French Military Rifles 1886 – 1956

  By Cliff Carlisle

France was the first country to adopt a smokeless powder cartridge.  Some other black powder 8mm cartridges were being experimented with but no other country had a smokeless powder round yet.  The rifle was the bolt action tubular magazine Mle 1886, commonly called the Lebel after Col. Lebel, one of the officers on the design committee.  It was an 8 shot repeater.  Tubular magazines with rounded or pointed bullets have the potential problem of the tip of one round hitting the primer of the one in front of it in the magazine when the rifle is fired.  If the primer is sensitive, the round can go off.  The Portuguese Kropatschek 8mm rifle used flat nosed bullets to prevent this problem.  The Japanese Murata used both a flat nosed bullet and a protected primer.  The primer had a cup over it with a hole in the center just large enough to allow the firing pin to go through it.  The French followed a completely different track.  The cartridge case was made with a large diameter rim & the body had 2 tapers to it.  About half way up the body, the case wall angled toward the centerline of the cartridge.  This made the round lay in the magazine at an angle.  The tip was no longer in the center of the magazine tube & not in line with the primer of the round in front of it.  In addition, the base of the cartridge had an annular groove cut about midway between the rim & the primer.  The nose of the rear bullet rests in this groove as an added means of keeping the bullet tip out of contact with the primer of the next round.

In 1893 the Mle 1886 was modified by changing the machining of the receiver to strengthen it and a hole was drilled in the bolt head as a gas vent in case of a ruptured primer.  This modification became the Mle 1886 M93.  Some of these rifles were again modified in 1935 into 3 shot carbines.  These were for colonial troops in North Africa.  The designation of the carbines was Mle 1886 M93R35.

By 1890 the French realized that the tubular magazine was an obsolete design.  A design committee, headed by Andre Berthier, retained the basic action of the Mle 1886 but modified it to take a Mannlicher style 3 shot clip, in 8mm Lebel, as the Mle 1890 carbine. It is commonly called the Berthier after Andre Berthier, the head of the design committee, or the Mannilcher Berthier because of its magazine design.  In 1892 the stock shape was changed resulting in the Mle 1892.  A rifle version with a 31.4" barrel was adopted as the Mle 1902 & later modified to the Mle 1907.

In 1916 the French realized that the 3 shot magazine put them at a disadvantage. Consequently, they modified the rifles & carbines by adding an extension the magazine making it a 5 shot.  These were designated the Mle 1916.

Thanks to for supplying this picture.

France had been experimenting with semi auto rifles since 1894. By 1913 they had developed over 20 prototypes.  In 1917 a semi auto rifle was adopted for issue to front line troops.  This was the Mle 1917.  Between April 1917 & September 30, 1918, 85,333 Mle 1917 rifles were produced.  According to the book Proud Promise on French auto rifles, "In the units that were equipped with the M1917 rifle, 16 rifles were distributed per company to platoon leaders & to good marksmen, chosen for their aptitude to use auto loading weapons and to carry out the frequent mechanical repairs they required."  This was the first semi auto rifle to be issued to front line troops.  For some reason, the 5 round Mannlicher type clip was not the same as the one used in the bolt action rifles & the Mle 1917 could not use the standard clips.  This was corrected with the introduction of the Mle 1918.  This was a modified Mle 1917 that had a shorter barrel & did use the regular clips.

By the end of WW1 France was aware that their 8mm Lebel cartridge was far behind the times.  Its large rim & double tapered body made it very difficult to design a modern machine gun to use it.  Consequently, in 1920 development work was started on a modern rimless round.  It was in 7.5mm & was based on the German 7.92mm round.  It was first adopted in 1924.  In 1929 the overall length was shortened & it was designated the Mle 1929. By 1936 a rifle had been designed for the Mle 1929 cartridge.  It was a modified Mauser design but placed the locking lugs at the rear of the receiver instead of behind the barrel. This required that the bolt be bent forward to be in a convenient position to operate the action from the shoulder.  The rifle was designated the Mle 1936.  This was the last bolt action rifle designed & adopted by a major power.  From here on they were all semi auto or selective fire.

The Mle 1936 was modified to incorporate a folding stock for paratroop use in 1939. This variation was called the MAS 36 CR39.

In 1951 it was again modified to incorporate a grenade launcher & launcher sights. This model was designated the MAS 36 M51.

By 1940 France had a semi auto rifle ready for limited production.  In March, the Ministry of War ordered 50 MAS Mle 1940 rifles.  The invasion of France in 1940 stopped further development of this rifle.  In November, 1944, after the Germans were driven from France, the Mle 1940 rifle was modified to use a detachable magazine.  This rifle was adopted on January 11, 1945, as the MAS 44.

A total of 6,200 MAS 44 rifles were produced. Most went to the French navy for their Marine Commandos & were used in Indochina.  The MAS 44 used the same needle bayonet mounted in a tube under the barrel as the Mle 1936 rifle.  A button is pushed, the bayonet is pulled out & reversed & reinserted into the socket under the barrel.

By 1949 several improvements had been made in the MAS 44.  Two of the changes were the addition of grenade firing capabilities with a grenade sight on the left side of the front barrel band & the inclusion of a telescope mount on the receiver.  A total of 20,600 MAS 49 rifles were produced.  The pictured rifle is equipped with the M1953 Telescopic Sight.

In 1956 the MAS 49 was again modified into the MAS 49-56.  Among other things, the barrel was shortened, the stock was shortened, a flash suppressor was added & the grenade sight was moved onto the top of the barrel just behind the front sight.  From 1957 through 1978, 275,240 MAS 49-56 rifles were produced.