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C'est magnifique! France's 8x50R ammo returns.


With Grafs recent run of brand new French 8x50R Lebel brass and Lee's simultaneous production of very affordable 8mm Lebel reloading dies, grab those old, milsurp Lebels and Berthiers and out them back to work.

The greater European powers received the shock of the century in 1885 when a French chemist, Paul Vielle, working at a governmental powder factory took some gun cotton and converted it into progressive burning, smokeless powder. Overnight, black powder cartridges and the rifles designed for them were passe.

No longer was an infantryman's position given away by a cloud of white smoke. No longer was the frontline's vision of the enemy obscured by a pall of black powder smoke. No longer were the soldier's hands, face and uniform smeared with black powder residues. No longer did the rifles have to be cleaned nightly. Most importantly, smokeless powder, leaving minimal fouling in the bore, facilitated the development of smaller caliber cartridges, working at higher pressures, delivering velocities over 2,000 fps, flatter trajectories and extended ranges. The advent of smokeless powder also made machineguns a practical design.


New Powder, New Rifle

Yes, France developed smokeless powder. Within just a few months, the French military also launched the 8x50R Lebel cartridge and the first bolt-action military rifle designed specifically for smokeless powder, the 1886 Lebel. The Germans had a heart attack.

Both the 8mm Lebel cartridge and the 1886 Lebel had their quirks. It's sort of a Gallic thing, you know.


The 8x50R cartridge was derived from France's existing 11x59 Gras cartridge and was designed by Colonel Gras and Captain Desaleux. Refashioning an 11 mm case into an 8mm cartridge created a large rimmed, steeply tapered case with a very squat and dumpy appearance. Yet, it worked in rifles and machineguns from 1886 to 1929 when it was officially replaced by the French 7.5x54mm rimless round.

Loaded originally with a 232-grain flatnose bullet at 2,060 fps, the 8x50R Lebel was hotrodded by the French, who shook up the Continent one more time, when in 1898 they fielded a 198-grain pointed, boattail bullet, lathe-turned from solid 90/100 brass and propelled at 2,297 fps. This was the famous, long-ranging, French "Balle D" bullet, named for its designer, Capt. Desaleux. The streamlined Balle D was the military pacesetter of the day.

The rifle chambered for it, the 1886 Lebel, was initially a full-size infantry rifle, designed by the French arsenal at Chatellerault. The design in part was derived from the Austrian Kropatschek rifle used by the French Navy, featuring a full-length, tubular magazine and a bolt design derived from France's M 1874 Gras rifle. The tubular magazine of the 1886 Lebel held eight cartridges loaded through the receiver opening.


While the Lebel was upgraded several times, produced until 1919 and soldiered on through WWII, the 19th Century tubular magazine system was awkward at best, especially compared to the existing Mauser and Mannlicher systems.

Adolphe Berthier, Chief of Office for the Algerian railroad, came up with a solution in 1889 He adapted the Lebel to the Mannlicher clip-loading system and promoted the design to the French military. Named after its designer, the Berthier was put into production in 1890. It was not just a Lebel with a Mannlicher magazine. The Berthier was a completely new design.

Gone were the massive, square receiver and 2-piece stock of the Lebel. The new Berthier featured a svelte, conventional, tubular receiver, a Mannlicher magazine accepting a 3-round clip, a slim, light barrel and a 1-piece stock. Initially made as a carbine for the cavalry, artillery and gendarme units, it was then issued as a lightweight, infantry rifle to France's colonial troops in Indo-China (1902) and Africa (1907).

With the advent of WWI, the Berthier was put into full-scale production as the Model 1907/15 and issued to newly raised troops beginning in 1916. Production of the Berthier was carried out at the government arsenals of Saint-Etienne, Chatellerault and Tulle as well as under contract with the private firms of Establissements Contin-Souza of Pads, Societe Francaise Delaunay of Belleville and the Remington Arms Co., also making 8mm Lebel Rolling Block rifles for France at the time!


The Berthier was well liked by the troops. The only major complaints were the 3-round clip when facing Mausers taking a 5-round clip and the exposed, open bottom of the Mannlicher magazine was a natural funnel for dirt and debris.

