Trial and error learning. With this kind of investigation, in which you have to find the sense of it all by yourself, there is no other way. This morning, we realized where we went wrong.
What are we trying to do? We’re trying to determine the production time and first purchasing countries of Belgian-made FN FAL rifles proliferating in modern conflict areas.
Why are we trying to do this? In order to document modern conflicts thoroughly, and in order to identify current arms proliferation plateformes. For more information about our work, feel free to browse through the other articles of this website. It goes well beyond weapons, which are a means to an end, not an end in itself.
How are we trying to do this? By comparing the material collected on the ground with data gathered through official sources such as the Belgian arms export licenses available at the Belgian state archives, and with other publicly available sources and literatures, with a trial and error method.
Here’s a summary of what we know:
12,000 Belgian FN FAL rifles were reportedly purchased by Syria in 1957. With the exception of 100 FAL rifles licensed for export in 1969 through another company than FN Herstal itself, the arms export licenses available do not mention any later Syrian purchase.
The features and serial numbers of FN FAL rifles observed in Syria indicate that those rifles were made after 1973 (the type III upper-receiver was not made before then). Thus, we can assume that those rifles have been diverted to Syria by another country.
In September 2012, we came back from Syria with an interesting sample. We could document an FN FAL bearing two serial numbers, which would allow us to know more about its first purchasing country and plateforme of diversion.
We assumed, based on its right-hand side serial number (see an example with the picture above), that the rifle was produced in or around 1980. Why? Because, as far as we know, after 1972, the right-hand side serial number engraved on Belgian FN FAL rifles represent the total amount of FAL rifles made by the Herstal plant, and because we assumed that the million was reached in or around 1980. That is were the mistake was.
Here is a key element for our research: A chart, prepared for M. Blake Stevens’ Book “The Metric FAL” Volume III by M. Jean Van Rutten, who represented FN Herstal in various countries and was, around 1980, their Chargé de Mission in the FN Defence and Security Division’s Weapons Testing Section.
This chart, published in M. Blake Stevens’ book and shown here for the purpose of our research only, shows FAL sales to 1980. “New, FN-made weapons only; no spare parts or client-licensed production”, the description says.
This is really important. On the one hand, we know that after 1972, right-hand side serial numbers correspond to the total amount of Belgian FN FAL produced. On the other hand, we have this chart. Based on the serial numbers, we can now roughly determine the year of manufacture of FN FAL rifles.
What can we see in this chart? That we made an important mistake: the million FN FAL made was not reached in 1980 but in mid-1972, just about at the introduction of the type III upper-receiver.
Why is it important? Because we also assume that after 1972, left-hand side serial numbers represent the total amount of FN FAL rifles purchased by *one single, specific country*. With all these information, we can now try to determine what this country is when we have serial numbers on the two sides of a rifle, by digging in the Belgian arms export licenses archives. That’s what we did, here, and we reached the wrong conclusion that one rifle we found in September 2012 could only come from Qatar or Kuwait.
But then the Belgian Foreign Affairs revealed that the rifles actually came from the United Arab Emirates, a country that was rulled out by our demonstration. So we had to think about it all over again, and find were the mistake was.
Now we know. The FAL rifles we have found in September 2012 and March 2013 in Syria were not made in or around 1980, but in or around 1973.
How many FAL rifles did the UAE have in or around 1973? Well, according to the Belgian archives, between 1972 and 1974, the UAE, formerly known as several entities: “Abu Dhabi”, “Dubai”, were authorized to receive 4,456 Belgian FN FAL rifles.
Based on the information above, we can conclude that the UAE could well have been the first buyer of the FAL rifles found in Syria in September 2012 et March 2013.
The Belgian Foreign Affairs only confirmed the source of the September 2012 FAL rifles. But, based on the demonstration above, we can assume, without much risk, that the FAL rifle documented in March 2013 also comes from the UAE.
The one of September 2012, with a left-hand side serial number of 4536, was most probably exported in 1974 or shortly after. The one of March 2013, with a left-hand side serial number of 4382 was most probably exporter in 1974.
Another conclusion can be reached: Based on the latest information, it appears that, actually, neither Qatar nor Kuwait could have been the first buyers of the FN FAL rifles documented in September 2012 and March 2013, because they did not purchased enough FN FAL rifles between 1972 and 1974 to match with the elements of the demonstration above. Caveats here: the export licenses of the 1975-1979 period are not available for research because they have been illegally destroyed by the Belgian authorities.
Most importantly, the fact that this corrected demonstration matches with the revelations of the Belgian Foreign Affairs shows that we can fairly assume that the FAL rifle’s serial numbers, if correctly interpreted can give very valuable pieces of information.
Edit 1 March 19: It seems alors that the grooved handguard cannot be a certain sign of production time. We assumed it became standard feature as from 1978, but it’s already present on this rifle made around 1974. More field research should bring more pieces of information. Another interesting thing to point out is that in the FN FAL rifles documented in September 2012, only one had the two serial numbers allowing us to check them with the state archives. The others did not, and appear to have been produced much later, in the 1980’s. But the Belgian Foreign Affairs declared that the UAE was the first buyer nonetheless.
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