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This Article was Originally Published in Tactical Response Magazine, May 2006.
Related Subjects/Products: Ammunition, Five-seveN pistol, FN Herstal Five-seveN pistol, USG Model , cocked and locked
Related Companies: FN Herstal
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FN Herstal’s Five-seveN Pistol
Written by Charlie Cutshaw
The Five-seveN pistol dates to the mid-1980s when FNH began design work on what would eventually become the 5.7x28mm P90 submachine gun (SMG). The 5.7x28mm cartridge was designed to defeat Soviet body armor of the time. The main defeat mechanism is the steel and aluminum cored SS190 bullet. Other bullets in the 5.7x28mm family do not have the SS190’s armor penetrating capabilities. With the demise of the Soviet Union and changing threats, the P90 vision shifted to special operations and law enforcement.
In the mid-1990s FNH set out to design a handgun to accompany the P90 SMG. Early Five-seveN pistols had a different appearance than current ones and also were functionally somewhat different. The “Five-seveN” name with emphasis on the “F” and “N” reminds everyone of the pistol’s origin. We’ll go into the various permutations of the Five-seveN pistol below, but first we need to examine the ammunition, which is the most controversial aspect of the handgun.
The 5.7x28mm is NOT an extremely high-powered rifle class cartridge. The 5.7x28mm’s ballistics generally are in the .22 Magnum class. Commercially available SS195LF and SS196SR rounds fire bullets of 27 and 40 grains, respectively. Per FNH literature, the SS195LF bullet’s nominal muzzle velocity is 2312 fps, while the SS196 40 grain bullet is 1640 fps. SS195 muzzle energy is 320 ft-lbs, while that of the SS196 is 239 ft-lbs.
For comparison, a CCI Maxi Mag .22WMR launches a 30-grain bullet at 2200 fps, giving a muzzle energy of 322 ft-lbs. CCI’s Maxi Mag .22 WMR 40-grain FMJ bullet has a muzzle velocity of 1875 fps with energy of 312 ft-lbs. The most potent 5.7x28mm cartridge is the SS190, which due to its steel core, is not commercially available. This round launches a 32-grain bullet at 2345 fps with muzzle energy of 387 ft-lbs.
In a rigorous test of the P90 and the SS190 round in late 1999, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Forensics Laboratory evaluated the P90 SMG and 5.7x28mm SS190 round at 3 meter and 25 meter distances against 10% ordnance gelatin both with and without body armor. Five shots were taken at each target.
Against bare gelatin, the 5.7mm bullet penetrated a little over 10 inches at both 3 and 25 meters. Against a Level II protective vest, penetration was 9.95 inches at 3 meters and 9.85 inches at 25 meters. In all cases, the bullet came to rest with the nose forward. This is not to detract from the 5.7x28mm’s performance, but to point out that some claims of its wounding capabilities may have been overstated.
Some have claimed that the 5.7x28mm bullet “tumbles” when it encounters tissue, suggesting that the bullet actually tumbles end over end like a small buzz saw as it passes through. This is false. No bullet “tumbles” in such a way when it strikes tissue. What some high velocity bullets do is rotate a half turn or 180 degrees until they are base forward. This is because the naturally stable condition of any pointed bullet is base forward.
Bullets are stabilized nose forward by the spin imparted to them by the barrel’s rifling. If a bullet is traveling with sufficient velocity, when it strikes a target and begins to slow down both in velocity and spin rate, it loses its spin imparted stability and tries to return to its naturally stable state—base forward. The 5.7mm bullet is no different in this regard.
For law enforcement agencies that obtain SS190 ammunition, the Five-seveN offers the ability to penetrate soft body armor. This is an important capability. For general service use or home defense, the 5.7x28mm offers greatly reduced possibility of target over penetration, reduced possibility of ricochet, and reduced possibility of striking secondary targets.
Thus, the 5.7x28mm, especially when fired from the Five-seveN pistol should be statistically safer than cartridges that tend to overpenetrate. In addition, the 5.7x28mm recoil is quite light, increasing the potential for accurate shooting and facilitating quick recovery between shots. Further, high capacity magazines are available and in this context, the Five-seveN excels with a full 20 rounds of 5.7x28mm available in the standard magazine.
