|Rifle||Fusil Modèle 1886 M93||Manufacturer||Various|
|Cartridge||8x50mmR Lebel||Overall Length||51.2″|
|Action||Rotation Bolt||Barrel Length||31.5″|
|Magazine||8 rnd tube mag +1 carrier||Weight||9.2 lbs|
This is the beginning of the smokeless revolution, the gun that changes military repeaters for generations and gives us the first taste of the truly modern cartridge. Sadly, the “Lebel” rifle just wasn’t as advanced as its cartridge and would give a middling performance over its rather long service life.
The end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 was the end of French domination in Europe. The Prussian-Led states, which would unify into the German Empire, seized Alsace-Lorraine, and charged indemnity for the war. This 5 billion franc figure was meant to crush France financially for at least 30 years. France surprised everyone by growing through a series of reforms and modernizations. The war had been fought with needle fired rifles, which used paper cartridges and firing pins that actually punctured in order to discharge the gun. Following this the Germans adopted Paul Mauser’s excellent Model 1871 single-shot rifle, which loaded a brass shelled, black powder cartridge. France would follow with the 1874 Gras, a modification of their needle-fired Chassepot, now fitted with a separate bolt head, chambering an 11×59mmR drawn brass cartridge.
After the Russo-Turkish War’s Siege of Plevna in 1877, world militaries began searching for repeating rifles. The French Navy had not actually adopted the Gras just yet, having made do with the Chassepot all this time. Once ready to upgrade they did not want to be left behind too quickly and so took the Gras action and paired it with a magazine designed by Austrian inventor Alfred von Kropatschek. This tube magazine carried the spare cartridges under the barrel and fed them rearward into a carrier, which lifted them into the path of the bolt. The 1878 combined with the Germans marrying their 1871 Mauser to the same Kropatschek magazine in 1884, would push the French Army into researching a repeating rifle.Essentially, the Army reproduced the Modele 1878 with a few small changes and branded it the 1884. The next year they released an improved model with a two-piece stock to prevent cracking and moving the magazine cut-off switch from under the bolt handle to the bottom right of the receiver. This Modele 1885 wouldn’t be produced for long thanks to new ammunition technology.
French research had been focused on the notion of small bore, high powered cartridges. Testing was showing that a jacketed bullet with a diameter of 8mm or less, and a high charge of powder could be fired for longer, flatter, and still have the lethal power of the current 10 and 11mm ammunition. But, compressing black powder could only yield so much power. The stuff didn’t fully combust and left deposits in the rifling of the bore, fouling the gun quickly. The black powder blast also produced plenty of smoke and so clouded the shooter’s vision and gave away his position clearly.
In steps Paul Vielle. His “Poudre B” burns more when compressed, almost completely, it expands rapidly, and it’s use in firearms wraps up a whole host of issues. Small bores are now safe from fouling and their range has been doubled. This is smokeless powder.
Now, while all this is going on, French Minister of War Boulanger is out to make a name for himself. With his appointment in January of 1886, he demands a rifle and cartridge to be ready by May 1st! A team is put to work but with such a short time they are severely limited. They opt to adapt what they have in hand, which will save on retooling time and parts. It will also mean fewer changes to technical drawings and plans. So 11mm Gras cartridge was simply and brutally necked down to 8mm and loaded with smokeless powder. This decision would prove to be disastrous for France some 30 years later. It is also where the eventual rifle would get its name as a Colonel Nicolas Lebel had developed the jacketed bullet and was overseeing much of the work.
The 1885 rifle was reworked by a team of experts. It’s bolt head was fitted with symmetrical locking lugs, providing strength enough for the new cartridge. The Kropatschek magazine system was retained with minor changes. Obviously the sights were increased to accommodate for the then-amazing range. They are ranged from 400-800 meters on the slider, can be flipped up for an adjustable ladder between 900 and 2,400 meters, and flipped forward to reveal a fixed 250 meter “battle sight.” The new combination was completed on time and performed beyond expectations. It was put into trials and adopted officially in April of 1887 but named for its design year: The Fusil Modele 1886. Finally, the rifle was paired with a cruciform spike bayonet sporting a 20.5 inch blade.
Military leaders around the world were shocked and would spend the next two decades in a furious design race. The Lebel itself would see many small changes in the years to come, but most would be rolled into the Modification of 1893. Notable were the reinforcement of the rear sight, which now has deep tangs around the barrel, and the addition of a gas deflector on the bolt head. This prevents ruptured cases from venting hot gas in the shooter’s eyes.
Now, while the Modele 1886 had been a revolutionary rifle at its release, within just two years it would be outclassed by better magazine rifles. These had more time for development and ditched problems like the tube magazine. As it emptied the balance of the rifle would change, as would the barrel harmonics, making it inherently less precise than designs that feature a centered, vertical magazine. The tube also required manual, singular loading and could not be paired with a charger or en bloc clip to speed things up.
But the French small arms adoption process was a slow one and the 1886 would soldier on for many years to come. Paired with the Berthier carbine in 1890, both served through WWI. Following the war France was determined to correct their mistakes with the 8mm Lebel cartridge, whose odd shape made auto-loading guns a design nightmare. Once settled on a 7.5mm rimless cartridge, they turned to trying to update the Lebel. A few thousand Modele 27 trial guns were assembled in short rifle and carbine length, with double-stack, stripper clip-fed, box magazines and new 7.5mm barrels. These were certainly functional, but too expensive to produce. So they were abandoned.
With Germany re-militarizing and the world exploding into smaller conflicts, the French knew they needed to get moving on a 7.5mm bolt action rifle in earnest. They had converted some 30,000 Berthiers and would adopt a whole new gun, the MAS 36, but these were insignificant compared to the size of her military. 8mm Lebel would remain on the front line. Resigned to this, an effort was made to at least free up more usable rifles by re-equiping remote and 2nd line troops. So the old and worn Lebels were scooped up, shortened, and rebarreled, still in 8mm. These haphazard Modele 35 carbines managed a three round magazine, with one in the carrier. While certainly crude and ugly, they did the job at hand and provided some measure of armament.
After WWII France would finally leave the Lebel behind. This makes for a service life of nearly 60 years!