The MAS 36

An underrated and innovative French warhorse
7

Nope, no raging beauty, even by military standards but the MAS 36 is solid, built to
last and is an excellent rifle with its own brand of Gallic cool.

France’s role in the design and development of cutting-edge small arms often gets overlooked, often by those casting a jaundiced eye toward the country’s military setbacks since the days of Napoleonic success. This is manifestly unfair — not only to the country, but to the firearms designed, produced and used by the French.

From the lethal Chassepot rifle, which seriously outclassed the Dreyse “Needle Gun” in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, to the smokeless breakthrough of the Lebel Model 1886 and to the most excellent MAT 49 SMG of Indochina and Algeria fame, France’s historic menu of personal weaponry has bested the competition on several occasions.

The 17" cruciform bayonet is housed in an under-barrel tube. Pull it
out, reverse it and stick away — or fire-roast a hunk of goat!

A look all its own

However, if there was a contest for Best Ugly Military Bolt-Action Rifle of All Time, France’s MAS 36 would be a contender for top honors. Aesthetics aside, its somewhat blocky two-piece stock, slab-sided receiver and dog-leg, rear-lug bolt shouldn’t detract from the many sensible features of this carbine-length battle rifle produced from 1937 to 1952.

The acronym “MAS” stands for “Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Ètienne,” the state-owned arms manufacturing company. The MAS 36 was used by French colonial troops as well as French regulars and Legionnaires and saw service in WWII, Indochina, Algeria and various flare-ups and civil wars including the 1956 Suez Crisis where elite French paratroops used scoped versions very effectively as counter-sniper tools.

With an OAL of 40" and an unloaded weight of slightly over 8 lbs., the MAS 36 is 3.2" shorter than the handy-for-its era 1903 Springfield and only half an inch longer than Britain’s SMLE No. 5 Mk 1 “Jungle Carbine.” Compact as it is, the MAS 36 — with its full-length handguard — simply looks beefy, solid and built to last. When my unabashedly Francophile shooting buddy Doug Fee produced a very nice late 1940s specimen, it was Vive la France! for us.

The MAS 36 feeds quickly and efficiently (above) from 5-round stripper clips. The MAS 36 bolt
configuration (below) looks ungainly but lends itself to “palm up” manipulation. The knob is far
enough forward to prevent it from banging into the trigger finger during recoil.

About the ammo

The 7.5x54 cartridge the MAS 36 is chambered for features a 0.309" 139-gr. bullet rated at (an optimistic) 2,800 fps, putting it more-or-less in the .308 class without a lot of quibbling over grains, fps or thousandths of an inch. It’s a slightly shorter version of the 7.5x57 which itself replaced the 8x50R Lebel of WWI fame in the mid-1920s.

Ammo availability is a challenge. The United States is by no means awash in 7.5x54. We did manage to scrounge up some commercial ball from Portugal’s Munições de Armas Ligeiras as well as some elderly surplus Berdan-primed Syrian-made stuff in 5-round stripper clips, three to a box. The Portuguese FNM ammo features non-corrosive Boxer primers but not so with the Berdan-primed Syrian stuff. The only other source for 7.5x54 we’re aware of is Prvi Partizan.

Toadstickers, Sights, Stripper Clips

Perhaps the most anachronistic feature of the rifle is its 17″ spike (more correctly, cruciform) bayonet. It definitely resembles something out of the Napoleonic Wars and is stored in an under-muzzle tube alongside the stacking swivel. You simply push a catch, pull it out, reverse it and reinsert in the storage tube with no interference from the side-mounted sling.

It’s very easy to picture French Colonial troops using it to spit and roast chunks of sheep or goat over an open fire in 1943 Tunisia or at Italy’s Gothic Line. It’s considerably more difficult to envision it as a serious last-ditch edged weapon in the same class as a conventional knife-type bayonet.

One of the main gripes I’ve heard concerning the MAS 36 is the “too thick” width of the front sight measuring at 0.89″ since the front sight width of the M1 Garand — which has, for our money, the gold standard of military iron sight arrangements — is 0.78″. Those with a preference for a skinnier blade have a decent argument. What also proved tough for us geezers was the extremely small rear aperture.

If we had our druthers, however, we’d much prefer open ears to protect the front sight rather than the fully enclosed hood that replaced ears on later models such as ours. There are no windage knobs on the tangent-type rear aperture, which has an elevation range to an optimistic 1,200 meters. If a French trooper had a windage issue, he’d require the services of an armorer with specialized tools.

The two-stage trigger pull of our MAS 39 was right at 5.5 lbs. with about three of it on the first stage, along with a bit of creep. But again, this is a mass-produced battle rifle and as such, the trigger is serviceable. So bitching about it from the standards of a “pre-lawyer” Remington M700 is pretty silly. The rifle has no safety, incidentally.

Naturally, like any self-respecting military bolt action since Peter Paul Mauser’s groundbreaking M98, the MAS 36 is fed from 5-round stripper clips. The receiver’s floorplate/follower/magazine spring unit can be removed for cleaning by pressing a pair of opposing buttons.

One of the most eye-catching features of the MAS 36 is, of course, the dog-leg bolt. It’s angled forward, almost radically so, which has two main advantages. It simplifies rapid palm-up bolt manipulation and prevents your trigger finger from getting banged by the bolt knob in recoil. It’s a short, easy throw, helped in part by the rear-lug construction of the bolt, not too dissimilar from Remington’s late, lamented Model 788 sporter.

The 7.5x54 MAS (center) is an efficient, manageable cartridge on a par
with the 7.62x51 NATO (right). Both are considerably shorter than the
legendary .30-06 (left), but not far behind in terms of ballistic performance.

At the Range

The FNM ammo proved the best performer, delivering 3-shot groups averaging just a hair under 3″. Our best effort was just under 2″ which was gratifying indeed. We should confess our shooting distance was 85 yards instead of the usual 100 as the big range was under repair and deadlines were looming.

The 139-gr. loads clocked right at 2,621 from the MAS 36 22-1/2″ barrel. Recoil was negligible, making for a very pleasant experience at the bench. The corrosive Syrian stuff could best be described as problematic, if your definition of “problematic” covers nine of 10 primer ignition failures. So we give up on it and stuck with the FNM instead.

Final word

The days of getting a nice MAS 36 for under $300 bucks are history as auction bids generally start well north of there. The odds of a major American ammo company offering 7.5×54 ammo is pretty slim so handloading is probably something more than just an option.

Regardless, the MAS 36 is a pretty cool rifle. It’s a lot handier and more user-friendly than its Lebel and Berthier predecessors.

Subscribe To GUNS Magazine

Purchase A PDF Download Of The GUNS Magazine September 2020 Issue Now!