Smuggled weaponry: How the Rhodesian FAL became a favorite for anti-communists
Throughout history, there have been a series of “last stands” that have given rise to myth-like status in regards to the weapons and equipment used at the time- the Spartan helmet, the Filipino Bolo, the Scottish Claymore and the venerable trench shotguns of World War I.
In the battle between Communist and anti-Communist factions as they struggled for control in the 20th Century, there is little more bittersweet an artifact than the “baby-poop” yellow and green- painted variants of the “Right Arm of the Free World,” the Rhodesian FAL.
Highly sought after in the form of parts kits by firearms collectors, the Rhodesian FALs are a bit of a story in themselves. Carried by hardened, “short shorts”-wearing masters of asymmetric warfare and painted in a rather unappealing palette of colors, the Belgian-made rifles were the best kind of rifles- the kind that is sanitized and has no business being where they are.
Alongside the Heckler & Koch G3, the FALs were frequently smuggled into the nation of Rhodesia, which was under several embargos by the UN and other Western nations eager to appease the Communists (in the name of popular political correctness at the time).
“Unfortunately, [Western governments] at the time, both the United States and England..Essentially threw the Rhodesians under the bus to basically appease the Communists,” said Larry Vickers, a former Delta Force operative-turned firearms instructor, and historian on the matter. “We see where that’s all ended up. It’s pretty sad, really. The Rhodesian War is a sad war.”
Verily, the fate of Rhodesia exists in the form of Zimbabwe, founded by the Zimbabwe African National Union, who emerged from the Rhodesian Bush War as the political victor. However, the military victories largely belonged to the Rhodesian security forces, who at the loss of 1,120 members managed to kill over 10,000 Communist guerillas. In recent years, less internet culture-savvy publications have attempted to malign the conflict.
Backed by the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, Mozambique, and other allies, the ZANU and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (who often fought each other as much as they fought the Rhodesians) were well-equipped with AK-pattern assault rifles and other Soviet-bloc weapons of the era.
Largely neglected by the West, Rhodesia found itself backed into a corner. While American veterans of the Vietnam War would flock to Rhodesia in decent numbers to provide them insight and capability gained in Southeast Asia, the United States itself provided little to no support. England, who at the time viewed the conflict as a “racial” war (despite written sentiment by Rhodesia that the conflict was largely over protecting the multiracial population from the dangers of collectivism and radicalism, the dangers of which would later become reality in the form of Zimbabwe), was rather bitter about the affair, particularly since Rhodesia had broken away from them and declared independence in 1965.
Arms came in the form of FALs and G3s from South Africa and Portugal, who were also struggling with the scourge of radicalism and communism at the doorsteps of their own interests. Milling the emblems of their respective militaries and filing the serial numbers off of their weapons, the nations began smuggling military materials and mineral goods into the country.
Produced as the R1 rifle, the license-built South African FALs were sanitized and handed to the Rhodesian Army, who often painted them with “baby poop” yellow and green paint left over from aircraft camouflage paint stocks. Well-toned for the bush and not far off the brush pattern of their uniforms, the hideous paint jobs were quite effective and became a lasting symbol that is mimicked to this day.
In addition to hand-scrawled serial numbers and the removal of foreign military markings, the carry handles of the FALs were often removed, as well as the sling mounts, which were known to make noise while creeping around the bush. In addition, rifle grenade launcher sights were added, as the Rhodesian Army made great use of rifle grenades in lieu of heavier-hitting hardware as they “slotted” (slang for killing) communist troops.
“I don’t know that I have ever seen a picture of a Rhodesian soldier using a sling,” Vickers said in an interview with the Forgotten Weapons YouTube channel. “They generally did not use the slings at all.”
One uniquely Rhodesian feature on the FALs in use was the Halbek Device, a clamp-on muzzle brake designed by Rhodesians Douglas Hall and Marthinus Bekker. While Rhodesian troops were discouraged from firing their weapons on full-auto (instead, encouraged to shoot in controlled pairs), the device allowed the rather snappy FAL to be controllable should suppressing fire be needed.
The rifle became somewhat of an icon in later years, particularly amongst those with interest in the Bush Wars. Even though Rhodesia turned into Zimbabwe and remained under the iron hand of despot Robert Mugabe until he was overthrown in 2017, the Rhodesian FAL is one of the few items exported by the nation that demands a premium.
While Rhodesia itself is no more, the old adage of “Rhodesians never die” lives on in the form of the revered FAL rifles in private collections- and the immortal lore that surrounds them. If you have one in your collection, it’s almost guaranteed it saw heavy combat, but will no doubt be combat-ready for years to come should the threat of collectivism arise.
After all, “They will not stop at Rhodesia.”
“Iconic Arms in History” Series #1
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