Visit to FN Herstal

Forgotten Weapons is currently in the midst of a 3-week European tour, and yesterday we were very fortunate to be able to tour the facility at FN Herstal. For folks who aren’t familiar with the company, FN worked extensively with John Browning for many years, producing many of his iconic designs. Browning had an office and workshop in Herstal, and his sudden (and untimely) death occurred at his workbench here. Today, the FN group includes not just Browning and FN, but also Winchester firearms and Winchester-Olin ammunition manufacture. For military clients, this allows FN to be a complete supplier, providing firearms, mounting systems, and ammunition.

Ian at the main building of FN Herstal
Ian at FN Herstal (flags from visitors' countries are flown along with the Belgian flag, which is off to the right)

Being located in eastern Belgium, the Herstal factory has been the unfortunate recipient of German attention in both World Wars. The factory was occupied in both cases, and most of the machine tools carried off ahead of the Allied liberation. In WWII, the factory was run with local forced civilian labor by the Nazis, and between that and its location in the city center of Herstal, Allied forces did not bomb the facility. After liberation, however, the plant was the target of V1 and V2 rocket attacks. Most of the buildings were destroyed, although two of the original buildings still stand. Most of the remainder were rebuilt in the late 1940s.

After the liberation, FN was able to get back on its financial feet by starting with the manufacture of jerry cans for gasoline, as they were needed and did not require much complicated tooling to produce. With this cash flow, it was possible to rebuild the plant and develop FN’s postwar designs, such as the SAFN (FN-49).

Our tour began in the former office of John M. Browning, which FN has maintained as a conference room. Browning is without a doubt the premier firearms designer in world history, and FN is very proud (and rightfully so) of its long association with Browning.

With the photo opportunities taken care of, we moved on the the technical tour, starting with the barrel shop. FN makes all its barrels from raw steel rod in-house. First a blank rod is center drilled, and then turned to a basic outside profile (about an inch in diameter, for most rifle barrels). A mandrel with thereverse impression of the rifling is run into the bore, and a rotary machine hammers the blank barrel down onto that mandrel, leaving the rifling pressed into the inside of the bore. Barrels can then be turned down to proper specification for each particular application. This is known as a cold-hammered technique, and it is how FN manufactures all its barrels (with the exception of one type of M2 .50 BMG barrel).

Our next step was one of the machining shops, where parts like receivers, bolts, trunnions, and other parts are manufactured. FN uses a variety of materials, from the tradition steel billet wiled to the desired shape (for FN MAG trunnions, for example) to aluminum billet milled down (the Minimi top cover, among others), steel forgings milled (like the M2 bottom plate), and even aluminum extrusions (like the SCAR receiver). This use of aluminum extrusion is particularly interesting, as it allows a very cost-effective production of fairly intricate features.

Extruding aluminum is basically the process of heating up a large block and squeezing it through a die like pasta. The die can produce small details like grooves and lips to very tight tolerances, as long as the cross-section of the material does not have to change. The extrusion can then be made in long sections (20 feet or more) and cut into the necessary lengths for making guns. In the case of the SCAR, all three variants (.223, .308, and .308 heavy barrel) are designed with the same receiver shape, just in different lengths. The extrusion contains the bolt rails, part of the picatinny rail, and other details, so those elements do not need to be machined. Instead, it is just a matter of cutting out the ejection port and adding holes to bolt in trunnions.

We are, by the way, quite impressed with the SCAR. It has all the features of a modern combat rifle, and quite well done. The receiver has an integral rail along its top surface, a free-floating barrel, simple disassembly, and easily changeable barrels. It also comes from FN with many of the elements that generally need to be purchased aftermarket on ARs, like the rails, high quality folding adjustable-length stock, etc.

But back to the tour – we next moved into the assembly building, where the various parts are assembled into complete guns. FN’s military firearms (and the civilian versions of them, like the FS2000 and P90S) are all assembled here in Belgium, while the sporting guns are assembled elsewhere. Each gun is tested for headspace, and assembled with care by individual workers – this is not an automated procedure. In the case of a SCAR, the complete assembly is about a 70-minute process for each gun.

Once assembly is finished, every weapon is test fired, for accuracy, reliability, and cyclic rate (in the case of machine guns). We chatted with one of the test firers (fun job, eh?) who was working with a batch of FN MAG light machine guns. He used a 50-meter test range with a camera system showing him his target, and an optical chronograph to measure cyclic rate and bullet velocity. In the case of the MAG, he also tested firing a short belt with a weight hung off the end, to ensure that the weapon would function with a long belt hanging out, or other pull on the system. For military customers, FN has guarantees of accuracy and specified cyclic rate, and they can also provide spare barrels matched to individual weapons like the MAG.

We had the lucky privilege of being able to view the reserve collection that FN keeps, which has some amazing pieces. In addition to examples of pretty much all the common firearms systems form the past hundred years, the collection includes many FN prototypes, including SCARs, FALs, MAGs, and some interesting one-off projects like an M2 scaled up for a 15mm cartridge, and belt-fed sample of an FN-D. The first prototypes of the MAG light machine gun, for example, were designed to use either belt or magazine feed (much like the Minimi).

Our final stop was the formal showroom, typically used for major clients. It was recently built, and is a great example of how a firearms showroom should be made. The foyer has display cases of some of FN’s particularly prominent historical products (the Mauser rifle, model D BAR light machine gun, Browning 1910/22 pistol, and FAL rifle). Then the main area has displays of every model currently in production by the factory (SCAR, Minimi, MAG, FNP pistols, less-lethal systems, M2, door mounting systems, remote operated gun emplacements, P90, FS2000, etc). These guns all have pinned barrels, and can be handled, disassembled, and generally fondled to your heart’s content. We had a great time stripping down a SCAR-L, and I think I probably need to get myself an FNP-45.

Did you know that FN is now producing the Minimi in .308 caliber? It was originally designed in both .223 and .308, but at the time (30 years ago) the .308 was not particularly desired by the market, so it was sidelined. Today there is a lot of interest in that gun, as it is barely heavier that the .223 Minimi, and much more practical as a heavy-caliber SAW that something like the MAG (which is more of a mounted or implaced weapon).

I have barely scratched the surface of what we saw and learned, but I have rambled long enough for one day. We are thrilled to have been able to visit the facility at Herstal (is you hadn’t been able to tell) and see the production floor – this is a place with a massive amount of history, and continues to be one of the premier firearms manufacturers in the world. A hearty thank-you goes out to the folks who helped us arrange the invitation (you know who you are), and to Kristof for the excellent tour and the patience with our myriad questions!