French M14 Conversion – the Gras in 8mm Lebel (Video)

The French adopted the Gras as their first mass-issued metallic cartridge rifle in 1874, replacing the needlefire 1866 Chassepot. Quite a lot of Gras rifles were manufactured, and they became a second-line rifle when the 1886 Lebel was introduced with brand-new smokeless powder and its smallbore 8mm projectile. When it became clear that the quick and decisive war against Germany was truly turning into the Great War, France began looking for ways to increase the number of modern Lebel rifles it could supply to the front.

One option that was used was to take Gras rifles from inventory and rebarrel them for the 8mm Lebel cartridge (which was based on the Gras casehead anyway). These could be issued to troops who didn’t really need a top-of-the-line rifle (like artillery crews, train and prison guards, etc). Then the Lebel rifles from those troops could be redirected to the front.

The rebarreling process was done by a number of contractors, using Lebel barrels already in mass production. The 11mm barrel from the Gras would be removed, and only the front 6 inches (150mm) or so kept. A Lebel barrel and rear sight would be mounted on the Gras receiver, and that front 6 inches of Gras barrel bored out to fit tightly over the muzzle of the new 8mm barrel. This allowed the original stock and nosecap to be used (the 8mm barrel being substantially smaller in diameter, and not fitting the stock and hardware by itself). It also allowed the original Gras bayonet to be fitted without modification, since the bayonet lug was also on that retained section of barrel. In addition, a short wooden handguard was fitted. This was designated the modification of 1914, and an “M14” was stamped on the receivers to note it.

These guns are of dubious safety to shoot, since the retain the single locking lug of the Gras, designed for only black powder pressures. However, this was deemed safe enough for the small amount of actual shooting they were expected to do.

35 Comments

  1. There was Serbian conversion of M.80 Mauser-Milovanovic (Mauser-Koka) to mag fed 7x57mm rifles, designated M.80/07 Mauser-Milovanovic-Djuric. It was used by 2nd rate troops along Mosin Nagants and captured Turkish Mausers. (1st rate used Mauser M.99/07 and M.10, 3rd rate used Berdan II and unmodified Mauser-Milovanovic M.80). It added single locking lug at the front and used bolt handle as a locking lug also, so was reasonably safe to shoot with 7x57mm – I have never found complains about it failing catastrophically, even if it was not liked due the hard bolt.
    Second from the pop:
    http://66.media.tumblr.com/fef5e68751f8b69add2b13f0faa8aa8b/tumblr_o5ankea92K1sfltapo1_1280.jpg

  2. I also shoot right hand bolt guns from my left shoulder. I am right handed, but was born blind in my right eye. If you use your left hand to work the bolt, by reaching over the rifle, you don’t have to take the rifle off your shoulder. You also have an enormous amount of leverage. And it works quite nicely with a 1903 Springfield and a tight sling for rapid fire matches. Try it. It’s a lot faster and more convenient that using your forward hand.

  3. Penny saved, pound foolish. This is a classic story were backwards compatibility as with keeping the 1874 Grass head diameter can kill you 30 years later with the Chauchat machine gun magazine shape. I guess the Germans were lucky that by the time they upgraded from the obsolete Zuendnadelgewehr the need for going from a 15.4 mm round to the 11 mm Mauser round precluded any large scale conversion. The one gun they did convert so was the Chasepot, as they’d gotten several hundred thousand during the war of 1870/71 and they were much newer than the needle rifles in service for 25+ years.

  4. Thanks for the review.

    So basically a chasspot needle rifle, made between 1866 and 1874 , could have been converted/modified 4 times ? Near 70 years of service !
    the convertion would have been : to M74 standard, then M80 standard , then M14 standard (8mm), then to “ball N” cartridge.

    As far as i know, in 1939-1940, the Gras in 11mm or 8mm, was one of the weapons of the “regional régiments”, a kind of “national guard”. There was not enough MAS36, so some frontline units retained their Berthier (3 and 5 shots). The consequence was the lack of Berthier for second line units, so Lebel 1886M93 were put out of storage. The result was that there was not enough Lebel to arm non combattant units, hence the use of Gras.

