By R.K. Campbell
One of the most underrated bolt action rifles of all time is the French MAS 36. Although often dismissed by historians and collectors alike, the French rifle featured numerous innovations that marked the MAS rifle as among the most advanced of its time. The period between the World Wars led some nations to reevaluate their front line weapons. Germany continued to produce variations of the Mauser rifle while Britain steadily improved the Lee Enfield. America improved the Springfield rifle but also developed the M1 Garand. The Garand was the only self loading rifle in general issue during the Second World War. In Russia, little thought seems to have been given to replacing the Mosin Nagant although a number of moderately successful self loading rifles were produced. The French had fought World War One with an outdated rifle chambering the 8mm Lebel cartridge. While France was off to an early start with smokeless powder they had failed to remain on the cutting edge of technology. The tubular magazine Lebel rifle was used during World War One along with other developments. A three shot carbine was not particularly tactical but was also used. France developed a self loading rifle that saw use immediately after the war, but this design was discarded. The decision was made to develop a new bolt action rifle.
Pistols, machine guns and light artillery were modernized and, of course, the rifle is the queen of battle. The 8mm Lebel cartridge had to go as it was felt this caliber and cartridge design was outdated, inefficient and not well suited to use in fully automatic weapons though there were several experiments and variations on the theme. The original cartridge was similar to the full length 8mm Mauser cartridge. Further development led to the 7.5x54mm cartridge we refer to as the 7.5 French. The 7.5x54mm was ahead of its day. Slightly less powerful than the 8mm Mauser or .30-06 Springfield, the French cartridge is well balanced, inherently accurate, and well suited for use in fully automatic weapons. The new cartridge was chambered in a bolt action rifle produced by St. Etienne. The MAS 36 was an innovative design that owed little to any other rifle. The rifle is very distinctive in appearance and function. The bolt handle, as an example, is curved to allow rapid manipulation. Those who realize that the proper means of quickly manipulating a rifle bolt is to keep the palm open as the bolt is manipulated cannot complain of a cramped hand. The bolt is perfectly well designed for proper use. The MAS 36 features rear locking lugs instead of the massive front locking lugs of the Mauser rifle. Just the same, the MAS 36 design seems to fare well in extended firing. The same arrangement was used in the later Remington 788 rifle with good results. The bolt is an advanced design that may be disassembled simply by turning the bolt head. There are also gas escape holes featured in the design that remain a modern step in safety. The rifle features a two piece stock with the receiver holding the magazine separating the stock and forend. The bayonet is housed in the forend until ready for use. The bayonet is screwed out and then screwed back into the bayonet socket. The bayonet is not as robust as some and not very useful as an all around knife. The blind magazine is fed by a stripper clip and holds five rounds.
An interesting feature, or lack of a feature depending upon your opinion, is the absence of a manual safety. A form of safety features resides in a heavy trigger action. However, the trigger action is fairly smooth and consistent and good shooting is possible. In order to make the rifle safe when the chamber is loaded, it is a simple matter to move the bolt out of battery. With the bolt handle raised the rifle will not fire. Simply brushing the handle down makes the rifle ready to fire. While some of us prefer a manual safety, the French system is far more useful than the awkward Nagant as one example. There are a number of variations on the rifle including one example with an integral grenade launcher. There was a folding stock version presumably for paratroopers but this author has never examined one.
Firing the MAS 36 is an interesting experience. Those who are not prepared will not derive as much illumination as others. The trigger is not as crisp as some but, as already mentioned, very consistent from pull to pull. With a minimum of dry fire practice you will acclimate to the trigger action. The sights are excellent battle sights, well protected from the inevitable dings and knocks seen not necessarily in combat but simply in handling and traveling with a rifle. The MAS 36 is a fast handling rifle. While setting on the benchrest and producing small groups is satisfying, the MAS excels in speed shooting. Setting a target up at 50 yards, the MAS 36 was loaded with Privi Partisan FMJ loads and firing began. Beginning with the rifle at low ready and progressing to rapid fire from the shoulder, this shooter was rewarded with good hits. The MAS 36 is fast on target, recoil is relatively mild, and accuracy is good. The obligatory 100 yard benchrest was another matter. Concentration on the trigger was mandatory. With the battle sights and trigger action of the MAS 36, a three shot group at 100 yards in three inches was considered good. Some groups were larger than three inches and none smaller with the average about 3.65 inches.
There have been a number of MAS 36 rifles converted to .308 Winchester and sold in America. A word of caution. The 7.5 French and the .308 Winchester (7.62mm NATO) calibers are similar and the conversion seems safe as far as pressure tolerance goes. The example tested in .308 caliber fed, chambered and fired and ejected normally. Accuracy was problematical. I noticed poor results at 50 yards and the rifle fired patterns rather than groups at 100 yards. The average dispersal was around eight inches for three shots. The .308 conversion is mechanically successful but accuracy is poor at least in the case of this example. Ammunition is easier to come by true but the performance is severely downgraded. There is some question as to the proper headspace. Experience with the Spanish Mausers sometimes poorly converted will give one pause.
After a through examination and firing test, the MAS 36 leaves shooters with the impression that the rifle was ahead of its time. Light, short, fast into action and reflecting a tactical doctrine of simplicity, the MAS 36 is a rifle that should have proven rugged and effective in action. Little is known of the rifle’s actual use during the short battle for France in 1940. The MAS 36 is among the least expensive service rifles of World War Two for the collector and a must have for a complete collection.
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