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The French Berthier: the world's ugliest battle rifle started life as a 3-shooter. How dumb was that?

It had been four hours, perhaps more, since Jean Pierre and Papa had slithered over the parapet towards the slight depressions marking the path through the wire and picked their way as quietly as possible to the listening post. They had taken their time, spending at least a full 30 minutes to cover the 45 meters to the shell crater serving as LP. Every shadow was a Hun, every flicker of each parachute flare revealed a thousand hiding places where death might lurk.

Five hours now. Boredom and the constant lack of sleep preyed on Jean Pierre's mind. The initial surge of adrenaline waned, fear slipped away, overcome by an overwhelming desire to sleep. He fought the urge to give in. How long had it been now? Two days? ... Three? He tried to work backwards, calculate exactly when he had slept last. Rational thought was beyond him now ... his head began to nod. He rubbed his eyes instinctively, but they only burned that much more. His red, bloodshot orbs appeared gray, sunken within his eye sockets under the shadow of the visor of his Adrian helmet in the nightmare world of no-man's-land. His lids sagged ... he started to drift ... his head jerked up, the muscles in his neck reflexively catching his slumping head. "I have to stay awake," he thought, wondering if the sudden movement of his head had given their position away.

Shuk-shuk-shuk. A rattling sound--gravel in one of the tin cans, suspended from the wire behind them! Jean-Pierre clutched the forearm of his Mle 1916 Berthier carbine, the light of another flare playing off of the long, polished blade of the bayonet. He slid the carbine into position as he peered over the lip of the shell crater towards his own trenches. He silently thumbed back the cocking piece on the back of the bolt, while depressing the trigger. With the striker fully cocked, he released the trigger and pushed it forward into position with the nail of his trigger finger. He eased the cocking piece forward, engaging the sear, leaving the weapon ready to fire. A round was already in the chamber and now the carbine had been cocked without the usual metallic "click" that might have given away their position. He had learned this little trick from Phillipe, who had been a hunter before the war.

The last thing he wanted to do was fire his carbine! At night, the muzzle flash would give away their position. Still, he wanted to be ready in the event there was no option. He reached into the lower pocket of his greatcoat and pulled out a grenade. Papa was crouched on the edge of the shell hole. fumbling for a grenade, too. Papa set his carbine down and prepared to strike the fuse of the Mle 15 grenade. He looked at Jean-Pierre. It was quiet now. They both nodded simultaneously, The fuses ignited, both hurled grenades in the perceived direction of the noise. They closed their eyes in hopes of maintaining their night vision ... Boom! Boom! "Aaaaggghhh! Mein Got!'"

In response to the blast and screams. a ragged fusillade of fire erupted from the French front line trench, accompanied by a Hotchkiss machinegun and supported by one of the squad's two Chauchat automatic rifles. French bullets smacked the mud to his immediate left sending geysers of mud and debris showering down on him. He flattened against a fold in the crater as Papa screamed behind him. "I'm hit!" Bullets whizzed passed, cutting the air above his head. followed by a series of blasts as a volley of French grenades exploded all around them. Papa writhed in pain at the bottom of the hole. screaming.

A flurry of movement erupted and several shadows streamed past. A dark form. clothed in gray, leapt into the shell hole. passing clear over him The dark form landed cat-like in the mud next to Papa. Before he realized what was happening, he saw the outline of a trench mace rise and fall in rapid succession, killing Papa Without hesitation, he leveled the carbine and lunged at the German, driving the blade of the Mle 92 sword bayonet into the small of his back. The German screamed as Jean-Pierre placed the full weight of his body behind the bayonet thrust, shoving the blade up to the hilt, a full third of the bayonet's long blade exiting the lower abdomen of his foe....

A Superior Design?

France went to war in 1914 with the majority of her line infantry armed with the Mle 1886/93 Lebel, a slab-sided Kropatchek design, which has often been described as being "so ugly, it is beautiful!" Nobody ever made the same comment about the Berthier.

First introduced in 1890, its original introduction was in the form of three carbine models, rapidly followed by an artillery musketoon in 1892. This rather strange-looking Mannlicher design was introduced as a replacement for the various aging Mle 1874 Gras single-shot carbines, still standard for the French mounted forces even after the introduction of the Mle 1886 Lebel. The French experimented with several carbine versions of the Lebel, none of which proved acceptable. The full length of the action was taken up by the lifting arm mechanism, greatly reducing the number of rounds the gun's tubular magazine held when reduced to carbine length. These experimental carbines were either too heavy for mounted troops or held too few rounds, neither being acceptable.

