Before Blackwater, before The Expendables, before modern military security contractors of all flavors and stripes, there was Major “Mad Mike” Hoare and 5 Commando. Soldiers for hire, fighting for money rather than country, are nothing new and have been around since the very beginnings of armed human conflict.
The “Ten Thousand” was a legendary band of Greek soldiers of fortune that fought the battle of Cunaxa in the service of Cyrus the Younger around 400 BC against the Persian king Artaxerxes. German Hessians fought en masse for King George during the American Revolution. The French Foreign Legion and British Gurkhas are legendary mercenary warriors.
Major “Mad Mike” Hoare commanded a mercenary unit called 5 Commando operating in the African Congo. The unit, nicknamed the Wild Geese after their upper arm badge, was comprised of 300 predominantly South African soldiers for hire who fought in the Simba Rebellion. In one of the more bizarre episodes in modern military history, Hoare’s men fought alongside Belgian paratroopers and American soldiers and airmen during Operation Dragon Rouge in 1964. Their mostly successful efforts led to the rescue of some 1,600 Europeans and Americans from African Communist rebels.
Mad Mike’s two cardinal rules were no drinking before a combat operation and that his men had to remain clean-shaven at all times.
In 1978 Andrew McLaglen directed a classic war movie called The Wild Geese, based loosely on the adventures of 5 Commando. The mercenary unit in the movie was armed in the manner of most well-funded African militaries of the day not aligned with the Soviet bloc.
While there was a Madsen M50 as well as a single British Sterling in the mercenaries’ movie armory, most of the hired soldiers in the film carried either the FN FAL or Israeli Uzi as did the real members of 5 Commando. Most of the actors in the movie were them selves military veterans, but one of them, Ian Yule, had actually served under Mad Mike in the Congo. If you have a copy of the movie handy, Yule is the character with the bushy mustache who carries the stubby FAL with telescopic sight and extended magazine.
ART AND LIFE—THE FN FAL
The FN FAL has been called the “Free World’s Right Arm” and, but for a bit of political subterfuge, might have actually replaced the M1 Garand in the U.S. Army instead of the M14. Powerful, reliable, and sporting remarkably advanced ergonomics, the FAL is the archetypal battle rifle.
The Fusil Automatique Leger (“Light Automatic Rifle”) was the product of the Belgian company Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal. During the Cold War, most every country in NATO with the exception of the United States adopted the rifle for general issue.
In its heyday, the FAL was the primary Infantry arm of 90 different nations. The first prototype FAL was produced in 1946 and chambered for the German 7.92x33mm intermediate cartridge. After some well-documented political maneuvering, the U.S. had the 7.62x51mm cartridge standardized across NATO and the conventional version of the FAL pushing these rounds became the production model.
The FAL operates via a spring-loaded short-stroke piston system oriented above the barrel, and it locks by means of a tilting breechblock. The rifle feeds from standard 20-round box magazines, though 30-round L4A1 Bren magazines will lock and feed in some rifles as well. The gas system is easily adjustable for varying degrees of fouling, and the recoil spring is housed in the buttstock.
In folding-stock versions, the redesigned recoil spring rests underneath the top cover. Though originally a select-fire weapon, many militaries opted for semiautomatic- only versions given the gun’s light weight and prodigious recoil impulse. FAL rifles were widely exported around the world, particularly in Africa and South America.
ISRAELI INFLUENCES—THE UZI
In the years immediately following The War of Independence in 1948, the burgeoning state of Israel was desperately short of weapons. Major Uziel Gal produced a 9mm open-bolt submachinegun that drew from the earlier Czech ZK 476 design and was easy to produce in quantity on industrial steel presses.
At about nine pounds, the Uzi was a bit portly, but it remained compact and imminently controllable. Clearance spaces pressed into the inside of the receiver made the gun resistant to fouling and dirt. The fact that the magazine fed through the pistol grip made the gun easy to run in the dark using the hand-finds-hand principle.
The Uzi was produced with both wooden and folding steel stocks, and fire selection is determined via a simple sliding thumb switch. The top cover contains a clever ratchet device that locks the bolt in place if it has not been fully retracted.
This feature prevents the gun from firing unintentionally if the charging handle is jostled. A grip safety that is mechanically akin to that of the 1911 pistol prevents the gun from firing if dropped.
