Lebel Model 1886 rifle
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|Lebel Model 1886 rifle
Fusil Modèle 1886/M93
|Place of origin||France|
|In service||1887 to 1940|
|Used by||See Users|
French colonial expeditions
First World War
Spanish Civil War
Second World War
Algerian War (limited)
|Designer||Team led by gen. Tramond (Gras, Lebel, Vieille, Bonnet, Desaleux, Close, Verdin).|
|Manufacturer||French State manufactures (Chatellerault, Saint-Etienne and Tulle)|
|Produced||1887 to 1920|
|Weight||4.41 kg (9.7 lb)
(loaded with 10 rounds)
4.18 kg (9.2 lb)
|Length||130 cm (51.2 in)|
|Barrel length||80 cm (31.5 in)|
4 grooves, right to left twist
|Muzzle velocity||610 to 700 m/s
(2,000 to 2,300 ft/s)
|Effective firing range||400 m (438 yards) (individual targets)|
|Maximum firing range||1,800 m (1,644 yards) (volley fire at massed area targets)|
|Feed system||8 round tube magazine|
The Lebel Model 1886 rifle (French: Fusil Modèle 1886 dit "Fusil Lebel") is also known as the "Fusil Mle 1886 M93", after a bolt modification was added in 1893. It is an 8 mm bolt action infantry rifle that entered service in the French Army in April 1887. It is a repeating rifle that can hold eight rounds in its forestock tube magazine plus one round in the transporter. The Lebel rifle had the distinction of being the first military firearm to use smokeless powder ammunition. The new gunpowder, "Poudre B", was nitrocellulose-based and had been invented in 1884 by French chemist Paul Vieille. Lt. Colonel Nicolas Lebel contributed a flat nosed 8 mm full metal jacket bullet ("Balle M", or "Balle Lebel") inspired from the first full metal jacket rifle bullets that had just been invented in 1882 by a Lt. Colonel (then Captain) Eduard Rubin (Swiss Army). Twelve years later, in 1898, a solid brass pointed (spitzer) and boat-tail bullet called "Balle D" was retained for all 8mm Lebel ammunition. Each case was protected against accidental percussion inside the tube magazine by a primer cover and by a circular groove around the primer cup which caught the tip of the following pointed bullet. Featuring an oversized bolt with front locking lugs and a massive receiver, the Lebel rifle was a durable design capable of long range performance. In spite of early obsolete features, such as its tube magazine and the shape of 8mm Lebel rimmed ammunition, the Lebel rifle remained the basic weapon of French line infantry during World War I (1914–1918). Altogether, two million eight hundred and eighty thousand (2,880,000) Lebel rifles were produced by the three French State factories between April 1887 and May 1920.
Operation, features, and accessories
In operation, the bolt is turned up to the vertical position until the two opposed front locking lugs are released from the receiver. At the end of the bolt's opening phase, a ramp on the receiver bridge forces the bolt to the rear thus providing leveraged extraction of the fired case. The rifle is fitted with a two-piece wood stock, and features a spring-loaded tubular magazine in the forend. Taking aim at intermediate distances is done with a ramp sight graduated between 400 and 800 meters. The ladder rear sight is adjustable from 850 to 2,400 meters. Flipping forward that ladder sight reveals the commonly used fixed combat sight up to 400 meters. No rifle safety existed on the Lebel. The Mle 1886 rifle had a 10-round capacity (eight in the forend tube magazine, one in the transporter, and one in the chamber). The Lebel rifle features a magazine cutoff on the right side of the receiver. When activated it prevents feeding cartridges from the magazine.
The Mle 1886 Lebel rifle was issued with a long needle-like quadrangular épée bayonet, the Épée-Baïonnette Modèle 1886, with a length of 52 cm. (20 in.). With its X-shaped cross section, the épée bayonet was optimized for thrusting, designed to readily penetrate thick clothing and leather. The bayonet was dubbed Rosalie by French soldiers who were issued it during World War I. An effective stabbing/thrusting weapon, the Mle 1886 bayonet was frequently cut down by individual soldiers and ordnance sections into a stiletto-type thrusting knife (Poignard de tranchée) for use in trench warfare.