The search ended with a bastard design borrowing the bolt of the Lebel (slightly altered), matched to a 3-round Mannlicher en-bloc clip-loading system making it look nigh-on to nine months pregnant. After reasonably thorough testing, the first three models of the Berthier were adopted by the French Army on March 14. 1890--the Mle 1890 Cavalry carbine, the Mle 1890 Gendarmerie Carbine and the most unusual Mle 1890 Cuirassier Carbine. All early models of the Berthier have long, thin. turned-down bolt handles terminating in small, pear-shaped knobs.

Coming Of Age

France suffered staggering defeats at the outbreak of WWI as the Schleiffen Plan brought Germany within striking distance of Paris. The massive French losses suffered with the crushing defeat of Plan 17 and the Battle of the Frontiers. nearly brought the country to its knees. The eventual "Miracle on the Marne" staved off a potential German victory, but at a terrible cost. French forces were desperately short of weapons to equip the replacements for the 1,000,000 casualties suffered before the end of 1914.

One answer was to increase production of existing models including the various Berthiers. The result was the slightly altered variation of the Mle 1907 "Senegalese" model called the Mle 1907-15. It was identical with the exception of the beefed-up straight bolt handle, round bolt-knob and a redesigned nose cap for the standard Mle 1886 Lebel epee bayonet, known affectionately by the French as "Rosalie." The Mle 1907-15 was produced with the 3shot magazine simply because it could be pushed into mass production with an absolute minimal number of changes.

Three Shots?

While Mle 07-15 production ramped up, French designers worked to match the 5-round capacity of the German Mauser. culminating in the Mle 1916 Berthier Rifle. The Mle 1916 was identical to the Mle 1907-15 with the addition of an extended 5-round magazine and a top handguard. Due to the extreme taper of the 8mm Lebel cartridge, the extended magazine is substantially thicker and deeper in the back and slopes forward toward the stock.

As originally issued, the extended magazine retained the same rectangular opening in the floorplate to allow the expulsion of the empty clip upon reloading. In the mud. dirt and filth of the trenches, all of the Mannlicher designs proved susceptible to collecting foreign debris through the clip ejection port causing enumerable jams as the dirt and crud collected on the cartridges was then carried into the action. While this feature remained a problem with the Mannlicher system, the French lessened the problem somewhat by adding a spring-retained cover over the ejection port. The soldier could either flip it open manually or just force a fresh clip into the magazine. The empty clip forced the cover open and the cover could be closed by the soldier or simply left open if firing was continual.

Meat Grinder Berthiers

The "meat grinder" known as the Battle of Verdun during the first half of 1916, chewed up men and material at an unprecedented pace. The ongoing struggle waged by the French Ordnance Department to arm the troops at the front, along with each year's new draft of teenagers, resulted in large-scale small arms salvage operations. Whatever was required to make a gun functional was fair. The French arsenals put together rifles and carbines with whatever parts were on hand at any given moment. Battlefield-recovered weapons were frequently rebuilt using parts from different models. This resulted in one of the more interesting aspects of collecting WWI-issue Berthier rifles and carbines.

The easiest way to determine the number of potential wartime variations is to take a stack of Berthier components from the various models and see how many different ways you could possibly put them together! I own and have seen wartime examples with matching serial numbers with Mle 07-15 receivers with all the features of the Mle 16, Mle 16 marked receivers with all of the features of the Mle 07-15 and everything in between. Rifles are found with carbine bolts, carbines with rifle bolts, and when it comes to stock furniture, you name it. So if you stumble across a Berthier in the back corner of a gun shop or in the rack at a gun show, don't be surprised if it has one or more feature from several different models.

The US Remington Berthier

As the war dragged on, the French Army continually suffered staggering losses in men and material. With the German Army ensconced on French soil, the pressure to maintain the offensive was a burden resulting in continued Allied offensives. With Verdun at it's peak, the French placed orders with the Remington Arms Co., Ilion N.Y. The French had been buying single-shot rolling blocks from the New England firm since late 1914. A contract was issued in late 1916 or early 1917 for an unknown quantity of Mle 1907/15 Berthier rifles. The Remington records are missing and what happened next is now a subject of debate among collectors. Remington claims the contract was originally for 200,000 rifles, while at least one French source lists the contract as having been for no more than 10,000 rifles, of which 9,444 were supposedly delivered. Considering Remington produced over 100.000 Rolling Blocks for the French Government in 8mm Lebel. it seems inconceivable they would have only placed an order for 10.000 repeating rifles.