The Uzi went on to be widely exported around the globe and gained a reputation as arguably the most effective submachinegun ever made. The Germans used Uzis designated the MP2 for their armored vehicle crews, and the U.S. Secret Service famously carried them during Presidential protection details before they were supplanted by HK MP5s and FN P90s.
The image of the Secret Service agent brandishing an Uzi during the Reagan assassination attempt has become iconic. Uzis can be found most anywhere large groups of people shoot at each other.
COMRADE KALASHNIKOV’S CARBINE AND THE SIMBAS
The Soviet Union and its associated puppet states provided Kalashnikov rifles to most anybody who claimed the banner of communism in the 1960s. As a result, rebel forces like the Congolese Simbas were predominantly armed with AK rifles, though in the movie they carried FN FALs.
More than 100 million Kalashnikov rifles have been produced in the past 65 years, and one-fifth of all the weapons in the world bear that name.
The Simbas were typically uneducated Marxists who were unduly influenced by religious shamans. In many cases they went into battle believing themselves impervious to bullets based upon religious blessings or the inclusion of holy trinkets in their personal gear.
These poorly trained irregulars committed a great many atrocities and were themselves slaughtered wholesale on several occasions as a result of their primitive beliefs.
The FN FAL is a lithe and elegant rifle. Though a bit long and ungainly in tight spaces, the ergonomics of the platform were trend-setting.
Recoil is modest despite its heavy chambering, and the trigger is markedly more precise than those of most mass-produced Infantry rifles. The safety selector is perfectly oriented for easy access by the right thumb, and the simple rear sight is readily adjustable for elevation. The rear sight on my version flips down and out of the way for transport.
Magazines rock in place in the manner of the Kalashnikov, and the left-sided non-reciprocating charging handle is easily accessed by right-handed operators. The weapon strips readily without tools and delivers precision fire out to the limits of the cartridge.
In African service, the gun would require some regular maintenance to keep the entrails free from dust and grime, but it is overall a sweet-shooting and effective battle rifle.
The Uzi runs at a fairly sedate 600 rounds-per-minute on full auto and is a remarkably effective closerange combat tool. The rear peep sight is flip adjustable for 100 and 200 meters, but I find it easiest to run the gun at close ranges by simply sighting grossly through the sight ears. Short bursts are easily managed, and the gun’s weight makes it imminently controllable.
Magazine changes are fast and intuitive and, for targets bereft of body armor, a cloud of 9mm rounds is hard to beat. The gun is indeed remarkably robust and effective in action. For airborne operations or operations within and around vehicles, the Uzi remains a superb combat tool.
The AK rifle in its original 7.62x39mm chambering is just a bit light to be truly comfortable. The round is indisputably effective and the gun is legendarily reliable, but accuracy can be spotty at long ranges and the gun bounces rather badly on full auto. However, the Kalashnikov system will run most anywhere with trivial maintenance.
Magazines must be rocked into position, but this feature does allow mags to be seated easily when topped off fully. The much-maligned right-sided ranch gate safety is indeed inefficient, loud, and awkward, but it works just fine. The charging handle reciprocates with the bolt and can be kicked or beaten as needed to move the bolt if it gets sticky.
I can drop rounds on a man-sized target comfortably out to 200 meters or so, and the gun is a powerful room-clearing tool on full auto. The round fired from a standard AK barrel drops a full ten feet at 500 meters, so long-range engagements are typically more a function of luck than skill. Operating an AK is so easy a child could do it—and many have.
Mad Mike Hoare was eventually arrested trying to foment a coup in the Seychelles in 1981 and spent a fair amount of time in an African jail as a result. His unit stashed folding-stock AKs in the false bottoms of their luggage, but blew their cover when a customs official spotted one of the rifles underneath a load of toys purported to be for local orphans.
Hoare and his men commandeered an Air India airliner to make their escape, but 42 of the 43 men involved were subsequently convicted of hijacking. Four of Hoare’s men were left behind in the Seychelles and convicted of treason.
Mike Hoare was a larger-than-life figure whose military career began fighting with the British Army in North Africa and Italy in World War II and extended across several decades and multiple continents. He served as technical advisor on the film The Wild Geese and maintained a dedicated worldwide following even while incarcerated for insurrection and hijacking.
In an era when revolution was profitable and victory could be purchased by the highest bidder, Mike Hoare was the archetypal modern-day soldier of fortune.