Origins and development
Historically, the Mle 1886 Lebel rifle was the first military firearm to use smokeless powder ammunition. This new gunpowder, made of stabilized nitrocellulose, was called "Poudre B" ("Powder B") and had just been invented in 1884 by Paul Vieille(1854-1934). "Poudre B" was three times as powerful as black powder, for the same weight, and left virtually no residues of combustion. At about the same time, in 1882, a captain (later colonel) Eduard Rubin (1846–1920) (Swiss Army) had invented the first full-metal-jacket (FMJ) rifle bullets. Wrapping a protective copper jacket around the lead core of a bullet was also a transformative event in firearm history: from now on bullets could be fired at very high velocities without melting inside a rifle's barrel. Eduard Rubin was soon followed by Hebler, also in Switzerland, who successfully created the first steel jacketed rifle bullets.
Shortly thereafter, in January 1886, the French War Minister, general Boulanger, requested the urgent application of these technical breakthroughs to the design of a new infantry rifle. He appointed general Tramond in charge of the project which had to be completed within one year. Firstly the 11mm Gras cartridge case was redesigned into an 8mm case, a transformation carried out by colonel Gras and lt-colonel Desaleux. The repeating mechanism, derived from the French Mle 1884 Gras-Kropatschek repeating rifle, was implemented by Albert Close and Louis Verdin at the Chatellerault arsenal. The bolt's two opposed front locking lugs, inspired from the two rear locking lugs on the bolt of the earlier Swiss Vetterli rifle, were designed by colonel Bonnet. The 8mm flat nosed full metal jacket "Balle M" bullet was suggested by general Tramond and designed by Lt. colonel Nicolas Lebel after whom the rifle (and the calibre) are named. However Lt-colonel Lebel did not lead the team responsible for creating the new rifle. He amicably protested during his lifetime that general Tramond and colonel Gras were the two superior officers who jointly deserved that credit. Nevertheless his name, which only designated the "Balle M" bullet as the "Balle Lebel", informally stuck to the entire weapon.
The Lebel followed the bolt action 11mm Mle 1874 Gras and the Mle 1878 French Naval Kropatschek rifle designed by an Austrian, Alfred von Kropatschek, and shared the latter's tubular magazine in the fore-end. Two transitional repeating infantry bolt action rifles, still chambered for the 11mm Gras black-powder cartridge, followed the Mle 1878 rifle: the Mle 1884 and the Mle 1885 rifles. The latter had a two-piece stock and a massive steel receiver and closely resembles the Mle 1886 Lebel. Over 20,000 Mle 1884 rifles had already been issued when the decision to adopt the Mle 1886 Lebel rifle was taken.
In 1893, an improved version of the M1886 Lebel was designated Fusil Mle 1886 M (modifié) 93. The most useful improvement was a modification of the bolt head so it would divert away from the shooter's face any hot gases escaping from a ruptured cartridge case. The firing pin and its rear knob had already been modified in 1887 while the stacking rod remained unchanged. Lastly, the fixation of the rear sight onto the barrel was substantially improved during that 1893 modification. (See: Claude Lombard, 1987)
The Lebel rifle was manufactured by three government arsenals: Châtellerault, St-Etienne and Tulle. It featured a two-piece stock and a massive receiver designed to withstand the higher pressures developed by the new smokeless powder-based cartridges. Between 1935 and 1940, a carbine-length (17.7 inch barrel) version of the Lebel was issued to mounted colonial troops in North Africa. This short carbine version of the Lebel, called the Mle 1886 M93-R35, was assembled in large numbers (about 50,000) at Manufacture d'Armes de Tulle (MAT), beginning in 1935. It used all of the Lebel's parts except for a newly manufactured shorter barrel of carbine length. Since the new carbine's tube magazine had to be shortened as well, its magazine capacity was only three rounds.
The total number of Lebel rifles produced between April 1887 and May 1920, when their manufacturing ceased altogether, exceeds 2.8 million guns. The Châtellerault arsenal alone produced 906,760 Lebel rifles at the average rate of 900 rifles/day. The machinery used for the production of Lebel barrels was purchased from the British firm of Greenwood and Batley. Specialized machinery was also procured in the USA. All Lebel parts are fully interchangeable regardless of place and time of manufacture. All the Lebel's parts, including the stock and forearm, bear the same serial number (with the rare exception of some minor parts replaced at the "MAT" facility). Otherwise, receiver serial numbers beginning by the letters R, S, T, RS, RT, ST, and TS are indicative of Lebel rifles manufactured before and including 1898, and fall into the "antiques" category defined by the ATF. The year etched on the upper right side of the barrel, close to the receiver, only identifies the age of installation of the barrel now currently in place. The date on the barrel may well be younger than the date of manufacture of the overall rifle. The explanation is that many Lebel rifles returned from the battlefield with worn out barrels were retrofitted with factory new updated barrels at "Manufacture d'Armes de Tulle" ("MAT"), between 1914 and the late 1930s.
