February 12, 2007
By David Fortier
FNH unleashed a firestorm of controversy when it introduced the 5.7x28mm cartridge and the Five-seveN USG pistol.
The antigun crowd has set out on yet another witch hunt as once again they're angrily calling for the banning of a firearm. Using stock terms like "no sporting purpose," "cop killer ammo," and "deadly military-style automatic weapon," they've climbed back up onto their soapboxes to enact a ban on one particular firearm. I wondered what firearm could be so evil that we had to run right out and send them all to the bottom of the ocean.
The current target is a .22-caliber centerfire pistol manufactured by the well-respected firm Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre-Herstal. Dubbed the Five-seveN, it chambers a small-caliber high-velocity cartridge called the 5.7x28mm. It's actually this cartridge, rather than the pistol itself, that is at the heart of the controversy. Intrigued by what all the hoopla was about, I decided to take an in-depth look at FN, the proprietary 5.7x28mm cartridge, and the Five-seveN pistol that chambers it.
I figured the best place to start was at Fabrique Nationale, so I boarded a plane to Belgium. For those of you unfamiliar with this Belgian company, FN has long played a major role in the development and evolution of significant military small arms. It is the home of the P35 Hi-Power pistol, FAL rifle, MAG GPMG and Minimi light machinegun. It was here that John Moses Browning made his home. Standing in his office, I could not help but be moved while contemplating the work accomplished there. Looking at this company's past, it's interesting to note that its firearms have always stood against tyrants bent on conquest. Today is no different as American troops fight the good fight wielding M249 SAWs and M240 GPMGs built by FN.
Philippe Claessens, the managing director of FN-Herstal, took time from his busy schedule to meet with me when I arrived. During our conversation he shed some light on the recent past and where FN is headed today. With the end of the Cold War FN's management resized and reshaped the company to make it more efficient. Today FN employs 1000 employees in Belgium. At the same time the company has invested 80 million Euros modernizing and rebuilding the facility in Herstal to streamline production. Understanding the importance of research and development (R&D) FN also began allotting five to six percent of its budget (it takes in approximately 450 million Euros a year) to R&D.
The 5.7x28mm Cartridge€¨One project stemming from FN's R&D work is the Five-seveN pistol and its 5.7x28mm cartridge. Beginning in the late 1980s FN concluded that with the proliferation of body armor NATO's 9x19mm firearms were rapidly becoming obsolete. In 1990 NATO recognized this threat and officially began looking into replacing 9x19mm arms with a new Personal Defense Weapon (PDW) system that would be capable of penetrating body armor and would be issued to personnel who did not need a regular rifle.
But what could replace the 9x19mm NATO? When it comes to penetrating armor there are several methods that work. The simplest is to merely drive a very small diameter projectile at high velocity. And this is what FN did. The result is a small bottleneck cartridge with a 28mm-long case topped with a .224-inch diameter projectile. The standard military/LE SS190 ball loading features a 31-grain FMJBT. The cartridge's overall length is 40.5mm, and it weighs half what a 9x19mm cartridge does.
To cut through body armor the .224-inch-diameter SS190 projectile incorporates a cone-shaped steel penetrator sitting atop an aluminum core surrounded by a steel jacket. Velocity of the 5.7x28mm SS190 ball load from a P90 PDW's 10.2-inch barrel is a respectable 2346 fps. Out of a Five-seveN pistol with 4.8-inch barrel it clocks 2133 fps. Despite the high muzzle velocity recoil is approximately 30 percent less than the 9x19mm. This 5.7x28mm load was specifically designed to defeat a NATO CRISAT target (consisting of a 1.6mm titanium plate with 20 Kevlar folds), and it will--even at 200 meters.
In addition to the SS190 ball loading (color coded with a black tip), FN also developed a number of specialty loads. These include the L191 Tracer, Sb193 Subsonic, and SS192 Training Round. For commercial sales FN developed the SS195 LF JHP and SS196 V-Max. The SS195 LF features a jacketed hollowpoint that lacks the steel core of the SS190. It drives a 28-grain JHP at a claimed velocity of 2312 fps from a P90 and 2100 fps from a Five-seveN. Not designed to expand, and without the body armor penetration of the SS190, this lead-free round is instead designed with a rapid yaw cycle.
