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Web Blast: The French MLE 1886 Lebel

The First And Last

John Sheehan

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It is a little known fact that color photography existed prior to WWI.
Fully armed and equipped Zouaves in field order advance through the
woods in this prewar original color photo.

August 1914. The gentle sloping ridgeline was bathed in the warmth of the sun; the westerly wind blew ripples through the tall summer wheat. It was hard to believe they were at war when surrounded by the beauty of the unspoiled French countryside. As they reached the crest of the ridge, “H-a-a-a-a-alt!”  the order echoing down the line as each NCO picked up the call and carried it down the length of the Regiment, “Fall out! Dig in!” The well-trained troops milled about in orchestrated pandemonium as they quickly stacked rifles, dropped their packs, removed their Lenneman pattern entrenching tools and began to dig. “Mon Dieu, but this is hard ground!”… “We’ll have our share of blisters before this day is done!”

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A bearded Zouave prepares his rations in another pre-war photo.
In war, the brush would provide little concealment for his bright red uniform.

RrrrrRRUUUMPH was heard in the distance. “What was that?” ZzzzzzzwwhooooouuuuBOOOOM! A fiery gray and white airburst erupted in a flowery blossom of death 50 meters beyond the crest of the hill.

ZzzzzzzwwhooooouuuuBOOOOM! The second shell exploded directly above them, it’s momentum carrying the shower of shrapnel past their position. A scream pierced the air as one of the regimental staff’s runners was struck in the chest by several shrapnel balls. The pace of digging became frantic as they piled the growing mounds of dirt in front of the rifle pits, trampling down the wheat in the process as the artillery continued to fall among them.

“Positions! Take cover! Load!” the sergeant shouted and Pvt. Gerreau jettisoned his spade, tossed his pack on top of the unfinished berm for additional cover and dropped down in the shallow pit alongside his good friend, Pvt. Lebeau. He opened the bolt of his Mle 1886/93 Lebel rifle, engaged the magazine cut-off and reached for a cartridge from the ammunition pouch on the right side of his belt. He set the round in the open action and closed the bolt, the extractor slipping over the rim of the case as the locking lugs of the bolt head closed and rotated into battery.

Smoke drifted across the ridge, mingling with the shafts of wheat. The screams of the wounded reached a peak, then died away to whimpering and cries for help. “Get ready!” Pvt. Gerreau peered over the lip of the berm. The artillery fire was lifting. “Volley fire! Present!” Pvt. Gerreau rose up, shifting his weight forward onto his left hip, wrapping the sling of the rifle around his left forearm, he steadied the Lebel, found the sights and searched for a target. As the smoke from the bombardment cleared, he was astonished to see three columns of gray clad, spike-helmeted infantry emerge from the tree line at the base of the hill. “Aim!… FIRE!” And so it began….

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In this pre-war photo a squad of French Zouave in marching order advances
past one of the out buildings of a French farm with full kit. The brightly
polished Mle 1852 mess kit was carried strapped to the blanket roll on
top of the pack, demonstrative of the excellent targets presented to the
Germans during the first three months of the war.

The slab-sided French Mle 1886 Lebel is as amazing today as it was when first introduced during the last quarter of the 19th Century. It stunned the Germans, France’s hated rival, and sent shock waves across all of Europe. The French Balle M 8x51mmR cartridge was the first small caliber, smokeless powder round introduced by any army in the history of warfare.

In the age of billowing clouds of white smoke and rainbow trajectories, the new French rifle sent a 232-grain cupro-nickel jacketed, lead-core roundnose bullet downrange at an astonishing 2,050 fps. In addition, the soldier’s position was not given away to the enemy, except in low light conditions, and he could still see his target after he fired should a follow up shot prove necessary. In addition, the soldier could carry more ammunition without increasing his combat load. This was absolutely astonishing in an age when the velocity of the average military bullet was in the neighborhood of 1,400 fps and the average caliber 11mm.

