In the early 1970s, the Swiss military was in dire need of a replacement for its awkward (and hideous) SG 510 military service rifle. Chambered in the venerable 7.5×55 Swiss round that had its roots all the way back in 1889, both the round and rifle were rapidly being outstripped by the performance offered up by the NATO standards of 5.56 and 7.62, and the rifles that were being developed to fire them. The result of the SG 510’s replacement is well popularized now, but hidden amongst the development program that spawned the infamous SG 550 and 551 was a little known full-house battle rifle variant chambered in the eminently practical, but vastly less popular 7.62 NATO. It was called the SG 542 and in 1973, production of the SG 543 and its smaller siblings, the 5.56-firing SG 540 rifle and 543 carbine began in France at the MANHURHIN (Manufacture de Machines du Haut Rhin) factory. Now, over 30 years later, the 540 series of rifles remains in production, albeit at a slightly different alphabet soup of a plant: the Fábricas y Maestranzas del Ejército, or FAMAE plant, in Chile.
Remarkably, although 32 years have passed since the 542 initially went into production, the rifle presented upon these pages has changed little from the original. Of course, this is a civilian rifle, and has been manufactured with the civilian market in mind so there are some concessions. Obviously the safety has but two positions; “safe” and “fire,” and is itself slightly updated from the very first few SG 542 rifles which featured a hole in the receiver with an internally rotating dial that was marked to indicate the safety’s position. Likewise, the old method of retaining the cocking handle required a tool to disassemble, so FAMAE updated that design to one that requires no tools.
But beyond that, the rifle is the same simple, rotating-bolt, gas-operated, magazine-fed rifle Sig designed for the Swiss back in the early 70s. In fact, although the SG 542 may look very “western” in design, the creation of its operating system was most heavily influenced by the thoroughly Eastern Bloc AK-47; an obvious choice given Sig’s designers were tasked with creating a reliable but affordable rifle with which to supply the people of Switzerland. However, they also incorporated a high degree of modularity into the design, and the SG 542 ends up being something of an even mix of western modularity and Eastern Bloc design principles.
Take, for example, the process of field stripping the rifle. Pushing the rear take down pin through the stamped receiver, the gun breaks in two like an AR-15, albeit one made from stamped steel like an AK. In the lower receiver one finds the various trigger components and the magazine well, while the upper houses the bolt carrier, bolt, and operating system. In order to remove the bolt, the small serrated lever on the bolt carrier is pushed downwards, and the charging handle pulled free of the bolt. As the charging handle serves as the pin that locks the bolt carrier to the rear of the gas piston, once it is removed, the bolt carrier slides freely out of the upper receiver. From there, the bolt can be removed from the bolt carrier by rotating the bolt and sliding it forward out of the bolt carrier, and the spring loaded firing pin removed by pressing the tail of the bolt down onto a hard surface and pushing the firing pin retaining pin out of the carrier. To complete disassembly, the front take down pin must also be removed, as this releases the interlocking upper and lower handguards and exposes the gas system. Using a screwdriver, the rotating pin on the bottom of the gas block is rotated 180 degrees until the stamped-in arrow faces forward, which releases the gas block and front sight assembly from the barrel and allows it to slide forward on the barrel. This frees up the gas cylinder, which is withdrawn forward and allows the piston and its captive recoil spring to be removed from within the cylinder.
Now, that process may sound quite complex, and it definitely does involve a few more components than the average gas-impingement system, but overall the process is quite intuitive and notably involves almost no pressure nor fussing about with components under spring pressure. It is also, interestingly, one of the more affordable methods by which a country can go about building a rifle, as it involves fewer complex machining processes and relies on simple stampings to form the upper and lower receiver. This makes it ideal for a manufacturer like FAMAE, who is tasked with supplying rugged and reliable rifles to the Chilean military, but who may not have reliable access to things like aluminum forgings nor the funding to thoroughly update their manufacturing process from the old-world method of gun manufacturing to the new CAD/CAM-powered, five-axis CNC systems now employed in the manufacturing of AR-style rifles.
Now, as complicated as the rifle may see, there’s a whole smorgasbord of accessories available as well from the rifle’s importer; Tactical Imports. We ordered ours in the most fully loaded manner we could think of. That meant opting for one spare magazine, the rail attachment, the bipod, green furniture (which is a no-cost option), and both the fixed and folding stock. All of these accessories came separately with the rifle, with the exception of the fixed stock, and needed to be installed. The bipod slips into a collar below the gas block, and the legs fold into their corresponding slots within the lower handguard, but we found it to be pretty unstable and left it off for the majority of our testing. The rail is fitted to the top of the receiver by fitting the front into the V-shaped dovetail and tightening the pointed screw at the rear, which itself tightens into a hole in the front of the rear sight block, hereby pushing the rail onto the front dovetail and securing it in place. The folding rear stock is installed by simply removing the exposed rear stock screw and bolting up the folding stock with the included bolt. Given the overall length of the rifle’s action and barrel, and its chambering, we felt a solid cheek weld would be more important than a compact footprint, so we reverted back to the fixed stock.
With the rifle configured how we so desired, we grabbed our go-to Vortex Viper PST 6-24×50 testbed optic, and hit the range with a few different varieties of ammunition including some handloads that emulate military match rounds designed for semi-automatic 7.62 NATO rifles. Initially, we tried to use the stock sights for the first few rounds, but rapidly figured out that our rifle’s sight drum has fallen victim to the relatively thick coating FAMAE applies to the rifle’s components. Not dissimilar to the thick black paint found on CZ858s, this thick paint had shrunk the apertures on the sight drum, and made it all but impossible to get a decent sight picture. So, we dropped the optic onto the rail, made sure everything was tight, and started shooting.
