not better than the M1 Garand and SVT-40.  However, by the time it reached series production in 1949 it was already obsolete, the way to the future having been shown by true assault rifle designs such as the German StG 44, the Soviet AK-47, and the Spanish CETME.  Nevertheless, the SAFN may properly be considered the epitome of a mid-20th century battle rifle collection.  The rifle was and is, accurate, powerful, reliable, and sturdy.  For much more, this author does not think an infantryman can ask.


Gangarossa, Gene, FN. . . Browning, Armorer to the World, (Stoeger Publishing Company, Wayne, New Jersey: 1999)

Poyer, Joe, The SAFN-49 Battle Rifle, A Shooters and Collector's Guide, (North Cape Publications, Tustin, California: 1998)

Stevens,  R. Blake, The FAL Rifle, (Collector Grade Publications, Toronto: 1993)

FN. . . Browning, Armorer to the World is available from  Click on the image to order:
FN. . .Browning, Armorer to the World

The SAFN-49 Battle Rifle, A Shooters and Collector's Guide is available from North Cape Publications.  Click on the image to order:
SAFN-49 Battle Rifle Book

The FAL Rifle is available from IDSA Books.  Click on the image to order:
The FAL Rifle

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