Surviving examples turn up quite regularly in the US. Most of the rifles are in excellent shape because they were never shipped to France. Why the contract was never completed is not known. It is known the rifles shipped to France were serialized upon inspection. The vast majority of surviving Remington Berthiers are found with no serial number at all, a definite indication they were never shipped. What sketchy information does exist seems to indicate a maximum of perhaps 9,000 to 10,000 rifles were actually received by the French Military. Some, if not all of these rifles, are believed to have been inspected and rejected by the French. The rejected rifles were then reportedly sent to one of the French arsenals (reportedly MAC Chatellerault) where they were reworked. after which they were placed in stores as reserve weapons.

An extremely small number of rifles accepted and marked with French serial numbers have surfaced. The example in my collection bears an "E" serial number in the 6,000 range. This rifle, along with other serialized examples I have examined in Europe, would seem to support the numbers quoted in French sources. Speculation to the actual cause for the rejection and subsequent cancellation of the contract run the gamut Suggestions of dimensional issues with the chambers of the rejected arms are not supported by a thorough examination of surviving rifles. Another theory bandied about implicates poor heat treatment of the receivers This is certainly possible as the problems encountered with the heat treat of large numbers of the US Model 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield receivers is well known today.

The most ridiculous suggestion is the French simply rejected them due to resentment of the growing influence of the United States! This ridiculous idea doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, either. At the time the contract was placed, the Allies, including the French, were in desperate need of small arms. Regardless of the cross Atlantic sentiments of today, during WWI, the French were more than happy to have as much help as the United States was prepared to provide. The Remington connection is an interesting footnote in the History of the "ugly duckling" of WWI small arms.

The Berthier played a vital roll in the defense of France during the First World War. It was faster and easier to manufacture than the Mle 1886-93 Lebel. While it was far from ideal for service in conditions such as were found in the trenches on the Western Front, it shot straight enough in the hands of the Poilus and appeared in large enough numbers to keep the firing line hot. The Berthier will never win a beauty contest, but it is steeped in history, relatively inexpensive as period rifles go and a lot of fun to shoot.

Interested in historical French firearms? Check out both the French Firearms Forum on Gunboards.com as well as on the Gunboard's WWI Forum. In addition, the interactive format will allow you to ask direct questions in the presence of some of the finest authorities on French firearms in the world. In addition, you will meet a large number of likeminded firearms collectors and enthusiasts.

The Carbine Models

The Mle 90 Cavalry Carbine is pretty straightforward. It is stocked to within 1 3/4" of the muzzle, has two-barrel bands and carries a clearing rod in a channel down the left side of the stock. The sling configuration is a rotating swivel mounted on the underside of the butt working in combination with a concentric ring mounted on the left side of the bottom barrel band. The Mle 90 Cavalry carbine is loaded with 3-shot Mannlicher en-bloc clips. The rather odd 3-round capacity was based on a desire to avoid having a magazine extend below the bottom line of the stock creating any surfaces that might catch on the various equipment carried by mounted troops.

During the development of the Mle 1890, the saber and lance were considered the primary weapons of the cavalry throughout Europe. The cavalry carbine is not designed to accept a bayonet, since all of the mounted units of the French Army were issued sabers or swords. All Berthier carbines of this period lacked top handguards.

Cuirassier Carbine

Perhaps one of the strangest carbines ever to see service in any army was the Mle 1890 Cuirassier carbine. Right up until the outbreak of WWI, most European armies still had heavy and light cavalry. Heavy cavalry, like the French Cuirassier, were a throw back to the heavy cavalry of the Napoleonic era. To accommodate their steel breast plate and helmet, the Cuirassier carbine had a completely combless stock to allow for proper sight alignment when the trooper shouldered his carbine wearing the Mle 1870 Cuirassier helmet. The cheekpieces of the helmet consisted of a series of scales running the length of the leather chinstrap. The overlapping scales prevented the soldier from placing his cheek directly against the raised comb of a normal carbine. The second unusual feature was the checkered leather buttplate. Since the carbine was intended to be shouldered while wearing a breastplate the use of leather for the buttplate was more suitable than a standard steel buttplate, which would have slipped off the tapered breastplate during recoil.

The Gendarmerie Carbine

The Gendarmerie were the military police units within the French Army and their carbine is identical to the cavalry carbine except for the location and construction of the top barrel band, which is set back 4 1/2" from the muzzle and designed to accept the Mle 1890 epee-style Gendarmerie bayonet. A groove extends down the left side of the bayonet grip to allow clearance for the brass-tipped clearing rod. With the exception of the locking arrangement and the groove in the pommel, the Mle 1890 Gendarmerie bayonet is identical in appearance to the Mle 1886 bayonet issued with the Mle 1886 Lebel.

