A popular pastime amongst the British is making fun of the French. Apparently we inherited more than a little of our attitudes from the people we beat in the Revolutionary War, because no matter how much the French do for us (you realize we wouldn’t have won that war without their help, don’t you?) we’re always laughing at them. Take, for instance, the French slur in the title of this piece: the French Foreign Legion are some of the fiercest fighters you’ll find, and as many people who’ve served with coalition forces in the Middle East will tell you the mainline French troops are as good as any you’ll find — and better than most. Still we make fun of the French.Their guns likewise earn no amount of respect. Mention a French rifle, for instance, and the first uninformed comment you’re likely to hear is something along the lines of “only dropped once” followed by some variant of “ugly”. French arms are considered backward and not worthy of admiration.The reality is that France has produced quite a number of great firearms. It’s worth remembering that the French were once (not all that long ago and for quite a period of time) at the cutting edge of firearm development. While we were using trapdoor Springfield rifles firing slow, dirty blackpowder .45-70 cartridges, the French had issued the revolutionary 8mm Lebel rifle and cartridge, using the newfangled smokeless powder and pushing a spitzer boat-tail bullet (another first) at the unheard of velocity of 2,400 feet per second. The rest of the world would eventually follow their lead, a situation which would be repeated in later years.
The French arms designers didn’t sit on their ballistic laurels. In 1929 they introduced what is often said to be the first modern rifle round, the 7.5x54mm. It looked and performed remarkably like the 7.62×51 NATO (and its civilian equivalent, the .308 Winchester), which wouldn’t be introduced for another 25 years!
This new round allowed the French designers to do something the Germans and Americans couldn’t: produce a rifle with a short and fast bolt action. In 1936 they released the round in the new MAS 36 rifle, an arm which was starkly different than the Mausers and Springfields used in the rest of the world. It was shorter than many “carbines”, light, used a modern two-piece stock, and had an interesting quick-throw bolt design. The sights were relatively simple compared to the far more elaborate German and American designs, making for a gun which could endure the harshest treatment without damage and still retain good accuracy. It was a purpose built arm, and though often derided for its looks functions perfectly. (Frankly, I don’t think it’s all that ugly; it has a purposeful appearance, very much like the Glock pistol does.)
After World War II the French went to work designing a new rifle for a new kind of warfare. We saw the need to do the same thing, but while we were trying to work the bugs out of a derivative design the French introduced the completely new MAS 49 — a full decade before our new rifle, the M14, would see the light of day.
The MAS 49 was an autoloading rifle using the same 7.5x54mm round as the MAS 36, which still had no competition because the 7.62×51/.308 Winchester was another three years from introduction. The MAS 49 had a detachable box magazine and a very robust direct impingement gas system. The operating parts were few, large, and extremely durable, the gun handled nicely, and it served the French well in their wars in Indochina. (Yes, they were getting their butts kicked by the Viet Cong before us; so much for the image of the timid French soldier.) It was easily the most advanced battle rifle being issued at the time and wouldn’t see any real competition until the arrival of the FN-FAL in 1954.
In 1956 the MAS 49 was updated with an integral grenade launcher and sight to keep it at the forefront of modern rifle design. What were we doing? Still trying to figure out how to make a modified Garand work with detachable magazines. It would be another three years before the resulting design, dubbed the M14, would make it to production.
We Americans are quite proud of the M14, but its sole (and quite dubious) advantage over the already jungle-proven MAS 49/56 was that it had full auto firing capability. On the other hand, the MAS was shorter and had proven itself more reliable in adverse conditions, a point that was recently made by Ian McCollum over at Forgotten Weapons when he mud-tested both guns: the M1A (the semi-auto version of the M14), as he put it, “cried like a little girl” while the MAS soldiered on. Guess those French designers knew a bit about what a battle rifle needed to be!
While the 49/56 had replaced the MAS 36 in front line duty, the old turnbolt wasn’t dead yet. The MAS 36 served as the base for the development of superb FR-F1 and FR-F2 sniper rifles, the latter still being current issue for French sharpshooters. (The FR-F2 is chambered in 7.62×51 NATO, from which was developed the .308 Winchester. It’s an ironic situation: the gun that introduced the short case, high performance round is now chambered in the copycat cartridge which American hegemony forced on the NATO alliance — almost three decades after the French had introduced the concept!)
(It’s worth noting that the French are also capable of building superb civilian arms. The Manurhin MR-73, for instance, is in my estimation one of the three or four finest production revolvers ever made. Their contributions also go beyond small arms, as they have made major contributions to both artillery and tank design. They have arms engineers and makers as good as any, despite their popular image.)
It wasn’t until 1981 that the French made their first major design error, the FAMAS bullpup rifle. Chambered in 5.56 NATO, the rifle has been reportedly plagued with reliability and handling issues. Sadly the FAMAS erased in many people’s minds the long history of successful rifle designs and is likely the root of so many of the French gun jokes we hear today. We shouldn’t let that misstep blind us to their positive accomplishments!
The next time you hear someone joke about French arms you’d do well to remember that they have often been well ahead of everyone else, making superbly performing purpose-designed arms. (Oh, and they also gave us the bikini and champagne — I’d say they’ve done more than their fair share for humanity!)
-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-