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-Étienne (MAS) Modèle 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.

16 comments:

  1. Comments are welcome! Have any input for me? Additional information about the subject that I've left out? Personal experience with these weapons, either in combat or on the range? Post it here!

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    1. Glad somone else has a passion for french weapons ever since I've got a berthier rifle I've wanted a mas 36,but I can't find any around.

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  2. Hi,

    Nice blog.

    I am getting into reloading for my MAS36 and my Syrian contract MAS 49 (that I am restoring with a nicer stock) and I wondered which smokeless powder you used and how many grains. The Prvi Parizan MAS cartridges I shoot have 139 grain bullets, but others have told me that they reloaded with seems .30 caliber 150 grain FMJ bullets (like M2 ball ammo) and the MAS seems to like it pretty well. They have noted the tighter twist of the rifling which makes 150 grain bullets more accurate in these rifles. They state that 'your mileage may vary' so I wondered what your experience was.

    Anyway...

    I can imagine shooting these reloads through the MAS 36 just fine, but with my MAS 49, I don't want to use anything to overstress the gas system, which can be finicky. I am curious what powder and grain weight load you use for reloads, and if you use the 150 grain spitzer .30 caliber FMJ bullet with it.

    Thanks,

    Jim

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  3. Hi. I've fired a few different 150 gr bullets in my reloads. Hornady FMJBT, Prvi Partizan 150 gr FMJ (which mimics the M2 .30 cal bullet) and Prvi Partizan 150 gr SP. My 49/56 seems to really like the M2 style bullets. I use a fairly mild load of 38 grains of H4895 and seat to 2.94" and I have not had any issues with violent cycling that I can see. This is a starting load in my Lee manual and a middle range load in my Hornady 8th edition. I picked H4895 because its a do-all powder for most rifle cartridges and has a medium burn rate. I think with the direct impingement system of the 49 and 49/56 there's less chance of damaging anything, but I still stick to light loads. I've been thinking about picking up some 130 gr bullets and giving them a go. It would be nice if Prvi Partizan sold their 139 gr bullets separately, but I can't find them anywhere or anything resembling one, so until they do, I'll stick with the 150 grainers. Happy shooting!

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  4. Dude, this blog is awesome. Now I have to get one of these frenchi guns... I saw a mas 49's online for $300 but nope... didn't last long, well someday.... someday...

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. I would love to add a MAS-49 to the safe someday myself. I have seen rearsenaled as-new ones for a pretty penny on gunbroker. I just can't justify the expense at the moment.

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  6. I know a guy who has a 49/56 in .308 and he has no complaints. The MAS 36 most likely was the result of the unsuccessful attempts at a semi-auto rifle (the Ste Etienne) the French experienced during WWI. While the technology may not have been ready then, in hindsight it appears that those problems could have been overcome by the '30s. However, even though the Garand was introduced about the same time, it had to be redesigned and fixed before it became the rifle it is known as being today. The 36 had no such problems.
    I passed on a chance to get a 36 in the late 90's, and the ammunition issue was the only reason. I was in a militaria store once when a guy came in looking to sell a MAS 36. The owner wasn't interested. Another older customer looked at him and said "If I wanted one, I would've kept the one the guy trying to kill me was using when I killed him in Vietnam."
    Would still like to get a 49/56, with a modified magazine it would make a handy deer rifle, I think.

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  7. Hi jimvac please contact me: janne161 ät gmail.com I have some questions to you.

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  8. I just purchased an Armory New MAS 49/56, 7.5x54 w/ Bayonet. I bought it from a gentleman who has had it for over 25 years and has never shot it.
    I even have the original manual. But you are right, I can't find any ammo at this time. I was able to locate two new magazines for it. They are still in the original packaging. Now I have to decide if I want to shoot this rifle or not. Maybe I'll buy an another one in fair to good condition and shoot that one. I am a collector of WW1 & WW11 Military Rifles. I search and search for the BEST I can find. I only have the Japanese rifles to research & locate.

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  9. What you all need is a MAS 44.