The SS196 is topped with a 40-grain Hornady V-Max and has a muzzle velocity of 1800 fps from the P90 and 1600 fps from the Five-seveN. This load is designed to expand/fragment and also lacks the body armor penetration of the SS190 load. The SS190, L191, and Sb193 were developed for military and law enforcement use, so they have always been restricted and have never been available for sale to civilians. However, neither the SS195 LF nor the SS196 load was designed to penetrate body armor, and neither is classified as armor piercing by BATFE. Therefore, both loads are available, without restriction, to lawfully armed citizens.
The Five-seveN pistol€¨FN developed two systems to utilize the new 5.7x28mm cartridge: the P90 PDW and the Five-seveN service pistol. Both are modern designs manufactured from space-age corrosion-resistant materials. The P90 is a unique-looking compact submachinegun that feeds from a horizontally mounted 50-round magazine. The companion of the P90 is the Five-seveN. It is a full-size service pistol that operates via delayed blowback. I had a chance to shoot both the P90 and Five-seveN pistol on the company's outdoor range, but I was looking to spend more time with the Five-seveN than was possible in a mere demonstration. So after returning to the U.S., I requested a Five-seveN pistol for review. It arrived a short time later, and I immediately got to work.
The model I received was FN's Five-seveN USG. It came in a black plastic hard case with a cleaning kit, tools, lock, and two spare 20-round magazines. A full-size service pistol with a look all its own, the USG is built on a lightweight polymer frame. Quite out of the ordinary, though, is that the slide, which houses a 4.8-inch hard-chromed barrel, also has a polymer shell. Due to the amount of polymer utilized in its construction the USG, despite its size, is relatively light, just 1.3 pounds unloaded. My sample gun weighed 1.6 pounds loaded. Overall length is 8.2 inches, and it's approximately 5.75 inches high.
Upon first examining the USG one notes the controls are placed a bit differently than the norm. The USG's magazine release (which can be reversed for left-handed use) is a conventionally located push button release. No change here. But the slide release is located just forward of where the safety is mounted on a 1911. This allows it to be easily depressed without having to stretch for it. Ambidextrous safety levers are mounted on both sides of the frame just above the trigger.
While this is an unusual place for a safety on a handgun, modern pistol handling doctrine calls for placing your trigger finger alongside the frame when not actually firing. This puts it right over the USG's safety lever allowing it to be easily manipulated. To facilitate use with gloves the trigger guard is slightly oversized at the front. A takedown lever is located on the left-hand side of the pistol's frame, allowing it to be easily stripped without tools. To show the state of the firearm, a loaded chamber indicator is mounted to the left rear of the ejection port.
The frame of the pistol is nicely contoured and textured to provide a comfortable yet secure grip. To make the design more flexible and user friendly, the dustcover features a MIL-STD 1913 rail, which allows lights and lasers to be easily mounted. Feed is from synthetic magazines that hold a whopping 20 rounds. A magazine disconnect is incorporated into the design, but the good news is that it does not degrade the quality of the trigger. Somewhat surprisingly, the trigger on the USG is quite good, being both light and crisp with a very short reset.
Sights consist of a large, easy-to-see blade front sight mated to a fully adjustable rear. They feature white dots to make them easier to pick up.
Shooting The New System€¨I spent some time getting to know FN's USG at the range. With a 20-round magazine I expected the USG's frame to be fat and bulky. Pawing it over I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite comfortable. Magazines inserted easily, the slide retracted smoothly, and the small bottleneck rounds fed readily into the chamber. The safety took a bit to get used to, simply because I was unaccustomed to its location, but I have no negative comments about it. The ammunition I had on hand for testing was a large quantity of FN's 28-grain JHP load. I set to work making empty brass.
I began testing by checking the Five-seveN's accuracy from the bench at 25 yards. I fired four five-shot groups off of sandbags, and the average group size came in at two inches. Velocity of 10 rounds averaged 1951 fps, which is a good bit lower than FN's claim. Impressed by its 25-yard accuracy, I placed a target at 50 yards and repeated my testing. At this distance the Five-seveN averaged four-inch groups and is probably capable of doing better. Recoil is very mild. The muzzle simply flips slightly and then settles back into place. It's a very pleasant pistol to shoot.
