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Self Loading Rifle L1A1: The European “Black Rifle”

By Anthony Wicks and Gabriele Tansella

The “Self Loading Rifle L1A1” is the British adaption of the Belgian FN FAL. It was a compromise for project reasons as well as following British Army doctrine of not wanting a fully automatic rifle with such a heavy calibre. It has been one of the best and longest serving rifles, which is a testament to its quality (robustness and accuracy) and ease of handling.

The Self Loading Rifle L1A1, more commonly known simply as the SLR, was a long rifle and is technically a battlefield rifle as opposed to an assault rifle. Chambered for the NATO 7.62x51mm cartridge, it was relatively long compared to the abandoned British bullpup EM-1 and EM2. This rifle was designed mainly to be able to accurately hit center of mass of human size targets out to 600 yards and being only semiautomatic meant that the onus was on the soldier to fire aimed shots rather than “spray and pray.” Therefore, the SLR’s magazine contained 20 double stacked rounds in order for the disciplined troops not to have to carry hundreds of relatively heavy rounds and hence rapid fire was still defined as twenty aimed shots within a minute for suppressive fire.

Describing the L1A1 is akin to describing the definitive version of the FN FAL (Fabrique Nationale – Fusil Automatique Legere [light automatic rifle]). It is clearly based on the design of Saive and Vervier; however, there are a few changes that distinguish the L1A1 from other models, mainly the non-Commonwealth derivatives of the FN FAL. The design was adjusted to be manufactured in imperial measurement as well as having disposed of the ability to fire on full automatic. It maintained the same advanced (for its day) ergonomic stock and positioning of the safety/firing mode lever on the left side of the trigger frame, the same gas operated piston system and double stacked magazines. There are minor differences, measured in decimal points due to the blue prints being either done using the imperial system or the metric one. There are a few more easily visible alterations: the collapsible cocking handle on the L1A1 that also boasted the zigzag indentation on the breech body assembly to reduce the effects of dirt and small items from interfering with the firing of the weapon, the fire selector lever was enlarged and had just two positions – safety and semiautomatic, furthermore the automatic hold open function after the last round had been fired was removed. The hold open is done by depressing a stud situated just behind the magazine housing. The idea to do away with the full automatic fire capability was for tactical reasons as it was correctly deemed that the “.30 Light Rifle” caliber rounds (soon to become the 7.62mm NATO) when fired on full automatic would result in great expenditure of ammunition with no tactical benefits as the rifle was too light to remain stable with such a hard recoil. The British Army remained for many decades the only NATO army not to have rifles capable of firing on full autoimatic mode. It should also be noted that the concept of aim and fire as opposed to the wasteful and not effective “spray and pray” method was adopted as conservation and judicial use of ammunition also alleviated the logistical problem as the infantry could only be provided with a finite amount of ammunition. This can still be seen in Afghanistan where although the L85A2 (a lot less recoil as it uses the 5.56mm NATO rounds) has full auto capability, it is rare for the rifle to be used in that mode unless massive suppressive fire is required before a tactical retreat due to lack of remaining ammo.

Barrel

The barrel of the L1A1 is 21 inches long and has a twist rate of 1 in 11.9 inches. It weighs 12 ounces and the rifling is composed of four grooves. The rifle was chambered for the NATO 7.62mm round. A distinctive long and slender flash suppressor with a catch (just behind the flash suppressor) to lock on the bayonet such as the No.5 Mk1 model, this allows even a casual observer to notice the difference between the SLR and other members and derivatives of the FN FAL family. There are some variations that can be made to launch grenades and attach its simple sighting device. The barrel is rather slender and hence prone to deform after prolonged firing, which as a consequence, as with any rifle, will alter the point of impact. Being an infantry rifle it is not such a massive problem.

Body

The body of the rifle can be broken into two main components: the lower receiver and the body barrel group (upper receiver). The butt trigger group is composed of the stock, trigger mechanism, pistol grip, fire selector/safety lever as well as the joint pin holding both bodies together. The body barrel group has the magazine housing, its hold open lever, the entire gas system including the piston and spring, the barrel including the fore and rear iron sights, the cover and the breech body assembly including firing pin. From an ergonomic point of view the L1A1 was at the vanguard at the time of inception, it allowed to the soldier to use their left hand to push the lever from safety to semiautomatic and in most non commonwealth countries onto full automatic mode whilst keeping a firm grip on the rifle via the pistol grip and the butt stock firmly against the shoulder. In order to break open the body barrel group, one needs to cock the rifle and then press the lever that is on the left hand side of the rifle between the end of the body barrel group and the stock. The lever is on the left side along with the cocking handle, the ejection port is on the right hand side. The two bodies remain connected by the joint and retainer pin that is found between the magazine housing and the trigger guard. This can be opened very simply with either a coin or a screwdriver and once unscrewed it is a simple matter to push the retainer pin, essentially a cylinder through and thereby separating the two bodies completely.

