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The French berthier system: the French got off to an early start with small-bore, smokeless powder rifles, but stayed too long at the fair with the Lebel. Its supplement, the Berthier was a clear improvement.

Part 1

The French people have a well-deserved reputation for flair. This is evident from their cuisine, fashions, wines, language, lifestyle and the famous disdain they display towards anything they see as non-Gallic. There was a time when anyone who considered himself "civilized" was able to speak French. It was the language of culture, art, diplomacy and education. While certain groups--who for some strange reason were composed primarily of persons who spoke English--have long resented the Frenchman's superior demeanor, others have traditionally looked upon him as the embodiment of civilization and good taste.

Now, it may come as a bit of surprise to those SGN readers who are not familiar with my earlier educational treatises on small arms, but the French have been responsible for some of the most important advances in military small arms over the last two centuries.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

specifications: Carabine de Cuirassier Modele 1890

Caliber: 8mm Balle M

Overall length: 37.2 inches

Barrel length: 17.85 inches

Weight: 6.5 pounds (unloaded)

Magazine: Three-round Mannlicher-style clip

Sights: Front--blade Rear--wide notch adjustable from 200 to 1600 meters

Bayonet: None

SPECIFICATIONS: Mousqueton d'Artillerie Modele 1892

Caliber: 8mm Balle M

Overall length: 37.2 inches

Barrel length: 17.85 inches

Weight: 6.6 pounds (unloaded)

Magazine: Three-round Mannlicher-style clip

Sights: Front--blade Rear--wide notch adjustable from 200 to 1600 meters

Bayonet: Sabre-Baionnette Modele 1892 with 15.3-inch blade

The Minie ball, pinfire cartridge and rimfire ignition were all invented by persons of the Gallic race. France's navy was the first organization to adopt a cartridge-firing revolver, the Mle. 1858 Lefaucheux, while the army's Modele 1866 Chassepot was a vast improvement over the famous German Dreyse Needle Rifle. It is also a little known fact that France adopted a repeating rifle, the Fusil d'Marine Modele 1878 Kropatschek, six years before the Germans took the famous Infanterie-Gewehr 1871/84 Mauser into service.

Perhaps their most notable achievement occurred in 1884 when a French chemist, Paul Marie-Eugene Vielle, perfected the first smokeless propellant, known as Pou-dre "B" (for "blanc"--white powder). Not only could Vieille's new smokeless powder propel a jacketed bullet to the then unheard-of velocity of 2000 fps, but it did not create the rust-causing residue that blackpowder did; there was no smoke to give away a soldier's position when he fired his rifle; bodies of troops were not blinded by their own powder smoke; and it made fully automatic weapons practical for the first time. It did all this, and only the French had it! (1)

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Two years later the world's military authorities were shocked when Paris announced the adoption of the first smallbore, smokeless powder, repeating rifle--the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1886--better known to collectors as the "Leber--chambered for the smokeless 8mm Cartouche a Balle Ordinaire Modele 1886 which propelled a FMJ, flat-point bullet to 2067 fps. In 1895 changes to the cartridge case and bullet jacket led to it being designated the 8mm Balle M (for Modifie--Modified).

While its cartridge was revolutionary in concept, the Modele 1886 rifle was rendered obsolete when, that same year, the Austro-Hungarian army adopted the Osterreichisches Repctier-Gewehr M.86. While the Austrian rifle still fired an 11mm blackpowder cartridge, it utilized Ferdinand von Mannlichcr's magazine. This system was based upon a pre-loaded, steel clip containing five cartridges that was inserted into, and became a part of, the magazine.

specifications: Fusil d'Tirailleurs Senegalais Modele 1907

Caliber: 8mm Balle M (later Balle D)

Overall 51.4 inches

Length Barrel 31.6 inches

length Weight: 8.4 pounds

Magazine: Three-round Mannlicher-style clip

Sights: Front--Rear--notch adjustable from 400 to 2400 meters *

Bayonet: Epee-Baionnette Modele 1907 with 16-inch cruciform blade

*--the rear sight leaf could be folded forward along the barrel exposing a 250 meter battle sight.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As the bolt was manipulated, a spring-loaded follower forced cartridges up so the bolt could pick them up and chamber them. When the last cartridge was chambered, the empty clip fell out of an opening in the bottom of the magazine housing. Unlike most early military magazine rifles, Mannlicher intended for his rifle to be used as a repeater at all times, with the clip-loading system permitting rapid reloading and an extremely high rate of aimed fire.

