French 1886 Lebel

Revolutionary, until it wasn’t!
10

France’s Mle.1886 Lebel didn’t look too modern, but the performance of
its smokeless powder cartridge set it head and shoulders above its peers.

In the history of firearms, the French Mle.1886 rifle — unofficially and universally nicknamed the “Lebel” — looms large as the weapon making all other military rifles obsolete overnight. The ironic thing is it was essentially obsolete itself almost from the start of its production. It was basically an 1870s Kropatschek tubular magazine black powder cartridge repeater strengthened for a powerful new smokeless powder cartridge. Even its new smokeless 8x50mm cartridge was rather cobbled together and ill-suited for future development because of its peculiar case geometry.

In 1887, the first of Mle. 1886 rifles started leaving the factory. By 1894, France’s national arsenals, working furiously, had produced around 3,000,000 Lebels, enough to rearm the whole French Army.

While the French churned out their antiquated Lebels at a prodigious rate, the armies of Europe’s other great powers were developing new smokeless powder cartridges and rifles too, including many truly advanced en-bloc and stripper-clip loaded designs from the genius of Ferdinand Mannlicher and Paul Mauser, respectively.

The Lebel bolt needed to be operated with authority for the rifle to work
correctly because the lower lug had to hit a tab at the rear of the carrier
hard enough to lift it upward against spring resistance.

Choices

Obviously, the French could have had a much more advanced rifle and cartridge if they had taken just a little more time to study and build on the best technology available as they had initially planned. Instead, they rushed a cartridge and rifle into production to gain an immediate, if short-lived, advantage over their rivals.

Why the rush? Their decision is more understandable if we think like Frenchmen in the years after their humiliating defeat by German forces in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Figuratively, the war left France constantly looking over her shoulder. The largely unified Germany emerging from that war became the preeminent power in Western Europe and a constant danger to French national security. Our recent times lack a comparable experience.

Though the Lebel was no Mauser 98, on the battlefield it more than held its own against the masterpiece of bolt-action designs. The Lebel’s tubular magazine had to be loaded one round at time, but it also held eight rounds to the Mauser’s five. The Lebel had a magazine cut-off allowing the soldier to keep the magazine in reserve while single loading the rifle, a handy feature the ’98 lacked.

Unlike its peers, the Lebel rifle had no user-operated safety switch. French military tradition called for rifles to be carried with the chamber unloaded so a manually operated safety was considered an unnecessary complication. An officer or NCO would order the soldiers to load and clear their chambers at the appropriate time.

The Lebel’s original 230-grain bullet Balle M 8x50mm cartridge had a flat-nose bullet for safe use in a tubular magazine. By World War I it evolved into the 198-grain Balle D. Quite advanced for its time, that bullet was solid brass, boat tailed and pointed at the nose to improve its aerodynamics and long-range performance. Its muzzle velocity was 2,300 feet per second, similar to the .303 British and likewise no handicap on the battlefield. To prevent the pointy bullet from detonating the primer of the cartridge in front of it in the magazine, a groove was cut into the base of the case to catch and retain the tip of the bullet. With no magazine detonations recorded, it must have been effective.

To load the rifle, the carrier lock on the right bottom of the receiver was
moved rearward and cartridges were pushed into the magazine one at a time.

You Need It When?

If the 1898 Mauser was the “Mr. Right” of military bolt actions for Germany, then the Lebel was the “Mr. Right Now” for France. Amazingly, the new Lebel rifle and cartridge were completed in only a few months of coordinated work by adapting the existing Mle. 1885 Gras-Kropatschek repeating rifle and its 11mm black powder cartridge. The downside of scrapping years of research work by command edict has already been noted. The upside was the new rifle and cartridge were fielded with unheard-of speed, its looks and operation were familiar to the military personnel it was issued to, and because the arsenals were already tooled up to build the earlier rifles and ammunition, both development and manufacturing costs were greatly reduced.

In fact, the principal changes were to the sights and the bolt design for the higher pressure smokeless powder ammunition. The Mle. 1885 rifle’s action locked only on the bolt handle boss. The Lebel rifle bolt had a new head with dual looking lugs. Later, a rotating gas shield was also added to the bolt head for the shooter’s protection in the event of a ruptured case.

The Lebel rifle served the French Army in World War I and the Tulle arsenal continued to assemble new rifles from parts and repair damaged guns throughout the war. The number of new guns made was vastly smaller than 19th century production though. Only about 300,000 new Lebels were made from 1895 to the end of production in 1920. As early as the first year of the war, it was obvious there would not be enough Lebels to make up for those lost in battle. Rather than go through the time-consuming and expensive process of restoring full production of the Lebel to meet the huge anticipated jump in demand, the French chose the more economical path of adapting another, simpler, design already in production. The Mle. 1907-15, known as the Berthier, would complement, but never replace, the Lebel in the trenches.

A Long Journey

The Mle. 86/93 Lebel featured in this story is a solid example of a World War I-issue rifle. Made in 1890, it was one of 426,000 rifles made at the St. Etienne arsenal that year. In 1893, it was upgraded at the arsenal to include a new double-claw rear sight base, a new style firing pin retaining button that allowed easier disassembly of the bolt, and most importantly, the modification of the bolt head to incorporate a gas shield. The receiver was stamped “M93” to reflect the updates. The serial numbers on the parts match, which suggests this rifle never returned to the arsenal for rebuild. More likely than not, this rifle saw action in the epic battle of Verdun and somehow survived. We will never know if the polui it was issued to was so lucky.

Virtually every 8mm Lebel firearm in the French inventory beginning in 1932 had its chamber throat reamed larger to accept the Balle 1932N 8x50mm Lebel cartridge. Both barrel and receiver were stamped with an “N” to indicate they had the upgrade but our test rifle has not been so upgraded.
On the receiver ring it bears three curious stamps in the Amharic script of Ethiopia, a sure indication this rifle was purchased from France by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1920s as he toured Europe seeking military arms to defend his nation’s sovereignty from the European colonial powers. He was wise in doing so, but it didn’t stave off invasion for long.

The Italians attacked in force in 1935 during the Second Italio-Ethiopian war and subdued most, though not all, of the country. During the Italian occupation lasting until 1941, they policed the Ethiopians with the aid of colonial units recruited from collaborators. Never fully trusting these African units, they were reluctant to arm them with their first line M91 Carcano rifles. Instead they issued whatever vintage and/or obsolete surplus rifles they captured from the Ethiopians. Typically, the Italians branded these colonial rifles on the stock with the letters “AOI” identifying them as property of the Africa Orientale Italiana, their official name for their East African colonies.

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