By Paolo Valpolini
Definitely a “machine gun house”, FN Herstal developed in the past two of the mostly used weapons of that kind, the FN MAG, which saw the light in 1958 and is in service in over 90 countries with some 250,000 machine guns produced, and the FN MINIMI, developed 30 years later, in service in more that 70 countries and of which many thousands are produced every single year. Innovation is one of the key words at FN Herstal, as underlined by Vincent Verleye, the company Chief Operating Officer, who underlined that “even in a period of world health crisis, last year we invested over 13% of our turnover in research and development and production tools.” Mr. Verleye made it clear that through continuous innovation, diversity of products and services, and excellence, FN Herstal intends maintaining its leadership in the small arms world, and with the addition of the new FN EVOLYS “we want to be able to continue to say in the future that One out of every two machine guns in the world comes from FN Herstal”
Many issues that are on the top of the list when dealing with infantrymen equipment, but weight is definitely one of the most sensible. Within the infantry, some categories of soldiers are typically selected among the high end of the percentile, as they have to carry heavy weapon systems; among them we obviously find mortarmen as well as machine gunners.
Among the main feedbacks from end users of existing weapons, weight is an issue. Born in 5.56×45 mm calibre, the FN MINIMI represented a major step forward when it was introduced, 7.62×51 mm machine guns available at that time being much heavier and cumbersome. The latest iteration of the FN MINIMI in 5.56 mm calibre weighs 8 kg without ammunition. The 5.56 mm round being considered ineffective by many for a squad support weapon, FN Herstal developed the 7.62×51 mm version, which weight is 8.8 kg.
Both weapons have similar characteristics, the FN MINIMI having gained considerable success on the market, a quantum jump in numbers being obtained when it was selected by the US Army which named it SAW, for Squad Automatic Weapon, numbering it M249. Although Chapter 3 of the US Army TC 3-22.249 “light Machine Gun M249 Series” manual titled “Aiming Devices” includes a number of options for day and night use, the second major issue coming from lessons learned was the lack of a long rail, allowing installing a combination of sights, giving maximum flexibility to the user. Installing thermal sights or other devices often needed the use of interfaces, which further increased weight, bringing the latter up to nearly 10 kg. Going on patrol for hours with such machine gun is a sort of nightmare, as the soldier’s burden has increased with time; moreover weight in the rucksack is one thing, but when you have to carry it in your hands it is a wholly different matter. Over 40 years after its appearance the FN MINIMI, once considered light, has become too heavy for current scenarios, especially in areas such as Asia, where the average size of the soldier is smaller than in the US and in Europe, and an 8 kg machine gun is no more accepted.
Three were thus the bullets highlighted on a blank sheet when in 2016 FN Herstal started thinking to a new machine gun: lower weight, long rail and, last but not least, the same lifespan and reliability of its existing weapons of the same category. This led the Belgian company to the machine gun that was unveiled yesterday, named FN EVOLYS™ that maintains all the characteristics of a machine gun with an assault rifle look, and a weight that falls in-between the two categories. Two members of the family are being unveiled, one for each of the aforementioned calibres, the two weapons being very similar as they share the same architecture and solutions, however with different mechanical elements to withstand the much higher energy involved with the bigger calibre.
Weight control has been a daily issue ever single day during the design phase. “We made a detailed study of newly developed material and their specifications, and went through a rigorous selection process based on their respective performances. We adopted a design to take full advantage of their characteristics, obtaining exceptional results,” Antoine Godbille, FN Herstal R&D Project Manager stated. FN Herstal used aluminium and composite material wherever possible, and adopted design features that optimise each single element. One of these is definitely the receiver, which forward part has a peculiar reticular structure; the receiver is made of a single piece of aluminium, obtained by casting and then machined, which features on top an integral one-piece long STANAG 4694 NATO Accessory Rail, a shorter one being available at the bottom. M-Lok slots are integral part of the receiver allowing adding further accessories, such as i.e. laser pointers, at no weight cost if nothing is installed. To allow the adoption of a single piece receiver, which is rarely found on machine guns, one element, typical of most if not all belt-fed weapons, had to be changed: the feeding system.
To load the belt in a machine gun you usually raise the cover, put the new belt on the feed tray, close the cover, pull the cocking handle to chamber the first round, switch back the selector to auto and start again operating. Problem: this system is not compatible with a long top accessory rail. To solve this issue FN Herstal developed a wholly new feeding mechanism, the belt being as usual fed from the left. The mechanism is now on the side of the machine gun, the feed cover being hinged on the left-hand side. The ammunition is guided and positioned in a nearly automatic way by closing the cover, considerably reducing the risk of jamming on the first round, as it used to be with previous loading systems. Moreover, in the old system one or two links usually remained in the tray, the gunner needing to get rid of them before loading the following belt; this is not anymore the case with the new FN system, as it automatically ejects the last link. Reloading is pretty easy, both for right- and left-handers, the belt being engaged using a single hand, the non-reciprocating charging handle being as usual on the right side. No details were provided on the inner system, EDR On-Line having been told that this is of brand new design. Should the need arise to extract the ammo band, it is sufficient to strongly pull it. Feeding is either by belt or using the FN MINIMI pouch, with 100 or 200 rounds belts for the 5.56 mm, and a 50 rounds belt for the 7.62 mm.
