ABOVE: This early (circa 2008-2009) 5.56x45mm IA2 prototype was fitted with a longer (480mm) barrel. The gun’s overall length of 990mm was reduced to 753mm with the initial polymer stock folded to the right.
The official creation of the state-owned IMBEL, Indústria de Material Bélico do Brasil, conglomerate on July 14, 1975, marked a new and important stage in the history of the Brazilian Army’s Fábrica de Itajubá (Itajubá Factory), in the Minas Gerais state. That industrial facility was created in 1934 under the curious name of Fábrica de Canos e Sabres para Armamento Portátil (Factory of Barrels and Sabers for Portable Armament), although it is most remembered from its long-term, local manufacturing of 7x57mm Mauser M1908 /34 bolt-action rifles.
Another important step was taken in the mid 1960s through an agreement with Belgium’s Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre for the licensed manufacturing of the 7.62x51mm FAL rifle; the program started in August 1964. By 1973, full nationalization of the M964 (fixed stock) and M964A1 (folding stock) models had been achieved, both having been widely adopted by the Brazilian army and navy, in addition to some export orders having been received from such countries as Australia, Botswana, Chile, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Uruguay and Venezuela. Substantial numbers of Brazilian-made, metric-pattern, semi-auto FALs and PARA-FALs were sold in the U.S. market from 1985-1990 through Springfield Armory under the commercial names of SAR-48, SAR-4800 Sporter (21-inch barrel), SAR-4800 Bush (18-inch barrel), and PARASAR-4800 Bush (a rarer, foldable-stock version).
The official adoption of the 5.56x45mm round (SS109) by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1980 prompted many countries to create new rifles to fire it. This also sparked ideas in those running the research office of Fábrica de Itajubá in the pleasant climate of the Minas Gerais state mountains. By mid-1983, a prototype designated Fz 5.56 IMBEL MD1 was completed and submitted for in-house testing. This author was given the chance to fire that selective-fire weapon at the factory, and recalls the positive general characteristics it displayed. Although employing, as expected, several FAL components (firing mechanism, solid stock and pistol grip, for instance), it did incorporate a significant change by employing a multi-lug rotary bolt instead of the 7.62x51mm rifle’s tilting, bolt breech locking system. Although the general performance of that prototype was acceptable and the rifle was expected to offer simple improvements (reduction in the 4 kilogram-loaded weight, for instance) in the future, someone “up there” decided that it was not to be.
The company’s subsequent approach to creating an indigenous 5.56x45mm caliber rifle was straightforward, but far from successful. In order to save development time and production costs, it was chosen to simply add to a FAL the necessary mechanical changes to allow it to fire the lighter round—this included retaining the original breech locking system. Still under the Fz 5.56 IMBEL MD1 designation, the final creation was ready by 1989 and worked satisfactorily and was even product-certified (but not adopted) by the Brazilian Army as the M989. But the loaded weight tipped the 5 kilogram mark with the foldable bipod added and eventually killed the idea.
In 1991, the MD2/MD2A1 (foldable stock, selective fire/semi-auto only) models were certified for production and sales, with small evaluation batches reaching some Brazilian Army units and a couple of LE departments, including Rio de Janeiro, which eventually adopted it. A major change incorporated was the use of STANAG-compatible magazines, but with a full 30-round unit, the rifle still weighed slightly below 5kg. Later on, the 5.56x45mm rifle adventure began to have new perspectives with the introduction of the selective-fire (with a three-round burst facility) MD97L rifle and the shorter-barrel, semi-auto-only MD97LC carbine, the latter having found reasonable acceptance with a number of police agencies around the country. The main design improvements were the use of a rotary bolt that locked directly to a barrel extension; this allowed the use of light alloy materials for the lower receiver, which resulted in a more reasonable empty weight of 3.3kg. Series manufacturing started in 2004.
In the meantime, the design office of Fábrica de Itajubá, then under the enthusiastic leadership of Army Capt. Paulo Augusto Capetti Porto, had played around with a number of prototypes generally called FIL-97 (Fuzil IMBEL Leve, IMBEL Rifle Light) and FILC-97 (Fuzil IMBEL Leve Curto, IMBEL Rifle Light Short) with the sole purpose of transforming some innovative ideas into several concept-studying prototypes so that an entire new family of weapons could be created.
