“It’s not the size mate, it’s how you use it.”— Nigel Powers, Goldmember, 2002
In a nutshell, the FN Five-SeveN is a big little handgun with a whole lot of attitude. Why? Mainly because of the unique 5.7x28mm cartridge that it’s designed to fire. While the FN Five-SeveN is not a small gun, the 5.7×28 bullet is small in caliber, albeit a very fast one as far as pistol projectiles go.
Some background: Developed by FN back in 1989, the 5.7x28mm cartridge was envisioned as a replacement option for 9mm submachine gun use. The idea was that a smaller cartridge that was lighter in weight and capable of defeating body armor (depending on the specific bullet used) would be a compelling option for NATO, Law Enforcement, and protection detail use.
Originally the 5.7x28mm was designed for the FN P90 Personal Defense Weapon, a compact and highly portable carbine, and, eight years later, the Five-SeveN pistol. NATO never officially adopted it, most likely due to selection process politics related to the battle between competing offerings from FN and German company H&K’s 4.6x30mm cartridge. Nevertheless, the two guns and the nifty little cartridge are in use throughout the world by dozens of military and law enforcement groups.
The 5.7x28mm cartridge looks a little bit like a .223 Remington (the standard AR-rifle cartridge) that someone left in the dryer too long. It actually does fire the same diameter bullet (.224 inches) that a standard AR rifle shoots, but the bullet is a lot lighter, usually weighing between 28 and 40 grains as compared to the standard 55-grain weight of the average .223 Remington cartridge. The cartridge itself is significantly shorter and smaller in diameter, measuring 1.6 inches long and .31 inches wide. We’ll talk about 5.7x28mm performance details in a minute. For now, just think small, light, and fast.
Full-Size Pistol, Downsized Weight
Probably owing to its military roots, the Five-Seven is all business on the outside. My sample was all black, and the exterior almost 100 percent polymer. If you prefer, you can order one with a flat dark earth frame. Of course, the important guts like the functional interior of the slide and fire control parts in the frame are made of steel. The net result is a pistol that’s exceptionally light and resistant to abuse. There’s nothing on the exterior to rust from rain or sweat, and everyday nicks and dings aren’t going to do much harm.
It’s a full-size pistol, measuring 8.2 inches long, 5.5 inches tall, and 1.4 inches wide. You’ll notice that the grip is long from front to back. That’s a result of the longer than average 5.7x28mm ammo that’s got to fit into the magazine well. The net result is a grip circumference that’s almost identical to that of the Beretta 92/M9—it’s just longer and narrower. The barrel is 4.8 inches long, and overall weight empty is 23 ounces. For comparison, that’s just a hair less than a Glock 19 compact 9mm.
The important controls are ambidextrous. The magazine release comes standard on the left side, but is easily reversible to the opposite side for left-handed shooters. Safety levers are on both sides of the frame and located in a non-traditional spot. Instead of being placed on the rear of the frame or slide, they’re almost exactly above the trigger. While it’s an unusual feel at first, the placement grew on me. You can operate the safety lever with either your trigger finger or the thumb of your support hand on the opposite side. I liked the idea of using the trigger finger to operate the safety, because it encourages the good habit of keeping your finger off the trigger unless you’re in the process of firing a shot. If you plan to use this gun for any sort of defensive purpose, be sure to practice – a lot – to make sure that safety operation becomes ingrained. You don’t want to be fumbling to take the gun off safe during a moment of panic.
Taking apart the Five-SeveN is simple, and you can do it with one hand. After removing the magazine and triple-checking to make sure the chamber is empty, pull the side back about 1/4-inch and slide the takedown lever to the rear. The slide, barrel, and recoil spring lift right out.
A Hoot to Shoot
Can I step out of “serious gun writer” character for just a minute? This pistol is a hoot! It’s loud, ridiculously accurate, and has virtually no recoil. In fact, if you do the math, recoil is about 30 percent less than that of a typical 9mm pistol. It’s just crazy fun to shoot. OK, now back to business.
It’s a single-action pistol, meaning that when you rack the slide to chamber a round, an internal hammer fully cocks. At this point, the Five-SeveN is ready to fire, which is why the safety should stay on until you are prepared to shoot. Using a trigger scale, I measured the trigger press weight right at six pounds. For a gun designed for military and law enforcement use, it has a surprisingly good trigger.
To get an idea of how the Five-SeveN would shoot, I set up targets 25 yards downrange and loaded up with American Eagle’s 40-grain full metal jacket ammo. Keep in mind that ammunition is made for practice and fun, not for match or self-defense use. Even so, the accuracy at 25 yards was stunning. I fired a bunch of five-shot groups using a Blackhawk Titan III rest and measured the diameter of each group. After my first six groups came in at 1.81, 1.66, 1.65, 1.68, 1.75, and 1.73 inches, I was convinced that the Five-Seven would hit where aimed.
Since the idea of the Five-SeveN is to fire a small and light bullet really fast, I also measured the average velocity of the American Eagle 40-grain ammo. I set up a Shooting Chrony Beta Master Chronograph 15 feet downrange and fired 10-shot strings so I could calculate the “real” velocity. After doing a little math, I figured the average velocity was 1,624.5 feet per second with the slowest measurement being 1,533 and the fastest 1,699 feet per second. To put that in perspective, the average 9mm will shoot somewhere between 1,050 and 1,200 feet per second.
This pistol shoots its little tiny bullets with lots of vigor and enthusiasm. Most of the ejected empty cases flew a good 25 feet forward and to my right.