The original Five-seveNs were available in two versions—a double action only (DAO) and a single action (SA) “Tactical” version. These versions also had a proprietary mounting rail on the dust cover for lights and lasers and a rounded trigger guard specifically designed to accommodate gloved fingers.
Approximately two years ago, FNH USA began importing the Individual Officer’s Model (IOM) Five-seveN, with target type sights, magazine disconnector and MIL STD-1913 rail mount on the dust cover for sale to authorized police officers. The current Five-seveN being offered by FNH USA is the USG (U.S. Government) Model that incorporates several improvements over earlier models.
All Five-seveN pistols follow the same basic design with a steel slide completely enclosed by a polymer cover except for the ejection port and a small section at the muzzle end. The slide cycles on a “three rail” system. There are two short rails at the rear of the frame and a long single “T” shaped rail inside the dust cover that mates to a similar shaped interface at the slide front. The rear slots in the slide are conventional in appearance and function. Although the slide is relatively heavy and all steel beneath the polymer cover, the only metal in the frame is the fire control mechanism and guide rails.
All Five-seveN pistols are delayed blowback operated with a strong spring surrounding the barrel that is retained by a collar at the muzzle end. The collar is fixed in place by a small spring steel ring just behind the muzzle. A loaded chamber indicator is located on the left side of the slide just behind and opposite the ejection port. The indicator is a small stainless steel pin whose lower end protrudes into the breech face.
When a cartridge is chambered, it rises above the slide surface providing both a visible and tactile indicator in the load status of the pistol. A magazine safety prevents the pistol from firing with the magazine removed, a European convention that we frankly do not like. The barrel is cold hammer forged, hard chrome plated, and is claimed to have a service life of 20,000 rounds.
As mentioned, the current USG Model has some significant improvements over earlier pistols. Although the USG Model appears to be striker fired, it is actually a single-action handgun that can be carried in Condition One or “cocked and locked.” Thus, the manual of arms is essentially similar to the classic M1911, although the ambidextrous safety is in a different location forward on the frame just above the trigger, ideal for manipulation with the index finger on the right side or, if one is using a two-handed grip, by the supporting hand’s thumb.
Our only complaint about the safety is that it is a bit narrow. The magazine release is excellent and can be reversed. The slide release is right hand only-and given the internals of the Five-seveN, there isn’t much that FNH could do about it—the fire control components are in the way of an ambidextrous slide release. All controls are well-placed, and it is clear that FNH took some care in getting the ergonomics right.
Besides serrations at the rear of the slide, there are two raised “bumps” to facilitate retracting the slide. These make pulling the slide really easy with the thumb and index finger and will be appreciated by people with small or weak hands. Sights are excellent with a fully adjustable rear notch and large square blade front sight.
The grip has nicely embossed checkering everywhere that it counts, and nobody should have problems gripping this pistol. There are thumb rests on both sides and the trigger guard has been squared off rather than the odd rounded one of previous models. FNH kept the grip angle of the M1911 and M1935 that is as close as it gets to perfection. We found the Five-seveN to handle very well and point naturally, as did everyone else who shot the pistol.
Shooting the Five-seveN was pleasant, fun and 100% reliable. We did not experience a single stoppage of any sort during testing, which involved firing 300 rounds of both types of ammunition. The mild recoil made control and follow-up shots easy. Muzzle rise was minimal and accuracy was excellent. Note that the velocities we obtained were slightly below the factory figures, which were based on test data from a P90 SMG, not a Five-seveN pistol.
In the final analysis, we like the Five-seveN. It is light, accurate, reliable, has a huge magazine capacity for a handgun, and handles well. For police use, where SS190 ammunition is available, the Five-seveN will reliably penetrate Level IIA body armor, which the bad guys have access to, so that is a very important consideration for officers, who can get SS190 ammunition through their departments.
Charlie Cutshaw is a small arms, ammunition and infantry weapons editor for Jane’s Defense Information. He served as an Army infantry, ammunition and intelligence officer prior to retiring in 1996. His military assignments included a tour of duty in Vietnam as an adviser. He currently lives in Alabama, where he is a full-time writer and reserve officer. He may be reached at CQCutshaw@aol.com. Photos by Chris Rohling.