What does it take to create a dramatic shift in handgun design? Unlike a century ago, when John Browning could do it single-handedly, it now takes a major government (or multi-government) contract. The story of the FN Herstal Five-SeveN, which we review here, shows how a NATO search for a replacement for the 9x19mm sidearm can result in a personal defense weapon with markedly improved characteristics. This full-size, businesslike handgun is gathering a great deal of interest for its light, ergonomic design, safety features and high capacity for the new 5.7x28mm cartridge.
The wish list that NATO issued in 1989 stated that the new handgun should have greater range, accuracy and penetration than the 9mm, with a weight of about 1.5 pounds. The designers at Fabrique National in Herstal, Belgium not only came up with a new round (the 5.7×28 mm) but took a new look at the standard semi-automatic handgun. The result, the FN P90, was introduced in 1990 and the Five-Seven in 1998. Originally restricted to military and law enforcement use, these handguns were soon in use by more than 40 countries, including Canada, France, Spain, Poland and – why not? – Nepal, not to mention the U.S. (including the Secret Service). It was only after the turn of the 21st century that civilians have been able to purchase the FN Five-SeveN.
How is it different? Since the gun was built around the ammunition, it’s best to begin with the characteristics of the 5.7x28mm cartridge. The bottleneck cartridge puts out a 40-grain projectile at a muzzle velocity of 1,750 ft/s, which makes for a flat trajectory with an effective range of about 150m. It has a much lower recoil – about 30% – than the 9x19mm, but a considerable muzzle flash. Terminal characteristics at accepted handgun range show a penetration of unprotected ballistic gel of 11 inches. Despite the projectile’s small size, it creates considerable wound cavities due to its tendency to keyhole – which also reduces the danger of over-penetration. Although the armor-piercing rounds are reported to be capable of penetrating ballistic vests, the ammunition available on the civilian market (manufactured by Biocci and distributed in the United States by Federal) doesn’t.
The cartridge also lends itself to some other advantages. With such a small profile, the standard magazine holds 20 rounds, although 10-round magazines are available for owners in less-enlightened locales (no word yet on an 8-round mag). There are even after-market 30-round magazines available. Because of the necked-down cartridge shape, the designers decided to do away with a barrel feed ramp, using a beveled chamber, instead. This makes for very reliable feeding. In fact, it’s a little funny to read reports from some other reviewers who seem frustrated by this: “Cannot. Make. It. Jam.” (That’s not a real quote, but it might as well be one.)
The handgun itself has a full-size, no-nonsense profile. And why not? It was designed as a military/law enforcement sidearm, after all. It has a black polymer frame (also available in flat dark earth) with an overall length of 8.2″ with a 5.4″ height and 1.4″ maximum width. The chrome-lined, hammer-forged barrel is 4.41″ with a 1:9″ right hand twist and an estimated service life of 20,000 rounds. The checkered grip is full sized, but the measurement from backstrap to trigger is only 2.75″ for smaller-hand comfort. It’s angled to the same degree as found on an M1911 or a Browning Hi-Power, for a comfortable, familiar hold. Best of all, it only weighs 1.46 pounds empty, made possible by the polymer receiver (20% lighter than a standard 9mm) and the light recoil of the 5.7mm round.
The standard sights are three-dot, set on a 7.0″ radius. The front blade is 0.14 x 0.36″ high, while the rear sight, adjustable for elevation and windage, has a 0.12″ notch. A MIL-SPEC picatinny rail allows for laser and other accessories to be mounted.
Controls include a left-hand magazine release that can be reversed for left-handed shooters. The ambidextrous safety is located on the frame just above the trigger. This can be moved with either the index finger of the strong hand or the thumb of the off hand. FN has also created smooth, molded projections around these controls to avoid either snagging during drawing or accidental manipulation.
For further safety, a magazine safety feature is included: the handgun cannot be fired unless a magazine is seated. There is also a loaded chamber indicator, located on the left side of the slide. It consists of a pin in a small aperture, designed so that a round in the chamber will cause the pin to project out just slightly – only 0.063″ – so it can be both seen and felt.
Modern civilian shooters are, to a great degree, interested in government-sponsored firearm designs. They aren’t always necessarily good designs – the world’s armories are filled with dead ends and bad ideas – but every once in a while some steps forward come out of them. The FN Herstal Five-SeveN offers a new direction for handguns, and they look like it’s going provide some practical advantages on the range and for personal protection. You never know until you try something new.