- Lebel Model 1886 rifle
name=Lebel Model 1886 rifle
caption=Mle 1886-M93R35, a shortened variant of the original rifle
service=1887 to 1940
Boxer Rebellion, French colonial expeditions, First World War, Second World War
production_date=1887 to 1920
weight=9.73 lb (4.41 kg)
(loaded with 10 rounds)
9.21 lb (4.18 kg)
length=4.28 ft (1.3 m)
part_length=2.62 ft (0.8 m)
8 mm Lebel
4 grooves, right to left twist
velocity=2,000 to 2,300 ft/s
(610 to 700 m/s)
max_range=3,500 to 4,500 yd
(3,200 to 4,100 m)
feed= 8 round tube magazine
The Lebel Model 1886 rifle ( French official designation : "Fusil Modele 1886 M 93") is a French 8 mm
bolt action riflewhich has the distinction of being the first military rifle designed to use smokeless powder-based cartridges. Furthermore the Lebel featured, for the first time in a military rifle, a bolt head which locked into the receiver with two opposed front locking lugs. A cammed surface on the rear of the receiver bridge provides positive extraction when the bolt is being opened. The Lebel rifle was also first to introduce ( 1901 ) a boat-tailed bullet( "Balle D" ) as standard military ammunition . The Lebel rifle was adopted in April 1887 and remained in service in the French Armyuntil the Second World Waralthough its tube magazine had long become an obsolete feature. The Lebel M1886 rifle had a 10-round capacity (comprising eight rounds in the forestock tube magazine, one round in the transporter, and one round in the chamber) and also mounted a spike bayonet. Industrial production begun in 1887 and ended shortly after the First World War when over 2.8 million Lebel rifles had been manufactured. It was first developed and then manufactured at MAC ( Manufacture d'Armes de Chatellerault), followed by MAS (an abbrevation of Manufacture d'Armes St. Etienne) and lastly by MAT ( Manufacture d'Armes de Tulle ) during WW-1 and until May 1920.
The Lebel rifle was developed as a result of the first successful smokeless gunpowder, invented by French chemist
Paul Vieillein 1884. The nitrocellulose-based "Poudre B" (Powder B) was three times more powerful than black powder for the same weight and left no residue after firing. At about the same time in 1883, a Major Eduard Rubinof the SwissArmy had invented copper jacketed lead cored bullets that could be fired at very high velocities without melting in a rifle's bore.Shortly thereafter, in January 1886, the French War Minister, General Boulanger, requested the urgent application of these breakthroughs to the design of a new infantry rifle. He instructed General Tramond to complete the project within less than a year. It was decided to redesign the Gras cartridge case into an 8 mm case, a transformation that Captain Desaleux carried out. The bolt was designed by Col. Bonnet to include dual opposed front locking lugs. The base of the bolt handle also functions as an additional third lug. The overall appearance and design of the new rifle was proposed by Col. Gras and some of the details, such as a magazine cutoff, were designed by Controllers Close and Verdin at the Chatellerault arsenal.The 8 mm full metal jacketprojectile for the new cartridge was designed by Lt. Colonel Nicolas Lebel, who led the infantry's marksmanship school, and after whom the rifle (and the calibre) are named.
Colonel Lebel protested during his lifetime that Gras bore more responsibility than he did in the new rifle, but to no avail - his name, which was used to designate the bullet ("Balle Lebel"), stuck to the entire weapon. Later, in 1893, the Lebel rifle's bolt was improved for ruptured case gas venting, and the designation of the Mle 1886 rifle was changed to Fusil Mle 1886-M93. The Lebel rifle followed the 11 mm Mle 1874
bolt action Gras rifleand the 11 mm Mle 1878 bolt actionFrench Naval Kropatschek rifle designed by an Austrian, Alfred von Kropatschek, and shared the latter's tubular magazine in the forend. This same tube magazine placement was also widely used at the time in lever-action hunting rifles made by Winchester, Marlin and others. Two transitional repeating infantry bolt actionrifles, still chambered for the 11 mm Gras black powder cartridge, followed after the Mle 1878 (Kropatschek): the Mle 1884 and the Mle 1885. The latter already incorporated the two-piece stock and a massive steel receiver and thus closely resembles the Mle 1886 Lebel rifle that followed. Over 20,000 Mle 1884 rifles had already been issued when the decision to adopt the Mle 1886 Lebel rifle closed down their production line.
The Lebel rifle was manufactured by three government arsenals: St-Etienne, Chatellerault and Tulle, and featured a two-piece stock and a massive receiver to accommodate the higher pressures developed by the new smokeless powder-based cartridges.The latter arsenal continued to produce Lebel rifles during WWI and closed the last Lebel assembly line in May 1920. A limited-run version made by shortening surplus Lebel rifles to carbine size was introduced in 1935: the "Mle 1886-M93R35". The total number of Lebel rifles produced between 1887 and 1920 exceeds 2.8 million units. The Chatellerault arsenal alone produced 906,760 Lebel rifles.
