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Military rifle cartridges of Madagascar isolated but well armed!

In 1500 the Portuguese captain Diogo Dias was blown off course while attempting to reach India and sighted a large island off the southeast coast of Africa which he named Sao Lourenco as it was discovered on St. Lawrence's Day, August 10th.

This island, known today as Madagascar, was made of a number of small states that had been trading with Arab, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Swahili merchants since the 7th century. These states were often at war with each other, and by the 1600s a significant part of this trade consisted of providing war captives to the lucrative East African slave trade in exchange for firearms, lead and gunpowder.

The 1640s saw the English and French attempt to establish colonies on Madagascar, but the climate, diseases and hostility of the native Malagasy tribes caused all of them to fail. In 1665, the French East India Company took control of the nearby islands of Bourbon and Ele-de-France (today's Reunion and Mauritius) from which they established trading posts on Madagascar's east coast.

From 1680 to 1745 Madagascar became a haven for English and French pirates who preyed upon the rich shipping of the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

The 1790s saw the ascendency of the Merina dynasty that would rule Madagascar until 1895. In the 1850s a French adventurer, Jean Labored, established an armament industry that produced muskets, cannon and gunpowder for the Merina army. In 1857, French traders joined with Prince Radma II in an unsuccessful coup against Queen Ranavalona II, after which she banished all Europeans from the island.

To counter French influence, English and American merchants and missionaries were allowed into Madagascar. In 1869 Queen Ranavalona II converted to the Anglican faith and made it the official state religion. Her reign was the heyday of British influence in Madagascar, and British arms and troops arrived on the island from South Africa.

The British troops stationed in Madagascar were equipped with the new breechloading Snider-Enfield rifle, numbers of which were provided to the Merina army.

* .577 Snider--the Snider's cartridge consisted of a Boxer-style coiled brass foil body inside of a cardboard tube which was attached to an iron base. Its 480-grain Minietype lead bullet was backed by a 73-grain charge of black-powder that propelled it to approximately 1250 fps.

In the 1870s, American merchants began importing Winchester Model 1866 and 1873 rifles and carbines--all of which were popular trade items on the East Africa coast--into Madagascar.

* .44 Henry--the Model 1866 Winchester's cartridge consisted of a rim-fire copper case .815" long topped with a 200-grain flat-nosed lead bullet that 28 grains of blackpowder propelled to 1200 fps.

* .44 WCF--better known as the .4440, this cartridge consisted of a rimmed, tapered case 1.3 inches long containing 40 grains of blackpowder that pushed its 200-grain flat-point lead bullet to 1325 fps.

The better to equip their troops beginning in 1882, the Merina army began purchasing additional weapons, including Remington Rolling Block and Martini-Henry rifles from British and American sources.

* .450 Martini--the Martini utilized a Boxer-style coiled brass, bottlenecked case attached to a brass base cup with an iron rim. Its 480-grain paper-patched, lead bullet was driven to 1350 fps by 85 grains of blackpowder.

* 11mm Spanish Remington--some of the Rolling Block rifles were chambered for the ".43 Spanish." A center-fire cartridge with a rimmed, bottlenecked case 58mm long, it was loaded with a 375-grain lead bullet and 78 grains of blackpowder for a velocity of 1380 fps.


* .58 Berdan--many of the Rolling Blocks fired the then-obsolete .58 Berdan cartridge with a case 41mm in length topped with a 530-grain lead bullet backed by 80 grains of blackpowder for a muzz1e velocity of 1100 fps.

Concerned over increasing British influence, France invaded Madagascar in 1883 on the excuse of reclaiming French property confiscated in the aftermath of the 1857 coup. Inconclusive fighting dragged on until January 1886, when Madagascar ceded the island of Diego Suarez to France, agreed to pay an indemnity of 10 million francs and gave France control over Malagasy foreign policy.

French army units in Madagascar were armed with the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1874 M.80 (the Gras) while the colonial infantry and Troupes de Marine used the Fusil de Marine Modeles 1877 and 1878 (Kropatschek).

* 11mm Balle Modeles 1874 & 1879/83--the Gras used a rimmed, bottlenecked cartridge with a case 59mm in length topped with a 387-grain paper-patched, lead bullet that an 81-grain charge of blackpowder propelled to 1490 fps. The Balle Modele 1879/83 used the same case and powder charge, hut was loaded with a flat-nosed bullet for use in the Kronatschek's tubular magazine.

While the Merina prime minister refused to ratify the treaty, the situation changed in 1890 when the, British recognized a French protectorate over Madagascar in return for British control of Zanzibar. In addition, the opening of the Suez Canal greatly decreased the island's strategic significance for Britain.

Using Madagascar's refusal to ratify the 1886 treaty, French forces invaded in January 1895. Fighting lasted until September, and while the French reportedly lost less than 30 soldiers in combat, approximately 6,000 or one third of their force--succumbed to tropical diseases!

