Perspectives on French Rifle Sight Design

Holy moley, is that the most dense and snooty post title ever? I think it might be. However, I think it’s a much more interesting subject than most folks might anticipate, and it’s something that came to my attention largely as a result of shooting 2-gun matches with a couple different French rifles. So, bear with me and I think you’ll find it worthwhile!

Here in the US, rifle sights have been designed for basically high power target shooting, for pretty much as long as the US military has used metallic cartridges. The Krag and 1903 Springfield are particularly good examples of this, with front sights that are paper-thin and equally tiny rear notches to fit them in. This allows for very precise shots when the shooter is slung up and looking at a nicely contrasting target…like a black bull on a white background. Here’s what these sort of sights look like from the shooter’s perspective:

1903 Springfield sight picture
1903 Springfield sight picture

Speaking from experience, when you put up a dirty target on a dirt-colored backdrop, it’s all hopeless. The front blade utterly disappears into the target. Now, the French had a pretty similar setup, although not quite so extreme on their pre-WWI rifles:

Berthier 1892 Carbine sight picture
Berthier 1892 Carbine sight picture

That’s a little better, but not much. Now this is where things get interesting. At some point in 1914 or early 1915, someone with influence in the French ordnance service realized that in real combat you don’t get to take very many slow and deliberate shots at long range – and helpfully stationary – targets. Instead, you often get fleeting snapshots at enemies pretty darn close to you. For that sort of shooting, it’s much more helpful to have a front sight that is fast and easy to acquire, even at the cost of some potential precision.

This notion was (remarkably) acted upon, and in 1915 the French significantly changed the design of their rifle sights, in a way that would have horrified American military experts:

French Berthier sights
French Berthier sights (L) post-1915 style, (R) pre-1915 style

The new front sight was much wider – ridiculously so by American standards, and had a much wider square notch rear sight to match. It’s a bit hard to make out in this photo, but the top of the front post has a small groove cut in its center, which works as a precise aiming point for those shots where careful precision is possible. This new sight design is significantly easier to use in real-world field conditions, as opposed to formal target shooting.

Post-1915 French rifle sights
Post-1915 French rifle sights

Both the US and the French would transition to aperture sights by WWII, but the basic design philosophy of the sights would remain the same in both countries. The US went to a slightly wider front post for the M1 Garand (although not for the 1903A3 aperture sight), but retained a fully-adjustable rear sight – as necessary for effective match shooting. The French went to an aperture on the MAS-36 bolt action and the MAS-40/44/49/56 series of semiautomatic rifles, and kept them bombproof and as soldier-proof as possible. They were adjustable for elevation only, in increments of 100 meters. For windage adjustment, the rear leaf itself would be completely replaced. A set of rear sights was produced with the sight hole drilled off-center by specific amounts (0.4mm and 0.8mm in all directions).

To zero a MAS-36 or semiauto, an armorer would strap the rifle to a rest, and fire on a target with the different sight settings marked. Hit the center bullseye? Great, no change required (the standard sight was marked with an “N”). Hit somewhere else? Swap the rear sight with the alternative one closest to where you were hitting.

French MAS-36 zeroing target
French MAS-36 zeroing target (image from Patrick Hernandez)

Here, for example, is a rear sight in a MAS-44 which is off-center to the right to correct zero:

Off-center MAS-44 sight to correct zero
Off-center MAS-44 rear sight to correct zero

This does not allow a soldier to make precise adjustments to his zero to compensate for wind or fine elevation, true. However, with typical military forces, such adjustments will be accidentally messed up more often than they will be correctly utilized, and the French solution here is a quite practical one. It also has the side effect of making the rifles less expensive to make, by eliminating the many small parts required for minutely adjustable sights.

French MAS-36 front sight
French MAS-36 front sight – fixed in place and virtually bombproof