When it first appeared, the Lebel's smokeless ammunition allied to its longer range and flatter trajectory brought a revolution in infantry armament. A soldier equipped with a Lebel could outrange troops with black powder rifles and could carry more, lighter ammunition. The early full metal jacket, flat-nosed, lead-cored, "Balle M" bullet (231 grains) had a maximum range of 3,500 yards and a muzzle velocity of convert|2000|ft/s|m/s|abbr=on. The flat nose of "Balle M" precluded any possibility of accidental ignition of the preceding rounds in the Lebel's tube magazine. However, at a later date, the solid
brassspitzer, boat-tailed, "Balle D" bullet (197 gr) was adopted for the Lebel rifle in 1898 and placed in generalized service after 1901. Desaleux's "Balle D" had an extreme range of 4,500 yards with a muzzle velocity of convert|2300|ft/s|m/s|abbr=on and necessitated a re-calibration of the Lebel's sights. It also became the first boat-tailed bullet adopted for infantry service by any army. French government issued 8mm Lebel ammunition has always featured , since 1886, mercury fulminateprimers . Those are non-corrosive, hence the usually bright and shiny bores found today on these old rifles. Mercury fulminate primers, however, can become inactive after several decades of storage.
In order to avoid accidental ignition of sharply pointed "Balle D" ammunition in the tubular magazine of the Lebel rifle, a large circular groove was formed on each case head, around the primer pocket, in order to receive the bullet tip of the cartridge that followed. The spring-loaded follower inside the tube magazine was also redesigned in 1898 to accommodate the new "Balle D" pointed bullets. Lastly the primer itself, on each round of "Balle D" ammunition, was protected against accidental percussion by a thick, primer cover that was also crimped in after 1912 (Balle D "a.m."). This disposition provided in effect a double primer cup (Huon, 1988). The letters "a.m." stand for "amorcage modifie", meaning "modified primer". There is no military record that accidental firings ever took place inside a Lebel's tube magazine because of Balle D "a.m." French military issue ammunition or other French Army issued Lebel ammunition, despite beliefs to the contrary by some. On the other hand commercial Lebel ammunition once made by Remington, as well as reloads made with commercial Lebel brass ( e.g. Graf ) are dangerous when placed inside a Lebel's tube magazine since the primers are unprotected. The last type of Lebel military ammunition to be introduced was the "Cartouche Mle 1932N"—using a cupro-nickel-jacketed, lead-cored, spitzer boat-tailed bullet—which was only suitable for Lebel and Berthier rifles marked "N" on top of the receiver. Manufacture of this ammunition, originally designed to increase the range of the
Hotchkiss machine gun, ceased in France during the late 1960s. Following the adoption of the Lebel rifle by the French Army, most other nations switched to small-bore infantry rifles using smokeless ammunition. Germany and Austriaadopted new 8 mm infantry rifles in 1888; Italyand Russia, in 1891; the U.S., in 1892 with the Kragrifle. The British upgraded their .303 Lee-Metfordwith smokeless cartridges in 1895, resulting in the .303 Lee-Enfield. The Lebel was not dispersed by the French Government onto foreign surplus markets until the old rifle was finally declassified as a service weapon after WWII. On the other hand, brand new military-issue 1886 and 1886-93 Lebels are featured on catalogs of the French mail-order firm Manufranceprinted until 1939. A sporting version of the Lebel was also offered by Manufrance during the pre-WWII years. This sporting version featured a shorter barrel, a turned-down bolt handle and a slimmer, better finished stock. Finally a Belgian firm even transformed surplus Lebel rifles into shotguns under the brand name of "Centaur".
