Since I spent yesterday talking about my new Turkish converted Berthier rifle, I figured it would be a decent idea to upload a couple manuals for the mainstay rifles of the French Army during WWI, the Lebel and Berthier. Thanks to our friend Hrachya, we have original French language ones for both the M1916 Berthier and the M1886-93 Lebel.
The 1886 Lebel rifle holds an important place in history as the first service rifle to use a smokeless powder cartridge (the 8x50R Lebel). This was a huge leap in arms technology even though the rest of the 1886 rifle design was not particularly innovative. It was based on the 1878 Gras/Kropatschek rifle, and used an 8-round tubular magazine mounted in the stock below the barrel and a standard dual-locking-lug bolt. While this magazine had a greater capacity than the vertical magazines of its day (which held 3-6 rounds depending on the design), it really hurt the balance of the rifle, and its did not hold cartridges securely while they were lifted up and chambered. Tip the rifle the wrong way while operating the bolt, and your cartridge would fall out on the ground. However, is still offered far better accuracy, range and reliability than every other infantry rifle in use worldwide. To say it provoked concern in War Ministries worldwide would be an understatement.
Virtually all 1886 Lebel rifles were updated to 1893 configuration, and unmodified guns are very rare today. The modifications were fairly minor, and addressed common problems with the original design. A stacking rod was added, the rear sight base was strengthened, and most significantly the safety mechanism (a rotating cocking knob) was removed and a gas relief hole added to the bolt in case of ruptured cartridge cases.
The Berthier was initially designed for cavalry troops, because of the difficulty of loading a Lebel tube magazine while riding. The Berthier used a 3-round Mannlicher-style clip, which was much quicker and easier to reload (and used the same 8x50R cartridge as the 1886 Lebel rifle). After being adopted for cavalry and artillery units in the early 1890s, it was decided to produce a midlength model for colonial use, and finally it was adopted for full French Army use in 1915, as the Mle 1907-15. No sooner was it adopted, though, than a crash program was instituted to increase its magazine capacity to match the 5 rounds used by German Mauser rifles. The solution was a magazine well extending below the stock slightly, and a new 5-round clip. These rifles were accepted in 1916, and designated the Mle 1916, or just M.16 .
The French were losing horrific numbers of men and arms in the great trench battles of WWI, and had to constantly struggle to keep new soldiers armed. Significant efforts were made to salvage both complete and damaged rifles from battlefields, and repair depots worked constantly rebuilding the guns. haivng functional arms was more important than meeting arbitrary model designations, and many guns were reissued with a mixture of features form the Berthier’s 25 years of variations. Different bolts, barrel lengths, sling swivel locations, and sights were mixed and matched as necessary, and these non-standard configurations are not infrequently seen today.You can find an excellent and very detailed history of the Berthier variations at the CurioandRelicFirearmsForum.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we have both a Lebel 1886-93 and a Berthier 1916 manual for you as well: