The Vault

M1886 Lebel Video

The French M1886 Lebel was the first smallbore smokeless powder rifle adopted by a major military, and was a game changer in the European arms race in the 1880s. It wasn’t an outstanding design in many ways (like the slow-loading tube magazine and requirement to use a screwdriver to remove the bolt), but its 8mm smokeless cartridge jumped France to the front of the technological race regardless. Today, we’re taking one out to the range to see how it shoots.

Lebel rifles can still be found without much trouble, although most of them have led a rough life through two world wars. Simpson Ltd has one right now that looks pretty nice. It is rather pricey, because it was made in 1888 and is thus legally not considered a gun and can be shipped directly to a person. Others of varying condition and price can be found on GunBroker.

40 comments to M1886 Lebel Video

  • bombdoc

    Nice clip..
    I picked one of these up in Kandahar a couple of years back, and it shoots fine. Privi makes cases for 8×50 Lebel, but without the base ring. I made up a jig to cut a groove in my Lathe – otherwise you have to shoot them single shot. .323 Mauser bullets work fine.

    If you use surplus Hotchkiss ammo in this you must make sure that the chamber has been modified to take this round. Modified rifles have an N stamped on the Knox form.

  • What price range do these (in original condition) usually sell for? Were there carbine variation of the Label 1886/M93?

  • Chris Brosnahan

    Actually, the Lebel could’ve been used as a main battle rifle during the Second Great Unpleasantness…the French pretty much threw upo their hands and the white flag early on in the conflict, so why waste the good stuff on a lost cause???

    CB in FL

    • Matthew L.

      I can’t stand this sort of throwaway comment that shows a kind of bigotry that would be unnacceptable in almost any other context. For one thing, in the USA we have absolutely no idea what it would be like to fight a war against a powerful foreign invader on our own soil. Other than the Japanese on a few Aleutian islands, we haven’t done so since the Civil War (against each other) and the War of 1812, when the British burned Washington, D.C.–hardly a stellar record. When you look at the history you can certainly criticize the military and political leadership of France at the time, but this kind of disparaging comment is an insult to the tens of thousands of French soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought to free their homeland alongside the Allies and the suffering endured by their families at home.

      Sorry, Ian, for the diatribe but I hate these cheap shots against the French. Thanks for an educational piece on a nice old rifle.

  • Bombdoc
    I assume you were in the military in Kandahar, Afghanistan???
    If so, how the hell did you get the Lebel out?
    “Our” new military is not like it was in WWII WWI, Korea,when we risked our lives and were respected to bring home a trophy or two. Now you go to jail if you even bring back an enemy’s bayonet!!! Our government don’t trust us anymore. So, how did you get that Lebel out of Afghanistan or maybe that’s a secret. :-)

    • Magus

      In Afghanistan, they let antiques be brought back. Quite a few Martini-Henry rifles have been showing up on Gunbroker with Afghanistan bringback papers, for example. And some of them aren’t actually antiques, but early 1900s Afghan government production; whoever certifies rifles as antiques is apparently unfamiliar with the almost 600 year difference between the Christian and Islamic calendars.

      So if Bombdoc’s Lebel was a pre-1899, it would be good to go as a trophy.

    • Bombdoc

      Sorry for the late reply..

      Yes, as Magus said, there was a period when export of genuine antiques was allowed.. even to Brits! I believe that this is no longer the case..

      UK rules were that it had to be over 100 years old and the ammunition no longer in commercial production. UK Home office had two lists of “definitely acceptable” “No way Mate..” calibres. 8 x 50 Lebel needless to say was on neither list!

      The firearm had to be checked by an Ammunition Technician to certify it was free from explosives. He would also try to stop any modern reproductions getting through.

      In my case, I just happened to be the Senior Ammunition Technical Officer for the theatre :)

      … I got a nice Snider as well – Mk3 all matching!

  • Fidel Feederle

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8mm_Lebel
    ‘Balle D’ from 1898 is pointed, replacing the blunt-nosed ‘Balle M’.

  • Earl Liew

    Ian, did you notice any significant differences in accuracy ( assuming all else being equal ) between firing this particular Lebel with and without the bayonet attached?