The solution was simple. In 1916, a sheet metal, magazine extension with a closed, hinged bottom was added to the Model 1916 Berthiers, enabling them to accept either a 3- or a new 5-round clip while keeping the magazine well dirt free.

The Berthier is important to milsurp collectors because it is much more common and much cheaper than a Lebel. Being light and svelte, the Berthier models are also nicer to handle.

The model number and maker's name are clearly stamped on the left receiver wall of every Berthier so they are easy to ID.

The two models of the Berthier featured here are typical of what you might run across. The "sporterized" Berthier is a Model 1907-15 made under contract by Remington. The barrel has been cut to 22" and a Pacific brand, banded front sight added. The forearm of the stock has been shortened, but that's it. It still sports the original rear sight calibrated to 2,400 meters, or when flipped forward, exposes a fixed, 250 meter battle sight. It still carries that strange, Gallic, straight trigger and true to its French roots, is without a safety. All you need is a 3-round Lebel clip to make it a repeater.

Remingtons are fairly rare. Possibly less than 100,000 were ever made and most, if not all, remained in the USA. I know nothing about the background of this sporter, except to say, the gunsmith who put it together knew something about gun feel and balance. Mounting the Berthier sporter, you can just picture a leaping whitetail in the sights. Whoever owned it took care of it.

Using Graf brass and Lee dies, I load an 8mm Lebel plinker round featuring 13 grains of Red Dot and any .323" 8mm bullet I can scrounge. Velocity with a 198-grain FMJ is 1,446 fps and groups at 100 yards average 1-1/2" to 2" from the Remington sporter.

If you ever find yourself handloading the 8mm Lebel cartridge, please follow the sensible loading data packed with the Lee dies. Cartridges of the World and Sharpe's Complete Guide to Handloading both list a load with IMR 3031 and a 198-grain bullet which is an excessive load for these old guns. Do not use that data.

The second Berthier is a Model 1916, Mannlicher-stocked short rifle made originally by Etablissements ContinSouza of Pads. The receiver ring carries a stamped "N," signifying it was rethroated for the Balle N, a 232-grain spitzer round with a velocity of 2,480 fps that appeared in the 1930s. The top of the receiver ring also is stamped:




indicating the rifle was reworked by a Turkish arsenal. Reportedly, Berthiers, so marked, were issued to Turkish forestry service officers after WWII. There is no import stamp on the rifle, but "ORMAN" marked Turkish Berthiers keep showing up, so quite a few must have been imported years ago. The metal and wood of this example show signs of severe use and poor maintenance so I don't shoot the Turk.



Historically, the French Lebels and Berthiers chambered for the world's first smokeless cartridge are significant firearms. Like the Italian Carcanos, they haven't generated much interest in the milsurp community. Now that new reloading components are available and Lebel clips can still be found through the Internet, it's time to change that. Don't pass these old war horses by.


The only puzzling challenge in the disassembly of a Lebel or Berthier is the removal of the bolt. The bolt features a removable bolt head held in place by the screw visible on top of the large, rectangular lug located on the right side of the bolt body. Open the bolt until the bolt lugs are aligned with the cutout in the left receiver wall. Remove the screw from the top of the lug (1). Rotate the bolt head toward you until the bolt lugs are in a vertical position. While holding onto the bolt head itself, withdraw the bolt body from the rear of the receiver (2). The bolt head will separate from the bolt body and will remain in the action. Wiggle the bolt head forward and remove it from the action (3).

If the bolt head does not turn, it is probably stuck in place from old, dried up oil or grease. Drop some solvent down tile screw hole and around the bolt/bolt head joint and relax for a couple of days. Try again with the aid of a hair dryer or heat gun to warm up the bolt head a bit. It will finally turn and part company with the bolt body. Reassemble in reverse order.

Can you imagine doing this with freezing hands in a muddy WWI trench and not losing an occasional screw or bolt head?







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Title Annotation:SURPLUS LOCKER[TM]
Author:Bodinson, Holt
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:May 1, 2009
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