The Israeli Galil: Then & Now
Israel has a critical need to provide for its own defense in an overwhelming way. But, of course, the Israelis don’t need to be told that. The short history of their sovereign state provides evidence of the threats that surround them, both on its immediate borders and in the wider world. As such, since its inception in 1948, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has worked to develop effective small arms that provide its soldiers with capable firepower. One of the most iconic guns to have seen Israeli service is the Galil.
By the 1970s, Israel, not yet 25 years old, had already been mired in three wars. During its 1948 war of independence, Israelis were armed with an amazing array of World War II-era arms and equipment, notably Karabiner 98ks, some of which had been produced using slave labor in Nazi Germany. Now, these same rifles equipped Holocaust survivors fighting for the freedom of their newly founded state. The logistical nightmare of supplying a military using a hodgepodge of small arms necessitated some standardization, and by the mid-1950s, about the time of the Suez Crisis, Israel had established some order with its domestically produced UZI submachine gun and Belgian-made FN FAL rifles, though the latter would eventually be produced in Israel under license.
At the start of the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel had a standardized battle rifle in the FAL, but issues with the design plagued Israeli soldiers, who complained that the guns jammed when exposed to the fine dust of the Negev. Cutting slots into the rifle’s bolt carrier, an innovation implemented on the British L1A1 variant of the FAL, did little to solve the malfunctions. Too, the rifle’s length, measuring more than 40”, made it unwieldly within the confines of a vehicle.
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Following the conclusion of the Six-Day War, a team of Israeli defense engineers headed by Yisrael Galili set out to develop a domestically produced service arm for the military. Galili, who had changed his name from Balashnikov to better suit his Jewish heritage, ironically borrowed many features from the AK-47 rifle designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. Strictly speaking, though, the design of what would eventually become the Galil service rifle had more in common with the Swedish Valmet M62, another AK derivative. The design was tested against several other military arms, including a rifle developed by Uziel Gal, creator of the UZI submachine gun.
Foreign designs in the trial included rifles from Germany, Austria and the U.S., which offered up the M16, the Stoner 63 and the Armalite AR-18. For completeness, an AK-47 was also included in the trial, despite it not being chambered in the Israelis’ preferred 5.56 NATO cartridge, a decision made necessary by the United States’ support. In 1973, Gen. Rafael Eitan told National Defense magazine that he would have preferred a more powerful cartridge for the nation’s service rifle, but “we had to use the same round as the U.S. America is our only international friend that could supply ammunition in an emergency.” According to the IDF testing parameters, the Galil won handily with a score of 97.5 percent. The AK-47 scored 85.3 percent, and the M16 recorded a score of 82.7 percent.
In its final format, officially unveiled in 1973 upon the 25th anniversary of Israel’s establishment as an independent state, the IMI Galil was a gas-operated, select-fire service rifle chambered for the 5.56 NATO cartridge and fed through specially designed 35- and 50-round magazines. The standard service variant, the Galil ARM, had an 18.1” barrel and measured 33”, nearly a foot shorter than the previous FAL. A folding stock allowed the design to collapse to 24”. The Galil incorporated a permanently attached folding bipod, enabling the gun to serve in the role of a light machine gun, and with a cyclic rate of 650 rounds per minute, it was easily controllable in full-automatic fire, a trait aided by the fact that the gun weighed more than 9 ½ lbs., unloaded. Other unique features included a built-in wire cutter within the bipod legs, as well as a bottle opener. The latter feature was apparently incorporated to prevent soldiers from attempting to open bottle caps with the feed lips on their magazines and damaging them.
A sniper variant of the Galil rifle was also developed, and it included a “special heavy barrel,” as well as a repositioned bipod and an optics mount that attached to the left side of the receiver.
While the Galil, like the Valmet, used a virtually identical operating system to the AK-47, there were some notable differences. The Galil made use of a gas piston with six notches cut into its gas ring, thereby allowing some propellant gases to bleed past the piston during cycling and blow out dirt and dust from the action. Instead of having the rear sight mounted on a block forward of the receiver, the Galil and Valmet both moved the rear sight to the back end of the receiver cover, more than doubling the sight radius. Additionally, unlike the AKMs that armed many of Israel’s opponents during the Six-Day War, the Galil made use of a forged and milled receiver rather than a stamped-steel receiver. Early Galils were built with Finnish Valmet Rk 62 receivers until they could be produced domestically. While this trait made the guns more durable, it undoubtedly contributed to their heavy weight.