Competitors and successors
Upon its introduction, the Lebel rifle proved to be vastly superior to the Mauser M-71/84, the German army's repeater replacement of the single-shot Dreyse needle gun. France finished its rearmament program with the Lebel in 1889, just 18 months after the Second Reich had completed its rifle replacement program with 780,000 M-71/84s. The new French rifle alarmed Bismarck. Tests at Spandau in the winter of 1887-1888 found that the Lebel could fire 43 rounds of smokeless powder ammunition per minute compared to just 26 of black-powder ammunition for the M-71/84. The inferiority of the Mauser M71/84 and its 11mm black-powder ammunition was one reason why Bismarck opposed going to war with France that winter, despite being pressed by the War Minister Waldersee (another reason was that the new French De Bange field artillery, now equipped with breech loaders after the lessons of the 1870 war, both outnumbered and outperformed the Krupp C64 field guns in their rate of fire).
The Mle 1886 rifle proved to be a sturdy and serviceable weapon, but one which became rapidly outdated by advances in military rifle and ammunition designs. As early as 1888, the German Army’s Rifle Testing Commission had introduced in response a completely new turnbolt magazine rifle with a spring-loaded box magazine: the Gewehr 88 "Commission" rifle. Above all else, it had been designed around the first ever rimless military cartridge using the new smokeless powder ammunition: the 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge. The early Gewehr 88 was followed 10 years later by the highly successful Gewehr 98 Mauser rifle which still fired the same cartridge but with ballistic improvements.
In response to being left behind by Germany's Mauser rifle, the French military decided in 1909 to replace the Lebel and its rimmed cartridge by more advanced designs. Consequently, while the bolt action Berthier rifle was first issued in 1907 as a stop-gap to arm colonial troops, the French defense ministry was planning to leapfrog other military forces with an advanced semi-automatic infantry rifle. This new weapon was the Meunier rifle, also known as the Fusil A6, which chambered a more powerful 7×59mm rimless cartridge. It was adopted in 1912 after an extensive competitive process. However its manufacture, which was to begin in 1913, was suspended because of the imminent risk of war with Germany. Instead, and during World War I, the French Army chose the easier and less expensive solution of adopting a gas-operated semi-automatic rifle which incorporated some Lebel parts: the Fusil Mle 1917 RSC, once again in 8mm Lebel caliber. It was manufactured in large numbers (85,000) during 1918 and issued to select soldiers in line infantry regiments. However, the Mle 1917 RSC was criticized by infantrymen as being too heavy, too long, and too difficult to maintain in the trenches. Furthermore, it also needed a special five-round clip to operate. In the end, the aged M1886 Lebel and variants of the Berthier rifle remained in service until the Armistice of November 11, 1918 and beyond.
The 8mm Lebel cartridge
When it first appeared, the Lebel's 8×50R 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 carrying rifles chambered for black-powder, large-caliber lead-bullet ammunition. Using smokeless powder, he could remain virtually invisible to an enemy at longer ranges, yet locate an enemy at any range by the smoke from their rifles. He could also carry more cartridges for the same overall weight. In the M1886 Lebel rifle, the early 231 gr (15 g) jacketed flat-nosed, lead-cored Balle M flat-nose bullet had an extreme range of 3,500 yards and a muzzle velocity of 2,000 ft/s (610 m/s), with an effective range of approximately 438 yards (401 m).
A new 197 gr (12.8 g) solid brass(90%copper-10% zinc) pointed (spitzer) and boat-tail bullet ("Balle D") was adopted for the Lebel rifle in 1898 and placed in generalized service after 1901 - historically the very first boat-tailed plus spitzer rifle bullet to be invented and then widely manufactured. Lt-colonel Desaleux's own "Balle D" provided a flatter trajectory and increased the extreme range of the Mle 1886 rifle to about 4,000 yards and its maximum effective wounding distance (when fired indirectly at massed area targets) to 1,800 yards. More importantly, the realistic effective range of the 8mm Lebel was increased (due to the bullet's flatter trajectory) to approximately 457 yards (418 m) using open sights. The altered ballistic trajectory of the new cartridge necessitated a replacement of the Lebel's rear sights.
