By Robert Bruce
“The time has come to add ‘less lethal’ products to FN’s line of traditional small arms.” Louis Dillais, Director, FNH USA, Inc.
The old and respected Belgian firm FABRIQUE NATIONALE enjoys a well-deserved reputation for building some of the world’s best military, police and sporting weaponry. Staggering numbers of classic bullet launchers like the High Power pistol, the FAL rifle, and the Minimi squad automatic weapon have long been in first line service.
Innovation continues with the more recent P90 submachine gun and Five-seveN pistol, both chambered for FN’s unique 5.7mm cartridge. Recent rumors of a Belgian challenger to the US Army’s Objective Individual Combat Weapon have been confirmed, providing strong evidence of the firm’s commitment to cutting-edge research and development.
But, while FN holds an enviable place among leading small arms manufacturers for conventional land conflict, it has not until now been competitive in the arena of what is euphemistically called “less lethal.”
Police and Peacekeepers
Today’s news headlines trumpet involvement by military and paramilitary police deployed worldwide in various operations and missions that require incredibly restrictive rules of engagement. From seemingly endless ethnic strife such as Arab-Israeli or Irish-British, to the ongoing mess in the Balkans, to a hundred other lesser known places and causes, these forces most often find themselves hobbled by geo-political realities. To avoid giving the television newsmen dramatic pictures of bloody armed confrontations becomes a first priority. Thus, their ample numbers of conventional weapons such as assault rifles and grenade launchers are rendered nearly useless.
Similarly, domestic police forces charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order have the unenviable task of putting their lives at extreme risk from the actions of determined and often ruthless protesters, provocateurs and other criminals. Woe be to the “insensitive” cop who is observed by reporters and cameramen as he responds to threats against life and limb with an old-fashioned nightstick or a blast of shotgun pellets.
Kinder, Gentler Response
There are many non-lethal options available now and some of these have been around for decades. Tear gas, pepper spray, stun guns, “rubber bullets,” water cannon and the like are tried and true tools when the situation gets ugly but not ugly enough to justify terminally perforating the miscreants. Each of these has both capabilities and limitations that must be carefully balanced. None can be considered ideal in itself for the endless variety of situations presented now or steadily evolving. What to do?
Taking the initiative, FN has recently introduced some interesting new tools in the category of “Less Lethal” (henceforth known here as LTL), a nomenclature formalized by gurus in law enforcement to set this stuff apart from old fashioned handguns, shotguns, rifles and the like.
Small Arms Review was recently invited to cover FN’s American LTL premiere for law enforcement and the military, held at CRUCIBLE Training Center, near Fredericksburg, Virginia. CRUCIBLE is a major player with federal, military, police and security personnel and its facilities are well located in close proximity to concentrations of big name organizations in the Washington, DC area.
Louis Dillais, a former officer in French special operations, is FNH USA’s director and served as host for approximately twenty attendees each day with a program that including classroom instruction and an opportunity to view and participate in live fire of three LL systems that are now offered by his parent company, FN Herstal, also known as Herstal Group.
The first system shown by FN was the FN303, a strikingly configured assault rifle style launcher that owes much to commercial paintball technology but with a distinctive twist. Design engineer Jim Brunette of FN Manufacturing was up from South Carolina to showcase his exciting new creation, enthusiastically explaining its why’s and how’s, then fielding questions.
As presently configured, the FN303 is essentially a 12 gauge size smoothbore semiauto that can be locked under most assault rifles such as the M16, or fitted with a slide-detach stock as the “stand alone.” It uses regulated compressed air to pump a variety of custom-designed 8.5-gram projectiles out to a maximum effective range in excess of 100 meters. Two sizes of on-board air tank are offered, with the smaller giving about 60 shots and 100 from the larger. The tanks have standard fittings that will allow quick refilling at any fire station or scuba shop with appropriate adapter.
Its quick detachable fifteen round drum magazine has a clear plastic cover facing the shooter, allowing an instant status check of remaining shots as well as anticipation of what type of cartridge is next in line for firing when mixed loads are employed. Larger capacity mags may be in the works for fielding later.
The distinctive ergonomic layout of the gun is reminiscent to me of the BATMAN school of design, with angled grip surfaces of high strength matte black polymer that are ribbed for fingers with no prejudice toward right handers or lefties. Although seemingly robust enough to survive most operational and tactical mishandling or abuse, the weight of the gun module itself (called the “undercarriage version”) is a modest 4.2 lbs/1.9 kg, comparing favorably with an M203 grenade launcher. Overall length of the gun is a handy and quick-pointing 29 in./74 cm. in what is called the “stand alone” version with quick attach buttstock.
A Picatinny Rail interface is mounted on the top of the launcher, which allows clamping on just about any type of sight that customers may prefer. The test guns we handled had both rudimentary flip-up iron sights and the excellent new EO holographic target tickler.