In terms of function, the rifle was absolutely perfect, right out of the box. The magazines load easily, and use the conventional rock-and-lock method of retention, and the action cycles very smoothly against the soft spring pressure of the long-stroke piston system. Initially, we thought the action was almost slightly grittier than the action of the infamous Swiss Arms rifles to which the 542 bears a striking similarity, but after about 75 rounds and some judicious cleaning and oiling it was just as smooth as any Swiss gun. It is also worth noting that the SG 542 never even so much as blinked over the hundreds of rounds worth of testing we subjected it to. Regardless of cleanliness, conditions, or ammunition the thing get banging away… Which shouldn’t be surprising given the military versions of this rifle are issued to Chile’s mountain troops who endure extremely brutal conditions high in the Andes Mountains and just a few hundred miles from Antarctica.
With regards to accuracy, the SG 542 put up numbers that are about on par with most battle rifles; with generic or surplus ammunition groups typically hovered around the two inch mark, with some of the worst ammunition such as Norinco or MFS ammunition getting closer to three inch groups. Switching to heavier bullets and match rounds helped matters, and we found five 168-grain projectiles tended to land within slightly better than two inches away from one another at 100 metres, and accuracy was identical between our two factory-prepared 168-grain match loads from Federal and Remington. Our handloaded ammunition shot noticeably worse, but we chalked that up to the vastly different pressure curve required by the long-stroke piston action of the SG 542 as compared to the short-recoil piston and direct-impingement system our hand loads were developed for. Furthermore, the SG 542’s barrel boasts a lazy 1:12 twist rate, so we’re quite anxious to develop a load for it using 168-grain and perhaps even 175-grain projectiles, which should make even better use of the slow twist rate and long-stroke system. We wouldn’t be surprised to find experimentation with handloads improves accuracy by at least 25%, making this potentially a 1.5 MOA rifle if we can get the recipe right.
For those unaccustomed to shooting these style of rifles, the trigger is a bit of a unique affair. Like many military triggers, it is a two-stage system, whereby the shooter takes up the slack during the first stage which puts the trigger in contact with the plunger pictures to its rear. That plunger provides additional resistance as the trigger is squeezed fully to the rear, firing the rifle. On the later SG 550 and Swiss Arms rifles, the amount of resistance put up by the plunger’s spring tension can be adjusted, but we left ours as it was. We found little wrong, or right, with the trigger… it’s merely a military trigger. Perhaps with some wear or work it could be made better, but out of the box, one would be remiss to expect anything except a military-style trigger on this rifle.
But if the accuracy, function and trigger of the SG 542 are exactly as one would expect of a full-house battle rifle, the way it handles is a bit different. First off, it’s a lot lighter than the convention battle rifle, and weighs just under eight pounds with the fixed stock, no bipod, no rail, and no magazine. That’s about a pound lighter than most M14 variants, and the way gun balances, it feels even lighter. A large reason for that is the relative lack of weight carried inside the handguard. With a standard barrel profile, but with no overly-wrought gas cylinder assembly and gigantic operating rod like the M14 has, the SG 542 moves more of its mass between the shooter’s hands. That sensation of quick-handling is helped along by a svelte, small triangular forward section that helps the rifle feel very lithe. The only thing we really had trouble with was the steeply raked pistol grip, having grown accustomed to the more vertical style of pistol grip that’s en vogue with AR-15s these days, but that’s nothing a bit more time behind the rifle couldn’t solve.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room: The quality, the price, and the competition. In reality, one cannot address one of those issues, without addressing all three. Why? Because, as sharp-eyed readers have probably already noted, these SG 540-series rifles look very similar to the infamously prohibited (but once non-restricted) Swiss Arms rifles. Make no mistake however, these rifles are different in various ways; the receivers are formed differently, their gas systems are very different in design, and of course in this particular case the Swiss Arms rifles are totally different dimensionally, being chambered in 5.56mm rather than 7.62 NATO as the 542 is. So, regardless of differences, many will be inclined to draw comparisons between the SG 540-series of rifles and the Swiss Arms rifles. And the price tags associated with these rifles doesn’t help dissuade that comparison: Before their prohibition, Swiss Arms rifles seemed to hover between $3,000 and $4,000 depending on condition and model while the FAMAE SG 542 is only marginally cheaper at $2,649 sans optional accessories. So people will naturally want to compare the two. And if you’re inclined to, the reality is that you’ll find the FAMAE slightly less polished than the Swiss guns… but not as roughly as you’d probably expect. Of course, being stamped steel and finished in plain black, they will never look as perfectly formed as a milled and anodized rifle, we were disappointed by the finishing of the rear sight drum, and to be frank we’ve yet to see a FAMAE with nice looking rear sight welds.
But here in Canada where you should always expect to pay a premium for any semi-automatic, magazine-fed rifle with that much sought-after non-restricted classification, the FAMAE SG 542 provides Canadian shooters with a reliable non-restricted .308 black rifle that provides a pretty solid degree of collectability due to the 542’s obscurity, having never been produced in large numbers nor being legal for importation into the US due to 922r noncompliance. It’s also accurate enough for range and some competition duty, especially if one can find a good load the rifle likes. And of course, being chambered in 7.62 NATO and being one of the lighter offerings on the market, there’s all manner of .308 Winchester hunting rounds available to make this thing shine this hunting season. So while it’s not cheap, if you’ve got one spot available in your gun safe and want one rifle that’ll do it all, this just might be the one.