23 Dec 19

“Yesterday’s ‘Advanced Weapons Platform’ is today’s museum exhibit!”


Progressive-burning, high-energy smokeless propellant was invented by a French chemist, Paul Eugène Vieille, in 1884. Vielle’s invention instantly rendered all black-powder firearms obsolete, although it would take at least the next three decades for that axiom to sink-into the minds of the world’s war planners!

Black-powder residue is mostly particulate, hence the characteristic dense white cloud and excessive fouling.

By contrast, smokeless propellant residue is almost all gaseous, and the gas is mostly transparent.

A smokey cloud no longer revealed a rifleman’s position. Weapons no longer went down nearly so quickly due to fouling.

Bullet diameters were reduced.

Bullet shapes were streamlined.

Ranges, velocities, penetration, and accuracy virtually tripled!

The French tried to keep Vielle’s invention a secret, but within a decade smokeless propellant, and new metallic cartridges to make maximum use of it, were in hectic development worldwide!

However, like the Russians, the French were (and are) pathologically secretive with regard to national security, so subsequent French military firearms were developed exclusively by French designers, all of whom were state arsenal employees, and were all regarded as “state secrets,” (many still are) and they thus were neither copied, nor purchased, by anyone else (unlike the Germans).

Private French arms designers and manufacturers had scant chance of selling their wares to anyone but the French government, and thus most remained small-scale.

Conversely in Germany, Paul Mauser’s box-magazine (surpassingly superior to the French Lebel’s tube magazine) , and stripper-clip-fed rifle chambered for superior (rimless) cartridges, was purchased, as well as shamelessly copied, by nearly everyone and subsequently saw ubiquitous service (in one form or another) around the world for at least the next century!

But, the first military rifle to use smokeless-powder, loaded into metallic cartridges, was the French Lebel, adopted in 1887.

The Lebel replaced earlier French Gras and Chassepot (black powder) breech-loading, single-shot, bolt rifles.

The Chassepot (named after Antoine Alphonse Chassepot) was “needle-fire” and used an advanced paper cartridge that had outclassed the Prussian Dreyse System.

The Gras (for Colonel Basile Gras) used a black-powder metallic cartridge.

The Italians also had a needle-fire system, actually a converted muzzle-loader, called the “Carcano Needle-Fire Conversion.” Salvatore Carcano headed the Turin Army Arsenal in Italy in 1890.

Both the Chassepot and the Gras used an 11mm (43 caliber) bullet, the rimmed “11mm Gras,” when it acquired a metallic case. French weapons designers, under severe time pressure from the newly-appointed War Minister (1886), who was over-anxious to exploit the new smokeless-powder technology, simply necked-down the existing 11mm Gras cartridge to 8mm, gave it an aerodynamic spitzer bullet, and it suddenly became the “8mm Lebel,” after Lt Colonel Nicolas Lebel of the French Army.

There was no time to design a new rifle to shoot this new cartridge, so French designers took the existing Kropatschek Rifle, which was a tube-magazine-fed upgrade of the single-shot Gras (small numbers had been made for the French Navy), re-chambered it for the new (still rimmed) 8mm Lebel cartridge, bolstered the locking system to accommodate increased chamber pressure of the new smokeless propellent, made a few other minor changes, and shoved it out the door!

The Lebel’s magazine tube (eight rounds) was charged, one cartridge at a time, from the breech. It was a slow, tedious process, far inferior to Mauser’s stripper-clip-fed box magazine.

By 1887, the Lebel Rifle, and 8mm Lebel cartridge, were in full production. By 1893, nearly thee million Lebel Rifles had been manufactured, every one at one of three state arsenals in France!

When WWI broke-out in 1914, the 8mm Lebel Rifle (and cartridge), already obsolete, was the rifle the French took to war!

Unfortunately, as noted above, it proved vastly inferior to the ubiquitous Mauser.

And, when the Lebel Rifle was shortened to carbine length, much magazine capacity was lost, making it difficult for a cavalryman to re-charge tube magazines while on horseback, so there was never a “carbine version” of the Lebel (until much later).

Instead, the Berthier (always a carbine) was hastily substituted.

So, box-magazine (three-shot, en-blok), bolt-action Berthier Carbines (after Emile Berthier, a civilian design engineer who introduced his rifle in 1907), still in 8mm Lebel, entered mass production, in the middle of the WWI. It was easier, cheaper, and faster to manufacture than the Lebel.

The three-round Berthier en-blok clip drops out the bottom of the rifle, as the last empty case is ejected.