In contrast, the Modele 1886's eight-round tubular magazine was loaded manually, one round at a time--a time-consuming process that also permitted dirt and debris to enter the mechanism of the rifle. In addition, the rifle was fitted with a magazine cutoff, as French tactical doctrine called for it to be used as a single-shot unless the situation called for a high volume of firepower.

In 1888 Mannlicher modified his rifle to use an 8mm blackpowder cartridge and two years after that, a smokeless powder round was adopted. The French army's commitment to the Lebel proved to be a grave error. While they continued to manufacture and issue an obsolete rifle, weapons using the Mannlicher system were also adopted by Germany, Holland, Italy and Romania.

The situation was further exacerbated when in 1889 Paul Mauser perfected his charger-loaded box magazine, which not only provided rapid reloading, but did not require a clip to function as a repeater. This permitted the topping-off of a partially empty magazine. Within the next half-decade, most of the major military powers (Britain and the USA being the only holdouts, albeit temporarily) adopted either a charger or clip loaded magazine rifle.

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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While most of France's Metropolitan (European based) army units had been reequipped with the Modele 1886 by 1890, mounted troops and the Gendarmerie Nationale (the paramilitary National Police) were still carrying single-shot 11mm Gras carbines. The Lebch with hs tubular magazine and large, machined receiver, could not be shortened and lightened enough to make a practical carbine. The solution to this dilemma was to come from a most unusual source.

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In 1887 Monsieur Emile Berthier, a mechanical engineer for the Algerian Railway System (Bureau des Chemines de Fer Algeriens), began private development of a repeating rifle that combined a Modele 1886 type bolt with a Mannlicher-stype clip-loaded magazine. In 1889. he presented samples of his rifle to the French army committees for new firearms, the Comite de L'Artillerie and Section Technique de L'Armement.

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He was at first rejected by these organizations, but in the end he finally won his case to build a weapon for trials the next year. Its obvious superiority over the Lebel as regards rapid reloading and rate of sustained fire was immediately obvious. Approval was granted for small number of trial rifles and carbines to be manufactured at the government facility, Atelliers de Puteaux. Alter further trials in 1889 and 1890. a Berthier system was adopted as the basis for the French army's carbines.

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The two-piece Berthier bolt was a modification of the Lebel's in that when locked, the bolt head lugs are in a vertical rather then horizontal position so as to permit smoother feeding of rounds from the three-shot Mannli-cher-type magazine. Three rounds was thought to be the largest number of the fat 8mm Balle M cartridges that could be accommodated without the receiver becoming too bulky.

Instead of the Lebel's massive, machined receiver, the Berthier's was a simple tubular unit. A forward-mounted bolt handle turned down in front of the split bridge to provide an additional locking surface. A one-piece stock of slender proportions was fitted whose most distinguishing feature was a prominent bulge around the magazine (it's often referred to as the "pregnant guppy" stock). As was the French practice on their pre-1944 military rifles, no manual safety was provided.

The first Berthiers approved for service were the Carabine de Cavallerie Modele 1890, Carabine de Cuirassiers Modele 1890, and the Carabine de Gendarmerie Modele 1890. The Gendarme carbine could be fitted with an epee bayonet similar that that used on the Lebel. which the French Poilu affectionately referred to as "Rosalie." (2)

Those carbines issued to Cuirassier units were notable for their combless buttstocks and leather buttplates that permitted them to be fired by a man wearing breastplate armor (yes, in 1890!). Cleaning rods were carried in channels inletted into the left side of the forearm. All Berthier carbines had turned-down bolt handles.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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Two years later, the Mousqueton d'Artillerie Modele 1892 was adopted, being similar to the other carbines except it took a sword-type bayonet.

