This weapon is an American version of the Belgian FN Minimi, a light machine gun manufactured by the Belgian company FN Herstal (FN). The M249 is manufactured in the United States and is widely used by the U.S. Armed Forces. The weapon was introduced in 1984 after being judged the most effective of a number of candidate weapons to address the lack of automatic firepower in small units. The M249 provides infantry squads with the heavy volume of fire of a machine gun combined with accuracy and portability approaching that of a rifle.
The M249 is gas operated and air-cooled. It has a quick-change barrel, allowing the gunner to rapidly replace an overheated or jammed barrel. A folding bipod is attached near the front of the gun, though an M192 LGM tripod is also available. It can be fed from both linked ammunition and STANAG magazines, like those used in the M16 and M4. This allows the SAW gunner to use rifleman's magazines as an emergency source of ammunition in the event that he runs out of linked rounds. However, this will often cause malfunctions where the magazine spring has difficulty feeding rounds quickly enough to match the SAW's high cyclic rate.
M249s have seen action in every major conflict involving the United States since the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Soldiers are generally satisfied with the weapon's performance, though there have been reports of clogging with dirt and sand. Due to the weight and age of the weapon, the United States Marine Corps is fielding the M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle with plans to partially replace the M249 in Marine Corps service.
The M249 is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "Squad Assault Weapon".