Feeding the Tiger: The Ammunition Feed-systems for the French Saint-Etienne Mle. 1907 Machine Guns
By Jean Francois Legendre
The Mitrailleuse Mle. 1907 is a gas-operated machine gun designed at the French Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Saint-Etienne (MAS) in caliber 8x50R Lebel. The weapon itself has been thoroughly presented by Robert Segel in Small Arms Review Vol. 6, No. 11, August 2003. This article is intended to focus on the different feed systems adopted for service, as well as the experimental ones, for this Mle. 1907 machine gun.
The rigid feed strips
The Saint-Etienne Mitrailleuse Mle. 1907 weapon is a direct improvement of a machine gun designed at the Atelier de Fabrication de Puteaux (APX) adopted under the designation APX Mle. 1905. The early productions of the Saint-Etienne Mle. 1907 used the same feed strip as that of the APX Mle. 1905. French machine gun military doctrine at the beginning of the 20th Century relied on the use of metallic feed strips, which were particularly appreciated for two main reasons. The first is to be able to limit the consumption of ammunition so as to achieve an effective operational rate of fire compatible with the air-cooling of the weapon and also compatible with the carrying capacity of the ammunition supply by the assistant gunners. The second reason is the much lower sensitivity of the metallic rigid strips to external and meteorological adverse conditions.
The original feed strip for the APX 1905 has a capacity of 25 rounds, whereas the other contemporary French machine gun - the Hotchkiss Mle. 1900 - was fed by a 24-round rigid strip. This 24-round capacity simply found its logical origin in the 8-round paper wrappers containing the 8mm Lebel cartridges. However, inserting the 25th round on an APX strip would then require the opening of an extra ammunition packet. It appears that both Hotchkiss and APX strips have exactly the same total length so ammunition boxes are of the same size. The very left end of the Hotchkiss strip remains devoid of a cartridge and is used for the ejection of the strip. The design of the APX gun is such that the entire length of the strip can be used to accommodate cartridges and accordingly, for the same given total length, a 25th cartridge can be fitted.
The APX feed strip is composed of a tinned solid steel sheet on which blackened steel grips are riveted. No markings have ever been observed on those APX strips. Besides experimental productions carried out at the Puteaux arsenal, the industrial manufacture of those strips was involved at the Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Châtellerault (MAC) where the production line for the feed strips was set up in 1908. A total of 200,000 APX strips was produced at Châtellerault between 1909 and 1910. It must be recalled that both 1905 and 1907 weapons are fed from the left side and that the feed strips are presented with the cartridges being under the strip.
In an attempt to reduce the production costs and to increase the mechanical resistance of the feed strips, a new design was developed by the MAS in Saint-Etienne. It still exhibits the 25-round capacity but is manufactured by the cold forming of a single nickel-alloyed steel sheet. This new MAS strip was officially adopted for service in May, 1910 and all previous contracts for production of the old-style APX feed strips were canceled. Both APX and MAS types of strips can be used interchangeably with both APX 1905 and MAS 1907 weapons.
Besides early prototype strips from MAS, which are exceptionally rare today, industrial production of the MAS strips started at Châtellerault in 1910 with a first batch of 225,000 strips. A second batch of 40,000 strips followed, being produced in 1911. Later, production of the strips was mainly concentrated at the MAS and MAC with a few more small contractors involved during the First World War.
The design of MAS rigid feed strips remained unchanged until the latest dated production examined for 1918. Early productions are tinned or nickeled steel but during the early years of the First World War, the surface protective coating sometimes happens to be missing.
Markings show the initials of the manufacturer, the year of production and a batch number. Production dates of 1915, 1916 and 1917 are very common whereas earlier and later years are rarely encountered. It seems that the amount of strips available in warehouses at the end of the First World War was so large that no further production was necessary for the French government in the interwar years, even though these venerable Mle.1907 machine guns were still used for active anti-aircraft duty as late as 1940.
A total of 300 cartridges, fitted on 12 strips, are carried in a wood ammunition box either of the early APX (Puteaux) model or of the later mod. 1915. The box is divided into 6 compartments by means of wood spacer plates. Each compartment contains two strips stored alternate ways up.
A blued variant, very similar to the original French service strips, and devoid of any marking has been examined. So far, no conclusive proof as to either its origin or its destination has been discovered. It is, however, only a guess that it might find its origin by the Austrian Hirtenberg company. Indeed, in the middle of the 1930s, Hirtenberg exported 8mm Lebel ammunition to Italy, reportedly with loadings specifically either for the Saint-Etienne Mle. 1907 machine guns or for rifles. However, though drawings of three-round and five-round Berthier rifle clips belonging to this contract for Italy have been reported, no other specific information as to the procurement of feed strips has been found so far. Other countries using French Mle. 1907 machine guns during the interwar period, such as Greece or Yugoslavia, might have also ordered or locally produced new feed strips, but here again, no evidence has been found yet.
