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.
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