The Lebel was a reliable and sturdy, if rather long and heavy, service rifle assembled from oversized parts showing a high degree of finish. The Lebel's durability served as a pretext to keep it in service far too long, well into the late 1930s. For instance, it remained the rifle of the
French Foreign Legion, rather than the Berthier rifle, until the adoption of the MAS 1936 rifle. During World War Iit equipped most of French infantry where it was well appreciated and preferred over the Berthier rifle. The latter rifles were issued in preference to colonial troops. Furthermore, due to its robustness and massive steel receiver,the Lebel became the weapon of choice for firing the VB rifle grenades. It was also quite accurate at long distances with standard "Balle D" ammunition. The APX Mle 1916 and Mle 1917 telescopic sights issued in quantities (one for each infantry squad) at the end of WWI were designed to fit mostly the Lebel rifles. They were 3X magnification and adjustable to a maximum range of 800 meters. Conversely, the small iron sights, while being accurate for target practice or sniping, left much to be desired for assault situations. The Lebel rifle was slow to reload as a repeater because of its tube magazine. The top of the barrel was not covered by a handguard and could burn the shooter's hand . Therefore, in terms of rapid-fire capability in combat, the Lebel was widely outclassed by rifles like the British Lee-Enfield ,the German Mauser of 1898 and the M1903 Springfield rifle. One could say that its tube magazine had made the Lebel rifle obsolete by 1900. The negative legacy of the Lebel was, above all, the shape of its rimmed bottlenecked ammunition that adversely affected functioning in vertically stacked magazine firearms (first the Berthier rifle, and later the Chauchatmachine rifle). The problem was well known to French ordnance as early as 1900, and consequently, at the eve of the First World War, the French military was planning to replace the Lebel rifle and its ammunition by an entirely new 7x59mm semi-automatic rifle, the " Meunier Rifle" or "Fusil A6". It was officially adopted in 1910 but its manufacture was placed on hold because of impending rumors of war. Later, during WWI, a small series (1,000 units) of the Meunier rifle was manufactured in 1916 at Tulle arsenal. However, French ordnance finally chose to adopt in 1917 a "modification" of the Lebel rifle (actually utilizing only the stock, foregrip,trigger guard and barrel of the Lebel) into a gas operated semi-automatic rifle: the Fusil Mle 1917 RSC, in 8 mm Lebel calibre, which was issued during 1918 but was far from being entirely satisfactory. Its improved and shortened version, the Mle 1918 RSC, finally gave excellent but limited service.
The slow pace of the French Army to modernize its infantry rifles persisted after WWI: the
7.5x54 Frenchbolt action MAS-36rifle was adopted a full seven years after the official switch (in 1929) to rimless 7.5 mm ammunition. Furthermore, a modern and thoroughly tested 7.5 mm semi-automatic rifle (the MAS 38-40) was ready for mass production just before the German invasion of France in June 1940. It should otherwise have entered field service in 1941, but France fell under German Occupation. The MAS 38-40 semi-automatic rifle was then shelved, but eventually returned to production at St. Etienne immediately after World War II, albeit in a modified form with a detachable 10 round magazine. The French Navyadopted it under the name of MAS 44, while the French Army finally adopted it as the MAS 49, which remained in service with the French Army and French Foreign Legion until 1979.
Infantry Weapons Of WWI
#"French autoloading rifles. 1898-1979 (Proud promise)", by Jean Huon ,1995,Collector Grade Publications. ISBN 0-88935-186-4.This volume ( in English )contains a detailed technical chapter describing the Lebel rifle and its ammunition. This volume primarily describes all French semi-automatic rifles since 1898, notably the Mle 1917 and Mle 1918 semi-automatic rifles, the Meunier (A6) rifle as well as the MAS 38-40 to MAS49 and 49/56 series.
#"La Manufacture Nationale d'Armes de Chatellerault(1819-1968)", Claude Lombard,1987,Brissaud,162 Grande Rue, Poitiers,ISBN 2-902170-55-6 . This illustrated volume ( in French ) contains the production statistics for the Lebel rifle as well as complete technical accounts on the Gras, Kropatschek, Lebel and Berthier weapons and how they came to be designed and manufactured. This is regarded as the fundamental research volume on the subject.The author is a retired armament engineer who spent most of his career at Chatellerault and had full access to all the archives and the prototypes.
#"Military rifle and machine gun cartridges", Jean Huon,1988,Ironside International Publishers,Alexandria,VA,ISBN 093555405X . This volume ( in English ) provides a detailed description of all the types of 8 mm Lebel ammunition,including the Balle D (a.m.). The 7 X 59 mm Meunier cartridge ( for the semi-automatic A6 Meunier rifle ) is also illustrated and described in detail.
#"Standard Catalog of Military Firearms",Ned Schwing,2003,Krause Publications,ISBN 0-87349-525-X. Contains an informative and detailed page dedicated to the Lebel rifle ( by David Fortier).
#"The Chauchat Machine Rifle (Honour Bound) ", Gerard Demaison and Yves Buffetaut,1995,Collector Grade Publications,ISBN 0-88935-190-2, The 10 pages illustrated appendix at the end of this volume ( in English) exhaustively describes all the 8 mm Lebel ball ammunition types, plus the less well-known blank,tracer,armor-piercing,incendiary,dummy and proof rounds. This appendix was documented and authored by internationally-known cartridge expert Dr Ph.Regenstreif.
#"Bolt Action Rifles",Frank de Haas and Wayne Van Zwoll,2003,Krause Publications,ISBN 0-87349-660-4. An illustrated chapter in this volume reviews in depth the Lebel and Berthier rifles (and carbines).
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