In its day, the implications of the introduction of the French small-caliber smokeless powder cartridge were taken as seriously in military circles as the introduction of the V2 rocket or the Me262 were during WWII. Just as amazing was the fact the French introduced such a revolutionary cartridge in such an outdated weapon.

As the Mle 1885 Kropatchek was being redesigned as the Mle 1886 Lebel, tubular fed magazine rifles, first introduced during the American Civil War, were already being surpassed by rifles with newer, obviously better designed magazines. Alfred von Mannlicher in Austria-Hungary and Paris Lee in the United States had both already perfected effective box magazine repeating rifles. Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher designed the first clip fed rifle to be introduced by any major power in large numbers in the form of the Model 1885 Mannlicher straight pull rifle. This weapon was mass-produced for Austria-Hungary in its final version as the Model 1886 Mannlicher. Other lesser-known repeating rifle designs were already pointing the way towards the superior characteristics of the inline magazine.

The drawbacks to the Kropatchek design lay in the time required to reload the rifle once the magazine was empty. Fully loaded, the Lebel held 8 cartridges in the tubular magazine, which extended the entire length of the forearm. In addition, under battlefield conditions with the rotary magazine cut-off engaged, a 9th round could be positioned on the cartridge lifter and a 10th round manually chambered just prior to engagement. Compared to a 5-round box magazine, this appears on the surface to be a more than adequate substitute. However, in all but the briefest of firefights, the apparent advantage in magazine capacity rapidly disappears.

Once empty, the Mle 1886 Lebel must be reloaded one round at a time through the top of the action. First the bolt was drawn back, and then the cartridge lifter was depressed. It was at this point the soldier required a third hand as he now had to fumble through his ammunition pouches for individual cartridges, each one of which had to then be inserted into the magazine individually, with each successive cartridge pushing those before it farther up the tube in the forearm.

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The slab-sided Mle 1886/93 Lebel was the standard issue rifle of the French Infantry
throughout the Great War, although the Kropatchek tubular magazine was already
obsolete when the rifle was adopted.

When you compare this to Lebel’s contemporary, the Mannlicher rifle, the advantages of the Mannlicher system quickly become apparent. To reload a dry Mannlicher, all the soldier had to do was to draw the bolt back, ejecting the empty fired case clear of the receiver, reach into his ammunition pouch, pull out a 5-round en-bloc clip and push it down into the magazine until the retention hook caught hold of the clip and he was in business.

The ability to load the magazine to capacity with a single clip proved to be far superior than loading individual rounds into the rifle, no matter how many rounds the magazine would hold. In an all out firefight, the volume of fire maintained with the Mannlicher was far superior and was only eclipsed with the introduction of the Mauser charger, more commonly known to most modern firearms enthusiasts as the stripper clip.

Another drawback of the Mle 1886 Lebel was caused by the excessive weight of the rifle when fully loaded combined with the fact the point of balance of the weapon shifted continually as the magazine was emptied. This does not make for consistent off hand accuracy, despite the fact the Lebel is an inherently accurate rifle. Mind you, the Mle 1886 Lebel was not a disaster; it is simply a shame the French introduced one of the great breakthroughs in military technology i.e. the small caliber, smokeless high-velocity cartridge in a rifle outdated before it was introduced.

With that said, the Mle 86, despite all of its drawbacks, was a very serviceable and dependable rifle. It was the primary infantry weapon of the French Poilu throughout WWI. The Berthier Mle 1907-15 and Mle 1916 were much easier and less expensive to manufacture than the Mle 86 Lebel and were produced in large number before the end of the war, however they never eclipsed the Mle 86 Lebel’s record in terms of frontline service during the Great War. An estimated 3,000,000 Mle 1886 Lebels were in inventory in August of 1914! Various sources estimate the total production of the Lebel from 1887 until 1920 running as high as 4 million rifles.

