Despite the uneducated jokes, France developed the modern army as we know it today. She also had a hand in many innovative technologies–artillery ballistics, the helmet, the bayonet, standardized weaponry and uniforms. But the innovation we in the gun community take for granted today is smokeless gun powder, invented by–you guessed it–the French. This brand new technology debuted in the Mle 1886 Lebel Rifle in that same year.
The 1886 Lebel rifle–named after Col. Nicholas Lebel, who had helped developed the ammunition– was not particularly innovative for a rifle design at the time. The gun was long, with a barrel over 31 inches in length. The action, appearance, and 8 round tubular magazine, are all borrowed from the existing black powder cartridge Gras rifles in service at the time. Even the cartridge, in a way was borrowed. The French were in quite a hurry to stay ahead of their German enemies in the ensuing arms race after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. So the cartridge design, too was borrowed. The 11mm Gras black powder cartridge was necked down to 8mm, filled with new Poudre B, and given a steel jacketed bullet. Thus, the 8x50mm Lebel cartridge was born and it effectively doubled the range a soldier could fight and kept him invisible to spotting and managed to mitigate many of the problems of black powder fouling jamming up the actions with bullets that flew much faster and much farther, yet were smaller so the soldier could carry more ammo. Sound familiar?
The 1886 Lebel rifle, with its ungainly appearance, shotgun like loading procedure, and 20 inch Rosalie bayonet seems archaic by today’s standards, but in its time, it was the best rifle in the world and started an arm’s race which never really died away. Though the Lebel was the standard issue rifle for France in the First World War, it was outclassed by faster loading Mausers and Mannlicher designs, yet it is hard to visualize the French fight in the war in tough battles like Verdun and the Somme without thinking about this ungainly beast of a rifle.
The Lebel rifle was only officially dropped in 1936, but was still in rear line use when World War II broke out.
Shooting the Mle 1886 Lebel Rifle
The Lebel rifle, despite its appearance, handles very well and is a sight to see on the range. Though 8x50mm Lebel is long obsolete as a military round, Privi Partisan and PSI offer factory fodder for this old war horse. Privi’s offering of a 200 grain FMJ bullet going at around 2400 fps is equivalent to the Ball D World War I loading for the cartridge. With a bag full of Ball D, I headed to the range and set up at 100 yards distance.
The sights on the Lebel are extremely fine and look somewhat canted, though this was the way the guns were originally sighted in. The rear ladder sight ranges out to 2400 meters. Flip the ladder forward for a 250 meter battle sight. The front sight is a fixed blade. These sights are very crude, but given the long sight radius, they are quite fine and more precise than they look.
Loading the magazine is a little more complicated like that on a typical World War I, rifle. Draw the bolt to the rear and push the feed tray down. This exposes the tubular magazine. Drop one round on the tray and push it into the magazine with a finger. Repeat until full. You can drop another round on the tray and one in the chamber for a total of ten rounds. Not bad, even by today’s bolt gun standards. Because the gun was expected to be carried with an empty chamber, there is no safety. Just chamber a round and get to business.
The rifle is a good nine pounds in weight and it absorbs the recoil of the high powered 8x50mm round very well. Ejection was a little hit and miss as it takes a real rearward snap on the bolt to force the feed trap up and ready the next round. Like many rifles of the time, there is a cut off switch on the rifle that allows the tray to be locked in place so the rifle can be fired in single shot mode with the loaded magazine being left for emergencies. At 100 yards distance, from a not so good rest, I managed to get five rounds into a four inch group. Considering my Lebel was an Afghan War bring-back made in 1890s, I’ll take it.
The Take Away
Though you are not likely to find 8x50mm Lebel ammo while roaming through the big box stores, the rifles themselves are plentiful with nearly 3.5 million made between 1887-1920. Prices always vary according to condition, though $400 tends to be on the lower end as these rifles are not as available on the open market as before. Thus is the fate of many a surplus rifle, but to me, owning the great granddaddy of all surplus rifles is worth the price. And on the 100th anniversary of World War I, the time is right to enjoy one for yourself.