While the Tirailleurs Senegalais and Tirailleurs Algeriens serving in the campaign were still equipped with the Gras, most of the French troops were armed with the new Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1886 (Lebel) firing a revolutionary smokeless powder cartridge.


* 8mm Cartouche a Balle Ordinaire Modele 1886 consisted of a bottlenecked, rimmed case 50.5mm long topped with a FMJ, flat-point bullet that 40.3 grains of Poudre V propelled to 206'7 fps. In 1895 changes to the cartridge case and bullet jacket material led to it being designated the 8mm Balle M (for Modifie--Modified) although the ballistics remained unchanged.

In 1896 the French officially annexed Madagascar. As per their usual practice, they raised units of light infantry from among the local populace, the Tirailleurs Malgaches. Originally armed with Gras rifles, by the early 20th century most were equipped with the standard rifle of France's African troops, the Fusil d'Tirailleurs Senegalais Modele 1907.

During World War I, the Tirailleurs Malgaches saw service in France and on the Salonika Front in northern Greece. Some of these units were armed with the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1886/93 "Lebel."


* 8mm Balk D--adopted in 1898, it was loaded with a pointed, 198-grain boattail bullet machined from solid brass moving at 2300 fps. A groove around the inside edge of the case rim caught the nose of the bullet behind it preventing it from resting against the primer, a necessity with the Modele 1886/93's tubular magazine.

The interwar years saw the French improve the island's infrastructure--roads, harbors, education and health--and a plantation economy was created based upon agricultural exports.

* 8mm Balle 1932 N-1932 saw the old 8mm Lebel cartridge upgraded once again. It was now loaded with a more conventional lead core, 232-grain FMJ, boattail spitzer bullet at a velocity of 2480 fps. Lebel and Berthier rifles and carbines that were rechambered for the 1932 cartridge were marked with an "N" on the breech.

With the Fall of France in 1940, Madagascar came under the control of a collaborationist Vichy administration. With Japan's entry-into the war, the British feared that the Japanese might occupy the island, so in May 1942 British, South African, and Australian forces were landed, along with askaris of the Kings African Rifles. This action, called Operation Ironclad, was one of the more obscure battles of World War II, and one that saw Vichy forces supported by Japanese submarines. By October, the governor surrendered the island to the Allies, who turned control over to the Free French.


During World Wart II, some Tirailleurs. Malgaches served with Free French forces in North Africa, Italy and France. They were armed with a mixture of French, British and U.S. rifles including the MAS Modele 1936, No. 1 Mk. III Lee-Enfield, U.S. M1917 and M1903 rifles.

* 7,5mm Balle Modele 1929 C--the MAS 1936 fired a cartridge with a rimless, bottlenecked case 54mm in length whose 140-grain spitzer bullet achieved a muzz1e velocity of 2600 fps.

* .303 Mark VII--used a rimmed, bottlenecked case 56mm in length loaded with a 174-grain FMJ flat based spitzer bullet that 37 grains of Improved Cordite drove to a velocity of 2440 fps.

* .30 Caliber Ball M2--the M1903 and M1917's cartridge consisted of a rimless, bottlenecked case 63mm long topped with a 150-grain FMJ spitzer bullet traveling at 2740 fps.

The Mouvernent Democratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) was formed in 1946 in response to the island becoming a French overseas territory. When their demands for independence were refused, these nationalists revolted in 1947 and gained control of one-third of the island. French colonial authorities reacted violently and many of the African tirailleur units brought in to suppress the rebellion engaged in atrocities and it has been estimated that in excess of 30,000 Malagasies died in the 19-month conflict.

The French eventually agreed to reforms in 1958 and the Malagasy Republic became an autonomous state within the French Community and two years later, full independence was proclaimed.

The new Madagascan Armed Forces and Gendarmerie Nationale were trained and equipped by the French. The primary rifle was the MAS Modele 1936, but in the 1970s they obtained numbers of the French 7,5mm Fusil Semi-Automtique Modele 1949.

In 1972 the civilian government was overthrown by a military coup, the leaders of which turned Madagascar into a non-aligned socialist state and changed the name to the Republic of Madagascar. Since then, the country has been ruled by a series of civilian and military governments. Because it has no hostile neighbors and does not take part in any UN or African Union peacekeeping duties, the main duty of the army is internal security.

As did many African' nations, the Madagascan army began reequipping with Soviet pattern weapons in the 1980s, purchasing SKS carbines and AKM assault rifles from both Eastern European and Chinese sources, with the latter remaining the standard rifle to the present day.


* 7.62mm Patron obr. 1943g--all of the variants of the SKS and AKM are chambered for a cartridge consisting of a rimless, bottlenecked case 39mm long whose 122-grain FMJ, spitzer bullet is pushed to 2330 fps.

I would like to thank the following for providing information and photos used to prepare this article: George Layman, Lou Behling, John P. Sheehan, Jean Huon, Roy Marcot and the Navy Arms Company.

Photos by: Nathan Reynolds, James Walters & Lou Behling
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:6MADA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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