The First Modern Military Rifle: The Modele 1886 Lebel

Get your “Only Dropped Once” shirt here, and do your part to push back against the stereotype of the French soldier!

The Lebel was a truly groundbreaking development in military small arms, being the first rifle to use smokeless powder. This gave it – and in turn the French infantry – a massive advantage in range over everyone else in the world at the time. This advantage was short-lived, but the French did their best to exploit it.

French chemist Paul Vielle successfully developed his smokeless powder (“poudre B”) formula in 1884, and French ordnance spent 1885 experimenting with different calibers of small bore bullet to see what would work best. They also began looking at rifle actions to use, including specifically the Remington-Lee and the Mannlicher. However, a new Minister of War was appointed in January of 1886 and he demanded a completed prototype rifle and ammunition be completed by May 1886. This was a nearly impossibly short deadline to meet, and it meant that the Ordnance officers could not possibly develop a wholly new rifle, and instead would have to modify something already in the inventory.

The only suitable option was the Model 1884/5, a combination of the Gras bolt and Kropatschek tube magazine. The new smokeless cartridge was made by simply necking down the 11mm Gras round, and the 1884 rifle was given a new barrel in 8mm and a new dual-locking-lug bolt head to accommodate the high chamber pressure of the new powder. The result was the Lebel, and it was formally accepted in April 1887 after a relatively short period of testing. The weapon may not have been used the most advanced elements, but it was without any doubt the foremost military rifle in the world at the time, by a substantial margin.

The three main French state arsenals of St Etienne, Chatellerault, and Tulle would all tool up to produce the Lebel, and by the end of 1892 approximately 2.8 million had been produced, enough to equip the entire Army. The rifle would remain in service as France’s primary infantry rifle until World War One, would be declared obsolete in 1920, and remain in inventory and in use until the end of World War Two.

36 Comments

  1. The problem with pointed projectiles in the tube magazine was primer contact. This was negated with tip-catching grooves in the cartridge base, ensuring that no rifle exploded from a pratfall. The Lebel is however more of adding a new feature to something that was already there. Why invent a new weapon system from scratch if you have something that can easily be modified? The same approach however nearly made American arms development a laughable mess, especially when the M14 didn’t work as intended! Did I mess up?

    • “Why invent a new weapon system from scratch if you have something that can easily be modified?”
      I would rather say it was effect of very short deadline, this mean in short term they get advantage, but Lebel start to age morally fast when other nations start introducing own rifles for smokeless powder.

    • I’d say the M14 worked exactly as intended, because Army Ordnance’s original intent was an M1 Garand replacement that (1) held more rounds in the magazine and (2) was easier and faster to reload under fire. The M14 accomplished both of these objectives admirably.

      It was only when somebody got the bright idea of making it selective-fire, thinking it could take the place of things like the M3 Grease Gun, the M2 Carbine, and the BAR, that it fell into the paths of unrighteousness. It simply had too much recoil to substitute for the first two, and was too light to substitute for the third; even the heavy-barrel M15 version heated up too fast to make a useful SAW.

      The M14 might have been usable in burst fire with a three-shot burst control, but even that is questionable with the powerful 7.62 x 51mm cartridge.

      The real answer for full-auto fire with an M14 pattern weapon was of course the AC-556; the selective-fire version of the Ruger Mini-14 in 5.56 x 45mm. In many respects, it followed the pattern of the Winchester Light Rifle that lost to the AR15 in the CONARC trials in 1957.

      The M14 remains in limited service today as a Designated Marksman’s Rifle, and that’s probably what it always should have been.

      cheers

      eon

  2. Ian is painting truly captivating picture of his period as at was was seminal for small arms development. New advancements were showing by year. It must have been very exciting times for scientists and designers, not to mention manufacturing people. In retrospect we can see current relative stalemate.

    • “In retrospect we can see current relative stalemate.”
      Then I must ask: why? or what you want to achieve which technology in current usage can not achieve?