Finally, to close this section on rigid strips, a 26-round odd variant, and the source of many questions, is worth mentioning. The US movie industry involved Saint-Etienne 1907 weapons for some specific films whose action took place during the First World War. It proved difficult for the prop departments to get the necessary feed strips to operate the guns. Accordingly, some feed strips were specifically newly manufactured. The design, involving electric welded plates instead of the original single sheet stamped shape, only exhibit a vague resemblance with the original strips. The reason for a 26-round capacity instead of the normal 25-round is not known. These modern “movie-strips” are blued and are significantly longer than the originals.
The continuous belts of the First World War.
As the First World War progressed, the extensive combat use of the Model 1907 machine guns highlighted its numerous faults and poor reliability. In 1916, the weapon incorporated several improvements and was renamed the Model 1907T (Transformé = transformed). Whereas new weapons were manufactured according to the new pattern, the approximately 10,000 weapons already in service were also progressively upgraded by the Châtellerault arsenal to the new standard. One of the modifications concerned a reworked feed system intended to accommodate a new 300-round fabric belt. This capacity is directly related with the capacity of the contemporary wood ammunition boxes (both of the early model originally for the APX 1905 Puteaux weapon and of the later Model 1915) which accommodate 12 rigid feed strips; i.e. a total of 300 rounds.
This belt bears close similarities with the Colt Model 1895/1914 Potato Digger belts for which the cartridge pockets are obtained by the weaving of cotton fabric. The early pattern of belt is fitted with a brass starter installed at both ends, whereas the later pattern is fitted with a leather starter, again at both ends. Cartridge pockets are numbered with ink markings from 0 to 300 in 50-round increments. It should be noted that the number which can be read on the belt is the quantity of shots already fired and not the number of rounds remaining in the belt.
Official manuals dated 1916 describe a dedicated belt box denoted as Model 1916. The outer dimensions are the same as that of the Model 1915 for 12 feed strips of 25-round capacity. However, the Model 1916 box is fitted with the opening lid on the larger side and is readily identified by a red stripe all around and with the markings in white ink which reads “1 bande de 300 cartouches” (one 300-round belt). This box, although officially adopted for service, remains a scarce item today and most of the WW1 pictures examined showing the fabric belt involve a normal Model 1915 box with simply the inner wood spacing boards removed.
This 300-round fabric belt was primarily intended for sustained anti-aircraft firing or for static strong-points. Nevertheless, according to the very tough combat conditions experienced in the trenches and to the particularly high susceptibility of the weapon to external aggressions, this fabric belt was not widely distributed and its use remained limited to very specific purposes. Accordingly, only a very few photographs show the fabric belt in combat operations and most others are posed for propaganda purposes. The fabric belt seems to have been abandoned soon after the First World War and manuals of the interwar period do not make reference to this belt.
Further refinements concerning the fabric belts for the Mle 1907T weapons were patented by the French company Quéron & Courbon. The French patent application, No. 493.500, was filed on May 25, 1917 and claimed the use of elastic strings within the fabric of the belt so as to achieve a more consistent fit on the cartridge and therefore a more consistent pitch of the rounds in the belt. This patent was then completed with the addendum No. 22.387 dated November 9, 1917, where it was furthermore claimed to mark the outer contour of each cartridge pocket with color strings. Although such fabric belts incorporating elastic strings have been examined for Darne light machine gun belts dated around 1925, no such elastic belt (with or without the colored contours of the cartridge pockets) in caliber 8x50R Lebel for the Mle 1907T machine gun has ever been reported so far to the author.
According to the field experiments of the British Expeditionary Forces with metallic continuous belts for their Vickers ground machine guns, the French also investigated this feature for their Mle 1907T weapons. So far, two variants of continuous metallic belts have been identified.
One is based on a pattern similar to that of the so-called “Sangster metallic belt,” patented in 1915 by the British citizen Charles Sangster, and shortly adopted for service with British .303 Vickers. The individual metal links are assembled by means of brass pins and it is suspected that a flat starter piece should have been fitted at both ends although no such surviving specimen has been examined so far.
The second variation is a very odd design patented on December 9, 1916 by Messrs Peugeot (family related to the still existing French car manufacturer of the same name) and Gobiet under the reference number 492.859. The only surviving specimen known by the author has been shown in an article published 30 years ago in a French gun magazine. At that time however, it was captioned as “unidentified” and only the recent discovery of the corresponding patent allowed ultimate identification of this belt. Unfortunately, that very belt fragment, nor any other, has been located to date by the author and no recent photo of an actual specimen is available.
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