By David M. Fortier
Running through the snow I suddenly dropped to go prone. Using the butt of the FAL to break my fall I piled into the cold white powder. The weapon’s bipod was already extended and the feet quickly sank into the snow as I pulled the butt into my shoulder. The first target was only 90 yards distant with others appearing at random distances out to 300 yards. Indexing the front sight onto the silhouette I thumbed the selector off Safe, past Semiautomatic, to the full-auto position and hit the trigger. The rifle exploded to life flinging brass into the air as it spit out a short burst. Down range 146-grain ball rounds rocked the steel silhouette on its base and sent geysers of snow into the air. Switching targets I worked my way out to 300 yards. By pulling down hard on the sling and keeping the bursts as short as possible I was getting surprisingly good results. Another squeeze of the trigger and the gun stuttered to a halt as the bolt locked back.
Verifying the weapon was empty I stood up. In my hands was not just a selective-fire FN FAL but also something a little different and a bit more interesting. The rifle I held was an Austrian Sturmgewehr 58, which up until 1977 was the standard combat rifle of the Austrian Army. Like most combat rifles the StG58’s story is an interesting one. Its genesis was in the 1950’s as Austria began to rearm in an attempt to defend itself against a very real Soviet threat. At the time the Austrian infantry was equipped with a hodge podge of obsolete small arms of various makes. With the Soviets rearming with modern intermediate caliber assault rifles something a little more modern than cast off Garands and Lee Enfields was needed. With extensive combat experience fighting the Soviets still fresh in the minds of her officer cadre the Austrians began the search for an appropriate Sturmgewehr.
Like much of the free world Austria found what they were looking for in Dieudonne Saive’s Fabrique Nationale Fusil Automatique Leger (FN FAL). However while they liked what they saw they felt it necessary to modify the design to fit their specific needs and requirements. To start with, rather than basing their rifle upon the common FAL ‘Canada’ model the Austrians choose instead to mimic West Germany’s Gewehr 1. The German’s had adopted the FAL a couple years earlier, with the Bundeswehr placing their order on November 13, 1956. In this order the German purchasing commission had stipulated several changes be made to make the rifles more suitable for their needs. Internal changes consisted of a new improved firing pin with a conical rear, and the previously optional two piece extractor design. This was done to improve the weapon’s reliability. External changes consisted of stamped sheet metal handguards, a bipod, and lower sight line. The sheet metal handguards were rugged and somewhat reminiscent of the war time StG44. Ahead of these, an ingeniously simple metal bipod was attached directly to the barrel. When not needed this unit folded up out of the way into grooves in the handguards.
The biggest alteration was made to the sights. The German purchasing commission requested the rifle’s sight line be lowered by 3 mm. While the Belgian designer’s tried to dissuade them, due to the work involved, the German’s remained steadfast. Their reasoning being summed up in the statement, “In the case of a head wound, three millimeters is the difference between a wounded enemy and a dead one.” In the end the Belgians gave in and lowered the sight line as per the request.
The Austrians were impressed enough by the German’s G1 FALs that they requested rifles that were very similar. Internally these selective-fire rifles are the same and also make use of the G1 pattern metal handguards, bipod, and sights. However whereas the G1’s featured plain muzzles (Editor’s note: with separate grenade launchers, flash hiders and BFAs issued with each rifle) the StG58s have a unique combination muzzle device. Designed by the head of the Austrian purchasing commission, a Major Stoll, this unit is a flash suppressor, grenade launcher, and barbed wire cutter all in one. The desirability of having a flash suppressor on a combat rifle is obvious, and learned by the Austrians first hand during actual combat 15 years earlier. They also found it desirable to have the ability to launch rifle grenades and so incorporated a permanently attached launcher. This allowed every rifleman to launch 22mm antitank or antipersonnel grenades without having to fumble around trying to locate and attach their launcher. The ability to launch antitank grenades was a highly desirable feature during that time frame.
The Austrians didn’t stop there; Major Stoll also designed it to cut barbed wire. The unit features four prongs and is threaded internally. It’s designed to allow a soldier to thrust the rifle forward and catch a piece of wire in the prongs. Then by simply turning the rifle slightly and firing a standard ball round the wire can be split. Another uncommon feature is that the rifle lacked a bayonet lug, as the Austrian’s did not issue bayonets for their service rifles. All-in-all the end result was a well thought out combat rifle that served the Austrian Army for a number of decades.
Recently I had a chance to try out a low number StG58 for myself courtesy of Giovanni Milano and DSA Inc. Currently DSA Inc. is one of only two manufacturers of brand new FAL rifles. Of interest here is the fact that DSA Inc. purchased over 40 tons of StG58 rifles, parts, accessories, tooling and equipment from the Austrian MOD. This included all the original tooling, blue prints, and drawings that Steyr-Daimler-Puch used to manufacture these rifles. Today DSA offers StG58 parts kits, tons of accessories, and claims to make the finest FAL rifles available.
