It’s hard to believe that the FN P90 is 30 years old. If it was a car it would qualify for antique license plates. If it was a foreign car you would have been able to import it as a “classic” 5 years ago. Maybe because even in 2020 the P90 looks like it’s from 2135 and should be blasting aliens in the face that makes it hard to believe how old it is. Or maybe we’re just in denial about our age. Regardless, the P90 is a classic firearm that has punched above its weight class in popularity for 30 years now.
As a side note, the correct nomenclature for the civilian legal P90 is actually PS90. But the only people in that have ever called it that work for FN. So we’re going to stick with P90 for this article. If we’re talking about the full auto one, you’ll know.
History of the FN P90
The P90 has had an interesting history. Originally, FN introduced the military version along with the 5.7x28mm cartridge to meet NATO’s request for a compact weapon that could be issued to second line troops that needed more than a pistol. The Personal Defense Weapon, or PDW, was a hot concept in the late 80s and early 90s, as soft body armor became standardized across the world. PDWs like the P90 were designed to defeat soft body armor while still being as compact as a traditional sub-machine gun.
The military P90 was quickly adopted by many militaries; but instead of issuing it to second line troops, its most common buyers were special operations units. Its small size combined with fast rate of fire and large magazine made it a popular choice for clandestine operations. The US Secret Service also was an early adopter, choosing the P90 for the same attributes that made it appealing to special operations units.
PS90: The Civilian P90
Military and law enforcement acceptance is frequently a good driver of civilian sales, but the P90 enjoyed a far different boost to its commercial sales appeal. Its unusual bullpup appearance made it a darling with Hollywood prop masters. It would take an entire article to list all of the TV shows, movies, and video games that the top loading, bottom ejecting, bullpup PDW has appeared in. Instead, here’s a short list of notable appearances: Stargate SG1, Stargate Atlantis, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 1-3, Battlefield 2-4, The Expendables, The World is not Enough, and three of the Hunger Games movies with a custom matte white paint job. It has the right combination of futuristic appearance to fit in well in any movie set in a mildly dystopian future. And thanks to its adoption by special operations units in law enforcement, it can also pop up in contemporary movies.
The civilian-legal P90 has a 16 inch barrel. It accepts the same 50 round top loading magazines as the military and LE version. However, it ships with magazines that are blocked to either 10 or 30 rounds. Early, the civilian P90 shipped with the same reflex sight in the top rail as the military version. When LE agencies and military units wanted to mount their own optics, FN offered a version of both military and civilian guns called the Tri-Rail, or TR. The P90 TR had a triple rail cluster on the carry handle that could mount a host of optics or other accessories. FN discontinued the TR as a catalog model for the civilian gun. The currently available P90 features a single strip of rail on the top for mounting an optic.
P90 Ammo: 5.7x28mm
Contrary to media hysteria from the mid ’00s, the commercially available 5.7x28mm ammo won’t defeat soft body armor. The only 5.7×28 ammo that will defeat armor is SS190. Because it’s classified as armor piercing, is a controlled item. You can’t just buy it off the shelves at a sporting goods store. The most common ammo available on the commercial market for the P90 is the SS195 and SS197. The SS195 is a lead-free JHP. The SS197 uses a polymer tip similar to the Critical Defense line of ammo. Neither round will defeat soft body armor, and certainly not the hard plate armor plates that are in vogue right now.
5.7x28mm for Self Defense
In fact, the commercially available 5.7x28mm rounds aren’t that great. They don’t do anything you can’t do better with a real rifle caliber like 5.56 NATO, and don’t really offer a significant performance upgrade over a quality 9mm JHP. If you’re reading this and it’s not 2020, they’re also a lot more expensive than 9mm. So, it doesn’t make a lot of sense as a “main gun”. Anecdotal reports say they’re not much more effective than a 22 WMR out of a rifle. Which, hey, no one is going to sign up to eat a 22 Magnum to the chest. But if you’re looking for a handy, small package fighting rifle, there are better choices than the P90 out there.
FN P90: What’s the Point?
But if it’s not really good for personal defense, what is it good for? Well, even with the silly 16 inch barrel, it’s shorter than a standard M4 Carbine by 4-8 inches. It’s also a good pound lighter. So if your primary goal is compact, portable firepower, it’s not a bad choice. Especially if you’re not interested in getting a short barreled rifle registered and you’re avoiding pistol braces because you don’t want the ATF to shoot your dog. Truthfully, it doesn’t need to have a practical purpose. They are an absolute hoot to shoot, even on semi-auto. A moderately talented shooter can rip 3-5 rounds in succession pretty fast, and the gun stays flat on target.
If you’re a fan of Stargate, if you love movie guns, or if you’re looking for something lightweight that holds a ton of rounds, you should definitely check out the FN P90. For 30 years old, it’s looking pretty good to me.