From the bench I moved to running drills from a holster. For gear I selected a holster and magazine carriers from Blade-Tech, Dept. ST, 2506 104th St. Court S., Suite A, Lakewood, WA 98499; 253-581-4347; www.blade-tech.com. I've always had good luck with Blade-Tech gear, and it did not let me down this time. Starting at the two-yard line and working my way back to the 15-yard line, I ran various drills, including shooting strong-handed, weak-handed, and with both hands--stationary and on the move with plenty of forced reloads and failure drills.
Shooting the Five-seveN is a whole lot of fun! Thanks to the excellent trigger, light recoil, mild muzzle flip, and bottomless magazine you can blister targets at a rapid rate. Lock into it and the slide simply pistons back and forth as empties fly out. When the magazine finally runs dry, punch the release and it's kicked clear. Slap another one home, hit the slide release, and keep going. Practical accuracy is excellent, and man-sized targets are easy to hit, even at 100 yards.
Okay, the USG shoots, but what about the cartridge? I checked its penetration/expansion in water. Firing at a distance of 12 feet, penetration of five rounds averaged between nine and 11 inches. None of the rounds expanded or deformed in any manner, and other than the rifling marks, all looked like new when recovered. However, I did notice one interesting thing. It's obvious that the rounds yaw quickly as two rounds penetrated approximately six inches and then turned 90 degrees and exited the side of the water container. Penetration of this load, in my opinion, is a bit on the shallow side for law enforcement. As a comparison, when fired into 10-percent ordnance gelatin this load penetrates only to about 8.5 inches.
Then I fired three rounds into a block of solid oak; I also fired three rounds of commercial Winchester 7.62x25mm 85-grain FMJ from a Chinese Type 54 pistol. I then carefully split the block open and measured the depth of penetration. The 5.7x28mm averaged 3.00 inches while the 7.62x25mm (at 1435 fps) averaged 5.00 inches. Repeating this on an iron plate, the 5.7x28mm simply left silver smears, but the 7.62x25mm slightly dimpled the plate.
What do I think of FN's Five-seveN USG? I like it! It's accurate, reliable, and easy to shoot well. Plus, it's an awful lot of fun to shoot, especially with that deep 20-round magazine capacity. My wife Emily put her Nikon up for a bit and took a turn behind it. She liked it, too. For me, a firearm simply being fun to shoot, whether it's an M1886 Lebel or FN's USG, is reason enough to own it.
Regarding terminal performance for personal protection, many vocal detractors in the U.S. doubt that this small cartridge and its ultralightweight 28- or 40-grain bullets provide adequate terminal performance. Highly respected experts, such as Dr. Gary K. Roberts, have stated current 5.7x28mm loads do not offer sufficient penetration or inflict a large enough permanent wound cavity based upon testing in ordnance gelatin. A 28-grain nonexpanding .224-inch-diameter bullet at 1950 fps is certainly no magnum. Despite this, FN stands firmly behind the 5.7x28mm and states it has worked well when employed by military/law enforcement personnel in actual shootings.
What about the antigun crowd's claims of it being useful only for cop killers? "Nuts," says I. The SS190 load has always been restricted and is shipped from a U.S. Customs controlled warehouse only to military and law enforcement agencies. None has ever been available commercially. The only ammunition available for commercial sale are the sporting-grade 28-grain JHP and the 40-grain V-Max loadings. Neither of these loads is classified as armor piercing by BATFE. In reality a run-of-the-mill .44 Magnum revolver with hunting loads will penetrate deeper in body armor than either of these 5.7x28mm loads. And no FN USG has ever been used in the commission of a crime.
Some European and domestic companies refuse to offer civilian versions of military firearms, high-capacity magazines, or folding stocks, but FN is not among them. If you're interested in a Five-seveN USG pistol, they are available for $1074. Ammunition is growing in availability, and FN plans on introducing an SS197 load (40-grain V-Max at 2000 fps from the USG) in the near future. Hornady even has loading dies and appropriate projectiles sitting on the shelf if you'd prefer to handload. Plus, there will be a companion in the form of a semiautomatic version of the P90 PDW available by the time you read this.
The antigun crowd not wanting me to own one is enough reason to add a USG to my collection.