The bullpup rifle was developed to answer a number of military issues that armies around the globe needed to have answered. Today, some of the militaries that adopted bullpups in the 80’s and 90’s are now going to traditional style rifles. Bullpups were popular in concept due to the fact that much of the world in the 70’s and 80’s were training in the concept of mechanized warfare and being in transport vehicles from armored troop carriers to helicopters. For these transportation vehicles and the ability to deploy troops efficiently, they needed a rifle that was compact, and the bullpup satisfied this need. But now a lot of armies are seeing the bullpups as not suiting every need they are hoping to fill. Many people such as myself love bullpup rifles and what they offer. In general they offer a good short overall length while not giving up the full barrel length, making them universal in nature, in my opinion. But it would appear that France doesn’t feel the same way. The French bullpup, the FAMAS, is finally being replaced by the H&K416 after a long service life.
The French army adopted the FAMAS at the same time that the Steyr AUG was adopted by Austria, in 1978, and it has remained as the French army standard rifle for just under 40 years now. The rifles were made in a town called Saint-Étienne by Nexter, which is the primary manufacturer of France’s in-house military production of things like ammo, tanks, artillery, and small arms. Approximately 400,000 of the FAMAS rifles were made for the French army up until 2000 when all production was simply cut. It would seem to me that when you look at the design of the rifle, it may have been developed a little too hastily without much testing to make sure things were ready for fielding to an army that was going to absolutely punish it. Though the rifle was supposedly in development from 1967-1971, but after all the faults it has suffered, I am unsure how they just overlooked a lot of the issues.
The design of the French bullpup is very unique, but deserves a look over. First thing you will notice is the fact that the rifle has the distinct shape of a bugle, which happens to be the nickname of the rifle by the French. The rifle, like the AUG is made mostly of polymer/plastic, but has no bolt release or last shot hold open. Whenever you had to load the weapon, you needed to charge it with the reciprocating charging handle that is tucked in the carry handle.
The magazine is released by a trigger not unlike what you would see on the Israeli bullpup, the Tavor. The magazines themselves being proprietary, were designed initially to be disposable and held only 25 rounds. The trigger guard is relatively small and shares its real estate with the safety lever which moves side to side, safe being to the front and the left and right representing semi-auto or burst/full-auto. But the trigger guard could be moved 180 degrees around in order to use the trigger with a gloved hand. The rifle was almost entirely ambidextrous in nature, and you could even reverse the ejection port without needing any extra parts. The most unique design that the FAMAS is known for is the fact that it is a lever-delayed blowback rifle, which is an incredibly unique design. It does not have a gas system and is not unlike the roller-delayed blowback design.
There are 5 companies that were competing head to head in the finals of the competition to win the French army rifle contract and be their next service rifle for the foreseeable future. Those companies were Beretta out of Italy, Swiss Arms out of Switzerland, HS product out of Croatia, FNH out of Belgium, and H&K out of Germany. It would appear that the H&K416 was selected as the standard service rifle to now be used by the army of France in the future. Big win for H&K no doubt since they were going right up against FN which put in the SCAR as the competitor. Does that say something about which is better? I don’t know, but I will leave that up to you. Apparently there is a group of people in the Parliament that have heartburn over the idea that the guns would not be a domestic product. You gotta remember that the FAMAS is a design of Nexter, which as I said earlier, produces almost all of the military armament in-house from invention to manufacturing. The FAMAS was a symbol of pride for the count, much like the L85/SA80 is for the British army.
The HK416 is superior for several reasons, when compared to the French bullpup design. For one thing, the system isn’t restricted in terms of ammo like the FAMAS which has to only fire steel cased 55 gr ammo, or else it will become incredibly unreliable. The other thing is that the barrel on the FAMAS, except for the G@ version, is that it has a twist rate of 1/12 which is terrible and is only really good for lighter rounds like the 55 gr bullets they have to use. Not to mention that the rifles had a proprietary magazine that was in no way compatible with the NATO STANAG design. The G2 tried to alleviate a lot of these issues by accepting STANAG magazines, going to a 1/9 twist rate, and going to a more open trigger guard. But the Navy was the only part of the military to benefit from this in the mid-90’s, as well as a few commando units. But the design improvements still did not do enough to help it stick around longer.
In the end, the FAMAS F1/G1/G2 served France very well through the years in all the campaigns and conflicts, but it was well overdue for a replacement. I think it will be interesting to see how the H&K416 serves France through the years. I know I will be interested to see how it performs.