Shooting China’s Hanyang 88

 

In today’s world, there is always something to be said about China. But behind the strength of China’s new capitalist economy lies a country desperate to prevent tragic repeats of her past. Rewind just one hundred years and we see an entire world being carved up. India was under British coercion, Indochina under the French, and the European powers had just made a scramble to annex almost the  entirety of Africa. The Ottoman Empire, with all its Middle Eastern territory and oil, looked ready to fall. As did China.

Japan had embarked on a campaign of massive industrialization and militarization to stave off Western bullying and it was obvious by the 1890s that China must do the same. The Qing emperor Guangxu, under the coercion of the cunning Empress Dowager Cixi, ordered that military reforms take place. Reforms that went along Western lines. New tactics, new artillery, machine guns, and rifles.

China ultimately decided to copy Germany’s Gew. 88 rifle and produce the gun in the Hanyang Arsenal, recently set up in 1891 for arms production. Ultimately, the new rifle would reach one million units of production with manufacture lasting until 1947. It would see use in the Boxer Rebellion, the Warlord era, the Chinese Civil War, and the War against Japan. The Communists shut down production when they overran the Hanyang arsenal, but the rifle stayed on officially until the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Features

The Hanyang 88, when first built, was an exact copy of Germany’s Gew. 88 rifle. The bolt action mechanism is exactly the same with a five shot in line magazine that accepted an en bloc clip. The magazine has a hole at the bottom so the empty clip will fall out of the bottom of the rifle. It also fired the same 8x57mm round. However, the Chinese would render a few changes. The expensive steel barrel jacket was removed and replaced with a standard wooden handguard and standard Mauser sights that included a post front sight and a V notch rear graduated to 2000 meters.  The gun is a little shorter and more practical, with a 26 inch barrel and comes with all the usual military rifle furniture of the day with barrel bands securing the barrel and a steel butt plate, as well as standard sling points.

Shooting

Shooting the Hanyang 88 proved to be quite a quandary. Just about any Hanyang to survive all the fighting it endured to get to the US, they are in pretty bad shape. My own example’s stock was quite beaten, though not enough to eliminate the acceptance marks of both the Guangxu emperor and the Nationalists. The bore on the other hand, was in pretty poor straits. Rifling was there, but slugged in at .329″ diameter. These guns were originally manufactured to shoot a .318″ bullet.

There is also internet talk about the guns being made of inferior steels and, therefore, unsafe to shoot. The Hanyang was also developed before the introduction of a hotter 8x57mm round that is quite commonly seen today as military surplus. With ammunition being too hot or too undersized, I decided to do a bit of handloading and take the Hanyang to the range anyway.

The load I came up with was a .324″ diameter 175 grain projectile over 13 grains of Unique pistol powder. Its a light load, by any means. And I hoped the lead bullet would give better accuracy.

On the other hand, at least clips for the Gew. 88 are available, both original and reproduction.

Unable to connect at 100 yards, I reduced the distance to 50 on a generous sized target.

Loading the Hanyang 88 proved to be a smooth proposition compared to some other clip fed rifles I have worked with. An en bloc clip of five rounds is placed directly into the open action and pushed down into the magazine until it locks in place. The long spring in the magazine pushes against the rounds while the locked clip controls the feed of the rounds as you cycle the action. Clearing the gun is also straightforward by simply emptying the chamber and pressing the button on the inside of the trigger guard to eject the clip.

The sights are very low profile, yet crisp and there was no problem picking them up, though they are very crude in the Mauser style. Recoil with the light handloads was almost nonexistent and report was also mild.  The trigger is quite light and breaks cleanly, though with plenty of takeup like any military two stage trigger. Making the gun safe, using the very Mauseresque flag safety at the back of the bolt was an easy and positive proposition. Flip it to the right for safe, back to left for fire. There is no middle position for bolt disassembly. When the last round is stripped off the clip, the clip will fall through the magazine out of the open port at the bottom of the rifle.

Though the gun was very pleasant to shoot, it appears that despite my best efforts, the gun was just too worn out. The rounds made it into a respectable 4 inch grouping at 50 yards, but most rounds keyholed and most groups were on the tune of 1 foot. I did not wish to modify the gun in any way, but was impressed to see it fire.

Conclusion

The Hanyang 88 will never win a beauty contest nor any shooting contests. They tend to be downright beat up. Many remained in Chinese militia service well into the 1980s and the guns will usually show every bit of it. Consider that the German Gew. 88 was dropped from service in the middle of World War I, many years before, it is amazing that a gun in the same class could last so long in so many fights. For that fact alone, the Hanyang is worthy and affordable military collectable, just out of respect.

 

 

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Shooting the French Berthier Carbine

 

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.

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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.

Features

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.

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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.

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The M16 modifications.

Shooting

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.

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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.

 

Conclusion

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.

 

 

The First Modern Gun: 1886 Lebel

 

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.

Features

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.

Shooting

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.

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War Use

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.

Relevance?

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.

Field Strip of the 1886 Lebel Rifle