Saturday, May 5, 2012

Les Fusils Grands: The French MAS-36 and MAS 49/56

Let’s do a quick experiment. When you hear the words “French rifle”, what comes to mind?

From top to bottom: Lebel Mle 1886, MAS-36, MAS-49, MAS-36/51, and MAS 49/56

Odds are, if you're an American, you likely snickered into your Budweiser, thought of a clunky, ineffective weapon, and mumbled something like “dropped once, never used”.

You couldn't be more wrong.

So, let me be clear. I like making fun of the French as much as any other red-blooded American. I mean, there’s just so much material out there to go after.  They’re rude. They have an annoying air of self-importance.  They don’t pronounce half of their consonants. Their men have funny little thin mustaches, their women don't shave their armpits, and all of them have a reputation for less than acceptable hygiene.  And worst of all...they think Jerry Lewis is funny.*

He's not. Well, maybe a little.

Given all this, the ignorant might be tempted to label the French as a bunch of wine-swilling, cheese-eating wimps. Well, I’m here to tell you: when it comes to French weaponry, and the French contribution to modern firearms in general, there is nothing to laugh at. Why? Here’s why:  A Frenchman is credited with the invention of smokeless gunpowder. It was France who, almost overnight, changed warfare forever by introducing the world’s first repeating bolt-action rifle to use this revolutionary gunpowder. Not content to rest on their laurels, it was a Frenchman who developed the pointed spitzer bullet, which further increased the range and lethality of these smokeless powder rifles. It was France who fielded the first reliable, light machine guns, it was a Frenchman who scored the first air-to-air kill with one of those machine guns, and it was France who gave birth to one of the most elite fighting units ever to walk planet Earth, the French Foreign Legion. You’ve heard of those guys, right? 

No, not those guys.

France doesn’t sound so wimpy all of the sudden, does it?
French weaponry has been overlooked in collectors’ circles. In my opinion, this is largely because collectors these days are infatuated with WWII, the last “great” and “just” war.  But whereas German and US weapons from this period are coveted, French firearms don’t get the respect they deserve for some reason. Admittedly France doesn’t have a lot of glory in this war: Nazi Germany invaded, France fell in roughly 40 days, and yes, some Frenchmen either cooperated with the Nazis or in rare cases, outright welcomed them.

Well, I couldn't care less about that. A good rifle is a good rifle, regardless of who produced it, under what circumstances, and when. And the Manufacture d'armes de Saint-√Čtienne (MAS) Mod√®le 36 is a good rifle.  Developed in the 1930s to replace the aging Lebel and Berthier rifles (the Lebel being the first repeating bolt action rifle to fire smokeless powder cartridges), it was (as its model number indicates), adopted by France in 1936. The MAS-36 fired a modern, rimless cartridge known as the 7.5 x 54mm French, which boasted a .30 caliber, 139 gr FMJ bullet moving at about 2,700 feet per second. That's approaching .308 Winchester level ballistics, so the 7.5 x 54mm is no slouch. The cartridge was already in use in France's main light machine gun, so standardizing the new battle rifle on this cartridge simplified logistics.

The 7.5 x 54mm French is a fairly standard looking round with decent performance.

While it may not win any beauty contests, the MAS-36 is a strong, simple, and well-made rifle. Its slab-sided receiver housed a Mauser style, double column, five round magazine. The sturdy bolt had dual rear locking lugs and a handle that was both bent down and angled forward. This looks a little awkward, but in practice allows a rifleman to manipulate the action quite easily.
My MAS-36, arsenal refurbished to like-new condition, and a fine shooter.

The rear sight was an aperture (peep) ramp sight that was adjustable for elevation from 200 to 1200 meters; the front sight a rather thick trapezoid shaped affair. The rear sight was adjustable for windage as well, but it involved replacing the aperture with another one that was slightly offset. I have read that the 'N' on the sight below indicates this aperture is dead center, but I am not sure if that is true.

Here you can see the rear sight and the position of the bolt quite well.

The 23" barrel was slightly countersunk which protected the crown, always a good idea. Underneath that barrel was a tube which stored a lightweight, but wicked-looking spike bayonet. A soldier could pull the bayonet out, invert it, and fix it into place in a couple of seconds. When it was no longer needed, it stayed stored safely with the rifle. I always thought this was a neat feature, as it was both economical (no need for leather frogs or separate scabbards) and practical. This also meant that no part of the bayonet was touching the barrel, so barrel harmonics are unaffected when firing with the bayonet.

The MAS-36 didn't see much action during WWII, but it continued to be produced into the 1950s. More than a few saw service in a land halfway around the world known as Indochina following WWII. The light weight, ruggedness, and simplicity of the MAS-36 made it a fine rifle in the harsh, jungle environment of Vietnam, but the face of warfare was changing. To be blunt, the days of the bolt-action battle rifle were over, and as such, the MAS-36 was getting rather long in the tooth. The other Western powers, and indeed even the Soviets, had either developed or fielded semi-automatic rifles during the 30's and 40's, and by the mid 1950s, the bolt action had been relegated to rear-guard service in all but the most impovershed nations.