The rear sights are adjustable for elevation (up-and-down) and windage (side to side). That’s a good thing because ammunition varies quite a bit regarding bullet weight, so different loads may impact in different places on your target. Lighter and heavier bullets can vary quite a bit vertically, so the adjustable sights allow you to match the point of impact to the sights for your favorite ammo. For example, right out of the box, the Five-SeveN was hitting about eight inches lower than I wanted at 25 yards when shooting the American Eagle ammo. I made a quick adjustment to the rear sight and got exactly on target.
Self-Defense Use: Penetration and Expansion
Is the Five-SeveN appropriate for self-defense or home defense?
The 5.7x28mm bullets, like “standard” AR-rifle ammunition, aren’t designed to expand like traditional hollow points. When they hit organic targets, they tend to fragment or tumble end over end, thereby creating a similar effect of making a bigger hole in the target.
Being curious, I decided to try out two different types of 5.7x28mm ammunition: the American Eagle full metal jacket practice load, and FN’s own SS197R Sporting Cartridge. This one uses a blue-tipped Hornady V-Max bullet. The V-Max projectiles are normally used for varmint hunting, and are designed to fragment vigorously on impact when fired from the P90 rifle. To see what each of these would do from the Five-SeveN pistol, I fired them into Clear Ballistics Gelatin blocks. Designed to simulate organic tissue, these blocks have the benefit of being transparent so you can see what happened, and more importantly, not being alive.
The blue-tip V-Max bullet penetrated both the 16-inch gel block and the six-inch gel block I used as a backstop. I had an expired Kevlar vest behind both as a secondary backstop, and the bullet came to rest there. The projectile lost its tip about three inches into the gelatin and had just started the process of opening up for fragmentation, but did not “blow up.” Fired from the P90 carbine with its longer barrel, the extra couple hundred feet per second of velocity almost certainly would have caused dramatic fragmentation. However, the bullet did start to tumble about six inches in, and you could see additional tumbling starting at 8 inches.
The American Eagle TMJ is target ammo, and is not designed to do anything special when hitting organic targets, but I was curious so I tried it in the gelatin too. Like the V-Max, it passed through 22 inches of gelatin and was stopped by my improvised Kevlar backstop. Also like the blue-tip, it started some pretty aggressive tumbling about seven inches into the gelatin block.
When it comes to choosing equipment on which you literally might bet your life, you need to make a very personal decision that takes into account the various tradeoffs.
On the benefit side, recoil is very, very light, so this is a controllable gun. You can shoot it quickly and accurately. Magazine capacity is hard to beat at 20 rounds, plus one more in the chamber. The Five-SeveN comes with three magazines total, so that’s 61 rounds of 5.7x28mm ammo ready to go. The ammo itself is light as well, so when you look at the total package of the gun and reloads, you’re getting a lot of shots per pound of weight you have to lug around.
Where most folks disagree is the terminal effectiveness of the small, light, and fast 5.7x28mm projectiles. Would I want to get shot by one? Umm, no. Is each as effective, or maybe more so, than other handgun projectiles like 9mm or .45 ACP? That’s unclear, because there is limited data. When push comes to shove, all handguns do nothing more than make relatively small holes. Some do that with heavier and slower projectiles, while others like the Five-SeveN accomplish the same goal with lighter and super-fast bullets. Take your pick.
The introduction of the FN Five-SeveN to the commercial market was accompanied by a bit of irrational hysteria, as so often happens when there is a complete lack of knowledge blended with a predetermined desired outcome. To make a long story short, one of the original design goals of the 1989 NATO project was to develop Personal Defense Weapons and ammo capable of defeating soft body armor. That’s what the military does, after all. Response from the usual players was panic over the coming onslaught of blood in the streets and scores of cop killings. Of course, none of that has happened, as usual.
In a practical sense, there is nothing magic about defeating soft body armor. Nearly any Wal-Mart hunting rifle will do the same, as will virtually any AR-type rifle or pistol. It’s largely a function of ammunition and, more specifically, bullet profile and velocity.
While there is a variant of 5.7x28mm ammunition that is designed to be armor piercing, it’s available to military and law enforcement only and not available to the commercial market. That would be the “black tip” SS190 Duty Round. The ammo that is available to civilians includes the following.
Made under the FN brand, it’s actually loaded by Fiocchi USA. The bullet itself is a blue-tipped 40-grain Hornady V-Max bullet. It’s designed for sporting and competition use, and the bullet is designed to fragment at higher velocities to limit over-penetration.
A target and competition load, these cartridges feature 40-grain lead-core bullets completely covered by copper. They’re not designed to expand or fragment.
You might see some of this variant on the shelves, but it’s becoming rare. Also made under the FN brand, this all-copper bullet weighs just 27 grains.
In addition to these commonly available ammo types, there are some specialty loads available by special order only. Some of these include the L191 Tracer Round (military and LE only), the SB193 Subsonic Round (military and LE only), SS198LF Lead-Free Round (military and LE only), and 5.7x28mm Blank Rounds.
The Bottom Line
The FN Five-SeveN qualified as one of the most interesting, and fun, pistols I’ve ever shot. The lack of recoil makes it enjoyable and easy, even if it is a bit on the loud side. For me, the “noise” added to the fun. After seeing how these light but fast bullets performed in gelatin, it’s also worthy of consideration for a defensive use gun. Large ammo capacity combined with an easy gun to shoot well goes a long way in the defensive use department. As a range plinker, the only drawback is the price of ammo. The accuracy is stunning, so picking off golf balls or charcoal briquettes down range is easy.
Like I said earlier, it’s a big little gun with plenty of attitude.
FN Five-SeveN Specifications
Magazine: 10 or 20 rounds
Weight: 23 oz. (unloaded)
Barrel Length: 4.8″
Overall Length: 8.2″
Sights: Adjustable 3-dot