The rifle tips the scales at a hefty 9.22 pounds. A lot of the weight comes from the slab-sided design of the steel receiver, which made the Lebel the most reliable of all the Kropatchek designs. When fully loaded with the extra cartridges on the lifter and in the chamber, the rifle was heavier still at 10.2 pounds. As introduced and throughout it’s long career, the Lebel was issued with the long, epee-bladed thrusting bayonet known to the troops during WWI as “Rosalie,” the Mle 1886 Bayonet. A later, simplified version was introduced during WWI to speed up production and reduce cost, the Mle 1916 bayonet. It was nothing more than the Mle 86 without the recurved quillion and a copper, steel or iron grip substituted for the original “German silver” grip of the original bayonet. The steel or iron gripped bayonets are easily differentiated from the other two patterns by the blued or black painted finish of the grips.

As a firearms historian, I simply can’t overlook the flaws of the Lebel relative to the wave of more combat worthy designs developed in the later years of the 19th Century. That the French opted to adopt the first Berthier carbines in 1890 with a Mannlicher magazine design is indicative of the realization the box magazine was indeed superior to the tubular magazine.

The attempts made by the French to convert the Mle 1886 Lebel design into a cavalry carbine proved to be a complete and utter failure, once again, due to the limitations of the tubular magazine in a carbine-length weapon. However, by this time, far too much time and money had been spent on the Lebel infantry rifle to abandon the design in favor of Mannlicher’s newer clip-loading system. Budgetary considerations were and still are, always of concern in any peacetime weapons program.

As a collector, however the Mle 1886 Lebel is absolutely one of my favorite rifles. Carried into battle in the millions during WWI, the Lebel saw action from the Marne to Gallipoli, from Africa to the Middle East, from the Chemin des Dames to Verdun! Verdun—the very name of that epic battle seems to sum up the world gone mad into senseless slaughter on an incomprehensible scale. When you pick up a Mle 1886/93 Lebel, it is hard not to think of Verdun!

When you consider the rotational system used by the French Army during that 9-month long ordeal, you have a better than three in four chance the rifle you are holding saw service in the hands of a French Poilu living through the hell called Verdun. It’s hard to imagine another rifle of this period that can be tied with such a degree of certainty to one of the most hotly contested battles of the long, senseless, brutal war.

The Mle 1886 Lebel is never going to win a beauty contest, but it’s not the ugliest rifle the French ever produced either (have you looked at the MAS 36 lately?), however, it is as steeped in history as any battle rifle ever issued. The Lebel served honorably in some of the bloodiest battles in history and is synonymous with French valor in the First World War. The fabled “Poilu,” horizon blue greatcoat, skirt buttoned back, Mle 1915 Adrian helmet, Lebel slung over his shoulder, “Rosalie” suspended in a scabbard on his left hip, is symbolic of the dogged, determination exhibited by the French soldier through the four long bloody years of the Great War.

Model 1893 Alterations

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The receiver of the Mle 1886/93 Lebel housed a simple bolt (above), which
evolved from the earlier designs of the Mle 1866 Chassepot needle rifle and
its metallic cartridge successor, the Mle 1874 Gras. The Lebel bolt root closes
against the receiver sidewall to provide an additional measure of safety in
addition to the dual opposed locking lugs on the bolt head, which was necessary
when taking into account the increase in pressure generated by the then-new
smokeless powder. The rotary magazine cut-off button can be seen on the
receiver just above and forward of the triggerguard.

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The Mle 1886 Lebel was fitted with a standard ramp and leaf style rear sight
(below) with a slider mounted on the ladder-type leaf. The original sight was
regulated out to 2,000 meters, however with the introduction of the Balle D
cartridge with its lighter 198-grain spitzer boattail, new rear sight leaves
registered for 2,400 meters were introduced in 1901.

The Model 1886 Lebel represents an evolutionary design originally based on the Mle 1878 Kropatchek as produced by Steyr of Austria-Hungary for the French Marines. It was followed by the French development of their own Kropatchek designs, i.e. the Mle 1878/84 and Mle 1885 rifles, both of which incorporated tubular magazines. The Mle 1885 Kropatchek saw the introduction of the machined steel receiver which is one of the hallmarks of the Mle 1886 Lebel. All of these designs included variations of the Mle 1874 Gras bolt design that utilized the bolt root closing on the right sidewall of the open bolt-way as the primary means of locking the action. With the introduction of the high-velocity, smokeless 8mm Balle M cartridge, the Lebel’s new bolt head design incorporated the dual opposing locking lugs necessary in order to safely accommodate the substantially higher pressure of the new revolutionary smokeless cartridge.