As said earlier, FN Herstal intended developing a much lighter weapon; compared to the FN MINIMI 5.56 Mk3 the FN EVOLYS 5.56 weighs 31% less, 5.5 kg versus 8 kg, 2.5 kg saving being equivalent to nearly one and a half 100-round belts, while the comparison between the FN EVOLYS 7.62 and the correspondent FN MINIMI 7.62 Mk3 shows a weight saving just short of 30%, 6.2 kg versus 8.8 kg, the 2.6 kg saving representing nearly two 50-round belts. Looking at it under a different angle, weight saving in both models exceeds the weight of most the day/night sights combinations.
Being a machine gun, the FN EVOLYS obviously fires from an open bolt, which allows better cooling between firing sessions and avoids cook-off, as no round remains in the chamber, the latter reaching high temperatures when firing long bursts. The reloading mechanism is based on a gas operated short stroke piston, the cyclic rate of fire being approximately 750 rounds per minute.
However the new FN Herstal machine gun can also be used as an assault rifle, shape, weight and ergonomics allowing this option, and is thus fitted with a three-position selector located just over the pistol grip, with safe, semi-auto and auto positions; the selector is obviously available on both sides of the weapon to ensure ambidextrous compatibility.. Almost as accurate as a corresponding assault rifle, which fires closed bolt, in semi-auto mode the FN EVOLYS ensures a consistent selective aimed fire, also thanks to the free-floating barrel design adopted, maximum effective range in suppression fire being 800 meters for the smaller calibre and 1,000 meters for the bigger one. Barrels are chrome-lined; for the time being only one length is available for each calibre, 14-inch (355 mm) for the 5.56 mm weapon, and 16-inch (406 mm) for the bigger calibre. The new machine guns are not fitted with a quick barrel change system, the solution adopted being derived from that of the FN SCAR rifle. You must therefore disassemble the machine gun and then remove the four screws that fix the barrel to the receiver, an operation that takes only a couple of minutes. In perspective FN Herstal could decide to design additional barrels with different lengths in the future to give a choice to its customers. As said, one of the design parameters was to maintain the lifespan and reliability of the company previous products, so nothing was spared on that side, the FN EVOLYS barrels being produced from the same steel bars and the same material. Existing prototypes have already been used to carry out durability tests, the FN EVOLYS having successfully overcome the 60,000 rounds target “with only minor hitches” according to company sources, which is inevitable in the development phase.
The new machine guns are fitted with a gas regulator, but this has no effect and is used only to disassemble the system for cleaning the piston. The FN EVOLYS does not need any gas system adjustment that allows it to work properly even in the harshest conditions, such as sand or mud, according to the Belgium-based company, as well as with sound suppressors. According to Yves Roskam, responsible for Market Intelligence and Business Development at FN Herstal, “the sound suppressor use has become generalised today, as it greatly reduces the sound signature of the weapon improving communications between team members and making it more difficult for the enemy to locate the shooter.” The company therefore decided to make its use as friendly as possible for soldiers, also based on users feedback that stated that soldiers on the field rarely remembered to set the gas regulator according to the situation.
The FN EVOLYS is currently fitted with the same buttstock of the FN SCAR, which is adjustable in height and length; the 5.56 mm model length varies from 850 to 950 mm, while the 7.62 mm goes from 925 up to 1,025 mm. In the FN MINIMI, the buttstock contains the hydraulic buffer, but in the case of the new FN EVOLYS machine guns this has been moved inside the weapon, this could allow in the future a series of different buttstocks to be used, such as M4-type, telescopic, foldable, etc.
Removing the buttstock remains the first operation when field-stripping the machine gun, then removing the recuperation spring and extracting the bolt. Comparing the 5.56 mm FN EVOLYS to the MINIMI, we can note that the new machine gun feeding is designed only for belted ammunition, and that there is no provision for using the STANAG 4179 magazine. EDR On-Line was told that this solution required a considerable development effort, and that feedback from end users said that this option was very seldom used.
Among options, the FN EVOLYS can accept the FN SmartCore shot counter, which allows optimising weapons handling at unit armoury level. Other accessories will become available in due time, attachments for pintle mounts being among them.
With its new line of super-light machine guns FN Herstal looks at a wide market, some nations, i.e. in Asia, not accepting heavy weapons such as those currently in the portfolio. According to information obtained by EDR On-Line, the company aims at “squeezing” some more weight out of the weapons, priority being given to the 5.56 mm model to bring it closer to the 5 kg mark.
Currently a number of prototype machine guns have been produced, but in two-month time a higher number of pre-production weapons will be available, and will quite probably be provided for testing to potential customers. As for production FN EVOLYS we will have to wait until early 2022. [
All photos courtesy FN Herstal