Rim-lock in the box magazine was seldom a problem with the Berthier, because of the heavy taper of the 8mm Lebel cartridge. Rims almost never got close enough to each other to interfere with feeding.

Remington, in the “neutral” United States, was one of the Berthier’s manufacturers, the only one outside France.

Neither the Gras, nor the Lebel, nor the Berthier had a manual safety, but the Lebel and the Berthier did have a magazine cut-off!

The Lebel Rifle was declared “obsolete” in 1920, but continued to see active service in colonial areas for most of the rest of the 20th Century!

The Berthier (sometimes called the Berthier 07/15) continued in active service only until 1939.

1916 upgrade of the Berthier went from a three-round, en-blok clip, to a five-round, en-block clip, although the old three-round clips still worked in the upgraded version.

The 1916 Berthier upgrade also included a wide front sight. French Troopers complained about tiny sights that were difficult to pick-up in active fighting. Tiny sights were, of course, preferred by target competitors most of whom never in their lives fired a shot in anger. Most 07/15 Berthiers were upgraded to the 1916 pattern as the War progressed.

France’s new bolt-action rifle, the MAS 36 (in rimless 7.5×58, later 7.5×54) was finally approved in 1936. By that date, France (and all of Europe) was growing extremely nervous with Germany’s (under Hitler) rapid re-emergence and re-armament!

France intended for the MAS 36 to be their second-tier rifle, while a new autoloading rifle would be issued to first-tier troops. However, they never got their autoloader into production before Germany invaded (1940)!

So, it was the MAS 36, and various remnants of previous systems, with which the French went into WWII (to the degree they actually participated).

Production of the MAS 36 picked right up after the factory, Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS, for short), was liberated by American troops in 1944, and the rifle remained in production until 1957. Over a million were ultimately produced. Many can still found to this day in former French colonies in SE Asia, North Africa, et al

The MAS 36 used five-round stripper-clips, has its locking-lugs in the rear, and its reputation for ruggedness, simplicity, and durability was exceedingly good. But, It never enjoyed any particular reputation for accuracy (owing to the rear locking lugs). The MAS 36 was zeroed at the factory. There is no user-level windage adjustment on the rear sight.

Like its antecedents, the MAS 36 had no manual safety!

Curiously, the French were way ahead of everyone else in development of autoloading military rifles, going back to WWI (the French “RST”), but they were unable to get any eligible design actually produced and issued to troops until after WWII (MAS 40, 44, 49, and 49/56)!

MAS autoloaders had a ten-round, detachable box magazine and did have a manual safety (finally).

During WWII, French engineers at the MAS factory cleverly, and successfully, hid from Nazis evidence that the MAS 40 autoloading rifle had actually begun production!

When French war planners belatedly decided to adopt the NATO standard cartridge (7.62×51) in the early 1970s, conversion of the MAS 49-56 from French 7.5×54 to the new NATO caliber was thought to be a simple matter, but it proved utterly unsuccessful. Parts breakage, slam-fires, and other problems lead to the eventual abandonment of the entire idea.

MAS autoloaders were essentially withdrawn from French service in 1978, replaced by the French FAMAS Rifle in 5.56×45 caliber (superceded recently by the H&K 416, also in 5.56×45 caliber).

MAS autoloaders were finally declared “obsolete” in 1990, and all copies withdrawn from service.

The MAS series of autoloading rifles (40, 44, 49, and 49/56), with its direct-gas-impingement/tilting-bolt system, during its French service tenure (after WWII), garnered an excellent reputation for reliability in rough environments in many far-flung places. It was, and is, a very good rifle, but only in 7.5×54 caliber.

That caliber has virtually no following among American shooters, so MAS autoloaders are rarely seen here.

On the MAS 49, user-level windage adjustment was finally added to the rear sight.

As noted above, none of the subsequent MAS conversions to 7.62×51 NATO, both military and commercial (Century Arms imports), met with success.

The Inter-Allied Military Control Commission arranged for the destruction of countless tons of German WWI small arms after WWI ended.

Not so in France and the UK, of course, because they were on the winning side!

However by so doing, the Allies unintentionally did Hitler an immense favor as he came to power in inter-war Germany and started to re-arm and re-grow his military, secretly at first, then openly as the former Allies (now under weak leadership) were easily intimidated.

Hitler’s new military thus had a lot of brand-new, modern equipment, unlike France and the UK, where they were still vainly trying to salvage/update WWI equipment, most of which (by 1935) was hopelessly obsolete!

“Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”