  5. Are you using commercial ammunition or reduced hand loads? How safe do you think this is to shoot with currently produced ammunition, considering it lacks any forward locking lugs?

  6. I applaud the French for their careful husbanding of resources. However, since these Gras rifles were going to be issued to REMFs who were not expected to use them often if at all, it would surely have been easier to manufacture some 11mm ammunition for the old rifles, rather than take the time and trouble of converting them to 8mm. At the end of the day, you still have a single shot rifle which gives the soldier a gun of sorts which he is not expected to use.

    But it was as ever an interesting piece about a forgotten weapon.

    • In fact French aviators used 11x59R cartridge during WW1 for Vickers machine gun known as Balloon gun, however it has INCENDIARY bullet (not sure whatever LEAD exist) and also probably with smokeless powder (however I’m not sure here), so probably it should NOT be used in Gras rifles. Also additionally old Gras might have well-worn barrel which mean very low accuracy, by replacing barrel accuracy was as in new weapon.

      Though about: 11mm VICKERS BALLOON GUN
      Notice that 8mm Lebel was more-or-less 11mm Gras necked down, however when used in air-to-air combat bigger but slower bullet was considered good deal (more HE or I stuff), this predates aircraft weapons of WWII, where many cartridge were created by necking up.
      Soviets necked up 12.7x108R (used in very early ShVAK, not to be confused with 12.7×108 for DShK) to get 20x99R ShVAK
      Germans necked up 15×96 (for MG151) to 20mm to get 20×82
      Americans necked up 12.7×99 to get 16x98mm Vega, but don’t put it into production
      Soviets necked up 14.5×114 to get 23×115 (for NS-23)

      • The 11 x 59R Vickers version was also used in Hotchkiss and Vickers-Maxim “anti-balloon” heavy MGs by both British and French AAA units. Such French units were issued Gras rifles in 11 x 59R so their rifles matched the caliber of their MGs. I’m not sure firing the Vickers smokeless-powder round in the Gras would be advisable, even if it wasn’t generally loaded with an incendiary bullet for balloon-potting (which it was).

        Unmodiied 11 x 59R Gras rifles were also issued to second0line troops in WW1. They were still used with a black-powder loading, the 11mm Balle’ Modele 1879/83 a balle chemisse. It was loaded with a full-metal-jacket, flatnosed slug. This version was actually developed for France’s first tubular-magazine repeating military rifle, the Kropatschek Model 1878, that was issued mostly to their Marines.

        BTW, unlike the Dreyse, the Chassepot cartridge did not have the primer cap in front of the powder charge. It had it held in a small papier-mache’ “cup” at the very rear, as with a modern metallic-cartridge primer. However, if the powder charge was the last bit “soft”, the blow of the firing pin would simply push the primer and “cup” deeper into the powder, resulting in a misfire.

        Worse yet, it was rather common for the action of bolting the rifle to compress the primer in its cup, resulting in firing while the bolt was still partly open. Also, the India-rubber gasket on the bolt head quickly hardened and cracked under firing heat, and often swelled as well, making it impossible to close the bolt.

        Just as German soldiers carried spare “needles” for their Dreyse rifles and learned to change them quickly due to erosion from powder gases, French soldiers armed with the Chassepot carried spare gaskets and learned to change them quickly. Neither one was a particularly good weapon, and both were outdated when the Franco-Prussian War began.

    • I believe the sequence of events went something like this. War kicks off and Government sees previous estimates of ammunition use were too low, to say the least. Government panics, orders everybody who can make ammunition to make more, more, more (of the standard types) now, now, now! Every speck of production is committed but the numbers are still short. At this point the idea of using the old stuff in the warehouses pops up, but the Ministry of Armaments greets requests for old style (Which would now be a new style.) of ammunition with snarls and threats of physical violence. At this point the “Better than nothing!” mixmaster schemes kick in. This process, by the way, was not restricted to France.