The Galil saw military use almost immediately following its introduction, as Egypt and Syria launched surprise attacks on the nation during the Jewish observation of Yom Kippur in 1973. In a familiar theme throughout its service, the Galil wasn’t fielded in large numbers, forcing the IDF to rely on some of its legacy arms during the conflict, notably the FAL. This trend continued after the Yom Kippur War as the U.S. became the primary military support for Israel. Beginning in the mid-1970s, U.S. military aid programs made it more economically feasible for the IDF to obtain M16s and, later, M4 carbines rather than produce the expensive Galil domestically. Ultimately, though the Galil was the nation’s official service arm until it was gradually phased out in the late 1990s and ultimately replaced in service by the domestically designed and produced Tavor SAR-21 bullpup rifle.
The Galil ACE Gen II is the most advanced version of the Galil developed by IWI US, and it is available on the U.S. commercial market in a semi-automatic-only format. Image courtesy of IWI US.
Despite its removal from mainline Israeli military service, the Galil still remains today, albeit in some modified configurations. The Micro Galil, or MAR compact carbine, was developed in the mid-1990s with a reduced-size receiver, shortened barrel measuring just over 8” and other downsized components. Ultimately, this size- and weight-reduction program produced a rifle that weighed just over 6 ½ lbs., empty, cutting 3 lbs. off the weight of the original Galil. A magazine-well adapter also enabled the use of STANAG magazines, making it logistically compatible with the M16s, M4s and later SAR-21s in service. Additionally, in the early 2000s, IWI created a modernized platform in its Galil ACE, which became available in a semi-automatic-only format on the U.S. commercial market by 2015. One of the principal differences of the design was the incorporation of polymer into the lower half of the receiver, primarily to save weight. IWI continued to update the ACE, and in 2023, the company rolled out the ACE Gen II, which used a free-floated barrel surrounded by an M-Lok-compatible handguard and a collapsible, M4-style buttstock.
This rifle is one of several thousand Galils imported by Magnum Research during the 1980s. Image courtesy of Rock Island Auction.
Fans of the original Galil in the United States have had few opportunities to obtain semi-automatic variants stateside. In the early 1980s, Magnum Research, a partner of Israel Military Industries, imported a number of Galil rifles. Additionally, Springfield Armory imported a small number of Galil rifles (fewer than 1,000), as well as Action Arms. The 1989 ban on the importation of semi-automatic rifles deemed to “not have a sporting use” eliminated many sources of originally configured Galil rifles, though post-ban, re-configured rifles trickled out in small numbers in the early 1990s. These rifles were modified to meet the requirements of the 1989 regulations, but after the passage of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, Galil imports ceased. IMI-produced Galil rifles and clones were one of several firearms prohibited by name in the legislation.
This James River Armory Gallant is built on a U.S.-manufactured receiver and includes a polymer handguard instead of the traditional wood design. Image courtesy of James River Armory.
In recent years, as the Israeli military retired existing stocks of Galil rifles, parts kits made their way into the United States. American Tactical and Century Arms sold the “Galeo” and the “Golani,” both re-built, Galil-style rifles produced using surplus Israeli Galil parts kits and a newly manufactured U.S. receiver. James River Armory also produced re-built models of the Galil. Called the “Gallant,” these guns were produced similarly to the rifles sold by American Tactical and Century Arms. As re-built guns, reliability can vary, and they do not command the premium that early, Israeli-produced imports do. In 2019, Rock Island Auction sold a pre-ban, Magnum Research-imported Galil rifle with a realized price of $4,600.
The real-world value of such guns point to the fact that, despite its somewhat abbreviated and interrupted service life, the Galil is regarded as one of the finest AK-type rifles ever produced. Given the stringent requirements of the Israeli military, which operates in one of the harshest environments on Earth, the Galil is designed to handle conditions that hampered many of the world’s other well-regarded military arms. Though not without its faults, being especially heavy and expensive to produce, the Galil is one of the world’s iconic service arms and a symbol of the Israeli peoples’ determination to defend themselves, no matter the odds or the cost.
Article by EVAN BRUNE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR