By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“Current research indicates there is no distinct advantage based on a particular handgun cartridge…the deciding factors are magazine capacity and lower recoil, which allows a shooter to put more rounds on target in a shorter time period. More hits mean a greater chance (that) one, or more, bullets will find vital organs.”
— L.J. Bonham, author, historian, and pilot, 2018
Fabrique Nationale Herstal (FNH, or “National Factory Herstal”) in Herstal, Belgium, produces the distinctive, top-quality, and very-expensive, Five-seveN (note the capital “F” and “N,” the company initials) semiautomatic handgun in 5.7x28mm (.224-caliber), a special, small-caliber, bottleneck cartridge designed in 1990 for the still-futuristic, FN P90 personal-defense weapon (PDW), and this unique pistol has been quite controversial since its release in 1998, because it’s capable of firing the armor-piercing, SS190 penetrator round, even though that particular ammunition has always been restricted to military and police use only, and was never available to civilians.
The basic concept behind the design is quite simple. In 1989, NATO sought a personal-protection, replacement ammunition for the 9x19mm Parabellum round, with two new weapons to fire it, a PDW and a pistol, having greater range, accuracy, and terminal performance than the standard, 9mm cartridge. The result was the FN P90 in 5.7x28mm in 1990, followed by a companion handgun, the FN Five-seveN, eight years later.
Both weapons fire the SS190 military duty ammunition, a 31-grain, aluminum-core, steel-penetrator, full-metal-jacket (FMJ) projectile at a muzzle velocity of 2,133 feet per second from the Five-seveN, and 313 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. This round is capable of penetrating 48 layers of ballistic, Kevlar material (equivalent to two stacked, Level II vests) at a range of 110 yards, and penetrating a PASGT ballistic helmet at 260 yards, or a PASGT ballistic vest at 330 yards. In bare-gelatin testing, it typically penetrates 11 to 13.5 inches, or 9.85 inches after passing through a Level II ballistic vest, consistently tumbling (with a .85-inch projectile length), to create a temporary wound cavity averaging about 3.5 inches. This terminal performance is far better than that of M882 9mm NATO ball ammunition, and actual rivals many 9mm jacketed hollowpoint loads.
The Five-seveN is a full-sized pistol, 8.2 inches long, with a 4.8-inch barrel and 20-round, double-stacked magazine standard, although it weighs only 1.6 pounds fully loaded, due to its polymer construction. Smaller, compact models are not currently possible, because the muzzle flash and loud report from the full-length barrel are already substantial, with the 5.7mm ammunition originally designed for the 10.35-inch barrel of the larger, P90 weapon, yet it still produces 30 percent less recoil than a 9mm pistol, and is much easier to control.
So, this FN service handgun certainly lives up to NATO’s stated, design goals of having greater range, accuracy, controllability, and terminal performance than the standard, 9mm cartridge, while holding 33-percent more ammunition than a Beretta M9 or Glock-19 pistol, and with the added benefit of punching through enemy body armor in its military or police configuration, using SS190 ammunition.
It’s a polymer-framed, single-action, delayed-blowback, semiautomatic design with a concealed hammer, and even the steel slide is encased in a polymer shell, for light weight and corrosion resistance. The barrel is cold-hammer-forged steel with a chrome lining, and a right-hand twist rate of 1:9.1 inches. There is no feed ramp, only a beveled chamber mouth, because the bottleneck cartridge itself assures smooth feeding. Trigger pull is fairly light, at 4.4 to 6.6 pounds (6.1 pounds average), depending upon the model.
The combat debut for the 5.7x28mm cartridge itself was on April 22, 1997, during Operation Chavín de Huantar in Lima, Peru, where Peruvian special forces armed with new P90s, among other weapons, stormed the terrorist-besieged, Japanese Embassy, killing all 14 MRTA (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) terrorists, who had held the embassy for the past four months. One hostage and two commandos also died in the assault. The combat effectiveness of the P90 and its armor-piercing ammo were difficult to assess, however, because eight of the 14 MRTA members were apparently executed summarily by the Peruvian special forces with head shots, and most of the remaining six were shot during the gunfight with other weapons.
The FN Five-seveN pistol went on sale the following year, initially offered only to military and police forces. It officially entered service in 2000 with the Cypriot National Guard’s special forces group, and nine years later, it was in service with more than 40 countries around the world, including the Belgian Army, Air Force, and Special Forces Group, Canadian police in Montréal, Cypriot Special Forces, French DGSE intelligence agency and GIGN counterterrorist commandos, Georgian Army, Greek police, Guatemalan intelligence agency, Indian special forces, Indonesian Navy and special forces, Irish Army Ranger Wing, Italian parachute assault regiment, Libyan armed forces, Mexican Army and special forces, Nepalese armed forces, Peruvian special forces, Polish special forces, Saudi armed forces, Singaporean commandos, Spanish armed forces, Surinam security forces, Thai Army, the U.S. Secret Service, Federal Protective Service (FPS), some U.S. Navy SEAL units, and currently with over 300 U.S. law enforcement agencies. In addition, this pistol has seen combat action in the War in Afghanistan, the Indonesian offensive in Aceh, the Mexican Drug War, and the Libyan Civil War.
In 2004, the Five-seveN was finally offered for civilian sales, with new, non-armor-piercing ammunition available, now including the SS195LF (Lead-Free) round, with a 28-grain, brass-jacketed, aluminum-core, hollowpoint bullet at 2,050 feet per second, and the SS197SR (Sporting Round), with a 40-grain, Hornady V-Max bullet, at 1,700 feet per second, containing a blue polycarbonate, ballistic tip. When fired into wet, clay bocks, the SS195LF typically penetrates 10 or more inches, with a 4.5-inch-wide, temporary wound cavity, almost identical to most 9mm hollowpoint loads.
On November 5, 2009, the Five-seveN was subject to additional controversy when U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan, a devout, radicalized Muslim, shot and killed 13 people (12 unarmed soldiers and one civilian) and wounded 32 more at Fort Hood, Texas, near Killeen, in the deadliest shooting on any U.S. military base. Despite the fact that he loudly shouted “Allahu akhbar!” (“God is great!” in Arabic) immediately before opening fire, the Obama administration adamantly and persistently refused to classify this horrific incident as Islamic terrorism, meekly categorizing it as “workplace violence” instead.
Hasan used an FN Five-seveN with multiple spare, 20- and 30-round magazines, all legally purchased since July 31 of that same year, and he acquired more than 3,000 rounds of SS192 (now discontinued) and SS197SR ammunition. The pistol was fitted with two LaserMax sights, and within the 10-minute span of the shooting, 214 rounds were expended by Hasan and the responding, police officers, and Hasan still had another 177 rounds of unfired ammunition in his pockets when he was shot and paralyzed by civilian police Sergeant Kimberly Munley with her Beretta M9 pistol. Hasan was subsequently tried by court-martial, and sentenced to death, but has not yet been executed.
This particular shooting incident, despite the very tragic circumstances, does, however, ably demonstrate the combat effectiveness of the Five-seveN pistol and its civilian, 5.7mm ammunition. Hasan and his weapon literally wreaked havoc for 10 minutes, until stopped by police officers. This one man was able to kill 13 people and injure 32 more, because the U.S. Army refused, and still refuses, to arm its own soldiers on their home bases here in the United States. If even one soldier had been armed, this vicious attacker could have been neutralized within seconds.
5.7x28mm ammunition currently available to military and police units includes the standard, SS190 armor-piercing, duty load, the SB193 subsonic load, with a white-tipped, 60.2-grain (formerly 55-grain), full-metal-jacket, boattail bullet at 984 feet per second muzzle velocity, and the SS198LF (Lead-Free) round, which is exactly like the SS195LF civilian load, but about 120 fps faster, at 2,172 fps, with a green, enameled tip.
Various suppressors for the Five-seveN are available from Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC), Gemtech (the SFN-57), Silencerco, and other manufacturers.
For European armed forces, VBR-Belgium (Van Bruaene Rik) of Roesealare, in western Belgium, about 12 miles south of Bruges, produces 5.7x28mm Controlled- Fragmentation ammunition since 2003, using pointed-nose, armor-piercing, steel penetrator rounds that produce huge wound cavities, and fragment violently into two (the B-2-F load) or three (the 40 grain, B-3-PF1 load) hard projectiles. It’s highly likely that the Belgian Special Forces use this locally-manufactured, high-performance ammunition.
On February 28, 2020, police academy commander Scott W. Wagner published the results of his 5.7mm ammo testing in wet, clay blocks for the USCCA (U.S. Concealed-Carry Association), utilizing the Elite Ammunition T6B Custom, 27-grain, Black-Anodized, Trident round, among others. He wrote that, “‘Astounding’ is the only word I can come up with that adequately describes the T6B’s performance…At a depth of seven inches, the tip broke off (as it tumbled violently) and went on its own path, exiting from the right side of the block…The maximum width of the cavity was five inches.”
