MAS 44: The French Adopt a Semiauto Rifle

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The French Army had been planning a semiauto infantry rifle since 1921, but indecisiveness and bureaucracy delayed its development. A major trial was held in 1931, and elements of two experimental rifles were chosen to be combined into what would eventually become the MAS 1944. It was put through field trials in late 1939, and passed with flying colors – but too late to get into production before the 1940 armistice with Germany. The project was hidden from the Germans at St Etienne, and would be revived upon the factory’s liberation in the fall of 1944. By late 1945, rifles were coming off the production line.

The MAS 44 was a direct gas impingement operating system with a tilting bolt, as was a remarkably rugged, dependable, and simple rifle. It was initially adopted by the French Navy, and only 6200 were made before a number of improvements were made and a new model was designated; the MAS 1949. When those 6200 rifles were ultimately surplussed in the 1980s, the vast majority of the surviving examples came to the United States, where their scarcity is not well appreciated.

17 Comments

  1. Magnifique!
    These really are awesome rifles. I’ve got the MAS Mle. 1936 and the FSA 1949/56 updated version of the younger brother FSA M1949. Of course, the lack of the spring acting on the firing pin internal to the bolt raises the prospect that when the bolt goes into battery, the momentum can cause the heavy firing pin to tap against the primer. With military-type hard primers this is not a problem, but with soft and non-French Army spec primers, this can lead to an accidental discharge as the bolt closes on a live civilian-mfr. round. Some people go to lengths such as shortening the firing pin just a hair, or getting a lighter but equally dense and robust firing pin made out of some exotic metal.

    I suppose that everyone who studies French small arms and the military history of the nation has all sorts of “Monday morning quarterback” remarks that people–no less than Frenchmen and Frenchwomen–find tedious and at times even offensive. I’ve read Jean Huon’s _Proud Promise_ cover to cover, but now, watching Ian’s presentation, I must say that I do find a few things about French rifle production a bit odd.

    First, it should be noted that France’s armed forces adopted the MAS Mle. 1940 in November 1939, which puts it in the same time frame as Britain’s adoption in November 1939 of the No.4 Rifle, aka. Lee Enfield with P14 barrel that is easier to make than the SMLE 1907 of WWI. Of course the USSR, meanwhile, would adopt a bolt-action of ancient design with a shortened barrel and integral spike bayonet that could not be removed or lost from the carbine in the form of the K 1944 or Mosin M44 in *1943*

    The Brits kept the Lee Enfield going into the 1950s, the Soviets halted all M44 production by 1948 and had the self-loading tilting-bolt SKS carbine rolling by 1949/50. France kept production of the MAS Mle. 1936 rolling until the FSA 1949 was ready to go, using huge quantities of UK and U.S. equipment and weapons in the meantime too…

    Why bother to restart the MAS ’36 at all? Why not start cranking out the MAS Mle 40 and then getting ready for the MAS 1949? I mean a five shot self-loader might not seem like much with an 8-shot Garand or 10-shot Belgian FN49/ SAFN, but still, the French only adopted it when it was equal in reliability to the MAS ’36, which is really saying a lot! One suspects that a flush mounted magazine floor plate for civilian or gendarmerie use might have been contrived, and the ten rounder *or 15-20 even?* to use the side-mounted magazine catch. Ah well.

    As for the stoved Le Creuset-style enamel finish, while jungles are notoriously hard on guns, don’t overlook the continual rain, sucking mud, and boggy sludge of Northwestern Europe too!

    Why bother with the development program for the 7.5x54mm cartridge (first the gaffe of 7.5x57mm, with the result that it could cause problems with German war-reparation Mauser ammo and machine guns!), then the FM 1924/29, then a semi-auto rifle, no, wait, a bolt action and a self loader… etc. Might time and resources have been economized by simply adopting 7.65x53mm Mauser, the same cartridge as Belgium, where WWII was to have been fought as was WWI? One could have commonality with the ammunition of the neighbor facing the same national security threat? Parity of ammunition might have benefits, but might it have also simplified development of the suite of small arms to fire them too?

