This piece is tricky to write as I don’t like being negative. Especially about a gun I own. But it’s hard to like the Star M249 SAW, and I’m going to tell you why.
But first, a quick history lesson. The idea of a squad or fireteam-level light machine gun is at the heart of modern infantry doctrine. It creates the essential cover for riflemen to close with and kill the enemy.
The FN (yes, it’s those Belgians again) Minimi has been a godsend for Western armies, pushing wholesome belt-fed firepower down to the fireteam level. As the M249 SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) it was quickly adopted by the Americans, who first found use for it invading the British crown territory of Grenada. Not that we were annoyed about not being consulted or anything.
The Minimi (short for mini-mitrailleuse, or ‘mini machine gun’ in French) entered British service just prior to the Iraq war. This followed some heavy lobbying by infantry commanders who were rightly concerned about the real-world usefulness of the mag-fed L86 Light Support Weapon (know as the Sh*te Support Weapon to its detractors).
The Minimi comes in a standard full-stock form, and also in a neat para version, which has a collapsing stock and truncated barrel. My airsoft version is of the latter variety, which is the kind generally toted by Brit soldiers. It is officially designated by UK forces as the L110A1 LMG. Just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?
Airsoft replicas started appearing at the turn of the century. Most were in the £700 region, from manufacturers like TOP. When the Star M249 appeared, the company shocked the airsoft world by bringing the price down to the £300 mark. That price even included a nifty rigid carrying case.
However, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. At first sight, the Star M249 is a handsome beast. But get closer, and you begin to see why they were able to do it for the price.
The gun is largely plastic. Fairly brittle-feeling plastic at that. You can’t use STANAG AR15 mags in it either, as you can with the real thing, and with more expensive replicas. Instead, you’re restricted to the proprietary box mag.
The box mag carries 2,000 rounds, so there’s little chance of running short of plastic death. But that’s about the only upside. Let’s catalogue some of the gun’s less attractive points.
- The box mag incorporates a feeding mechanism more complicated than a pocket watch, and assembled with considerably less than Swiss-like attention to longevity.
- BBs are fed to the weapon via a flexible tube, which has a propensity to kink greater than that of the cheapest garden hose.
- The winding mechanism is powered by a different power source than the gun itself, multiplying possible failure points.
- The battery is stored in the box mag and supplied to the weapon via an umbilical that likes to disconnect itself after every tenth round.
- The box mag lid is held on by two highly frangible plastic tabs, which are prone to give way at any moment, spilling your whole load of 2,000 BBs into the mud.
- Like many Star products of the era, the gearbox casing is made of plastic.
I could go on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll detail some of the additions I’ve made to mine to make it a little more attractive proposition.
I’ve overcome the shininess of the black box mag by painting it olive drab, like the real thing. I’ve also added a little more realism with some inert 5.56 link.
To weighten the thing up a bit (and make it a little more ‘warry’) I’ve added a Star aftermarket Picatinny rail and a mock-Elcan sight. You see quite a few Minimis with Elcans in the real world, and the sight suits the weapon well.
I’ve overcome the tendency of the mag to shed its load by binding it up with a buckled piece of webbing. And I’ve added a nice hefty sling.
In its defence, there are some positive points about the weapon. It shoots at a useful 320fps and has a handy ROF with a 9.6v big battery. In addition, the gearbox features a spring release catch to preserve spring life.
However, its demerits mean that – and this is a shocking admission – I have yet to skirmish with it. I have a fear that it would be the equivalent of taking a knife to a gunfight.
But I’ll soon find out. I’m taking it to a field in a few weeks’ time, and I’ll report back. Though I’m also taking my trusty M4 as a back-up. I’m optimistic, but I’m not stupid.
One thought on “SAW point”
A quick postscript. As promised, I finally took my Minimi to the field yesterday. Much to my surprise, I had no feeding problems and the box mag held together. I’ll need to velcro the webbing to the mag though, as it had a tendency to slip out of place. Also the feed cover was wont to flip up of its own accord. I’ll have to find a way to hold it down.
Tactically, LMG gunner is definitely a role I have yet to master. A Minimi marks you out as a priority target like nothing else. If you think your firepower is going to make you invulnerable, you are very much mistaken. You need to keep moving as much as a rifleman, and with a bulkier weapon, that’s a challenge.
Will this positive experience make me more likely to pack my Minimi on a Sunday morning? I don’t know. But it certainly moderates some of my critical comments above.