Shooting The Berthier

Feeding the Berthier is easy enough. The simplest, most effective way to accomplish this is to convert cases from .348 Winchester brass to 8x50mmR Lebel cases for "Ball D" ammo. Don't panic just yet! The conversion of .348 brass is perhaps one of the easiest cartridge conversions you are ever likely to encounter. Buy a single-stage forming die from RCBS and run each case into the die in a single stroke. This will set the shoulder back to the proper length and squeeze the neck down to the required diameter. Trim the neck to length, chamfer the case mouth inside and out and you are ready to go. Personally, I leave the case in the forming die and saw the excess length of the neck exposed with a jeweler's saw (made by X-Acto) using the top of the forming die as a cutting guide. A few strokes of the jeweler's saw and the excess length of neck is gone. I remove the case from the die and chamfer inside and out. Voila! Fini. Some manuals suggest you turn down the thickness of the rim. but with the current .348 brass produced by Winchester, I have never found rim thickness to be a problem in my Berthiers.

Reloading dies can be purchased from Lee, RCBS and others. Standard 8mm .323" bullets may be used and loading data may be found in Cartridges of the World, Donnelly's, The Handloader's Manual of Cartridge Conversions, or on the French Forum on Gunboards.com. Bullets of 150, 180 or 200 grains designed for the 8x57mm

Mauser will easily upset enough upon firing to seal the bore and take to the rifling of the Berthier barrel. Heavier 220-grain bullets meant

for the 8mm Remington Magnum will generally not shoot as well in the average Berthier. The bullets have much thicker jackets and will usually not expand enough to seal the bore.

Needless to say, have your rifle or carbine thoroughly checked out by a competent gunsmith to make sure it is safe to fire before proceeding. Head space is not generally an issue since the 8x51mmR Lebel cartridge has a rimmed case. When reloading, it is wise to neck size the brass rather than resizing the entire case, as this will greatly improve case life. Of course if you are going to be firing the ammunition in more than one rifle, you may need to fully resize the cases in order to accommodate any small dimensional difference found between one chamber and the next. In this case, I would neck size a dummy round without primer and powder and see if it will chamber in all of the rifles you intend to use with the particular lot of ammunition.

No Ball N

It is wise to avoid shooting any of the surviving original 8mm Lebel ammunition. Much of it is machine gun ammunition and nearly all is Ball N. The tiny amounts of surviving earlier ammunition are far too valuable to cartridge collectors to be fired. The Ball N cartridge was introduced in 1932. Rifles chambered for this later version of the 8mm Lebel cartridge had their throats opened up to accept a slightly larger diameter bullet measuring 8.3mm. Rifles reamed for the Ball N cartridge will have a capital "N" stamped on top of the receiver. Rifles not reworked to accept the Ball N cartridge are not safe to fire with Ball N ammunition. The firing of Ball N ammunition in an early rifle not chamber reamed will generate an enormous pressure spike as the oversized neck struggles to open up enough to release the bullet.

This is not a problem with handloaded ammunition, as all modern reloading dies set the neck diameter to match the dimension of the earlier Ball D cartridge. Besides, the vast majority of the surviving 8x50mmR Lebel ammunition is prone to severe hang fires, with most of the cartridges that don't hang fire being duds. It's a good idea to save this ammunition for the cartridge collectors and roll your own.

A large percentage of the surviving Lebel carbines imported in recent years are no longer in their original configuration. Many were altered per orders issued in 1927. They are known as Mle 1916/27 Berthier Carbines. They are easily recognized as they have either been completely restocked minus the clearing rod channel or the clearing rod channel on the left side of the forearm has been filled in with an arsenal patch. In addition, a straight ball-tipped stacking hook will have been added to the left side of the top barrel band. Two small holes were drilled in the original top barrel band and the stacking hook was pinned and then brazed to the side of the top barrel band. These carbines will also have been altered to accept the Ball N cartridge. The only WWI vintage, as-issued carbines, with both stacking hooks and brass-tipped clearing rods, were the carbines which have been tentatively identified as Colonial Carbines.

The Musketoons

Military doctrine required artillery to work in close concert with the cavalry and infantry. As a result, the artillery crews needed to protect themselves at close quarters. Because their Musketoons were considered secondary, they needed to be light, handy and easily slung while manning the guns. The Artillery Musketoon is nearly identical in pattern to the Mle 90 Gendarmerie carbine, complete with turned down bolt handle and brass-tipped clearing rod.