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  10. Hey, quite nice! I started reading this entry half-expecting some of the usual French-bashing crap, boring but perversely thrilling, becasue, as you know, passer pour un idiot aux yeux d'un imbécile est une volupté de fin gourmet... And instread found a nicely written, informative text, with just the right amount of (to my French eyes at least) tongue-in-cheek snarkiness.

    Just one correction, though. "Nazi Germany invaded, France fell in seven days". Unless you have some more specific timeframe in mind, or mistook France for Yugoslvai (which indeed fell in a week, though the Germans would later much regret going in), AFAIK, the battle of France lasted 40 days, and the French still lost 100 000 KIA.

    As a rapid back of the envelope comparison, that would be about 750 000 KIA, still in 40 days, for today's USA, with maybe 2+ millions WIA - let's say a bit less than 19 000 KIA a day.
    A real ass-kicking, for sure, but a far cry from the 'only dropped once' BS, in regard to the WWI-scale casualties, I'd say. This maybe simply because of my WWII veteran grandfather, who ended up picking up some ashtrays in Hitler's Eagle nest, or my grandmother's father and uncles who fought some 20 years earlier, 5 Surrender Monkeys going to war, only one coming back home.

    That's about all. Thanks for the read, in any case!

    (And make that TWO corrections, this last one just out of trivia interest : Jerry Lewis is NOT, I repeat NOT an household name in France, never was, in fact, I'd bet he's not even known by the public at large, at all.

    I mean, I know about him, but that's because I'm a dork who's gone through a "movies buff" awkward phase when younger, and know about his movies and his Scorcese and his "Wise guy" parts and all...
    BUT, to the normal, better adjusted person on the French street, he is NOTHING, no more than the 3 Stooges or Abbot and Costello would be, well, maybe with just a tad more name recognition from the charity works.

    I've been stumped by that particular US cliché about France ever since I've met it, and my best guess is that it was a misconception born from the 60's "Cahiers du cinéma" movies/art magazine, which listed "Dr Madlove" among its "authors" movies, IE made within the Hollywood system, but carrying a certain artistic vision, and a greater control over the overall creative process.
    Nobody ever accused Jerry Lewis of being on par with John Ford in that regard, but, that movie made it to the list, according to one particular writer/critic. Why not? It's not a bad movie, at least. Anyway.

    How it went from that, to the commonly-admitted eternal truth that French people idealize him... I'll never know... and it's a mystery best left unsolved, for all parties involved, I think.)

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    1. Salutations, mon ami! You're right: I don't know what I was thinking with the seven day comment. Had to have been a lapse on my part, because I know better than that....I've corrected it. Interesting points about the reputation of Jerry Lewis, too. This is something I have always just "heard" to be true, and just accepted it.

      As an arrogant, obese cowboy American, I am glad you didn't take offense to my tongue in cheek remarks, and that you enjoyed the article. :) There are some of us here who study history who still remember the Marquis De Lafeyette, after all. These really are fantastic rifles; I'm looking at adding a MAS-36/51 to my collection as soon as I can. I'd love to have a MAS-49 as well...maybe someday.

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  11. Looking for a MAS 1936 magazine! Any leads?

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    1. I'm a bit confused by your question. The MAS-36 has an integral 5 round magazine. Are you looking for a new spring, or follower? Or are you looking for a detachable magazine for the MAS-49 or 49/56? In both cases, I would check e-gunparts.com first, and then gunbroker. Failing that, scouring gun shows might be your best bet. Good luck.

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  12. I have recently picked up an MAS 36 for my very own. I paid $275. Even more recently (yesterday) I finally found 4 boxes of ammo for it. I am looking forward to taking it to the range. It is in like new condition with all matching numbers(except for the floor plate, which is just a few numbers lower). It has a nice sling and a stamp on the stock date 1954. I'm glad to read a positive review of them. I was afraid that wasted the money I spent on it. I had long wanted one just because of its unconventional looks. Thanks for your interesting review of the MAS.

    jay

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