I was a little hesitant about doing this gun review, because I have used a real M249. A lot. Some of the worst days of my life, that is the little bastard that ensured me and my teammates made it home. I have used every weapon in combat from hand grenades to a Sten Gun (that is a long and stupid story, trust me), but I would bet dollars to donuts I have done more work with an M249 than any two other weapons combined. My hesitation with the new M249S Para (which is part of FN’s popular Military Collector Series) was that I wasn’t sure I would like seeing one of my most fondly remembered combat guns neutered. Looks like my fears were unfounded, but read on to learn more.
The M249 SAW, aka Squad Automatic Weapon, has been a staple of the US Infantry Squad since 1994. It was actually fielded earlier than that, achieving adoption by the US Army in 1984 and the US Marine Corps in 1985. User complaints about exposure to the hot barrel and some sharp edges kept the M249 mostly mothballed until the outbreak of the Gulf War. 929 weapons were sent over, but from friends that were present, the M60 was still the weapon of choice for most of the Grunts. The M249 rapidly became the squad level machine gun after the Gulf War, and has seen action in every conflict since.
- Chambering: 5.56 NATO
- Barrel: 16.1 inches
- OA Length: 30.5-36 inches
- Weight: 16 pounds
- Stock: Collapsible
- Sights: Peep rear, post front
- Action: Semi-auto
- Finish: Matte black or tan
- Capacity: Belt- or mag-fed
- MSRP: $8,799
I wasn’t around for the change from 7.62 to 5.56 at the squad level, so I can’t speak to that. What I can speak for is why in Special Operations, where I had the option of carrying either if I wanted to carry a machine gun at all, and I opted for the SAW (and so did a lot of other guys.) The M249 is in the same family of weapons as the eventual replacement to the M60, the M240. The M240 and the M249 look like scaled versions of one another, though there are some differences. The M249 has a back-up method of feeding, it will accept M16 magazines through a side port (in most configurations). They accept the same pintle mount and tripod, though a tripod is rarely used on the M249. This is a contingency plan by FN, if the M240 goes down, you can slap a squad level M249 into its tripod and do mostly the same job.
So why the SAW? First is maneuverability. The SAW is 10 pounds lighter than its 7.62 sister, and the balance of the weapon is much more user-friendly if you aren’t in the prone. This also plays a big factor in deciding to use it for dismounted operations. The M240 is not fun to carry for miles on end, and its not just because of the weight. Second, is ammo capacity. If you have ever thought about 5.56 vs 7.62 in magazines as a deciding factor, consider it again in 200-round belts. The difference adds up quickly. For shooting against hard cover or one-shot stops, no one doubts 7.62 is better. But in this war cover wasn’t much of an issue. Iraq and Afghanistan construction are weird animals. Anything that would stop 5.56 was likely also to stop 7.62, so that didn’t matter much. Single bullet terminal performance also isn’t much of an issue with a machine gun. Kind of the idea is to shoot them a lot, and then shoot the gooey mess if it tries to move again. 7.62 is fantastic again soft skinned vehicles, but not if you left the heavy bastard back at the firebase.
So, how did the M249S Para shake out? Was my stomach turned by the feeble semi-auto’ness of it? Quite the contrary, pulling it out of the box warmed the cockles of my heart. Every Veteran I let play with it while I had it smiled that knowing smile, often with a whispy far off look in his eye, remembering the good old days of blasting heathens straight to hell. It was a really fun gun to shoot. Depending on the age they did their last tour, some people will have a negative opinion of the SAW. To be fair, the old ones we had when the war started were junk. No fault to FN there, they were just worn out. It’s almost like some anti-military chucklehead was in the Oval Office, busy getting serviced by interns and letting the DOD fall apart. Anyway, the ones we started the war with were absolutely clapped out. Anyone that had a choice used something else, and it wasn’t uncommon to see a SAW gunner with the M249 attached to his pack, humping a captured AK-47. Once the floodgates opened and we got new ones though, prepare to defend your morale. Amazing I know, but guns with less than 300,000 rounds on them run a lot better. I had no more malfunction issues with the M249 than I did any other machine gun, which is to say they ran really well, and I would have no qualms about carrying one as a primary weapon. The M249S ran without a hiccup, both from belts and magazines.
On the issue of belts, I would like to include a special thanks to my friends at Stillwood Ammo Systems. Looking for linked 5.56 on the open market is a chore, but these guys happen to keep it in stock. They generously provided us with enough rounds to really get a feel for the M249S.
The M249S model I tested was the Para model, which has one of the coolest collapsible stocks ever. Not the most comfortable to shoot, but the coolest. It locks up solid, and takes some force to stow, but it’s a marvel. Fully collapsed, it drops the overall length by 8 inches. The M249S is built to later specs, so it has a picatinny rail on top of the feed tray. Mine came in tan, which is a nice touch. The moving parts are all black, as is the pistol grip and stock, which gives it a nice two-tone color.
Devil’s In The Details
What exactly changed, you might ask, between a real M249 and the S model? Not much it seems. A regular M249 fires from an open bolt. The M249S fires from a closed bolt, kind of. FN calls the mechanism of action a “slide hammer.” Basically, the bolt is forward on a round, and a new part called the slide hammer is held behind the sear. Pretty much exactly how an M249 holds the bolt to the rear. When you press the trigger, the slide hammer is released, firing the gun. Then the bolt moves rearward, the slide hammer catches on the sear, and the bolt moves forward picking up another round. Rinse and repeat as necessary. I am not absolutely positive, it has been a few years since I disassembled a SAW, but it looks like a new set of rails was welded into the receiver for the slide hammer to move on. Also, the trigger pack is different in the M249S model. It is beyond my capability as a knuckle dragger to figure out exactly what changed, but from looking at schematics and the parts in front of me, it is different. I’m also guessing the ATF made sure of that. The only thing this complicates is barrel removal. In a normal SAW, as long as you lock the bolt to the rear, barrel swaps are easy. The added step on the M249S is that you have to manually hold the bolt back while you pull the barrel free.
While I had a chance, I answered a question for myself. I always kind of wondered how accurate a machine gun barrel was. Since I now had one in semi-auto, I slapped the old Leupold 20x on the feed cover to find out. The first answer was, you can’t open the feed tray with a foot long scope mounted on it. The second answer was, not very. My M249S shot about a 3.5-inch group at 100 meters. Not really the point of the gun, but I wanted to appease my curiosity.
So, is this a great buy? The reality is, anything the M249S can do, my AR-15 can do better. Also, I am not in the habit of buying $8,500 guns. The price tag is a little steep for my blood. But it is really fun. My trigger finger got so worn out I had to switch to the home wrecker a few times, but it was still a blast. If you like replica military guns, you won’t be disappointed. And if you are in the $8,500 gun buying segment, you could certainly do worse.
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