In 1898 the 8mm Balle M cartridge was updated with a solid brass, pointed, boattail bullet weighing 198 grains traveling at 2300 fps and. beginning in 1901, carbines received new sights, adjustable to 2000 meters, for the new 8mm Balle D cartridge.

The Berthier carbines proved so successful with mounted troops that the French army decided to adapt it to an infantry rifle for issue to colonial troops, as it was believed that its lighter weight made it more suitable to the small statured native troops in Southeast Asia. The Fusil des Tirailleurs lndochinois Modele 1902, was a short rifle with 25-inch barrel that gave it an overall length of 44.35 inches and a weight of 7.9 pounds.

Five years later, it was decided that a full sized rifle should be manufactured for native units in Africa--the Fusil des Tirailleurs Senegalais Modele 1907. While originally chambered for the 8mm Balle M. so as to use up existing stocks of ammunition, during a rebuilding program in 1909-1910 both weapons were fitted with new rear sights graduated for the 8mm Balle D cartridge, consisted of a blade front sight with a U notch rear sight adjustable up to 2400 meters.

It wasn't long after the outbreak of the Great War that the French army realized that the decision to retain the Lebel had been a big mistake. Desperately short of rifles, the French decided to use the Fusil dTirailleurs Senegalais Modele 1907 to supplement the Lebels already in service. They proved so popular that it was decided to adopt it as a standard infantry rifle with one minor modification--a straight bolt handle. This resulted in a new designation, Fusil d'Infanterie Mod& 1907-15. Beginning in 1916, most newly raised regiments were armed with it to the exclusion of the Lebel.

Until 1915, all Berthier production had taken place at the Manufacture d'Armes Saint-Entienne (MAS), but by 1916 the government arsenals at Chat-ellerault (MAC) and Tulle (MAT) began manufacture in addition to the private firms of Etablissements Contin-Souza of Paris and Societe Francaise Delaunav of Belleville.

The Remington Arms Company received a contract for 100,000 (some say 200.000) Modelc 1907 15s that was cancelled in 1916. Reportedly, many of the Remington-produced rifles were rejected by French inspectors and only about 10,000 reached France where they were reworked and then put into storage as reserve weapons. Most of the rifles remaining in the U.S. were sold by the DCM after the war, which explains the large number of them, usually in very nice condition, in American collections.

During World War I. the Modele 1907-15 was produced with both the block and blade front sights. All of the rifles produced by Remington utilized the blade front sight.

With its lighter weight and rapid reloading, Modele 1907-1915 proved very popular with the troops, but there were complaints concerning the magazine capacity When compared to the Lebel's eight rounds or the five in the Germans" Infanteriegewehr 98, the Berthiers three-shot magazine put French troops at a disadvantage. The Poilu needed a better rifle ... but was he to get it?

In Part 11 of this report (2/20 issue) we will examine the further development of the Bcrthier system from 1916 through the 1930s and how it continued in service with French troops well into the 1960s.

(1.) In honor of its inventor, the French army referred to the new propellant as Poutlre "V."

(2.) During the Great War German soldiers called the French bayonet the "knitting needle" and feared the puncture wounds it made.

I would like to thank the following for providing information and materials used to prepare this article: Patrick Hernandez (to whom I apologize for my less than positive opinion of the Berthier!), Russ Pasfena, Vinee DiNardi, Jean Huon, John P. Sheehan, Philippe Regenstrief John Rasalov and Graf & Sons.

By Paul Scarlata

Photos by: Russ Pastena, Nathan Reynolds, John Sheehan & James Walters

Lead photo by: Mike Anschuetz
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Title Annotation:UNLOVELY BUT EFFECTIVE
Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 20, 2012
Words:2053
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