    • Perhaps your answer is that logistically speaking, it is far easier to send a confusion of the wrong ammunition when you have multiple types and calibers, than it is to ship the front line troops the wrong rifles. At the worst if you mix up the weapons, all you end up with is a soldier with a rifle that is a single shot weapon. But if you mix up the type of ammunition, you have a bunch of soldiers who cannot fire a single shot in their defense. Not exactly a war winning strategy

  7. Totally unrelated, except in the most general WW1/ Green Fields of France sense, but I had been meaning to toss this out for comment for a while. Heard a while back on the local NPR station about a Houston ER doc whose hobby is art photography. He discovered that after 1918 the massive bunker complexes behind the trenches on both sides had been mostly just sealed off and left virtually unvisited for a century. Somehow he managed to (over a period of years) gain a lot of access because what do bored soldiers encased in giant concrete bunkers do to while away the time? Create graffiti, of course, and in many cases bas-relief art:

    http://jeffgusky.com/portfolio/

    • This is important to know.

      Some bunkers and dugouts were sealed off due to the presence of mustard gas. Despite it’s’ name mustard gas is a liquid which is heavier than air. It enters underground spaces and lies upon the walls and floor. People entering them (especially children) even in modern times, have suffered from the extreme blistering of the mustard gas.

      Like unexploded shells this WW1 problem remains a danger across the old battlefields. Travel in rural Flanders at ploughing time and you will see wire cages by the fields or in the farm yards to collect the ploughed up ordnance. The Belgian Army travel around visiting the cages to remove and deal with them.

  8. Steel is steel, John Moses Browning went from black powder to smokeless with no blowups that I know of. Why is it that a replica of a pre-smokeless firearm says “black powder only”?

    • All steel is not created equal. Generally, steel used in blackpowder weapons has lower nickel content, and is softer than the steel used in smokeless-powder arms. Because blackpowder arms don’t need to withstand the pressures smokeless-powder arms do.

      Heat treatment is another factor. The main difference between a S&W M15 .38 Special and an M19 .357 is the heat treatment of the frame, cylinder, and barrel. Yes, you can install a Model 19 cylinder in a Model 15. And after about 100 rounds of full-power .357, frame stretch will put it badly out of time. I’ve seen people do this and wonder why their pet revolver began shaving lead at Round 80, and broke its frame at Round 103 or so. (Cause; bullet impacting 3/32″ off-center in forcing cone at 1200 F/S.)

      Generally, the reason blackpowder repros are so much cheaper than modern types is that they are built to the original 19th Century (or earlier!) specifications in terms of types of steel and heat treatment. Yes, you could have a repro of, say, a Colt 1861 “Navy-Navy” metallic cartridge conversion built in .357 Magnum. And to make it safe to fire, it would need the same types of steel and heat treatment as any modern-design Magnum revolver. And would cost just as much, if not more. (Probably more, due to some clever re-engineering being required; open top Colt frames are not really designed for that level of firing stress.)

      If you are really serious, get a stainless-steel Ruger Old Army .44 blackpowder, and have a metallurgist analyze its alloys compared to a stainless Remington 1860 Army .44 repro from Cimarron, etc.

      You’ll quickly find out why the Ruger Old Army always cost as much or more than a Super Blackhawk .44 Magnum.

      cheers

      eon

      • Cap&ball replicas(their barrels, frames, cylinders etc.) are usually made from easily machinable material, that is leadloy(ledloy) – like 12L14 😉
        Dead soft – but still much better than most of mid XIX century materials.

    • “went from black powder to smokeless”
      Wait, we should distinguish following cartridges:
      1.BLACKPOWDER
      2.NITRO FOR BLACKPOWDER – i.e. filled with nitro powder but without excessing pressure limit
      3.NITRO – fully filled with nitro powder

  9. Very good narrative, and a very interesting rifle.

    But then comes the Greek part and… Erm, Ian, Steyr – where? Last time I checked the map it was still in Austria and haven’t moved since:) The only time it was in Greater Germany (but still as part of Ostmark) was between the Anschluss in 1938 and 1945…