When the bolt was closed, the magazine release allowed the magazine spring and follower to push the next cartridge out of the magazine and onto the top of the cartridge lifter. When the action was opened, the spent casing was extracted from the chamber and ejected. The rearmost travel of the bolt engaged and raised the cartridge lifter, which placed the next round in line with the chamber. The forward motion of the bolt chambered the cartridge. While revolutionary in its day, by the time of the adoption of the Lebel in 1887, the Lebel had already been eclipsed by more efficient designs.

Following the introduction and issue of the Mle 1866 Lebel in 1887, by 1893 several teething problems had arisen requiring alterations to the new rifle. This included the addition of wings on the rear sight base wrapped around the barrel, which proved necessary when silver soldering alone resulted in the separation of original rear sight bases from the barrel under field conditions. A stacking hook was also added to the nosecap and the rudimentary safety consisting of a rotating cocking piece was eliminated all together.

Following these alterations, all rifles reworked along with all new production were stamped with the “M93” designation on the left receiver sidewall, hence the Mle 1886-93 markings that appear on the vast majority of surviving examples of the Lebel.

Early Uniforms Made Troops Easy Targets

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The four regiments of Zouaves in the French Army in 1914, while dressed in traditional North African style uniforms, were composed entirely of native Frenchmen rather than Colonials (bottom, left). The uniform was composed of a vest (sedria), which was worn underneath the short waste jacket (tombo), atop a pair of triple width baggy trousers (saroul). A 13′ long dark blue woolen sash was wrapped around the waste over the vest and trousers and was intended to provide additional lower back support while on the march. The cartridge belt in turn, was worn over the woolen sash. The entire affair was topped off with a soft red cap with blue tassel (chechia). The traditional gaudy uniform was completely abandoned before the end of 1914 for obvious reasons! The uniform in this display is perhaps the rarest example in the author’s collection. The Metropolitan Infantry Regiments of the regular line units went to war in a uniform (bottom, right) just as ill suited for modern warfare as that of the Zouaves. While the bright red or garance trousers as they were referred to by the French, were not as generously cut as those of the Zouaves, they were equally as conspicuous in the rifle sights of the German soldiers who shot them down by the tens of thousands during the Battle of the Frontiers. Ammunition was carried in issue packets in three M1888 or M1905 leather cartridge pouches, the weight of which was supported by the M1892 Y braces. Each cartridge pouch carried 40 rounds of ammunition for a total of 120 rounds. Additional packets of ammunition were issued prior to an assault and were carried in the bread bag. For full 360-degree views of the uniforms.

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By the end of the war, five different variations of the Lebel bayonet were to be found in French inventories including (above, from top to bottom) Mle 1886 Lebel epee bayonet with German silver or maillechort grip, Mle 1886/16 simplified Lebel epee bayonet, also with maillechort grip, wartime simplified pattern eliminating the recurved quillion in order to reduce the manufacturing time and cost of each bayonet. The Mle 1886/16 simplified bayonet (middle) had a brass grip in place of the standard German silver and the Mle 1886/16 simplified bayonet with steel grip. The Mle 1916 Lebel bayonet with double-edged knife blade (bottom), was an experimental bayonet never officially adopted by the French Army. It is not known exactly how many were produced during the war. In order to conserve brass and copper which was required in ever greater amounts during the war for munitions production, late war bayonet production saw the introduction of both iron and steel grips, all of which were the simplified Mle 86/16 configuration. These included (below, top two) bayonets with painted iron grips, while the bottom two bayonets have steel grips. One version (bottom) sports a stamped sheet metal barbed wire cutter that aligned an individual piece of wire with the muzzle of the rifle, which was then discharged, thus cutting the wire.

