Today we are going through the French rifle ammunition used in the Lebel, Berthier, and MAS series rifles – 8mm Lebel and 7.5mm French.
The 8mm Lebel cartridge began as simply a necked-down version of the 11mm Gras cartridge, because that cartridge was already in use in the French Navy Kropatschek rifles which were the basis of the Lebel rifle design. As a result, the Lebel cartridge was significantly tapered and had a large rim (which would cause a series of problems for use in repeating arms in later years).
The model 1886 ammunition was a flat-nosed long conical bullet, with a lead core. The bullet weighed 15g/231gr and had a muzzle velocity of 638mps/2093fps. This was updated slightly in 1891 to strengthen the case and add a crimping groove to the bullet. Designated Balle 1886M, this cartridge would be the standard for almost 10 years.
In 1898, trials of a new spitzer bullet concluded with the adoption of Balle 1886D. This was not just a spitzer bullet, but actually a solid 90/10 brass bullet instead of a lead cored bullet, as this type was simpler to manufacture. The bullet weighed 12.8g/198gr and had a muzzle velocity of 701mps/2300fps.
In 1932, a new loading was developed to give better performance in machine guns, designated Balle 1932N. This was still a spitzer, but returned to the lead core type of construction. Its bullet weighed 15.05g/232gr and had a muzzle velocity of 690mps/2265fps. It was a more powerful round than the preceding versions, and incorporated a thicker neck in the brass. This required reaming out the chambered of existing weapons to avoid overpressure when firing. Converted weapons were marked with an “N” on the barrel and receiver. It is important not to fire this ammunition in unconverted firearms!
Today on the commercial market, the primary source of 8mm Lebel ammunition is PPU (Prvi Partisan). They make a cartridge loaded basically to Balle 1886D specifications, which can be safely used in both N-converted and unconverted rifles. For more information on the 8mm Lebel cartridge, I would recommend “Les Cartouches 8mm Lebel” by Jean Huon and Alain Barrelier.
In 1924, a new rimless cartridge was adopted – the 7.5x58mm. A problem quickly revealed itself, however, because 8mm Mauser ammunition could be chambered and fired in firearms made for the new 7.5mm cartridge – with potentially catastrophic results. To solve this problem, the case was shortened to 54mm in 1929, and the new standard loading was Balle 1929C. This fired a 9g/139gr bullet at 823mps/2700fps and would be the standard French rifle cartridge until the adoption of the 5.56mm FAMAS in the 1970s.