The Berthier and Rolling Block WWI 8mm Lebels span the designs of 19th and 20th centuries.
Wartime production is a fascinating subject and rarely covered in the mainstream news. Three, sudden, short, wars in our own history—the Civil War (1861-1865), WWI (1917-1918) and WWII (1941-1945)—are cases in point. It’s miraculous that in a matter of months, not years, manufacturing and logistics could be turned around so quickly and so successfully to supply the millions of products necessary to sustain armies, navies, air and marine forces in combat.
The story of the M1 carbine comes to mind. From mid-1941 to mid-1945, 10 contractors, only one of which (Winchester) had made firearms previously, produced 6,221,200 carbines in 4 years from scratch. Just as fascinating is another story, which took place in WWI when the house of Remington became arms maker to the world, quite by accident.
I was sanding a stock in my shop not long ago. My mind was wandering as it often does when I’m doing a bit of repetitious work, and I caught myself staring at two rifles standing across the room. One was a French Berthier, converted into a handy sporter, and the other was a Remington rolling block mounted with a long staff, tang sight by a previous owner. I had never associated the two rifles before that moment in time. Staring at them, it dawned on me that both were chambered for the 8x50R Lebel, the world’s first smokeless cartridge, that both were made by Remington under separate contracts with the French government and that both were being made during virtually the same WWI time period at two different Remington facilities.
As I thought about it, what was even more intriguing was that one was a simple, robust, single-shot design dating back to the Civil War and the other was a modern, bolt-action, repeating rifle.
When Germany declared war on France in 1914, the French were caught flat-footed with insufficient stores of small arms and ammunition for their newly raised army. Adolphe Berthier, Chief of Office for the Algerian railroad, had designed the Berthier in 1899. With the advent of WWI, the Berthier was put into full-scale production as the Model 1907-15 and produced at the government arsenals of Saint-Etienne, Chatellerault and Tulle as well as under contract with the French firms of Establissements Contin-Souza of Paris and Societe Francaise Delaunay of Bellville. The pace of French production proved insufficient so France contracted with Remington to produce 200,000 Model 1907-15 Berthiers and 100,261 Model 1914 rolling block military rifles chambered for the 8mm Lebel Balle-D cartridge.
By Holt Bodinson
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