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The Mle 1886 epee bayonet with German silver grip was originally issued with the Lebel. The attachment system is quite robust with a small lug on the underside of the rifle barrel engaging a groove in the top of the bayonet grip. A circular section on the butt of the pommel engages a similar cutout on the front of the nosecap. The retention hook is engaged and disengaged via a button on the left side of the bayonet, just below the crossguard, that locks in place behind the rear most portion of the rifle barrel lug.

WEB BLAST EXTRA PHOTOS

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“Vive le difference!” Two Parisian Mademoiselles bid farewell to departing French soldiers in
August of 1914. The black and white photo does not do justice to the bright red trousers and
polished mess kits, which conspired to make the Poilu the perfect target against the green and
brown backdrop of the French countryside over which the war was to be fought.

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French Metropolitan Infantry march through the streets of Paris upon
mobilization with their Mle 1886/93 Lebels at shoulder arms.

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French Infantry columns march through vineyards on the way to the front in August 1914.

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Serried ranks of French troops armed with Mle 86/93 Lebels advance at the quick step in this rare
photograph of a bayonet charge taken in the first weeks of the war. The French tactical doctrine of
“Attaque a outrance,” the cult of “élan” and the bayonet, resulted in mass slaughter as the brightly
festooned French troops were thrown time and again in sweeping charges across open ground in the face of
machineguns and repeating small arms fire supported by rapid firing artillery. By the end of the
Battle of the Frontiers, the French Army had suffered more than 600,000 casualties.

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French infantry exchange fire with German troops across open fields in the early days
of the war. Note the NCO’s kneeling behind the front rank monitoring the fire discipline of
the troops. The prone soldier in the right foreground is reaching for cartridges to feed into the
Kropatchek magazine through the top of the open action of his 86/93 Lebel.

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French Infantry await a German counter attack following a failed assault that has left members
of their own unit strewn dead across the field in front of their position. Amazingly, the astronomical
butcher’s bill resulting from continued frontal assaults in the early months of the war forced both sides
to ground, however it did nothing change the practice of sending young men to their deaths across open
ground into the teeth of modern weaponry, a practice repeated time and again over the next four years.

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Sheltering from enemy fire in a rubble-strewn ditch on the edge of a field, French troops
exchange fire with the “Boche”. The second soldier from the left is in the process of thumbing
another cartridge into the tubular magazine of the Lebel.

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French soldiers, rifles at the ready, shelter behind the bank of a canal while they wait for the enemy to
appear. A French officer scans the countryside for evidence of the approaching German columns.

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French soldiers scan no-man’s-land through a trench periscope in one of the earliest photos of trench
warfare. Three Mle 1886/93 Lebels can be seen resting against the trench wall on the fire-step.

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A “Poilu” takes aim through the periscope of a makeshift sniping rig. As the
war progressed, more sophisticated sniping periscopes were developed by all
of the major combatant countries. The purpose of these contraptions was to
allow harassing fire to be directed at the enemy positions without exposing
the soldier to counter sniping.

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A Lebel armed Chasseur Alpine posses for the camera sometime after 1916 as is
evidenced by the replacement of the original prewar dark blue uniform with standard with
standard issue Horizon Blue. The distinctive beret identifies him as a member of the
elite Chasseur Alpine light infantry.

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French “Poilu” engaged in a firefight with the enemy. The soldier in the center is reaches into his ammunition pouch for another cartridge to feed into the open action of his Mle 1886/93 Lebel. The presence of the Adrian helmets and the Horizon Blue uniform places the photo circa mid to late 1915. An unusual feature of the uniforms shown in the photo are the presence of M1913 leather gaiters, which by this time had been replaced in most units by puttees.

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French Infantry fire on the enemy from the concealment of a bombed out building. Note the prone soldier in the foreground picking up a single cartridge from the ammunition he has placed in a small pile for easy access. If he were armed with a Mauser or Mannlicher rifle, he would be picking up a charger or clip with five to six rounds of ammunition in the same amount of time and effort.

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