I am one to remember dates down to the day. Feb. 21,1916 marked the beginning of one of the costliest battles in history, Verdun. Over one million would fall as the German army attempted to break the stalemate of the Great War in the West by attacking the French where it was known they would not retreat from out of pride. The goal– bleed the French army to death. It is events like these that spur my interest in classic firearms. While the biggest killer of the Great War was easily artillery, the grunt’s rifle represented his only hope of protection against death in a war where death came in many ways. France entered the war with a decent, but aging rifle, the 1886 Lebel. But early problems with the Lebel, long before the war, meant another gun also saw extensive service–the Berthier carbine.
A Bit of History
France jumped far ahead in the arms race leading up to the Great War all the way back in 1886 with their Lebel rifle. It was the first rifle to shoot smokeless powder and gave the French soldier double the range over his enemies, still armed with black powder rifles. But when the military attempted to convert the full sized rifle to a short carbine for troops that did not need a full sized rifle, problems came up. The Lebel was a tube loaded gun, loading one round at a time. That is awkward. Not to mention, shortening the gun would reduce the amount of ammunition the tube would hold. In the interim, the Austrians had perfected a smokeless rifle of their own and it used a new Mannlicher clip loading system in which a packet of bullets in a metal clip were inserted directly into the magazine for rapid reloading.
Ultimately, railroad engineer Adolfe Berthier came up with his own carbine design using the Lebel bolt and cartridge, but using the Mannlicher feeding system. The nifty little three shot carbines were adopted in 1890 and subsequently modified around a universal pattern in 1892. The new carbine, intended for cavalry and artillery troops, was easy to manufacture and maintain as well as quicker to load than the Lebel and for this reason, rifle versions were adapted. The pattern would remain the same until World War I turned everything upside down.
The 8X50mm Lebel was the first smokeless powder cartridge and it is still manufactured today, though it was rendered obsolete early on. Privi Partizan produces ammunition replicating the World War I loading–the Ball D. The very first cartridge using a pointed spritzer bullet. The 198 grain bullet travels at 2280 feet per second out of the little carbine.
There are plenty of variants of Berthier carbine out there. But the basic specifications and operation are the same.
As designed, the Berthier carbines married a Lebel style of bolt that had a separate bolt head along with a Mannlicher style of loading system that held 3 rounds of 8x50mm Lebel ammunition with a hole at the bottom of the magazine for the empty clip to fall out for reloading. The clip, depressed against a long spring in the magazine would control feeding of the rounds one at a time until empty. A button at the front of the trigger guard is depressed to eject the clip, should you not wish to shoot all the rounds. This would change as World War I progressed.
Unlike other French guns, the Berthier carbine has a full length one piece walnut stock and a barrel of 18 inches that is secured by barrel bands and weigh in at just 6.5 pounds. At the muzzle, there is a provision for a blade pattern bayonet. There was also a provision for a stacking rod that was omitted post World War I. The front sight is a thick blade with a thin groove running down it. The rear sight is a ladder that graduates from 200 meters to 2000 meters. These little guns will universally have a pair of sling swivels on the left side of the gun.
Later many of these early carbines as well as newly manufactured ones were reclassified as M16 carbines in 1916 and updated with a wooden handguard and a five shot magazine that projected out of the rifle with the clip ejection hole covered by a spring loaded trap. It was found that the three shot capacity was just too low and the mud of trench warfare could get into the open hole, gumming up things.
The M16 modifications.
My own Berthier carbine started out life as a Chatterault Mle 1890 that was later converted to M16 specifications. It had seen some use but the bore was uninjured, so I packed up a few boxes of Privi Partizan 198 grain FMJ 8×50 Lebel ammunition and headed to the range.
If you wish to use the Berthier as a repeating rifle as intended, you will need a clip or two for the best shooting experience. Original 3 and 5 shot clips are still out there and recently reproductions from Australia are being made to keep these little carbines fed.
Due to a weakened magazine spring, it took some bending and loosening of the clip to get it to function correctly. Loading the clip is straightforward by forcing a cartridge down to the bottom of the clip and then stacking the rest on top of each other. There is no need to stack the rimmed cartridges a certain way.
With the bolt retracted to the rear, simply place the clip of ammunition wholesale into the magazine and push it in until you hear a click. The clip is locked in the gun but can be released by pressing the release on the inside of the trigger guard. Just push the bolt back into battery to load the rifle. Like the 1886 Lebel, the Berthier does not have a manual safety and was usually carried on the march with an empty chamber.
While loading, with either the five round en bloc clip or with single cartridges, was easy, lining up the sights proved to be another matter. Not that there is anything wrong with the post and notch setup on the sights, but that the front post sight is just too thick. There is a groove cut into the front sight, but it is almost impossible to see, and the front sight will cover an 18 inch target at 100 yards. The same is true while shooting at a 24 inch target at 200 yards. But the predictable two-stage trigger was helpful.
Recoil was lighter than I expected. The 8mm Lebel round is no slouch, with similar power to the 303 British cartridge. The carbine produces a nice fireball and is quite loud, but without punishing recoil. Cycling the gun was a little odd at first with the sharp 90 degree bent bolt that the carbine models have, but it gets instinctive. Despite some initial clip problems, cycling did not take any excessive effort. On cycling the last round, the empty clip will fall out of the bottom of the rifle in the case of the original 3 shot gun. On the M16 modified rifles, like this one, the clip will stay in the rifle unless the trapdoor is open or forced open by inserting a new clip.
So what about accuracy? Despite the terrible iron sights, quite impressive. The little Berthier managed to put five rounds into a 2 ¼ inch pattern at 100 yards off sandbags. At 200 yards, I was satisfied with the 12 inch group of five shots on target from my range bag. Why? Because the front sight blocks the target completely at that distance and I held the front sight at the bottom of the target. In general, such a hold is used on old military rifles to compensate for the guns being zeroed at longer ranges. Unlike my experiences with the Lebel, however, the rounds landed to the point of aim.
Overall, pretty impressive… for a 120 year old carbine with iron sights.
The Berthier carbine would be produced well past the 2 million mark, but would ultimately be replaced in 1936, along with the Lebel, by the Mas 36 in French service. When World War II broke out in 1939, there were not enough of the new rifles to go around and the Berthiers and Lebels were retained in service. Ultimately, it took the end of World War II for these elderly guns to finally kick the bucket. However, in the decades after the war, the Berthier would continue to pop up in France’s colonial struggles and in use with the French police, leaving behind an impressive service life for a gun of its type.
Want a Berthier? They are most certainly out there, having come in on the surplus market post War. They are often found at online auctions and gun shows at about the $400-500 mark. Ammunition, clips, and other components are readily available.
Let’s face it, no one is going to buy a Berthier carbine as a competition gun. I certainly would not. Would it be a great hunting gun? Yes. But just about anyone inclined to want one is intrigued by what guns of the type had to go through in its heyday. As the Great War fades into pages, the weapons are one of the few things left behind to tell us something and if the Berthier could talk, I am sure it would have lots to say.