  10. Actually about 150.000 11mm Gras rifle(Steyr and French made) were adopted by the Greeks for almost 3 decades (1877-1906). A small quantity of this particular type M14 ,(about 400) among much more Lebel and Berthier rifles were left (donated ?)to the revolutionary government of Venizelos based in Salonica by the French of the “Entente Cordiale” for his support during WW1. Later on all these, saw days of action during the unlucky Asia Minor campaign and became secondary armament of the Greek army till WW2

    • The Greek Y:1875 Gras was also used extensively by partisans fighting the Axis occupation forces, and later in the civil war (1945-47), notably by the ELAS/DSE communist revolutionaries.

      cheers

      eon

  11. Substitute rifles… At least nobody brought out cap-lock muskets.

    If you had to give a logistics unit “second rate” weapons during the Great War, I suppose the worst would be below:

    1. Vetterli-Vitali with charger-fed magazine
    2. Martini-Henry carbine
    3. Berdan 1868
    4. Werder 1869
    5. Podewils-Linder conversion
    6. Trapdoor Springfield with rod bayonet
    7. Tabatiere conversion
    8. Rast & Gasser 1898

    Is there anything on this list you would really want to get? If not, just toss it…

    • “Is there anything on this list you would really want to get?”
      The better question is: for which you have ammunition.

      “worst(…)Rast & Gasser 1898”
      I can’t agree, indeed it is fixed frame, but is double-action and hold 8 cartridges. It has also feature that if gate open, trigger rotate drum, but hammer remain stationary:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sqxhXCnZXs
      which speed up reloading
      If you consider Rast & Gasser 1898 worst, then what about Nagant 1895 private model?

      • Good point, maybe I should have listed a Webley Royal Irish Constabulary revolver with the automatic ejection device instead…

    • My vote for worst would be a tossup between the French “Mousqueton de Cent Gardes” and the Westley Richards Monkey tail.

      The Cent Gardes had a breechblock driven vertically by a spring that also was the trigger guard. It fired the cartridge when it hit the top and struck a “tail” containing the priming compound.

      The Monkey Tail was a lifting block with a hinge up front, like the trapdoor Springfield, but with an open channel behind it for loading a linen cartridge.

      Any appreciable wear, and it could fly open on firing, giving you a punch in the snoot from the lever and a blast of hot gas in the face.

      The Werder actually wasn’t all that bad. It was a Peabody type that happened to have an opening lever on top that looked like a hammer. Once you got used to it, it was as reliable as any other Peabody type and a bit faster to reload than average.

      cheers

      eon

      • You must have had a very poor Monkey Tail Eon. They were reliable and popular with British cavalry, Boers, Portuguese Army and in sales to South African hunters. Also used in muzzle loading mode to save money. The cartridge was paper and fit for the impecunious to hand make if necessary. Used by my Yeomanry predecessors.

  12. “Pretty fasinasting and extensive history”. And so was your presentation, Ian.
    BTW – this practice of refurbishing the older models for the second line use during the successive conflicts made me remember the stories my Scout-guide usd to tell of his Wehrmacht service during the Second World War (During the Second World War the Germans incorporated parts of the former Polish territory into the Reich, making everybody automatically, so to speak, Germans, even though they were Poles), actually as a Flakhelfer (he was 16 at the time). One thing he was saying was about various basic weapons they had been issued: he mentioend specifically two carbines – one was Mosin (“very violent” as he described it), and then (I am not sure of the order, but I deduced now that would be the right one) he praised the Belgian Mauser carbine, “which was delight to shoot”. I said about the order, because both those weapons were shooting non-standard ammunition – Mosin 7.62.54R; Belgian Mauser 7.65. Russian ammunition would still be quite prolific due to the booty, so after some use they would be taken from the Flakhelfer and issued to some Volkssturm unit perhaps, the Belgian Mauser ammunition being much less available.
    Your presentation (great, I repeat) explained to me all the intricacies of the subject. At the time of listening to the story I thought this was showing off that he had a number of occasions to shoot all sorts of weapons (apart from the 88mm Flak).
    Greetings to all,
    Andrzej

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