In order to execute a field strip, no tools are required. The SLR should be cocked, the magazine extracted and the “upper receiver” opened by pressing the lever as mentioned and pulling the breech block assembly out by gripping the slide rod (rat’s tail), then slide the cover off. The gas plug is next; depress the knob on the side of the gas plug and rotate. Extract slowly, otherwise, the spring loaded piston will fly out. The magazines generally were designed to hold twenty rounds, although the magazine catch on the L1A1 is slightly wider than the “metric” FNs. The L1A1 was able to insert the Bren L4 light machine gun 30-round magazines too, although that was not widespread.

Stock

The shape of the L1A1’s stock is different to that of the other FALs and as time passed, the stocks and the forehand grip, which were originally made from beech wood, were replaced by synthetic materials, a type of polymer, more specifically a type 6 aliphatic polyamide and stiffened with carbon fiber and colored black giving it the look that most people associate with the rifle. The inside of the stock contains the very powerful return spring (this should never be taken out unless one has the correct equipment as there is no operational reason for taking it). The forehand grip is a classical rounded triangular shape with long slim vents to help cool the barrel. Some FALs had bipods attached to the forehand grip; some famous examples are the Austrian Stg 58 and the Israeli FALO. The heavier barrelled FN FALs became LMGs (Light Machine Guns) such as the Canadian C2 and the Australian L2A2. These Commonwealth rifles were based on the L1A1 but had the capacity to fire full automatic as befits a machine gun. The bipods when not in use would be folded back and hug the underside of the forehand grip and practically reach the firing chamber.

Sights

The iron sights on the L1A1 are traditional rear aperture sights and a well-protected foresight. There are two versions of the rear sight: one had a single aperture and the second had two different sized apertures (to facilitate close and long range aiming). All the rear sights when not in use can be folded forward to avoid any potential damage. The rear sight’s slide on an incline going up from the rear in order to fire better aimed shots at different distances by sliding the rear sight up and down the incline. There are also counter screws attached to the rear sight system to regulate windage.

The foresight is directly above the gas plug and is protected by two steel plates that also serve as a reference when taking aim. The foresight can be raised or lowered by loosening a small screw that blocks the foresight in position. Merely loosen the screw and swivel the foresight in the desired direction. Afterwards simply tighten the blocking screw again.

The main method of firing the L1A1 was by using the iron sights. However, in time, some QCB sights were made available to some units – the L2A2 SUIT, also known as the “Trilux,” a delicate and lumpy device filled with inert gas.

The SLR in the Field

The L1A1, commonly known as the SLR, is a battle proven weapon and is highly respected by those that used it. It is extremely simple to field strip and has a lot of tolerance, though not as much as an AK47 (its main rival). However, the L1A1 packs more of a punch and when looked after (basic cleaning of the weapon can be done very swiftly) and blockages cleared just as quickly unless an extremely rare mechanical failure in the weapon occurred.

Most of the world recognized the L1A1 during the Falklands conflict and plenty has been written about it there as well as some smaller conflicts around the world.

One of the main criticisms that detractors of the L1A1 go on about is its inability to operate well in rough and or dusty terrain. Therefore, we decided to ask a number of members of the Rhodesian regular army and special forces what they think/thought of the L1A1 (as well as close relatives such as the Portuguese G3 and South African R1) used in the insurrection leading to the handing over of power of the “bread basket of Africa” to the dictator Mugabe in what is now called Zimbabwe. There are quotes, many will identify with them, however, these come from no blogs but actual conversations with those in involved in the conflict and their unambiguous opinion of the L1A1 and their rival the AK47. It should be remembered that like the British Army, the Rhodesians were well trained and disciplined.

For the safety of those who expressed their candid opinions, we have disclosed no names as Mugabe could still represent a threat to them and their families should any be unfortunate enough to live there still. Clearly, as this is about the L1A1, no operations will be described. The request for Rhodesian army/SF combatants to give their personal opinion is more meaningful than the blogs/forums written by those who never used it in combat, especially over many years as in the case of the counter insurgency operations in Rhodesia (Southern Rhodesia to be even more precise).

