Experimenting with new types of propellant yielded a high-energy powder that burned cleanly, without the barrel fouling and attendant white smoke clouds generated by the black powder that had been used in guns for the last half-millennium. The new powder allowed much higher velocities, especially from the smaller-diameter bullets made possible by the lack of fouling. The higher velocities, in turn, demanded that the soft lead of the bullets be encased in a harder metal jacket to protect them from erosion during their passage down the barrel.
Combined with recent advances in breechloading magazine-fed rifles, this meant that the French infantry could be equipped with a rifle that shot further, with a flatter trajectory than their foes; a rifle that didn’t need to be cleaned as often, and which didn’t emit a cloud of smoke on firing that would simultaneously give away the shooter’s position and obscure his vision of the battlefield. Overnight, every other army on the planet found themselves equipped with yesterday’s technology.
Unfortunately for the French, they had a bureaucracy that was as hidebound and penurious as their designers were innovative. For the sake of both cost and rapidity, the new medium bore smokeless cartridge was to be chambered in a rifle that was basically an adaptation of the tube-magazine Kropatschek already in use by the French marines. Additionally, the new 8mm smokeless cartridge would be based on the case head dimensions of the current service round, the black powder 11mm Gras. Authorities reasoned that, in case of emergency, this would allow existing single-shot Gras rifles to be rechambered for the new round by the simple expedient of fitting new barrels. Thus, the cartridge for the new M1886 “Lebel” rifle looked like an incense cone; sharply tapered from its fat, rimmed, black-powder-derived base to its small, 8mm jacketed bullet.
This decision was to haunt the French arms industry for the next fifty years because it totally hamstrung all French efforts in the next phase of small arms development: self-loading firearms. With the advent of the clean-burning, high-pressure smokeless round, arms designers around the world began coming up with ingenious ways to harness its power to not only propel the bullet, but to operate the gun itself. French designers came up with automatic designs, too, including some of the earliest self-loading shoulder-fired rifles, but were stymied at every turn by the heavily-tapered cartridge with its wide rim, both characteristics anathema to reliable function in a self-loading weapon.
All through the Great War, French units suffered with inadequate machine guns. In the period after the war, the government finally threw up its hands and consented to the development of a new cartridge specifically for machine guns, the 7.5x54mm. The new round was ultra-modern, with no rim, a moderate case taper, and a short overall length. Design teams at the St. Etienne arsenal immediately set to designing an autoloading infantry rifle to chamber the new machinegun round.
They had a good base to work from, since many of the mechanical ideas familiar to students of modern automatic military firearms had first seen the light of day in failed French designs of the first decade of the 20th Century, from tipping bolts to direct gas impingement. Sadly, however, the bureaucratic cloud they labored under was a dark one. With Europe still in the grip of the Depression and the French government still dreaming Maginot dreams, the self-loading rifle program was a low priority and was still in its larval stages when Guderian’s panzers slashed across France.
Fusil MAS-49/56. Photo by Oleg Volk.
After the second War to End All Wars, development resumed and the first self-loading rifles were issued to the French army. First was the MAS-44 in limited numbers, and then came the MAS-49, its definitive issue version.
A handy, compact weapon, the MAS-49 was roughly the same size as the contemporaneous Soviet SKS. Also like the SKS, its prewar heritage was evident in its elaborately machined steel receiver, designed before metal stamping technology had become a tool in the gun maker’s box. Unlike the SKS, it fired a full-power round, with much the same ballistics as the later 7.62x51 NATO, the famed .308 Winchester.
A blast of gas tapped directly off the barrel was directed against the face of the bolt carrier, moving it backwards and causing it to tip the bolt, unlocking the lugs. The bolt traveled to the rear, ejecting the spent round before returning forward under the impetus of the receiver-mounted recoil spring to strip a fresh cartridge from the ten-round detachable magazine.
Rather than a catch in the magazine well engaging a detent in the magazine body, the mag itself held its own latch, a vertically-oriented alligator clip-looking apparatus, for some unknown Gallic reason. As an alternative to inserting a fresh magazine, charger guides were machined into the top of the bolt carrier, allowing reloading or topping up from five round stripper clips. The safety was an ingenious piece that lay alongside the trigger mechanism, pivoting fore and aft, so that when it was in its rear, or “on”, position the trigger finger of a right-handed shooter would be prevented from entering the trigger guard normally, letting the shooter know even in the dark and confusion that his weapon was on safe.
LEFT: The trigger-blocking safety of the MAS-49/56. Photo by Oleg Volk.
In the mid-1950s, as Soviet bluster led the world to fear a showdown in Europe, Western armies began casting about for ways to increase the firepower of their outnumbered infantry squads, as well as giving them increased anti-tank capabilities. The US Army developed a 40mm grenade launcher to be issued at the squad level, as well as beginning to develop disposable tube-launched antitank rockets to be issued as needed. The French, different as always, revitalized the old technology of the rifle grenade. By outfitting every rifle with a launcher for rifle grenades and by making a mix of projectiles available, each individual infantryman could be a short-range artillery piece, bunker buster, or tank hunter as the situation warranted.
The resultant rifle was typed as the MAS-49/56. It was shortened slightly from the previous MAS-49. The wood of the stock was cut back somewhat, and a sophisticated ladder-type grenade sight was fitted and a gas cutoff valve was added. A launching adaptor was attached at the muzzle that, by means of an elaborate system of ports, doubled as a muzzle brake. A spring-retained sliding collar that controlled how deeply the grenade socketed over the muzzle slid fore and aft over a series of numbered detents indicating the approximate range of a grenade at that setting.
RIGHT: Grenade-launching paraphernalia. Photo by Oleg Volk.
Taken as a whole, this product of the 1950s was the ultimate evolution of the prewar semiautomatic infantry rifle. Robust, reliable, firing a potent round, and able to serve as its own short-range artillery or antitank gun, the MAS-49/56 was a masterpiece of its generation of small arms. Sadly, thanks to the delay imposed by the French military establishment’s embracing of the Lebel round sixty-some-odd years prior, the 49/56’s generation was long gone before it even arrived. Armies around the world had gone over to fully automatic rifles with larger magazine capacities and simple, stamped construction while the French were still catching up to the revolution they’d started. With the exception of some colonial brushfire wars in Africa, the tide of history flowed past the anachronistic French rifle.
In the 1990s, large surplus stocks were imported to America as the French began cleaning out their arsenals. Many were subjected to less-than-adequate conversions to .308 by Century Arms, giving the rifle an undeserved reputation for unreliability in the hands of American sports shooters. For the rifles left in the original 7.5x54mm chambering, a different fate was in store: Surplus stocks of 7.5, never common to begin with, soon dried up, leaving commercial ammunition by FNM and others as the only available fodder. Commercial ammunition has soft commercial primers, and the 49/56 design is, as are many other military rifles of similar vintage, completely innocent of anything resembling a firing pin spring, With the heavy firing pin, designed to reliably detonate hard military primers under filthy battlefield conditions, free to fly forward under inertia, slamfires with the commercial ammunition were endemic, leading to a brisk cottage industry in titanium firing pins, lightening of original firing pins, and retrofitting of firing pin springs.
While not ubiquitous, the MAS-49/56 is still a fairly common sight at gun shows. Prices range from ~$125 for an ugly .308 conversion to just north of $300 for a cherry example in the original caliber. Commercial 7.5x54 MAS ammunition is loaded by FNM in Portugal and Prvi Partizan for the “Wolf Gold” line. All things considered, this is a bargain for a lightweight, compact, hard-hitting rifle that represents one of the pinnacles of a short era in military small arms design.