By the early 1890s, the chickens of France's rush to field the first smokeless powder repeater in the world were coming home to roost. The Lebel, a hastily-designed derivative of the tubular-magazine Kropatschek, and its 8x50mmR cartridge, which was based on the case head dimensions of the earlier 11mm Gras round to theoretically allow for emergency conversions of older rifles, were obsoleted almost overnight by Mauser and Mannlicher designs which were loaded with clips or from chargers. Further, the Lebel's slow-to-load tubular magazine made it ineffecient if cut down to carbine length, allowing for a magazine capacity of only three rounds.
In 1890, a carbine designed by Mssr. Berthier, a railroad official in French Algeria, was adopted for use by cavalry and the Gendarmerie. It combined a bolt very similar to the Lebel's with a Mannlicher-type clip-fed magazine. Being saddled with the fat, rimmed 8mm Lebel round prevented the use of a Mauser-style staggered box magazine, and with the cartridges stacked vertically, the new carbine could only accommodate three rounds without (it was thought at the time) making the receiver impractically bulky, but it could be reloaded much faster than any shortened Lebel.
RIGHT: 8mm Lebel rounds are wide and heavily tapered when compared with the more modern 8x57mm Mauser.
The carbine used a turned-down bolt handle, to keep it from snagging on things while the cavalry troops went about their business with their weapons slung. The sights were the same as those on the Lebel; a tangent-type rear sight combined with a coarse front blade that had a thin notch in the middle for fine aiming. Soon, rifle-length versions of the weapon were fielded for France's Indo-Chinese and Senegalese colonial troops.
LEFT: The unusual French front sight blade.
Photo by Oleg Volk
As the Great War ground on, supply of the Lebel rifles could not keep up with demand, and the rifle-length Berthier was modified with a straight, Lebel-esque bolt handle and issued generally as the Mle. 1907/15. Production was expanded: Previously only made at the St. Etienne arsenal, production was now taken up by the Tulle and Chattelerault arsenals, and contracts were let to Continsouza and Delaunay in France and the Remington Arms Company in the USA. In 1916, Berthier rifles and carbines were modified further thanks to battlefield feedback. A sheet-metal extension was added to the magazine, bringing capacity to five rounds, and one of the defects of the Mannlicher system was ameliorated by the addition of a hinged cover over the clip ejection port on the bottom of the magazine, which had been liable to collect dirt when a soldier went prone.
The final carbine variant, the Mousqueton d'Artillerie Mle. 1916 was one of the most popular variants with the troops: light and handy, with a snag-resistant turned-down bolt handle and side-mounted sling swivels, it could be carried comfortably slung across the back without getting in the way; it held five rounds, and although it couldn't be "topped-off" like the Mauser, it could be reloaded just as quickly. It had a wooden handguard atop the barrel for a handhold during bayonet work, unlike the previous Berthiers, and was well-recieved by poilus outside the artillery troops it had been intended for.
The Mle. 1916 is undergoing the same gradual increase in collector interest as other French longarms. Tatty examples can still be found for not much over a C-note, while a really nice specimen may nudge the $400 mark. Ammunition can be difficult to find, and without the stamped sheet metal clips it is, like any other Mannlicher-type weapon, a single shot. One other thing to beware of is that most surplus Lebel ammunition you will encounter is the later "Balle N" round, a hotter loading designed for machineguns. Unless your rifle is marked as converted to accept this cartridge and has passed headspace checks and safety tests by a competent gunsmith, it's best to view it as a wall hanger and not a shooter, at least where surplus ammo is concerned.