French troops slogging through the mud with their trusty MAS-36s

The French had been working on their own semi for some time, and had even fielded a couple of early semi-autos here and there. But it wasn't until the MAS-49 (so designated due to the year of its adoption) that they really had a viable semi-automatic battle rifle. The MAS-49 kept the ugly, slab-sided looks of the 36, and added a detachable 10 round magazine and direct impingement gas system which provided the semi-automatic fire. The direct impingement method allowed for the desired operation without complex moving parts. A small hole in the barrel routed propellant gas into a tube, which in turn sent the gas flying backward into a recess in the rifle's bolt carrier. This simple, but sometimes controversial gas system (google it) would later be used by none other than Eugene Stoner in his M-16. The French manufactured about 21,000 MAS-49s and they saw significant use in the unpleasantness of the 1950s, to include Indochina, the Suez, and Algeria.

When fitted with optics, the MAS-49 served quite nicely in the designated marksman role.

Fine rifle though it was, there was some room for improvement. Those improvements were fielded as the MAS-49/56 in 1957. The 49/56 had some upgrades that came from lessons learned in combat. It was shorter and therefore lighter than the 49. The full stock of the 49 was replaced with a more modern affair. The 49/56 also sported a built-in grenade launcher that was compatible with NATO 22mm rifle grenades, and the rifle gained a compensator/flash hider as well. Many a Legionnaire carried a MAS 49/56, ready to do his duty to protect France and her interests.

French Legionnaires, AKA Bad Mother F*ckers. The one in the middle is armed with a MAS-49/56

Over a quarter million MAS-49/56 rifles were made until production ceased in the late 1970s, at which point France grudgingly adopted the sometimes hated, often debated, 5.56mm caliber for its main battle rifles like its Western allies.I am the proud owner of both the MAS-36 and MAS-49/56. My rifles were arsenal refinished by the French and placed in storage until they were eventually imported into the United States some time ago. They are in like-new condition with beautiful bores. Both rifles were relatively common, and cheap, a mere 15-20 years ago. That is no longer the case. MAS-36s go for north of $300, and rearsenaled MAS-49/56s go for roughly twice that. I paid current market prices for both of mine and consider them bargains. My MAS-36 came with a nice French sling, and the 49/56 came with four magazines, a sling, a bayonet with scabbard, a butt stock pad for firing grenades (just in case, you know) a few spare parts, and various leather pouches and tools.

My re-arsenaled MAS-49/56.

I consider the MAS-49/56 to be the epitome of the French battle rifle, and as such, one of the finest battle rifles ever produced by any country. And yes, I mean ever, even to this day. Call me a heretic, but if I had to go to war (again) and I was given the choice, I'd take a 49/56 over a M1 Garand, a M-14, an AKM variant, or an M-16. Nope, I wouldn't think twice about picking it over one of the ubiquitous M4 carbine clones everyone drools over these days. The MAS-49/56 is light, rugged, fires a potent cartridge, and has littIe felt recoil (thanks in part to the excellent compensator), especially with handloads. The ten round detachable magazine is quite sufficient, and the lack of full-auto fire is a feature, not a detriment in my opinion. The direct impingement gas system on the 49/56 never earned the bad reputation that the early M-16s did; in fact 49/56's have been known to function just fine dirty or even filthy, and given the corrosively primed ammo that was used back in the day, that's saying something.  When you do choose to clean it, it's easy to field strip and there's no star chamber to drive you nuts (I'm looking at you, Eugene Stoner) or gas piston to fiddle with (and you, Mikhail Kalishnikov).

If there is one flaw with the MAS-49/56 as a SHTFG (that's "shit hits the fan gun"), it is that it is chambered for an uncommon cartridge. In the event of a Zombie Apocolypse, ammo would be in short supply. From what I've read, the French experimented with MAS-49/56s in 7.62 NATO, but for one reason or another these never progressed beyond the test phase. When Century Arms International began importing 49/56s years ago, they converted a good many to ".308 Winchester" in an attempt to make the rifle less weird and more attractive to the American shooter. Reports vary widely on these conversions, ranging from "works fine" to "worst piece of crap I've ever shot". Mine is in the original 7.5 x 54 French chambering, and I wouldn't have it any other way. The 7.5 x 54 is an easy cartridge to reload, as it takes standard .308" bullets. Prvi Partizan makes a very nice factory load at reasonable prices, and the brass is reloadable.

For those who do reload, the MAS-49/56 has a reputation for slam-firing due to the design of its firing pin. While this might impress your friends at the range, the BATFE frowns on such things, so it's recommended that you use hard, mil-spec primers. For what it's worth, I reload with CCI 200 Large Rifle Primers and have not had a slam-fire, but it doesn't hurt to use CCI 34 mil-spec primers. Did I mention that both the MAS-36 and MAS-49/56 are C&R eligible rifles? Because they are.

I could go on about how I feel about these rifles, but if you haven't changed your opinion at this point, I doubt you will.  In a lot of ways, the French are like the late, great Rodney Dangerfield: they don't get no respect. One shouldn't say the same for their rifles.

*Francophiles, if you're grinding your teeth about these obvious stereotypes...lighten up. They were jokes. Feel free to insert any cowboy/fatty/ignorant American jokes in their place if it makes you happy.