The T6B Trident is a wicked-looking, solid-copper, wasp-waisted projectile traveling at 2,380 feet per second, with 340 foot-pounds of energy, inspired by the VBR-Belgium B-2-F round, but not armor-piercing, so it’s completely legal for civilians to purchase. Vanguard Outfitters, which works closely with VBR, produces the 5.7mm Black-Fang Obsidian Dragon (BFD-V57) round, which is essentially a T6B Trident cartridge, but with a heavier, 34-grain, hardened, copper-alloy bullet at 2,200 fps from the Five-seveN.
For those who prefer more-conventional ammunition, the Speer Gold Dot 40-grain, jacketed hollowpoint is a fine choice, expanding as opposed to tumbling to create a wound channel.
The current, production model of this handgun is the FN Five-seveN MK2 (Mark 2, or Model 2), introduced in 2013, with a one-piece, metal slide, sold in Europe with either fixed or adjustable sights, but the six available, U.S. models, in either black or flat dark earth (FDE), with 10- or 20-round magazines (plus two California-compliant models), all come with the raised, adjustable, three-dot sights previously installed on the Five-seveN Tactical models of the past, and still available for military or police customers.
Jarvis, Inc., of Stevensville, Montana, manufactures an “FN 5.7 Tactical Pistol Barrel,” with threaded muzzle and factory-strength, recoil spring, for $380, for those civilians interested in using a suppressor on their pistol, and aftermarket, 30-round, polymer magazines are available from ProMag.
The greatest customer of the FN Five-seveN is currently the Belgian armed forces, who are justifiably proud of their FN factory in Herstal and its fine products. Their Special Operations Regiment (sharing the British SAS commandos’ motto of “Who Dares, Wins”), in particular, based in Heverlee with at least 1,500 men, is the small nation’s premier, special operations and rapid-response unit, comprised of the Special Forces Group, 2nd Commando Battalion (wearing British-style, Sherwood-green, commando berets), and 3rd Parachute Battalion (wearing maroon berets.) These paratroopers and paracommandos normally operate in 12-man teams, just like U.S. Special Forces, armed primarily with the FN SCAR-L CQC assault carbine in 5.56mm, with 10-inch barrel, the FN SCAR-H CQC battle carbine in 7.62mm, with 13-inch barrel, the FN P90 personal-defense weapon in 5.7x28mm, and the FN Five-SeveN service handgun.
In 2016, retired Colonel Benjamin Findley, an NRA-certified pistol instructor, wrote the following review of the Five-seveN: “This FN 5.7 pistol performed excellently. No malfunctions or stoppages of any kind…It digested the different types of ammo without any problem…I was honestly amazed at the very low recoil…and very low muzzle rise of this gun…it was right on, and the hits were very good…This is an important advantage…Total Points = 93 out of 100 possible…I certainly RECOMMEND this handgun…for personal protection…The accuracy, low recoil, light weight, (and) high capacity…benefits of potential, life-or-death protection outweigh the costs.”
The Five-seveN is probably the most technologically-advanced, high-capacity handgun in world, but it still has certain drawbacks. First among them is the price, a very steep $1,400, if you can even find one in these days of gun and ammunition shortages. Secondly, it comes with a magazine-disconnect device, just like the famous, FN/Browning P35 Hi-Power pistol, and this feature is mistakenly billed as a “safety,” although it’s extremely unsafe in a combat situation, when you have to reload under fire, and the enemy is still approaching while your expended magazine is out, but you still have one round in the chamber.
Third, it’s a bulky, full-sized, service pistol, with no compact, concealable version projected to be offered, which limits it usefulness as a concealed-carry option. And finally, in restricted states where the politically-correct, 10-round magazine is mandatory, the Five-seveN’s principal advantage is effective negated, as there are much better choices of 10-round weapons to be acquired.
All things considered, however, it suits its original design specifications perfectly, as a military or police pistol with greater, range, accuracy, controllability, magazine capacity, and terminal performance than the NATO 9mm cartridge, with the added advantage of penetrating enemy body armor, which a 9mm pistol simply cannot do. FN Herstal boldly calls it “The Ultimate Combat Handgun” on their web site, and they might be correct. There’s nothing else quite like it, and if I were a Belgian Special Forces operator with an FN Five-SeveN MK2 Tactical loaded with VBR-Belgium custom ammunition, I’d have total confidence in my issued firearm in combat. It’s definitely a real fistful of firepower!
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism, and is an NRA member. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.
Photo courtesy of FNH USA