    Of course, I must also add that the U.S. might have adopted the 7.5x54mm as the de facto/de jure NATO cartridge rather than replacing the 7.62x63mm/.30-06 with the T65/ 7.62x51mm cartridge too…

    • Regarding the last point, I have often thought it strange- I understand the French favored 7.62mm T65 over 7mm Mk.1Z during the NATO trials in 1951, and I can’t imagine that the similarities between T65 and their own service round escaped the French delegation. Maybe they were loath to contend with the inertia generated by the long-running T65/Light Rifle program, but the potential advantages of adopting a round that’s already in production and service with a member nation are hard for me to ignore.

      • Also, keep in mind that 7,5×54 mm was available in two bullet version – light (Mle 1924 C) and heavy or “machine gun” (Mle 1933 D), see page 24:
        http://www.quarryhs.co.uk/Emeric2017.pdf
        which should made it more attractive to NATO, as new cartridge was for rifle-machine gun and also U.S.A. (or at least that part uttering every man marksman).

    • For the ”why they put back in production the MAS 36 in 1944” part is quite simple. The vast majority of the production lines where still tooled-up for this particular gun, IRRC some lines where just abandonned in the middle of full work and then reopen in that state 4 years later. But the real thing is that the provisional french government wanted to attract again the special workers and engineers needed to have an defense industry. Idem for the tanks, so that’s why they put in production the ARL-44, a bad mix between the Char B1 Bis and an Tiger I…idem for the aviation, the production of german planes (never fighters or bombers)continued a lot of years, the AAC1 Toucan, the french version of the Ju 52, was massively used for transport and airborne operations in Indochina. And some of the best french designs of 1940 were used again.
      It was bassicaly to have have a good pool of specialists ready, with some veterancy, for the start of the rennaissance of the french defense industry in the late 40’s.

    • “France’s armed forces adopted the MAS Mle. 1940 in November 1939(…)”
      Meanwhile in III Reich new self-loading rifle was developed, but due to need of meeting… peculiar requirements, ended in weird rifle: self-loading rifle which could be operated like normal repeating rifle in case of failure, gas-operated but without orifice in barrel wall. It was named G.41(M): https://modernfirearms.net/en/military-rifles/self-loading-rifles/germany-self-loading-rifles/g-41m-eng/
      and it has abysmal reliability. For me its quite odd Germans apparently were blind to development of self-loading rifle in other countries when creating such requirement – “hole” barrels were working, as proved by among others ZH29, which was produced in factory which they controlled since occupation of Czechoslovakia. Apparently Nazi Germany was not “sniffing” for self-loading rifle in conquered countries and even blatantly ignored self-loading rifle already in production and firing default (for them) cartridge that is 7,9×57 mm.

    • I’ve always been amused by the fact that most of the .276/.280/7mm class of “ideal cartridges” everyone was experimenting with from about 1910 to 1954 were pretty much reiterations of the 7 x 57mm Mauser. Some were virtually indistinguishable from it in performance, others in case dimensions.

      Most of the early post-1945 experimentation in Western Europe was with the 7.9 x 33, I suspect due to early intelligence gleanings about the 7.62 x 39mm M43. If not for that, early prototypes of the CETME, FAL, and etc. would probably not have been in 7.9 x 33, as they in fact were.

      If they had first showed up in 7 x 57mm, there’s a good chance it would have ended up as the original standard NATO rifle/GPMG round, in spite of the U.S. insistence on a .30-06 powered “full .30” cartridge.

      cheers

      eon

      • “early intelligence gleanings about the 7.62 x 39mm M43”
        What they did not know was that among competitors to position of new intermediate cartridge, were 7,62 mm ones and 6,75 mm ones.
        http://otvaga2004.ru/kaleydoskop/kaleydoskop-ammo/glavnyj-kalibr/
        one of them was designed to provide trajectory when fired from 620 mm barrel as flat as 7,62×54 R cartridge fired from 730 mm barrel. It used 7,5 g bullet and have muzzle velocity 855 m/s. There was hot discussion: use 6,75 mm or 7,62 mm? Final decision was for the latter, as it was deemed good enough even despite less flat trajectory, but foremost promised better performance for incendiary and tracer bullets (could bring more substance).

