Freedom Ordnance’s FM-9 belt-fed 9mm is among the most interesting upper receivers ever made for the AR-15. Designed by brothers Michael and David Winge, the FM-9 debuted in 2015 after about eight months in research and development. The Winges are hardly newcomers to gun making, however, having invented and patented adjustable gas systems used on two tactical shotguns. Self-taught and self-made men, each with 12 years of experience in firearms design, they have complementary skills. Michael is the conceptual driver of the project who served in the Marine Corps as an armorer, and David is a talented tool and die maker with CAD experience. After selling the shotgun patents, they formed Freedom Ordnance (FO). FO makes the FM-9 and FX-9 (an AR carbine that accepts 9mm Glock mags) at a modern facility in Chandler, Indiana.
Although the FM-9 is not ubiquitous at the average shooting range, its attributes make it a favorite with class 3 enthusiasts and commercial ranges and give it a decided advantage over the typical belt-fed weapon that uses a rifle cartridge. The FM-9 offers the excitement of a belt-fed but without the capital cost of others of the belt-fed breed: It works with inexpensive 9mm range ammo, generates less noise and can be safely used on steel targets at fairly close distances. All of that matters when it comes to the fun factor, which the FM-9 offers in abundance.
“The FM-9 offers the excitement of a belt-fed but without the capital cost of others of the belt-fed breed: it works with inexpensive 9mm range ammo, generates less noise and can be safely used on steel targets at fairly close distances.”
The FM-9 is blowback operated, fires from a closed bolt and fits any standard AR-15 or M-16 lower without modification. It is fed from the left side by a disintegrating link belt contained in a nylon ammo bag that hangs below the mag well and holds 150 rounds. The FM-9 attaches to the lower receiver as does any other upper receiver. You only need to insert an aluminum block holding the ejector and ammo bag mount into the magazine well from the top before joining the receivers together.
The FM-9 works in semi- and full-automatic modes, as determined by the lower receiver. Operators need to understand how the FM-9’s mechanics work before loading up. Despite using the same lower receiver, there’s very little transferable knowledge between an AR-15 and the FM-9.
Here’s a condensed description of how it operates.
Belted rounds are fed onto a steel feed ramp from the left and held in place by metal “fingers” on the pawls. During counter-recoil, the bolt moves forward, stripping the cartridge from its link using a “pusher,” feeding it downward from the feed ramp into the chamber, which sits below and forward of the feed ramp. Upon firing, the bolt’s rearward movement extracts and ejects the empty case and actuates the feed pawl, which advances the ammo belt one cartridge to the right. The empty case is ejected while the empty link is pushed off the right side of the feed ramp (above the ejection port) by the next loaded round. As the bolt comes forward during counter-recoil, it repeats the chambering process by engaging a belted cartridge that is now properly positioned on the feed ramp.
After reading the aforementioned description, it’s obvious that the FM-9 operates much differently than the AR-15 and other magazine-fed rifles. Therefore, care must be taken to learn and apply the correct procedures. For instance, checking the chamber requires opening the top cover, lifting the feed ramp and retracting the bolt. In addition, the bolt must be retracted and held rearward before closing the top cover and attempting fire. If the bolt is forward when the top cover is closed, the unit will be damaged upon firing.
There are different aspects of maintenance to learn as well. Links can be sprayed with rust inhibitor, but ammo should not be lubricated. The FM-9 can be run dirty, but it always needs a light coat of lubrication on its moving parts. For those unaccustomed to belt-feds, Freedom Ordnance has posted several videos explaining the unit’s operation; and the manual is clearly written. Two versions of the FM-9 are available: the Minimalist, which has a fixed barrel, and the Elite, which features a quick-change barrel and quad rail forend. I tested the Elite model, which allows the user to switch barrels by simply depressing a lever on the trunnion and then rotating the barrel and removing it. Elite barrels are made in 6, 11 and 16.5 inches, each having an A2-style full birdcage flash suppressor and a carry handle. Switching to the 6-inch barrel requires changing the quad rail by removing eight hex-head screws.
“If I could give an award for the best AR upper introduced in the past decade, this belt-fed would be the unequivocal winner.”
The FM-9 is made with quality materials and very good workmanship. Internal steel parts are made from 4140 chrome-moly steel and are heat treated and nitride coated for hardness, abrasion resistance and corrosion resistance. The receiver is thicker than an AR-15 upper receiver and is made from hard coat-anodized 6061 aluminum. The barrel is nitrided for wear resistance. Even the links—which are unique to this platform—are made from heat-treated spring steel to maintain tension. They are reusable. Belt-feds require far more energy to cycle than mag-feds, so low-powered ammo will not run the system reliably. Bullets with exposed lead on the bearing surface should also be avoided. Freedom Ordnance recommends Winchester USA and Tula FMJ loads. My testing confirmed the reliability of these choices, along with Federal American Eagle and Independence FMJ. A removable bolt weight is included to adjust/tune the unit for variances in hot versus light ammunition, as well as the type of buffer in your lower receiver.