    • Nope, I didn’t notice any difference in accuracy…I couldn’t hit my steel targets with it either way. :) Between the old ammo and the rough condition of the bore in this particular Lebel, I didn’t bother shooting for groups.

      • Earl Liew

        Thanks for clarifying that, Ian. I appreciate the candor and the prompt reply. Perhaps such a comparison will have to await another time when the opportunity to test a more pristine Lebel arises.

  • Nice video on a great rifle.

    I notice that the French introduced spitzer cartridges in 1898 with the Balle D, but that the next spitzer cartridge introduced by another power followed 7 years behind, in 1905 with the German S Patrone. Does anyone know what the reason for this delay was? Did the French keep pointy bullet technology under wraps (I’ve heard some evidence that they in fact did, issuing the earlier round nose ammunition to troops for training and keeping the Balle D under lock and key and away from prying eyes – but ready if needed), or were the other powers just slow to adopt the concept (well, I KNOW Austria was)?

    • JPeelen

      Around 1898 the Germans were busy to replace the Gewehr 88 by the Gewehr 98. This was a considerable undertaking. Interrupting it by changing to another cartridge midstream would not have been a smart move. France tried to keep the balle D under the covers. But German spies had earlier managed to obtain cartridges with the revolutionary nitrocellulose poudre B. (The analysis of this propellant by well-known chemists, not, repeat not Duttenhofer at Rottweil, enabled Germany to find out how to make NC powder.) I assume the same happened with 86D cartridge specimens. Keep in mind that Germany modified the French approach. Although the 86D was lighter than its predecessor, the German S-Geschoss went another step in this direction. To achieve this, the optimal shape of the 86D (boattail) was partly given up. The German S-Patrone is optimized for ranges up to 400 m while the 86D is better at longer ranges. To work out this modification of the French idea took some time and I assume heated discussions. I think this explains what you call delay.

    • Magus

      I wonder, why is it that the German word “spitzer” became the standard terminology (at least in English), when it was the French who invented the pointed bullet?

  • juver

    so what happened with the bayonet , why did it pop off

  • Rikk

    “Oh sh*t, here come the Germans!” oughta be on a bumper sticker :)

    • Keith

      I’m absolutely no historian, but…

      I understand that in the 14 – 18 war, both France and imperial Russia had their armies fully mobilized and into Germany and Austria Hungary well ahead of full German mobilization.

      Simillarly, I gather that France had sent an expeditionary force over the Rhine in 1939, when the main German forces were fully committed in Poland. If my understanding is correct, the French force encountered a minefield and decided to come home.

      Aside from the interesting “what if” implications, had the French force continued to the Rhur…

      I think in both cases, it shows the French leadership, much more eager to invade the young upstart of a unified Germany, than the German leaderships were to attack France.

      1870, appears to have been a more civilized affair (if war can ever be described that way!), with clearly defined objectives;

      To force the French leadership to cede control of the formerly independent German speaking cantons of Alsace and Lorraine, on the west bank of the Rhine (which Napoleon had annexed), to Prussia, which was “unifying” the multitude of independant German speaking principalities, cantons, manors, city states and kingdoms, into “Germany” – by military force.

      In 1870, the violence was directed almost exclusively at the French state, ordinary citizens were largely un-molested, and the Prussian officers, who lodged in French hotels, paid their bills in full, in French Francs.

      I don’t want to defend the various German leaderships (the less bad does not become “good” ), but I think in 14 – 18 and 39-45, it was more a case of “oh no, here come the French again“.

      • JPeelen

        In 1914 as well as 1939 it was Germany that invaded France (through neutral Belgium), not France invading Germany.
        Especially 1939 the French trusted their purely defensive Maginot line. The lack of combat up to the German attack on 10 May 1940 (this time also against neutral Netherlands) was called Sitzkrieg (sitting war) in Germany and drole de guerre in France.
        From what I know of 1870/71, there was no lack of atrocities on both sides. War brings the best but also the worst in human beings to the surface.

