Did you ever wonder what the first real battle rifle is? One might think of the M1 Garand of World War II fame or the Mauser bolt actions, or even the M14. But these are definitely not the first, nor did the first come from countries known for weapons manufacture, like the US or Germany. It came from France.
The 1886 Lebel rifle–a rifle that was the first of its kind in the world and made all modern firearms possible.
A Brief Backstory
The Lebel rifle was born out of the ongoing arms race with France desperate to stay updated with her arch enemy, Germany. France was humiliated at her loss in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and could not afford to fall behind again.
By the 1880s, rifles were doing pretty well–especially repeaters, rifles that could fire more than one round without reloading. The Turkish army used American Winchester 1866 rifles famously at the Siege of Plevna in 1877, and the repeater was suddenly sounding like a viable tool than a waste of ammunition.
Rifles like the French Gras and the German Mauser 71-84 came out. These were bolt action black powder cartridge firing rifles that fed ammunition from a tubular magazine below the barrel. The rifle was looking quite good, but it was something as old as firearms that proved to still be a problem–black powder.
Black powder made the gun possible, but it was never perfect. The faster guns got firing, the more the problems added up. Black powder’s inefficient burn meant three things:
- It left residue that would gum up the action without regular maintenance. This also limited the kinds of guns that were practical at the time.
- It left a cloud of smoke, revealing the gunner’s position.
- It took a lot of powder to get high velocity and when high velocity was reached, the lead bullets then in use would often melt in the bore.
But the 1880s also saw new innovations in ammunition. The Swiss figured out that a lead bullet wrapped in a jacket of copper or steel would not melt, so it could be shot much faster than a standard lead bullet.
Then the French chemist, Paul Vielle, perfected his Poudre B. It was gun powder that burned more slowly, with very little residue, and no smoke. Realizing they had a trump card, the French government ordered a new rifle and ammunition rushed to design and production.
The new rifle, forever named after Col. Nicholas Lebel– one of the men in charge of designing the ammunition, was adopted in 1886. It made all other weapons obsolete overnight, and now the French soldier had twice the reach with his new rifle. Yet, behind it all, the new rifle is an old design.
Right off the bat, the length of the rifle will get your attention. It is over 51 inches long with a 31 1/2 inch barrel. At the muzzle, there is a locking lug and ring for a 20 inch spike bayonet and a stacking rod. The front sight is an exposed blade.
One distinct feature of the Lebel rifle is its two piece stock and the lack of a handguard over the barrel. The rear sight is a graduated ladder notch graduated up to 2400m. Flipping the sight forward exposes a 250m battle sight.
The Lebel has a robust, blocky action. It has the same bolt action as the Gras, except the locking lugs are in the front of the action.
Pulling the bolt back smartly will move the carrier up. The carrier feeds rounds from the tubular magazine below. Loading the magazine entails manually pushing down the carrier to expose the tube.
The Lebel also features a magazine cut off switch. When flicked forward, it prevents the carrier from dropping down to pick up rounds when the bolt is closed. This was standard practice at the time to leave the magazine in reserve for emergencies only.
The 1886 Lebel was modified in 1893 to have a gas vent in the bolt to prevent gas from ruptured cartridge cases getting into the shooter’s eyes. Also added were supports to strengthen the rear sight base. Most Lebels you are apt to find are marked 1886/93 for this reason. Some Lebels were shortened to carbine length, while others had box magazines installed, but those are a story for another day.
The ammo also went through some changes too. Lebel and his Army team reduced the neck size of the old 11mm Gras round to accept a .327″ or 8mm bullet over a generous charge of Poudre B. Why a smaller bullet? It was figured out early on that the soldier could carry more ammunition and high velocity projectiles can reach out further with sufficient power.
8x50mm Lebel ammunition isn’t something you will find at a big box store, but it is still currently available. Privi Partizan produces the World War I era Ball D, featuring a 198 grain spitzer bullet going at about 2350 feet per second. There are also soft point varieties out there for you hunters and reloading components are available.
Getting the Lebel rifle loaded up is accomplished by opening the bolt and pushing down the carrier. Load one round at a time into the eight round tube magazine. This is safer than it looks because the shape of the 8mm round and a circular groove cut in the case rim prevents a pointed bullet from hitting the primer of another round.
From there you can drop one on the carrier directly and one in the chamber for ten rounds. Of course, if you don’t want to use the magazine, just push the magazine cut off forward and you can load the gun as a single shot. Pulling it back and racking the bolt will ready use from the magazine.
Aiming proved to be a more precise affair than what it looks. The sights are tiny and not very easy to see, but they will not obscure your targets. This is a problem with other rifles, especially at close range shooting like 50 and 100 yards from which I shot the Lebel. Recoil proved to be rather pleasant, given that the ten pound weight of the rifle absorbed much of the energy.
At 100 yards I was able to manage a 4 inch group with the Ball D ammunition. Given the rifles were sighted dead on at longer ranges, hold a foot low on target at that distance. Cycling the action is a little quirky. A strong snap rearward on the bolt will send the empty case out smartly as the carrier pops up. A very minor gripe for a gun of a different era.
The Lebel rifle was aging, yet still standard issue with the French Republic when the time to fight the Germans finally arrived, World War I. France emerged from the struggle as the leading victor and the Lebel continued in service with both France and the allies she armed during the war, including Serbia and Italy.
By the time World War II rolled around in 1939, that the Lebel was hopelessly obsolete. The French army, after years of political neglect, finally got a new rifle only in 1936 as the MAS 36. There were never enough of them, however, and many French troops had to fight the next war with a rifle that their fathers and grandfathers used. It seems only after World War II, that the Lebel finally got pushed into colonial service as the empire began to disappear in the new modern world.
Despite being superseded by faster, clip loading rifles within a few years of its introduction almost 3.5 million Lebels made up through 1920 by state arsenals at St. Etienne, Tulle, and Chatellerault.
The 1886 Lebel can be quite a good shooter and the 8x50mm round has plenty of pasta for big game, but the main lure is, of course, the history. While its use in some of history’s bloodiest battles cannot be understated, it was how it changed all firearms afterwards that is important.
The Lebel invited greater accuracy and concealability, as well as lower maintenance, for the soldier, which in short order would bring the romanticism of war to a brutal end with the Great War. The new smokeless ammunition in practical use also expanded gun design as well. The automatic and semi automatic style of firearm finally became a reality and the ammunition is basically unchanged. So, every new firearm we have today–whether it is for hunting, competition, protection, ect., really descends from the ungainly spear of a weapon that is the Lebel rifle.