Another real beauty of this launch system is the clever design of its ammunition. Where ordinary round paintballs are severely limited in range and accuracy by the immutable laws of physics, the 303’s ammo is fin stabilized and relatively heavy. While the barrel is a smoothbore 12 gauge size, the projectile is a stubby, domed plastic cylinder with a series of slightly angled fins molded into the sides. On firing, wind drag causes the projectile to spin, giving it much greater stability than is possible with a ball. For consistency of aim and trajectory, their weight is standardized at 8.5 grams each, regardless of the payload. Velocity is necessarily limited by LL considerations when people are downrange so as to avoid potentially fatal blunt trauma.
Just about any kind of liquid, powder or solid payload is a fair candidate for loading and launching, but right now the field includes six main categories. As previously mentioned, the system will shoot ordinary commercial paintballs (just think about how the guys at the local game field will react when you show up with your FN303) for cheap fun and short range practice.
Best performance comes, of course, from the specially configured ammo. Low velocity impact rounds come in black or white one piece plastic housings and don’t burst on impact. These are used for both marksmanship training/function verification as well as in situations when it is desirable to “sting” troublemakers. This is the round that punched big holes in the thick cardboard “E” silhouettes set up at 50 yards as seen in the accompanying photos.
Another category is marking rounds and this includes both washable and permanent dyes as well as a type that shows up only under ultraviolet light. These have many uses including identification of leaders or other key persons in mobs and demonstrations. Illuminating rounds carry the same type of chemical mix commonly used in break and glow lightsticks, both visible and infrared. They are particularly useful in illuminating interiors to assist operators wearing NVG’s (night vision goggles).
Choking and tear agents are the fifth ammo category, filled with the customer’s choice of such classic irritant powders as CS or CN. Yes, it takes a bunch of them to really get the air fouled inside a room, but that’s another reason for the fifteen round magazine and rapid semiauto delivery.
The last category is my personal favorite and probably that of every other high school jokester. Malodorants are a jolly group of super stink bomblets that spray on impact their gag-inducing payload. It should be great fun to pop a few into the middle of a room filled with angry protesters or individually apply “aroma de skunka” to leaders of any sort of antisocial mob. Sorry ‘bout that…
Not surprisingly, given the system’s capabilities, FN plans to offer the FN303 only to bonafide law enforcement and military users. The basic package of launcher, detachable buttstock, a couple of mags, plus hoses and air tank is being offered.
For such situations when the rather small 8.5 gram payload of the FN303 isn’t nearly enough, a team from the French firm of Lacroix was also on hand with their formidable SAMOURAI launcher, available through the FN organization. This manportable mini cannon is in French military service now and is used for lots of pretty spectacular tasks like blowing up bunkers, knocking down brick walls and delivering heavy smoke generators. It throws 600 grams of whatever you care to load, from high explosive to choke or stink, out to about 300 meters.
While there are similar weapons in use elsewhere such at the US Marine Corps’ SMAW, the French SAMOURAI is distinct in having nearly zero backblast and resultant firing signature. This can be particularly important in urban warfare where engagement of targets must routinely be done from inside buildings or in closely confined alleyways.
Taking a cue from existing smoke and flash-bang rounds already being used, Lacroix engineers have developed other payload transporters containing irritants like CS and CN. According to spokesman Hugh Williams who conducted their part of the program at CRUCIBLE, the possibilities are endless for other specialized munitions.
The firing demonstrations that followed were an eye-popping exercise in seemingly brutal recoil that was – in reality – simply a thoughtfully engineered solution to the challenge of kicking a big and heavy round way downrange from a shoulder mounted mortar. A close look at the accompanying photos should show that shooters and onlookers were uniformly unharmed by the experience of firing the SAMOURAI, and usually described the effect as being “more like a strong push than a kick.” Well, they ran out of time and practice ammo before I could get a chance to try it myself. I wasn’t disappointed…
Somewhere in between the big SAMOURAI and the little FN303 is Lacroix’s LC23-1, a hand-held projector that is capable of firing a variety of specialized payloads as dictated by the situation. This single shot palm pistol is, according to Hugh Williams’ briefing, “especially appropriate in routine situations requiring the control of individuals or the occupants of vehicles or buildings.”
Translated from bureaucratic-speak, this is a handy single shot pocket projector that can be loaded with a bunch of different cartridges to take care of a bunch of different situations without killing anybody foolish enough to be in the line of fire. Echoing the lineup of the FN303, choose paint markers, malodorants, or irritants. Formidable!
Serious Inquiries Only, Please
For more information on FN’s expanding line of LL systems or traditional weaponry, contact Louis Dillais at FNH USA, Inc., 1364 Beverly Road, Suite 303, McLean, VA 22101, or FN Manufacturing, Inc. at www.fnmfg.com.
FN303 Tech Specs
Device: FN303 Less Lethal System
Operation: Compressed air, semiauto
Weight: 5 lbs. for Stand Alone version, 4.2 lbs. for Undercarriage version
Length: 29 in. for Stand Alone, 16.7 in. for Undercarriage
Feed: Detachable 15 round rotary magazine
Number of Shots: 60 with small air bottle, 100 with large
Maximum effective range: 100 meters
Ammunition: Standard paintballs, irritants, malodorants, impact/training, marking, Illuminating
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V5N4 (January 2002)|