For almost 30 years the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon has been the go-to light machine gun for U.S. Army infantry squads — and Marine Corps squads, too, until recently.
And now you can walk into your local gun shop and purchase a M-249S SAW, a semi-automatic “civilian” version of the fully-automatic M-249.
FNH USA, the U.S. subsidiary of Belgian weapons manufacturer FN Herstal, began selling the semi-automatic version of the weapon on the civilian market in November as part of their new Military Collector Series, which also includes replicas of their M-4 carbine and M-16 assault rifle. Fans of black guns are celebrating the release of the “street-legal” version of the SAW, and FNH is proudly marketing it as “civilian-ready.”
“FNH USA has a unique history of commercializing and releasing to U.S. firearms buyers products that were originally developed for military and tactical applications,” FNH CEO Mark Cherpes said in a press release. “We are proud to continue that tradition with the introduction of the FN 15 Military Collector Series and the semi-auto FN M-249S.”
The development of the M-249 SAW goes back several decades. The Army found was struggling to replace the legendary Browning Automatic Rifle in infantry squads. The BAR had served through World War I and World War II and even Korea before leaving the inventory in 1960 — mostly. During the Vietnam War some special operators preferred leftover BARs over standard-issue M-16s.
The M-16, on the other hand, weighs only seven pounds but its automatic version had difficulty producing sustained automatic fire because of its 30-round magazine and a tendency to jam.
The Department of the Army began research and development of a new squad automatic weapon in 1973 after receiving a material needs request in 1971, according to a report by the Army Research Institute. Testing of candidate weapons began in 1974 at Aberdeen Proving Ground and continued throughout the 1970s. The Army decided on the gas-operated, air-cooled, 5.56-millimeter Minimi light machine gun produced by Fabrique Nationale — which later changed its name to FN Herstal — pending some modifications to meet specific U.S. requirements.
The new American model became known as the M-249.
The Army adopted the M-249 in 1982 and began issuing it to automatic rifleman in 1984 after going more than two decades without a viable light machine gun for infantry squads. It became the standard squad machine gun in 1988 and has seen action with the Army and the Marine Corps in every major American ground conflict since the invasion of Panama in 1989, including Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s proved to be a versatile, if flawed, weapon.
The M-249 accepts 100- or 200-round linked belt ammunition or standard 30-round M-16 magazines. Weighing in at 17 pounds with a length of 41 inches, it’s light enough that it doesn’t slow down its operator as much as the M-60 does and it’s short enough to allow for a little more maneuverability during close-quarters combat. It comes with a collapsible bipod for extra support during stationary fire and fits on a tripod when used as a base of fire for prolonged periods.
It’s also one of the many weapons, along with the M-2 .50-caliber machine gun and Mk. 19 grenade launcher, that’s compatible with vehicle turrets.
With a sustained firing rate of 750 rounds per minute and a maximum cyclic rate of 1,000 rounds per minute, it’s highly effective in laying down suppressing and cover fire. The barrel can overheat after sustained shooting but is optimized for quick replacement.
Despite its strengths, the M-249 does have some problems. In addition to the barrel’s tendency to overheat — a problem many machine guns experience — it can also jam on occasion and can be difficult to maintain.
This has led to mixed reviews of its performance. Many soldiers stand by the M-249, but in 2011 the Marine Corps opted to replace the M-249 with the much lighter and more accurate M-27.
The semi-automatic M-249S is made of the same components and to the same specs as the fully-auto M-249 but features a closed rather than open bolt and has a much lighter trigger pull of no more than 6.5 pounds, compared to the auto’s 15.7 pounds. It accepts the same belt or magazine ammunition.
The timing suggests that FNH USA’s decision to introduce a semi-automatic SAW may be due in part to the Marine Corps abandoning their own M-249s. It would be difficult for FNH to compensate for the lost government sales, but the announcement of the new semi-automatic version met with excitement from gun collectors.
“The M249S might not be fully automatic … but it comes with a slew of goodies that should get military-firearms enthusiasts’ hearts pumping,” Elwood Shelton wrote in GunDigest.com. Nick Leghorn at TheTruthAboutGuns.com reported that the M-249S was the most popular gun at the NRA Annual Meeting when it was previewed there in April. “[T]he talk of the show is the semi-auto M-249.”
But it ain’t cheap. The M-249S sells for $7,999.