Monday, May 12, 2008

MAS-49/56: End of an Era.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, France was blessed with a creative and prolific arms industry, as forward-thinking as any in the world. Two French innovations alone completely changed the nature of land warfare. First was the hydraulically-buffered quick-firing field piece, which allowed cannon to fire repeatedly from the same position, without rolling backward under recoil, while their crews sheltered behind an armored splinter shield mounted directly to the gun’s carriage. The second innovation was just as significant.

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.


Jay G said...

Plus it's French, so you know it's only been dropped once...

(Thank you, thank you; I'll be here all week long. Tip your waitress)

Carteach said...

Excellent article!

When is the book coming out?
Can I get a signed copy?

Anonymous said...

The last Raleigh gun show I went too, a seller was asking $450 but took $400 for a 7.5x54. I was not the buyer but it looked to be in decent shape.

Anonymous said...

Say what you will about the French military but don't dis their rifles. I own a Berthier carbine and a MAS 36. Both excellent boomsticks. The MAS is particularly accurate. I'd kill to add a 49/56 to the arsenal.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Minor quibble here, while it's true the French issued some abysmal machine gun designs, but the Hotchkiss 1914 was every bit the equal of the Maxim while being saddled with the 8MM Lebel round.

Cybrludite said...

Yeah, but when you average the Hotchkiss' reliability with those of the St. Etienne(sp?) and the Chauchat...

Anonymous said...

Those Hotchkiss machine guns look freaking awesome. I love the way the feed system looks.

Sigivald said...

the mag itself held its own latch, a vertically-oriented alligator clip-looking apparatus, for some unknown Gallic reason

Sounds like the AG-42. The latching on those magazines is impressive - they clip on both front and back, IIRC.

Jeffro said...

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.

Yes. Definitely. I thought it was a cool rifle, but the feeding problems made it go bye bye for me.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. Thanks.

Don M said...

keep in mind that the Chauchaut was used by both French in 8mm Lebel and by the US in .30/06 (with the stout 174grain bullet). It was the most produced machinegun of the First World War. The Hotchkiss machinegun served the US well in New Mexico. Some 19 Americans were killed by Mexican bandits/revolutionaries, but the bandits lost some 200 to the Hotchkiss guns.

The 8mm Lebel was similar to the US .30/40 Krag or the 7.62X54R of Russia, both of similar vintage. The Russian round soldiers on in the Dragunov sniper rifle and several machineguns. In my Finnish Mosin-Nagant it is deadly accurate.

Tam said...

"The 8mm Lebel was similar to the US .30/40 Krag or the 7.62X54R of Russia, both of similar vintage."

Ballistically, yes. Dimensionally, not so much. (Although the case head dimensions of the 7.62x54R are also based on a black powder cartridge.)

The taper of the 8x50 is much more pronounced than either of its two rough contemporaries, especially when the rim is factored in, which is what led to the difficulty with autoloading weapons chambered for the round.

The Hotchkiss, BTW, was a good reliable design, but hampered by its feed mechanism. It's hard to create much of a beaten zone in an area-denial role when you're limited to 30-round feed strips...

Anonymous said...

I bought an M49/56 from Century, chambered for the 7.5 MAS. It wouldn't cycle with Partisan ammo, which was all I could get at the time. I sent it back, they sent me a new one. It wouldn't cycle either. I tried reloads, Partisan, and even Norma ammo eventually, no joy. Now it sits in the cabinent, the only gun in my collection I have not been able to get to function reliably.

Anonymous said...

It is off the subject, BUT: As a Jewess in the US, I continue to be APPALLED by the tactics of the ATF. If they are such hot stuff, let them use their machine guns and flame-throwers against the Taliban and in Iraq! Remember that America wasn’t won with a registered gun, and that criminals are stopped by FIREARMS, not by talk. That is why all REAL Americans put our 2nd Amendment FIRST!

Anonymous said...

You might try flushing out the gas tube with break cleaner. I have had function problems related to partialy plugged gas tubes.

Assrot said...