Firstly, in order to avoid accidental percussion of sharply pointed Balle D ammunition inside the Lebel's tubular magazine, a circular groove was formed on each case head, around the primer pocket, in order to receive the pointed bullet tip of the cartridge that followed. Secondly, the Berdan primer on each French-made military Balle D round is also protected against accidental percussion by a thick, convex primer cover which was crimped in after 1912. This latest round was called "Balle D a.m.", a word standing for "Balle D amorcage modifie" (modified primer). This disposition provided in effect a safer double primer cup. This less sensitive primer plus the circular groove etched around the primer cup, both typical of French-made 8mm Lebel military ammunitions, completely eliminated the risk of accidental percussion inside the tube magazine. However recently manufactured 8mm Lebel ammunition made for today's commercial marketplace does not provide these two essential safety features which were universal on the old French-made military "Balle D" and "Balle N" pointed bullet ammunitions. Therefore the placement of modern 8mm Lebel commercial ammunitions with pointed bullets inside a Lebel rifle's tube magazine is potentially dangerous and must be avoided.
The last type of Lebel military issue ammunition to be introduced was the Cartouche Mle 1932N, using a cupro-nickel, silver-colored, jacketed spitzer boat-tailed lead-cored bullet which was only suitable for Lebel and Berthier rifles marked "N" on top of the receiver and barrel. This 8mm Lebel heavier Balle "N" ammunition had originally been designed to increase the range of the Hotchkiss machine gun. Its manufacturing ceased in France during the late 1960s.
8mm Lebel ammunition was powerful for its time. It ranked slightly higher in muzzle energy than .303 British and slightly lower than the German 7.92×57mm Mauser cartridge. The chief negative characteristic of 8mm Lebel ammunition was the geometry of its rimmed bottlenecked case. This adversely affected the magazine capacity and functioning of firearms, particularly in automatic weapons such as the Chauchat machine rifle. The Lebel cartridge's heavily-tapered case shape and substantial rim forced weapon designers to resort to magazines with extreme curvatures as for the Chauchat machine rifle. In contrast, rimless straight-wall cartridges such as the .30-06 Springfield and the 8x57mm Mauser could easily be loaded in straight vertical magazines.
The M1886 in service
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 Austria adopted new 8mm infantry rifles in 1888; Italy and Russia in 1891; and the U.S. in 1892 with the Krag rifle. The British upgraded their .303 Lee-Metford with smokeless cartridges in 1895, resulting in the .303 Lee-Enfield.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the Lebel rifle was sold in the French overseas colonies for the protection of civilians or for hunting purposes. Brand new military-issue 1886 and 1886–93 Lebels could be purchased by authorized civilians and were featured in catalogs of the French mail-order firm Manufrance printed until 1939. A sporting version of the Lebel called the "Lebel-Africain" was also offered for sale by Manufrance during the pre-World War II years. It featured a shorter barrel, a turned-down bolt handle and a slimmer, better finished stock. However, it was not competitive as a hunting weapon when compared to the bolt action Mauser and Mannlicher-Schoenauer hunting rifles that became widely available for sporting purposes, beginning in the early 1900s.
World War I usage
The Lebel rifle was a hard-hitting and solidly built weapon with a reputation for reliability in adverse environments including those of trench warfare. The Lebel rifle was quite accurate up to 300 yards and still deadly at three times that distance, thanks to the spitzer and boat tail "Balle D" bullet. Nevertheless, the Lebel rifle was not without its flaws:
- The slow-to-reload tube magazine was the Lebel's worst handicap when compared to other military rifles of that period.
- The Lebel's diminutive sights were too low and too small, thus difficult to align and furthermore unprotected against shocks.
- The lack of a wooden handguard on top of the barrel led to burned hands after prolonged firings.
Nevertheless, the Lebel rifle was preferred by French infantrymen over the M1907-15 Berthier rifle with its limited three-round magazine capacity. The difference was the Lebel's larger magazine capacity in an emergency (8 rounds plus an extra round in the transporter). In the words of David Fortier (in "Standard Catalog of Military Rifles", 2003): "The rifle shoulders nicely and is comfortable with a 13.5" length of pull. Align the hard to see sights and squeeze. When the hammer drops the Lebel slaps hard on both ends. The bolt handle is a bit out of reach due to its forward placement, but the action is fairly smooth and easy to run from the shoulder. You just have to give it a bit of a tug at the end to snap the shell carrier up ... With quality ammunition and a good bore these rifles are capable of fine accuracy. ... A rugged and reliable design, the Lebel soldiered on far longer than it should have."
