Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1886 dit "Lebel"
In the early 1880's the armies of the world had realized that the large bore using lead bullets was at its developmental end, so they decided to experiment on smaller caliber copper jacketed bullets in the 8 to 9.5mm range in order to help improve the velocity, range, and accuracy without having a decrease in lethality. A major problem they faced at the time was the type of gun powder in use. The gun powder in use during this period was black powder which, after firing left a powdery residue that can easily foul the bore causing the weapon to lose its accuracy and velocity. The rifleman was forced to frequently to clean the rifle in order to remove this residue which was known to be highly corrosive due to the hygroscopic properties of the powder. Another major concern is the fact that blackpowder produces large amounts of white smoke upon discharge. This action resulted in obscuring the target plus signaling an enemy force with your location. In 1884 a French chemist by the name of Mon. Paul Vielle found the solution to this problem with the invention of a smokeless powder.
Smokeless Powder is Born!
This new powder called "Poudre B" was to have a significant effect on development of military arms,as well as commercial. This amazing new powder had very little or no smoke at all from the muzzle that could obstruct the view of the enemy or give away the shooters position. Another plus for the soldier was that this new powder left nearly no residue in the bore of the weapon. The results of this was less maintenance for the soldier which meant not having to clean your weapon for much longer periods of time. It also allowed for the smaller caliber copper jacketed bullets to exceed 2,000 fps. This increased not only the range of the weapons, but also had a demoralizing affect of the enemy from the faster, harder hitting bullets.The French military immediately began production of a new weapon and cartridge to take full advantage of this new powder thus developing the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1886 dit "Lebel" and 8x50Rmm cartridge. At this stage in the game France was the only nation with this revolutionary new weapon design. In fact, they designed the rifle around this new cartridge and powder.
A New Design
The weapon itself is based on the older French Black Powder Infantry Rifle, the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1885 dit "Châtellerault" which incorporated the following changes before it could function with the new smokeless powder. Since smokeless powder developed higher pressures than that of blackpowder it was therefore necessary to lock the action of the weapon in the receiver much more squarely than previously designed bolt actions had, so the weapon was modified in that it had dual opposed locking lugs on the detachable bolthead, and modifying the receiver with machined matching lug recesses so that these lugs squarely fit into them which stopped the bolt from going back in the shooters face during firing or in case of cartridge case failure.
A Revolutionary Design
The Mle.1886 "Lebel" had a massive, exposed square slab sided receiver which necessitated the use of a two piece stock, a two piece bolt which had a detachable bolthead with straight bolt handle, and a 8 round manually loaded tubular magazine which give this weapon its distinctive look from all other weapons during that period. As with other European Armies at that time, French Tactics was that that the rifle was to be used as a single loader with the rounds in the tubular magazine being held for reserve situations when large amounts of firepower was called for. The weapon therefore had a magazine cutoff that was operated by a lever on the right side of the receiver just in front of the triggerguard. The weapon could be loaded to 10 rounds have having a round placed in the cartridge carrier and one loaded in the chamber.
The rear sights of the weapon consisted of a wide U-notch adjustable ramp and a leaf sight that allowed the weapon to be sighted to 2,000 meters later upgraded to 2,400 meters. The leaf sight could be folded forward to lay on the barrel exposing a 250 meter fixed battle sight. The front sights either had a wide blade sight that had a depression in the rear of the sight in which a small amount of of radium was placed for night use or a had a groove machined in the top of the blade which allowed a pinpoint of light to reflect down it allowing the shooter to reference a target.
Trials and Adoption
Trials of the weapon were conducted at the French School of Fire (École Normale de Tir) at Camp de Châlons under the supervision of Colonel Nicholas Lebel, thus the name of the rifle was adopted but under the protest of Col. Lebel as he did not feel that he deserved the weapon or cartridge to be named after him. The weapon was formerly adopted on April 22, 1887.
The weapons were made by the three national armories, Manufacture Nationale d'Armes de Saint Etienne, Châtellerault, and Tulle from 1887 up to 1917 with over 4,000,000 manufactured.
In 1893 the military had found some weaknesses in the arm so the Lebel was upgraded with the following major modifications, the bolt head was modified with a separate rotating shield to allow powder gases to safely be vented from the weapon in case of a primer was pierced or of cartridge case rupture. The receiver was also strengthened slightly to accommodate the new bolt head and the firing pin and disassembly knob was changed to allow gas to run down safely down the bolt body . A stacking hook or rod was also added to the muzzle band to allow the weapons to be stacked with out the bayonet being attached. These modified weapons were called Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1886/M (modifié) 93, and these are the versions that are most often encountered on the open market.
The bayonet used on this weapon is the cruciform Epée-Baïonnette Mle.1886.
First Use in Combat
The weapon's first major combat use came during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and served in the various conflicts in France's colonies in Africa and Asia where it was found that the weapon was becoming obsolete especially to the charger loaded box magazines and packet loaded of Mauser and Mannlicher design. World War One was the weapons first true baptism of fire and it held up very well compared with other nations weapons but the French did realize that it had flaws and needed to be replaced. A major drawback was the tubular magazine which allowed dirt and debris to enter the receiver during the time it took to reload the weapon and therefore had to be frequently cleaned in order to keep it functioning. The weapon was also used by other Allied nations such as Russia, Belgium, Serbia, and the various foreign contingents in the French Army. (Czechoslovakia and Poland) Even though the French realized that the Mle.1886 "Lebel" was becoming obsolete it was never replaced by its successor the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1907/15, remaining side by side with them during the war, which the "Lebel" was recognized as the more robust and accurate of the the two weapons.
Sniper Rifles and Grenade Launchers
A result of this was that some of these weapons were modified to become sniper rifles in which they were equipped with Mle.1916/17 APX (Atelier de Puteaux) scopes that had a magnification of 3X and field of view of 13 milliemes, which can be adjusted horizontally up to 800 meters. These particular rifles were issued on a piecemeal basis, usually one per section of a regiment and to soldiers who showed excellent marksmanship. Another thing these weapons were used for was launching grenades with the Tromblon V.B. (Viven-Bessières) Grenade Launcher and were found much better to use than the Berthier's, due to the two piece stock design which did not break the stock, as had the one piece stock of the "Berthier", during the firing of the grenade.
Specification of the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle.1886 dit "Lebel":