        In 1970s there was project code-named LANTAN run in Poland, which aimed to deliver new weapons-cartridge system, it resulted in 7×41 mm cartridge: http://cartridgecollector.net/7-x-41-lantan

  2. Perhaps Ian’s forthcoming book–Cue Tom Petty’s song _The Waiting is the hardest part_–might explain the selection of off-white or white plastic/nylon for the charging handle?

    I mean some are black. Most are not! I mean, why not brown? Or the reddish medical-instrument rubber of the Swiss Schmidt-Rubin? Or even aluminum? Of course neutral Sweden put weird Frankenstein neck-bolt lugs on the sides for the fingers on their AG-42b direct-gas impingement self-loading rifle design that does the drill instructors job of promoting use of the safety for him: The rifle will smash your finger unless the safety’s on when you go to load it!

    The Soviets simply left a hunk of metal on the bolt carrier… Both the SVT-40 Tokarev and the Simonov carbine. As did the U.S. with the Garand and carbine both… “White nylon.” Je ne sais quois?

  3. “French Army had been planning a semiauto infantry rifle since 1921”
    According to https://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=1822 not only rifle, but whole set of new infantry weapons namely:
    – automatic pistol
    – submachine gun
    – rifle (semiautomatic or manual)
    – machine gun
    – mortar
    – light infantry gun
    Machine guns development give result satisfactory results pretty quickly in form of Model 1922 and Model 1924 sub-machine gun for 9×19 Parabellum cartridge:
    https://modernfirearms.net/en/submachine-guns/france-submachine-guns/sta-1922-mas-m1924-eng/
    and FM 1924 (“Chatellerault”) which proved to be well-liked weapon in service, but it was noted that it had serious drawback: could be loaded with 7,9×57 Mauser cartridge (France had stockpiles of that ammunition captured from Germans) and this was catastrophe waiting to happen (7,9×57 has bigger bullet) so it was redesigned to prevent it resulting in FM 24/29.
    Both rifles (repeating and self-loading) needed much more time to result in acceptable design, beyond bureaucratic lags it was also slowed down by Economic Crisis of 1929.

    Development of automatic pistol proved to be similar in length (resulted in adoption in year 1935) and also quite complicated. Interestingly French requirement was main impetus to development which ended in High-Power automatic pistol, which was not adopted by France, for more data see: https://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=1077

    As for private industry lack of participation I would not be surprised if they decided so not only because having already full order books, but also fearing that element of their weapon would be… “borrowed” by State arsenals. According to this article https://www.smallarmsreview.com/display.article.cfm?idarticles=1299 even though turn down request for delivering self-loading rifle for testing, method of locking used in Darne family of machine guns was used in MAS rifles:
    Also the tilting bolt of the Darne machine gun was used on the MAS 1928 experimental semiautomatic rifle. This device was retained for the MAS 44, MAS 49 and MAS 49-56 rifles.

    • Respectfully, Daweo:

      – automatic pistol–france had the excellent Mle. SACM 1935a and 1935S St.-Etienne pistols–both in the odd 7.65x20mm long ctdg. no one else used. The USSR, meanwhile, had the TT 1933 in 7.62x25mm, Belgium was headed toward 9x19mm pistols as was Poland with the VIS Radom, and even zee Germans were on the cusp of the P38.
      – submachine gun–never happened… With the reversion to 7.65mm there were a handful of SMG designs, and the most common SMG were captured ex-Ejército Popular Spanish copies of German SMGs… and insufficient magazines1
      – rifle (semiautomatic or manual)–breathtaking, excellent designs… But went to war in Sep. 1939 over the fate of Poland and German and Soviet hands with no less than *seven models* of service rifles.
      – machine gun–the excellent FM 1924/29… And of course, the “ouvrages” and “tourelles” of the Maginot with Reibel M1931 or Hotchkiss MGs.
      – mortar–the almost Japanese Mle. 1937 50mm grenade launcher and the Brandt mortars… And rifle grenades of WWI vintage.
      – light infantry gun–well… 75s–“soixante-quinze” remained pretty common, no? The 105s?
      As for AT guns: The 25mm APX and 47mm APX. The former light, but quickly superseded by developments in armor, the latter nowhere near enough. Arguably better than the UK, however.

      elsewhere eon has enlightened us several times about how chauvinism and patriotic hubris with the “not invented here” syndrome sabotaged the Armée de l’Aire’s acquisition of the Curtis Hawk and other superior aircraft designs. The propensity for two-man tanks with a single person in the turret ensured that the 25mm gun was about all that could fit apart from the underperforming 37mm Puteaux gun or a pair of MGs.