Following an on-the-paper-only transitional design informally called the Alpha One (A1)—a kind of MD97 with some internal changes (spring-loaded firing pin, M4-type stock, no 3-round burst control, etc.)—a widely improved design emerged, provisionally called the Alpha Two (A2). The informal designation eventually stuck, giving birth to what officially became the Fuzil de Assalto (Assault Rifle) 5.56 IMBEL A2 (Fz Ass 5.56 IA2). The first news and unofficial images of the gun emerged in mid-2010, with a much more formal appearance taking place at the LAAD 2011 Defense & Security Show in Rio de Janeiro. By 2012, with actual production gradually starting at the Itajubá Factory, evaluation examples of the selective-fire model were handed over to different Brazilian Army units while demonstrations of the semi-auto carbine version were carried out nationwide to civil and military police forces, with orders soon following. A milestone for the program came on Oct. 23, 2014, when the Exército Brasileiro announced the official adoption of the selective-fire IA2 in initial complement to the long-used 7.62x51mm IMBEL M964 and M964A1 FALs, which may eventually be replaced in full. Since that time, deliveries to units other than the earlier, specialized (e.g. Airborne) ones first equipped with it have been gradually taking place, in addition to the CAR 5.56 IA2 (the semi-auto carbine) having also found LE distribution and service around the country.
As it usually happens in any weapon’s service life, the manufacturer offers minor design improvements and accessories. For the IA2, an early optional polymer grip flush with the forward end of the magazine housing is now a standard feature, and an optional foldable stock with six length adjustments is now offered. IMBEL is also trying several other prototype features for the guns, including a raised carry handle-type structure that can be added to the top Picatinny rail. This features an internal rear sight to be used together with a raised front sight. Other details also under study include a fold-flat charging handle, a telescopic-only stock and a redesigned, prong-type flash hider.
A mention should be made of variants offered in response to some specific Brazilian Navy requirements, which are now under evaluation. The basic rifle has received a 1:7-inch pitch barrel (6 grooves, RH twist) in place of the original 5.56x45mm IA2 1:10-inch unit (same rifling), while the stock fitted is of the foldable and adjustable type, which slightly reduces the gun’s length in both the extended and folded configurations. Small in size but significant in combat use is a disc-shaped rotary notch rear sight with 100-meter increments in the 100- to 600-meter range, which replaces the standard 150- to 250-meter flip apertures. A longer (538mm, with flash hider) barrel model with the same 1:7-inch pitch is also in the Navy’s wish list, this featuring a bayonet lug compatible with the manufacturer’s two knife-bayonet models.
An interesting item that may soon be available for the 5.56x45mm IA2 rifle is a quick conversion kit that allows the weapon to fire .22LR ammunition—a useful and economical feature for training. The whole thing is pretty simple: fold open the gun, remove the upper receiver cover, pull out the bolt and recoil spring assemblies, insert the kit assembly, close the gun again, use the supplied STANAG-type magazine (capacity still to be defined), and you’re basically ready to go. You now have, of course, a blowback-operated rifle in your hands, but still keeping the select-fire capability. Evidently, the lighter rounds are intended to be primarily used only in the introductory phases of rifle training, so that novices can learn the very basics of weapons handling, general safety procedures, use of sights and, of course, firing in reduced-scale and indoor ranges. Also, firing that frail cartridge from a 3 kilogram-plus rifle will generally feel (and sound!) like an air rifle is being used. At a later stage, however, the newbies will be given the real McCoy to train with and get used to such stuff as recoil, noise, flash, heat, etc. For a country like Brazil, where defense budgets are extremely tight, this may be a clever solution.
From the very beginning of the IA2 program, a 7.62x51mm variant was envisioned. By 2010, photographic evidence of some early prototypes was available, a clear family relationship with the 5.56x45mm model being evident in the external appearance. Internally, however, the larger-caliber gun was pretty much a FAL rifle, this included the basic tilting-bolt breech locking plus minor improvements in the gas system and other areas as a result of gained design and production experience. After all, IMBEL has been a successful manufacturer of FAL rifles since the mid-1960s.
It should be pointed out that development emphasis was placed on the 5.56x45mm variant since the early phases of the agenda; the 7.62x51mm counterpart progressed in parallel, but at a slower pace. Several prototypes appeared in the years since 2010 and some configuration changes were incorporated. In 2017, what appeared to be the final configurations for both a selective-fire rifle (Fz Ass 7,62 IMBEL IA2) and a shorter-barrel, semi-auto carbine (Ca 7.62 IMBEL IA2) were defined—the successful completion of official Brazilian Army certification programs enabling the manufacturer to launch pilot-production batches and promote actual sales.
The carbine program appears to have a higher priority at this time to meet the growing demands of local public security forces for a compact 7.62x51mm weapon to replace the widely used FALs and PARA-FALs currently employed. Although rifles of this caliber in police service may seem exaggerated to some eyes, when one looks at the weaponry commonly found in criminal hands in Brazil, the choice becomes evident. As for the Brazilian Army, already clearly committed to using the Fz Ass 5.56 IA2 as the standard issue rifle, the “seven-six-two” still has a place for troops operating in environments or general tactical conditions requiring the heavier round.
All in all, Indústria de Material Bélico do Brasil, with limited budgets and off-and-on national economic crisis fluctuations considered, has displayed considerable perseverance to reach the current status of its long-term rifle development and production program.