During World War I (1914-1918), the Lebel remained the standard rifle of French infantry whereas the Berthier rifle - a lengthened version of the Berthier carbine - featuring a Mannlicher-style 3-round magazine was issued to colonial troops, to allied contingents in the French army and to the French Foreign Legion. Regarding the latter however, it demanded and obtained in 1920 to be re-equipped with the Lebel rifle. The Lebel rifle could also be used with a removable VB (Viven-Bessieres) rifle grenade launcher. While the Lebel rifle was quite effective at up to 300 meters with the standard Balle D boat-tail bullet ammunition, accuracy at longer distances was impaired by the existing open sights. Consequently, adjustable telescopic sights (the APX Mle 1916 and APX Mle 1917 models) were issued in numbers during WW-1 for the Lebel rifle, beginning in late 1916.
Post-World War I use
Because of several negative factors during the late 1920s and 1930s — including the depressed economy, reduced war budgets under the Popular Front government and neglect at high army levels, notably so by then War Minister Marshall Philippe Pétain — the French Army was slow to modernize its infantry weapons. For instance, industrial mass production of the bolt-action MAS-36 rifle was initiated too late (in 1937) although the prototype of the MAS-36 rifle had already been approved by 1929. As a result, insufficient numbers of MAS-36 rifles were available when World War II broke out in September 1939. Furthermore, a thoroughly tested semi-automatic rifle was also ready to be mass produced by 1938. But five more years had to pass before this effective gas-operated weapon(the MAS-1938/39) could be issued as the MAS-44 , MAS-49 and MAS 1949-56 series. Another result of all these delays is that Lebel rifles — many of which had since been shortened into a carbine-length version, the "Mle 1886 M93R35" — were still in the hands of second line troops at the outbreak of World War II. Near the end of World War II in 1944, the German Wehrmacht had issued some captured M1886 Lebel rifles, given the German identification code Gewehr 301(f), to some of their occupation troops in France, but in limited numbers. Some ten years later, during the Algerian War, Lebel rifles were issued to the local civilian populations for self-defense. Functional Lebel rifles have been brought back in recent years from the mountains of Afghanistan.
- Eric Dorn Brose (2004). The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870-1918. Oxford University Press. pp. 47–50. ISBN 978-0-19-517945-3.
- The extreme range is the maximum distance a bullet will carry when fired from any small arm, normally, this is accomplished by firing the weapon at a 45-degree angle.
- The effective range of any infantry rifle is typically the range at which a soldier of average ability and schooled in a particular weapon's operation may be reasonably expected to consistently hit the chest area of a man-size target.
- Huon, 1988.
- Giletta, Jacques (2005). Les Gardes Personnelles des Princes de Monaco (1st ed.). Taurus Editions. ISBN 2 912976-04-9.
- W. Darrin Weaver (2005). Desperate Measures: The Last-Ditch Weapons of the Nazi Volkssturm. Collector Grade Publications. p. 60. ISBN 0889353727.
- 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 highly detailed technical "Introduction" 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 38-39 to MAS49 and 49/56 series.
- La Manufacture Nationale d'Armes de Châtellerault (1819–1968), by Claude Lombard, 1987, Editor: Librairie Brissaud, 162 Grand Rue, Poitiers, 86000, France, ISBN 2-902170-55-6. This large illustrated volume (in French) contains the detailed technical history and production statistics for the Lebel rifle as well as detailed technical accounts on the Chassepot, Gras, Kropatschek 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 Châtellerault and had full access to all the archives and the prototypes.
- Military rifle and machine gun cartridges, Jean Huon, 1988, Ironside International Publishers, Alexandria, Virginia, ISBN 0-935554-05-X. This volume (in English) provides a detailed description of all the types of 8mm Lebel ammunition, including Balle M, Balle D (a.m.) and Balle N. The 7x59mm 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).
- 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).
- France's Wonderful Rifle; Great Performances of the New Small Arm for Infantry, New York Times, October 15, 1889, page 3.
- Le Tir Sportif au Fusil Reglementaire, Bruce Malingue, 2006, Crepin-Leblond, ISBN 2-7030-0265-3, (P.332-334: "Fusil Lebel". The author is justifiably critical of the Lebel's sights)
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