        • K!P

          Offtopic:

          Not entirely accurate, but as Keith mentioned, the french did invade Germany, but lacked the logistics to push trough As i understand they just wanted a show of force, but it went easy and they din’t had a folow up plan. Later they tried to assist the Dutch forces (and some french troops managed to arrive in zeeland), this is why a southern province of the Netherlands fought on for four more days. (Zeeland)Again the french had some logistical/political issues, unable to get additional troops trough Belgium quick enough.

  • Mu

    In regards to the tubular magazine, the French were actually the last to introduce it. This particular type was invented by A. v. Kropatschek, and had been used in the conversion of the Mauser 1871 into the 71/84, and in some Portuguese Mausers.

    • Yeah, I didn’t really think about it until after we were done filming. Still, only the Lebel used it with a smallbore cartridge.

    • R. Aballe

      Mu: Not in Portuguese Mausers, but in the Kropatschek M 1886 rifles adopted by the Portuguese. Incidentally, I am inclined to think that the French actually got the idea from the M78 and M84 Kropatschek rifles (chambered for a black powder 11mm Gras-Kropatschek round) used by their own naval infantry.

      Ian: the Portuguese Kropatschek rifles were chambered for the 8X60R cartridge which, despite being originally designed for black powder use (I think it can be technically considered a smallbore cartridge) was converted at the turn of the century for smokeless powder usage as the 8x56R Kropatschek (as the action was also found to be able to withstand the higher pressure generated by the new smokeless powders), another proprietary round unique to the Portuguese Kropatschek.

  • Ian Hutchison

    Hi Ian,
    Thought you might me interested to know,the 8mm Steyr-Kropatchek 1886 made for the Portuguese also has a tubular magazine. This would also be an interesting weapon to cover that is inexpensive. If I still had mine I’d give it to you.

    • Ian Hutchison

      AFAIK, the 8×60 started as a bp round but the Portuguese replaced it with an identical and compatible smokeless version.

      • Magus

        The smokeless version had the case length reduced to 56mm, mainly by giving it a shorter neck, but overall length was kept the same. With smokeless they didn’t need as much case volume, and since it headspaces on the rim there were no alterations needed to the rifle.

  • Chris Morton

    The Lebel is an interesting rifle, albeit of strictly limited development potential. Tactically, I suppose it could be considered equivalent to the .45-70 Winchester-Hotchkiss converted to .30-40.

    Truth be told, given the choice, I’d rather go into combat with a Lebel rifle than one of the three shot Berthiers.

    • Magus

      I don’t know, the (much) faster reloading on a Berthier is a big edge, even with a 3-shot version. You get 8 shots in the magazine with a Lebel, but refilling the magazine in combat wouldn’t be fun.

  • C. Oelund

    You mention that the magazine is slow to load because you need to snap the bolt back, close it, open it again, and close it once again to feed a cartridge from the magazine.
    The idea was that you could fill the magazine. place a cartridge on the lifter and another one directly in the chamber, then close the bolt.
    The bolt will not pick up the cartridge you placed on the lifter because the lifter is down, and the magazine won’t release a cartridge until you open the bolt to chamber the second cartridge (the one you placed on the lifter).

    So the rifle is effectively a ten shot rifle when fully loaded, and you don’t have to go through those extra steps of closing and opening the bolt. (which essentially is the operation of chambering those two extra cartridges you didn’t load)

    It is also worth mentioning that the main feature of the M93 is that it has a gas-plug added to the bolt which fills up the gap in the receiver left by the top locking lug when the bolt is locked.
    This prevents (most) of the gasses from shooting directly at the shooter’s face in case of a casing rupture.

  • gerard demaison

    Re Cheap insulting comments on the French military
    Let me remind the ignorant bigots that the French suffered 1.4 million military deaths during WW-1 ( 1914-1918 ) and nearly 200.000 military deaths during the disastrous summer of 1940. I need say no more. Gerard Demaison.

    • Earl Liew

      If you read through all the posts and comments for this article as well as other articles that have appeared on “Forgotten Weapons”, I think you will find that most of us are quite aware of the enormous price France paid in blood and lives during both world wars, and that we have much empathy for the very humanity that was lost, destroyed or otherwise sacrificed on all sides by those terrible events.

  • Jgwhitacre

    Where is the safety and how does it work.

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