ACCESSORIES TO MAKE LIFE EASIER
The FM-9’s sturdy construction has it at 7 pounds (upper receiver only), but once you add the lower receiver, 150 rounds of ammo and an optical sight, it becomes obvious that this weapon system is best deployed with a bipod. For prone fire with the FM-9, I used a GG&G bipod. It is lightweight and works well on uneven ground. However, it does not allow the gunner to pan and put fire onto a horizontal target array, so I also used a new tripod from Firestorm Works. Made of steel, this tripod is much sturdier and heavier than the lightweight aluminum versions typically seen. The Firestorm tripod is designed for use from a standing position, with the gun height precisely adjustable via a threaded center pole. The legs are made of ¾-inch steel pipe sold at hardware stores, so modifying its height beyond what the center pole provides is simple and inexpensive.
However, the angle of spread of the legs is fixed, so it won’t be as stable the closer you bring it to the ground. The FM-9 mounts to the tripod using the bottom handguard rail and quickly detaches with a lynch pin. An optional assembly I used allows the gunner to set the barrel’s elevation for repeatable traversing fire. Because the FM-9 was tripod-mounted and mated to a select-fire lower, I felt compelled to add a Gen 2 Spade Grip from KNS Precision—one of my favorite accessories for an M-16.
The KNS Spade Grip is an adaptation of the shovel grips and paddle-style trigger found on the Browning M2 machine gun. It installs over the buffer tube in place of the buttstock and connects the paddle between the spade grips to the trigger via a link arm. There are no modifications required to mount it, other than removing the buttstock and the pistol grip. The FM-9 begs for a brass-catcher to neatly collect all those reusable links and ejected brass. The best design in my experience is made by Tactical Brass Recovery. The TBR mounts to the right-side handguard rail with a throw lever for easy positioning and quick detachment. It’s also hinged to allow access to the charging handle and ejection port.
Brass and links were caught without any spillage and emptied out the zippered bottom of the cloth collection bag. I especially like how this design eliminates bounce-back onto the rifle; this is typical of cheap collectors with flimsy mesh and wire frames and the plastic snap-on models I first used years ago. It’s also quieter than the plastic types.
I tested the FM-9 for accuracy using the 16.5-inch barrel and targets set at 50 yards using the bipod and sandbags at the rear. Reliability with several loads was assessed in semiautomatic and automatic fire modes. For accuracy, the FM-9 preferred the Winchester Winclean 147-grain BEB load, which produced the smallest and best average five-shot groups: 1.1 inches and 1.8 inches, respectively. I feel that is very good performance—considering that the 1913 rail closest to the rear is too short to mount a magnified optic, leaving me to use a non-magnified EOTech holographic sight mounted up front.
There was also a loose fit between the upper and lower receivers that I partially corrected with a rubber receiver wedge or holding the receivers tightly together at the rear with my support hand. Second and last place belonged to Winchester USA 115-grain FMJ, at 1.4 inches and 2.2 inches, respectively, and Independence at 3.0 inches and 3.7 inches, respectively.
The velocity of each load was measured using each barrel length. The results demonstrate that the Winchester 115-grain gained 116 fps of velocity between the 6-inch and 16-inch barrels, followed by 98 fps for the Independence 115-grain load. The Winchester 147-grain load showed a much smaller gain—48 fps.
The FM-9 cycled each of the three loads tested for accuracy with close to 100 percent reliability with semiautomatic fire. However, with automatic fire, the flat-nosed, 147-grain Winclean round failed to feed about 15 percent of the time. With few exceptions, the 115-grain FMJ round-nose rounds from Tula, as well as Federal American Eagle, also cycled in automatic without any problems. Loads I had issues with included Remington 115-grain FMJ, which was inconsistent, and U.S. Cartridge’s 124-grain, plated round-nose, which did not cycle at all.
“Operators need to understand how the FM-9’s mechanics work before loading up. Despite using the same lower receiver, there’s very little transferable knowledge between an AR-15 and the FM-9.”
THE ULTIMATE PLINKER
If I could give an award for the best AR upper introduced in the past decade, this belt-fed would be the unequivocal winner. Interesting and unique, reliable with economy ammo, well-made and backed with an industry-leading warranty that covers the life of the unit, the FM-9 Elite is the ultimate plinking machine.
|Winchester USA 115-grain FMJ||
|Independence 115-grain FMJ||
|Winchester Winclean 147-grain BEB||
Notes: Velocity was an average of five shots measured at 15 feet from the muzzle using an Oehler Research 35P chronograph.
|Winchester USA 115-grain FMJ||
|Independence 115-grain FMJ||
|Winchester Winclean 147-grain BEB||
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of five five-shot groups measured center to center at 50 yards using a bipod and rear sandbag. The 16.5-inch barrel was used.
CALIBER: 9mm Luger
BARREL: 16.5 inches
OA LENGTH: 26.5 inches (upper only)
WEIGHT: 7 pounds (upper only)—unloaded with 16.5-inch barrel and belt bag
SIGHTS: None. Has flat top rail for mounting optics.
ACTION: Rated for semi- or fully automatic (depending on lower receiver used)
FINISH: Black-anodized aluminum, nitride steel parts
CAPACITY: 150-round belt
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2018 print issue of Gun World Magazine.