The soldiers will be shown as letters to protect identity, to save space, only the five that covered all bases mentioned by others have been used (actual quotes):

“A” I preferred the 7.62 FN to the AK as the rounds went through trees that ters (terrorists) were hiding behind while the 7.62 intermediate round that the AK used wouldn’t. The NATO round had a 7 ton hitting force where the communist round had a 5 ton hitting, furthermore, in all the years of fire force (the use of helicopters to transport infantry rapidly to hotspots or take out specific targets) and externals I never had a stoppage or a jam.

“B” AK shorter easier to manipulate did not jam. Close better but long FN more accurate powerful went through trees removing them as effective cover.

“C” There are numerous debates on this subject and most Rhodesians are biased towards the SLR/FN because that was their rifle and not their “gun.” That said, certain “special forces” soldiers might have favored the AK47 due to operating on externals where the AK was good pseudo camouflage, lighter, maneuverable, etc. As “A” and “B” have stated above, the AK had less hitting power but was more robust in terms of maintenance. The AK was also infinitely less accurate than the SLR/FN. The SLR/FN needed constant maintenance, particularly in terms of gas regulation and moving parts but, Rhodesian soldiers were issued with kits for such. I doubt many of the enemy carried 4x2 cloths and gun oil to service their AKs. In my opinion (and I am biased) with correct maintenance the SLR/FN was a far better “killer.”

“D” I was trained and deployed using the R1/SLR and agree with the above comments. I do disagree with the G3 comment though... used this on ops with the square hand guard (that didn’t rattle or burn you after 2 mags) and the nylon stock used on the R1. ..GREAT weapon. Fluted chamber so no stoppages, longer sight radius and the empties were ejected almost back to hell and gone.

“E” Advantages of 7.62x51mm NATO standard ammo and weapon systems FN FAL/R1/SLR/G3 greater accuracy over long range (+/- 600m individual capability) kinetic energy/knock dower power. Shoot through power penetration (walls, dagga & trees etc.). Weight of ammo and selector/safety lever configuration encouraged ammunition conservation and aimed shots (as opposed to spray and pray of the AK). Could be used by both left and right handed firers. Cons: weight, length (standard variants) and regular maintenance. AK pros: lightweight, simple strip assembly and operation, interchangeable parts, low maintenance. Shorter range accuracy +/- 250m but rarely ever that distance. I have used both (and others) over many years in several different theatres. In a southern African environment I would say the FN/R1 nudges ahead down to the fact the operators were generally more effective with it as a tool (trained and disciplined) than the enemy. The main downfall to the AK is the change lever going from safe to full auto (full retard) on the first click, leading to most rounds spraying everywhere, instead of single or double aimed accurate fire. Single shot being the next click down. It is also quite a loud and distinctive audible signature when the safety lever/catch is operated and has cost a few chaps dearly – thankfully!

Conclusion

In essence the L1A1 (SLR) was/is a superb rifle, robust and more accurate than its main nemesis, the AK47, and when used by well-trained troops can negate the disadvantage of having to be cleaned (especially the gas piston) regularly. The rifle has relatively few moving parts and can be fully stripped by hand apart the case of a small screwdriver for disassembling the sights and special tool for the retainer spring (which did not need to be cleaned as well isolated in the stock), the chamber and the slide breech assembly body had some leeway, meaning that it could take a decent amount of dirt punishment before a jam occurred. All in all, an excellent and combat proven battlefield rifle.


SUBSCRIBER COMMENT AREA

charlesthatcher
08-05-2015 9:11 AM

R1 rifle South Africa / South West Africa now Namibia Angolan civil war

I'm infantry-trained South Africa 1967 - 1982. Deployed in SA 1967 on and then SWA & Angola 1976.

!967 we had the FN/R1 as our primary combat rifle set up for Safe or Repeat/Semi-auto only. Great and extremely reliable plus easy to maintain in the bush. Accurate - could shoot a decent 3 foot group at 600 meters on iron sights.

A heavy rifle to carry with full battle kit.

!976 the same rifle, modified for full auto. If I got two shots in the general direction of the target I was happy. The rest went up over the butt stop climbing away to the right.

Heavy-barrel version for mechanized troops a different weapon - great on short 2 - 3 round bursts, no more.

Loved the thing, but now (I have demilled R1s and AKs) - it's heavy. AK lighter and probably better in H to H combat. Never shot one myself, but to me, the safety would be an issue in stealthy situations.

Thanks for the great review!

Charles Thatcher

Johannesburg

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