Excellent article as usual. Glad to see you back to posting on this blog. I missed you.

It's the damndest thing but in all my years of shooting and collecting (well over a half century now) I have never actually seen one of these guns.

I've heard of them and read articles about them but I have yet to see one at the range or a gun show. I'm going to have to see if I can remedy that.

I'll be looking for one or two to add to my collection just for the hell of having them and being able to say I have shot one.

Good post as usual Tam.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the article. Gives more worth the the piece in my safe. Which BTW, I bought it with a lot of accessories as a historic, early Viet Nam, rifle rather than a shooter. I've not fired it since buying it over 5 years ago.

Fletch said...

Excellent write up, interesting history.

More rifles please? :)

Anonymous said...

Great article, Tamara. I loved reading it, as it taught me more about my very own MAS-49/56, seen below:

My only complaint is the weight of the rifle compared to other carbine-type rifles such as the SKS or M1 Carbine and the full-power cartridge used.

Anonymous said...

The MAS-49/56 is probably the best battle rifle ever. It's every bit the equal of the FN-FAL, and handles and balances even better.

Also, they did come with 18-round magazines, so they're not as low-cap as you think.

Assrot said...

I've been looking around ever since I first read this. I just had to have one for my collection.

I got lucky recently at a gunshow and found one of these and its predecesor the MAS 36 both in excellent condition. I talked the guy down to $400 for both rifles.

I found a reload kit at Midway and 100 rounds of 7.5x54 ammo.

It's going to be at least a month before I can make it to the range but I'm betting these will be great guns to shoot and 100 rounds ain't gonna last long.

I need to find me about 1000 new or once fired brass cases. One fellow on Gunbroker has them but he wants over 50 cents a round for brass and refuses to come down even if I buy 1000 from him.

Anyway, thanks for a good tip Tam. Two more nice rifles for the collection thanks to you.


Tam said...


Just be aware of the potential for slamfires. An internet search will turn up sources for Ti firing pins if yours exhibits this phenomena.

Don't leave your hand too near the charging handle when chambering that first round (Oleg got a spectacular bruise off mine.)


Assrot said...

Thanks for the warning Tam. I'll keep an eye out for that.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I saw one of these in the collection of a guy who's selling off his milsurp. I found your blog while Googling the MAS 49 56, and after reading what you wrote, I went back for the rifle.

Thanks for the tip! And your writing is great, too!

MNW said...

They are a good if quirky rifle. I recently picked up a MAS 36 and it is a accurate, well made piece.

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Anonymous said...

This blog has some excellent information. I'm lucky to have a mint 49/56 in 7.5 and a Century 7.62 conversion that works quite well. These rifles most certainly (mas 49) saw combat in indochina-vietnam and, from what I've read, performed well. Collecting and shooting french rifles and pistols is an interesting study on how the French 'think differently'. The MAS 36 is a great example of this. Refreshing yet completely backwards at the same time!

RookCustoms said...

Guys if your looking for 20 round Magazines for your MAS 49/56 contact us.

CAP said...

I had seen these and just had to have one in .308. The first thing I did is polish up the chamber and Order a real .308 gas tube from APEX. They have the the parts for both the 7.5 AND the .308. The .308 gas tube has naturally a noticeably smaller inner diameter. I then reinstalled a full sized recoil spring from the cut one that Century provides. I have had no problems at all. This MAS is one of my favorite rifles, especially if you fit the night site on it!! Talk about a CQB gun then! Geez!! Your sights seem ten times bigger than the big sights it already has! And that is one of the great things about it being a battle rifle. It is such a great natural pointer and for such a shorter length it has a real "push" kind of recoil with that true gas operated system that lets you get back on target. It sure is different shooting the Ishapore right after! Also it does not really get dirty because the gas impingement is directed toward the top of the bolt and not on it so after a hundred rounds it still looks clean. It is quite accurate for having a large front sight, but that is what makes it so easy to shoot. These things are made WELL!!! I saw in the string someone may be producing 20 round mags??