The Mle 1892 Artillery Musketoon

The sobriquet "Musketoon" denotes a carbine-length firearm accepting a bayonet, in this case. the Mle 1892 sword bayonet. The Mle 1892 pattern bayonet has a 15 5/8" long knife-style blade with fullers and an unusual grooved spine opposite the cutting edge. The grip of the bayonet is oval in cross section and did not require a groove to allow clearance of the brass-tipped clearing rod. The locking mechanism of the Mle 92 bayonet was identical to that of the Mle 90 Gendarmerie bayonet. The two bayonets are in fact interchangeable and will each mount on both of these particular variants. As originally issued, the Mle 92 Artillery musketoon had no top handguard. In fact. none of the Berthier carbines or rifles were fitted with handguards until WWI.

The Colonial Carbine

A small number of carbines exist not matching any of the standard patterns. While definitive evidence has not yet surfaced, it is believed these carbines were produced for the Spahis Cavalry units of the Coloniale Armee des Afrique. These carbines are very similar to the Artillery Musketoon in every respect, however, they have a unique top barrel band with a curved stacking hook identical to the hook on both the Mle 1902 and Mle 1907 Colonial rifles.

Close examination of existing carbines has determined the top band, with its unique stacking hook. is dimensionally different than the top band of both of the other Colonial models. This theory, if it could be proved, would rule out the possibility these carbines were simply wartime construction utilizing left over Colonial top barrel bands.

Mle 1916 Carbine

A new carbine, based on the Mle 1892 Artillery Musketoon. was the Mle 1916 Carbine. It had the same 5round magazine as the Mle 1916 Rifle and was equipped with a top handguard. The Mle 16 Carbine retained the brass-tip clearing rod of the earlier pattern carbines. As the war in the trenches progressed and the hand grenade gradually replaced the rifle as the primary weapon of the infantry, carbines increasingly gained favor with the infantry at the expense of the full-length infantry rifles, particularly in the hands of specially-trained assault troops. As a result, the Mle 16 carbine was issued more widely than had been any of the previous Berthier specialist carbines.

The Colonial Rifles

French Indochina formed following the Franco-Chinese War of 1884-85. The new colony included Annam, Tonkin, Cochin China and the Khmer Republic. Laos was added in 1893 and the capitol was Hanoi. Immediately, as was customary, the French raised colonial units from the local population, all of whom were small in stature compared to Europeans. The "Annamite" soldiers, as they were known, required a rifle to accommodate their smaller proportions.

The "Indochinois"

Since the Berthier was already in production as a carbine, it was a rather simple task to produce a scaled-down rifle perfect for the colonial forces. The Mle 1902 Colonial "Indochinois" rifle is 44 1/16" overall and takes the same 3-round Mannlicher clips. The Mle 1902 Colonial bayonet was nearly identical in design to the Mle 1890 Gendarmerie bayonet and the two are interchangeable. The top barrel band of the Mle 1902 had a stacking hook. a feature not found on any Berthier up until then. The stacking hook was used for interlocking small groups of rifles in an upright position like the frame of a teepee. Like the rest of the pre-WWI Berthiers the Mle 1902 Colonial rifle lacked a top handguard. The Mle 1902 Rifle had the long brass-tipped clearing rod mounted down the left side of the forearm like the carbines. Some Indochinois were converted to 5-shooters.

The "Senegalais"

The Berthier finally came of age as a full-length infantry rifle with the introduction of the Mle 1907 Colonial rifle "Senegalais" issued to Colonial troops in the French African colonies. These regiments were drawn from the population of various Senegalese tribesmen, all of whom were tall in stature. The Mle 1907 Colonial rifle was simply a full-size Berthier, still a 3-shot, with a 31 1/2"-barrel and overall length of 51 3/16". Like the Indochinois, the Senegalese rifle featured a curved stacking hook. One feature eliminated was the brass-tipped clearing rod. The Mle 1907 was the first of the Berthier series to do away with this feature. While the bayonet of the Mle 1907 is identical in pattern to that of the Mle 1890 Gendarmerie and Mle 1902 Indochinois epee bayonets, the bayonets are not interchangeable due to the diameter of the muzzle ring required to fit the larger muzzle diameter of the full-length Mle 1907 rifle barrel. By all accounts, the Berthier was very popular with Colonial troops, both in Asia and in Africa.
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Author:Sheehan, John
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:4473
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