      • “(…)– submachine gun–never happened… With the reversion to 7.65mm there were a handful of SMG designs, and the most common SMG were captured ex-Ejército Popular Spanish copies of German SMGs… and insufficient magazines1(…)”
        Wait… Do you want to say MAS-38 https://modernfirearms.net/en/submachine-guns/france-submachine-guns/mas-38-eng/ does not count as sub-machine gun? Why?

        “(…) two-man tanks with a single person in the turret ensured that the 25mm gun was about all that could fit apart from the underperforming 37mm Puteaux gun or a pair of MGs.(…)”
        Apparently they were aware of Puteaux gun weakness and therefore want to replace it with 37mm SA38 L/33 which has higher muzzle velocity, but they did not manage to do it at time and thus in 1940 tanks with 37 mm Puteuax were used in combat also:
        http://www.tbof.us/data/tanks/h39/hotchkiss_h39.htm

        • I wrote: “With the reversion to 7.65mm *there were a handful of SMG designs*, and the most common SMG were captured ex-Ejército Popular Spanish copies of German SMGs… and insufficient magazines!”

          The MAS-38 was one of those designs in the *handful.* There simply were not very many made. Your statement was “Machine guns development give result satisfactory results pretty quickly in form of Model 1922 and Model 1924 sub-machine gun for 9×19 Parabellum cartridge:
          https://modernfirearms.net/en/submachine-guns/france-submachine-guns/sta-1922-mas-m1924-eng/

          But those were *prototypes.* and they were not produced in anything like sufficient numbers or quantity. That is why I posted my reply. I disputed that France’s armed forces had accomplished the revamping of the entire suite of infantry weapons. France had a passel of Thompson SMGs purchased from Auto-Ordnance, a “handful of SMG designs” in 7.65mm long, and, apparently most numerous, some Spanish copies of German first generation SMGs in 9x19mm like the MP-28.II from the Spanish Civil War, albeit not with sufficient magazines.

          There was apparently no “role” envisaged for the SMG apart from use by “Corps Francs” or scouts and aggressive patrols–in essence, trench raiders. This is different from the Germans who thought that the SMG might be useful to arm fire-team leaders or squad leaders in mechanized infantry formations… Of course SMGs only became more common as the war progressed. Had France not sought an armistice with Germany in June 1940, perhaps there would eventually have been more–and five-shot self-loading MAS Mle. 1940 rifles too as Ian has stated. Instead they got the Sten, either airdropped to the resistance and seized by the Vichy, or gifted by the UK more directly. And the Thompson.

  4. i’ve read that the MAS39 prototype was tested as select fire with MAC24/29 magazine. it’s probably then that select fire was deemed useless.
    beside, when in the french army, i was told that the front sight of MAS49/56 was the size of a standing man seen at 200m and could be used as a crude rangefinder.
    are the sights of other MAS similar ?

    • That is correct. The MAS Mle. 38/39 did feed from an extended magazine, which makes the Mle. 40 even more of an anachronism with the fixed, five-round magazine.

      • I was under the impression that MAS was short on materials no thanks to getting plundered by the Nazis quite a bit, but that doesn’t explain the problem. Perhaps the French were forced to backtrack because of logistical hiccups (like rebuilding munition factories).

  5. I seem to remember when these rifles came into the states back in the 80s a bunch of them were converted to fire 7.62 NATO because 7.5 French was (and probably still is) pretty hard to find. I thought about buying one but the word was that the conversions were pretty unreliable. Today I’d look for a set of dies and 100 pieces or so of reloadable brass and have fun.

    There’s a good scene at the beginning of “We were soldiers…” with French troops armed with MAS 44s or 49s. A lot of the photos of that era show M1 carbines so the MAS rifles were interesting.

  6. thank you8 Ian for explaining locating the magazine catch on the magazine rather than the receiver. I began to suspect the reason from your MAS 36 video
    when you talked of commonality of parts between the two designs. Reminds me of the English approach on the Morgan 4+4. Why waste time redesigning the hood latches when a simple leather belt will solve the problem

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