    • No stalemate at all. CRISPR, autonomous driving, massive advances in medicine. Only we habe no futuristic feel..no flying cars etc..

  3. I still didnt get it: French serialized barrels and bolts, but not receivers. It is kind of strange to me, they had serials on wooden parts after all! Interesting what was explanation behind this decision.

    • Ian would probably be the expert but I suspect the reasoning is that no private soldier is going to remove the barrel from the receiver. Usually the serial is not applied till the rifle is almost through production, and once the barrel is mounted in the receiver they are functionally one unit until the barrel is replaced by an armourer or arsenal.

      • Exactly the point, the barrel cannot be separated from the receiver. I checked a disassembly picture of a Lebel carbine. The barrel and the receiver are likely machined out of the same forging. Removing the barrel would require a saw!

    • The French consider the barrel the heart of the gun, not the receiver. The barrels were torqued down considerably but were NOT machined out of the same forging. Interestingly enough Balle D was originally machined from solid Bronze!

    • Let’s consider the source of the powder: nitrocellulose isn’t black! Neither is cordite! Regular black gunpowder uses charcoal for the hydrocarbon source, which is why it is black. And speaking about powder development if I remember correctly there is a stupid myth concerning powder loads and an alleged inherent weakness of the Japanese Type 11 light machine gun. The postwar “experts” claimed that a standard ball round would cause the gun to display excessive muzzle flash and then eventually explode and kill the gunner, leading to ammunition marked “G” for the translation of a greatly reduced powder charge useless except for terrifying civilians. To me, such an explanation ignores the gun’s iron sights, which would be useless if the ammunition was wrong, and besides, would the Imperial Japanese Army use western letters on their standard ammunition boxes which presumably were entirely labeled in Japanese characters? Reducing muzzle flash for a given barrel length results from either loading a weaker powder charge in the ammunition or getting a propellant that burns faster. What if the letter “G” stood for something more potent and dangerous if one box of ammunition had to be set apart from the other boxes?

      • As a kid I had collection of various rifle and pistol cartridges; I do not even remember here I found them, but it was decent collection. My curiosity was what is inside. After pulling out bullet in vise I typically found same thing – tiny flat flakes of propellant. They were always shiny black with metallic tinge.

      • “nitrocellulose isn’t black! Neither is cordite!”
        White powder should not be understand directly.
        It mean it was opposition of black-powder.
        Black-powder give a lot of smoke, when nitro-powder very little.
        Thus blackpowder might be described as messy when nitro as clean.

    • I agree with you. In the German speaking part of Switzerland the name Weisspulver (white powder) was used.
      Some time later the interpretation of B for secretary of war Boulanger came up.

  4. Were the original bayonets fitted with aluminum grips? Paul Héroult’s French patent for electrolytic aluminum production was filed on 23 April 1886 … before that date, to quote an article about the Washington Monument’s aluminum cap: “… compare the 1884 price of aluminum of $1 per ounce ($16 per pound) to the fact that in 1884 the wage of a laborer on the Washington Monument was $1 per day, and the workday was typically 10 hours or greater in length. Thus, the cost of one ounce of aluminum was equivalent to a full day’s work. The highest skilled craftsman on the monument project was paid $2 per day.” The bayonet grips were obviously not aluminum until the cost came down a lot … but even so the French government was probably showing off. Kind of like having a 3-D printed polymer lower nowadays.

      • Hmm, from “Electrical Review”, November 23, 1901: “ALUMINUM The manufacture of aluminum by the electrolytic method was introduced into France in 1890, in which year a factory with 800 horse-power (water) at command was built and set in operation at Froges. The process used was that of Heroult.” and “According to the Mineral Industry, 763 tons aluminum were produced in 1899 by the two French works …” The bayonet grips may be the first mass-produced aluminum items, if they were introduced in 1893 or so …

        • Oooh, found a gunboard forum discussion. The French were indeed showing off, but not with aluminum (at first). They were apparently “German nickel silver” before the Great War (and a lot of materials, including aluminum, during the War). So … not aluminum in the 1890s, alas.

    • The loading gate would be an entry point for mud in the trenches. And modifying the receiver to accommodate the gate would require some fancy way to avoid over-stressing the receiver during firing. I know the Swiss Vetterli rifle has a loading gate, but that wasn’t made with high-velocity small-caliber smokeless powder rounds in mind!

  5. I want Ian to look at Lindybeige’s and Nicholas Moran’s take on Dunkirk. I like Ian, but sometimes his Frankophilia just puts a bad taste in my mouth. Were the French a bunch of universal cowards? Hardly. But they were hardly universal heroes either. And nowhere was it displayed better than when Charles de Gaulle brazenly stated that France had “Liberated itself” after the Normandy Landings.

    • Oh yes because learning history with two youtubers is the best way, as proven by what you say about De Gaulle, directly from one of the videos of Lindybeige IIRC…At least Moran was an officer in the US Army and make good vids about armor.
      Just an non arrogant advice here: read several books on the same subject and then you can start to think that you are a amateur about this particular subject.
      It is not with Lindybeige that you would learn, for example, that after Dunkirk there the most bloodiest battles of the 1940 campaign for the Wehrmacht ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_Rot ) and that the battle of Arras was a small skirmish compared to that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Hannut (the first big tank battle of the History) or the Abbeville counterattack.
      And about the large amount of francophilia in an english speaking site about weapons and history it is as rare as an honest politician.

      • Wow. Lots of anger, and a lot of assumptions about what I have & haven’t learned. Do you have a particular chip on your shoulder, or do you assume that anybody who criticizes somebody you like must be an imbecile?

        • Anger no, normaly I think about this meme ”eh somebody is wrong in the internet!” and I pass but frankly reading your comment that has nothing to do about the pro presentatin of the Lebel rifle by Mr. McCullum, well I still give it a shot.
          By the way your arguments about my comment are ?…nothing. Nobodody called you an imbecile, don’t play the victimism card. End of my rant.

          • Well, take a look at it this way. If you were sitting down in a college, and said “Boy, I rather like this professer, but I just wish he would keep to the topic and not go on tangents” wouldn’t you be a little bit surprised if the man next to you got up and started spluttering “W-well you must just be a faggot!” Not only did you make an ad-hominim by assuming I didn’t know my history and that I only went to two youtubers and didn’t read any physical books (Your quote exactly: “Oh yes because learning history with two youtubers is the best way, as proven by what you say about De Gaulle… read several books on the subject…”) but you also made a non-sequitur because one thought clearly doesn’t follow the other. Just because I criticized somebody you happen to like speaks nothing about what I do and do not know. Now, I’m obviously no history professor, but it’s still rather mind-boggling and confusing to watch anybody react in such a way.

  6. If you own a Lebel 1886/93 you should shoot it to try to better understand it.

    8x50R Lebel is highly underrated and will give most military calibers a run for their money, especially with the proper projectiles.

  7. Picked up 2 lebal bayonettes last month at a carboot sale over in the dordogne
    They lack their handles but at 10 euroes each they were too cheap to turn down
    a good condition one with sheath is about 125 euroes and those for the berthier about 100 euroes
    A lot of lebal bayonettes were made over into trench knives during ww1

  8. The lebals themselves were less expensive when they were registered 1st catagory arms about 400 euroes
    Now they are D2 catagory arms that is to say antiques and anybody over 18 can buy one and the average price has gone up to is 800 to 1000 euroes
    How ever the sale of ammo is controlled unless its loaded with black powder

      • Remember we are in France a land that has had beureaucrats since about 800 ad in fact we invented the word I bought a first model caracano 1891 long rifle in 6.5×52 the the other day
        Its also catagory d2 an antique but as the later 1941 model is in catagory c I can not buy the ammo at all unless i belong to gun club or have a hunting licence

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