Built by FN, my test rifle was one of the initial 20,000 rifles built under contract for the Austrians before Steyr began production under license. In excellent shape it exhibited the fine workmanship that made FN famous. Handling it, the first thing one notices is Major Stoll’s jack-of-all-trades muzzle device. It’s big, really too big, and looks somewhat out of place. Then there are those German G1-style sheet-metal handguards. While they’re easy to manufacture, rugged, and lightweight I felt they were a poor choice for a forend. With their recent experience in the extreme Russian cold I would have expected something different. Handling the weapon in 20 degree F weather made me better appreciate the wood and synthetic handguards other countries chose. I’m sure that on a badly overheated gun on a hot summer day they would have been even worse.
In direct contrast to the metal handguards is the well designed bipod. This unit is simple, fairly light, rugged, and swivels. It folds easily out of the way into the handguards when not in use. If not needed, it can be removed, with the aid of a screwdriver. The only negative point is that the unit mounts directly to the barrel and will thus have an effect on the point of impact (POI). However, at normal combat ranges of less than 300 meters POI shift would probably be small.
To briefly test the StG58 we fired approximately 500 rounds of Portuguese 146-grain Full Metal Jacket Boattail (FMJBT) supplied by Centerfire Systems. Testing took place at an ambient temperature of 20 degrees F on an overcast January day with 5 mph winds. Steel silhouettes of crawling soldiers were placed at random distances from 90-250 yards with full silhouettes placed from 275-300 yards. Firing offhand, kneeling, and rice paddy prone with the StG58 we had no problem making consistent, fast hits on steel. Basically the rifle feels and behaves like any semiautomatic FAL, although it is slightly heavier at the muzzle due to the extra weight of the bipod and large muzzle device. Average group size from the bench with this rifle ran 2-3 inches at 100 yards.
Thumbing the selector to full-auto alters the hit probability significantly. Pounding 7.62x51mm rounds downrange at a cyclic rate of 650-700 rpm in a 10-pound rifle results in serious muzzle rise. Stand up straight with your right elbow stuck out like you’re shooting High Power and the muzzle climbs immediately off target. However take an aggressive stance, lean into the weapon with your elbows down, and keep your bursts short and you can do some fairly good work up to 50 yards. Firing off the bipod, while pulling down (hard) on the sling, we were able to place fairly effective fire out to 300 yards (the limit of our testing) on full-auto. However, in my opinion under real world conditions most would find this rifle uncontrollable and would be best served staying with semiautomatic fire only.
The next question of course is how would the StG58 have stacked up against the Red Army’s AKM? With regard to accuracy potential, the average StG58 will handily outshoot the average rack grade 7.62x39mm Kalashnikov. In the hands of a skilled rifleman an StG58 is capable of acceptable semiautomatic fire out to 600 meters. This is well beyond the capabilities of an AKM. In the area of wound ballistics performance the 7.62x51mm NATO round also has a clear edge over the 7.62x39mm, at least against distant targets. This comes at a price, as 7.62x51mm ball ammunition is substantially heavier than 7.62x39mm ball. Controllability? This goes to Kalashnikov’s Avtomat. However keep in mind that the Soviet’s complained about the difficulty conscripts had controlling AKM’s in full-auto. Even so the volume of fire a platoon of AKM armed Soviets would have been able to put out at close range would have been more than the Austrians could have matched. This is especially true considering the AKM’s 30-round magazines.
The StG58 has substantially better sights than an AKM. In addition, when it comes to the individual controls of the weapons the StG58 also has a very real edge. The StG58’s safety is far easier to manipulate and reloads are substantially quicker thanks to its bolt hold-open and well-placed bolt release. In addition the StG58’s charging handle, is mounted on the left side of the receiver, and this allows the operator to maintain his firing grip. The AKM’s handling characteristics are clearly superior. It’s shorter, lighter, and handier and thus fatigues the operator less. The short length of pull brings the AKM’s center of gravity in closer to the center of gravity of the operator aiding both control and the ability to engage movers.
The StG58 has the ability to launch rifle grenades, something lacking with the AKM (Editor’s note: except for the Yugoslavian and Polish AK variants). In addition, the Austrian rifle sports a flash suppressor, another item the AKM lacks. While the StG58’s bipod is useful it does add weight to the weapon. The Soviets on the other hand trained to use their 30 round magazine as a monopod (as well as a vertical grip) and this technique gives good results. Push either weapon hard with long bursts of full-auto fire and their forends become uncomfortably hot. Reliability? Both of these rifles have proved exceedingly reliable in actual combat.
Austria’s StG58 is an interesting twist on the basic FAL design. It combined German and Austrian features with an excellent Belgian rifle. The result was a tough and accurate combat rifle that gave good service until finally replaced relatively recently.
Caliber: 7.62x51mm NATO.
Operation: Short stroke gas operation with tilting bolt.
Barrel Length: 21 inches (530 mm).
Barrel: Right hand twist with one turn in 12 inches.
Feed: 20-round detachable, staggered-column, box-type.
Front: Protected Post.
Rear: Aperture graduated from 100-600 meters.
Overall Length: 44.75 inches (1,136.65 mm).
Weight: 9 pounds 6 ounces -without bipod (4.25 kg).
Velocity: 2,750 fps (+/-40 fps).
(Quality FAL Rifles, StG58 Parts Kits, Accessories)
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|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V6N7 (April 2003)|
and was posted online on November 29, 2013