Automatic Weapons:French Forerunners
By Jean Huon

French small arms manufacturers and engineers were forerunners in many fields developing many automatic weapons. Unfortunately, the innovative ideas that they developed did not meet the success that they should have deserved.

Clair Brothers Automatic Weapons

On September 8, 1888, two gunsmiths living in Saint-Etienne, Jean-Baptiste and Benoît Clair, patented an invention which is recorded under N° 192.828. The general idea relates to “a system which applied to repeating rifles, makes their operation automatic.” This system used the pressure of gases developed in the barrel, a gas port and a piston parallel with the barrel. It seems that here is the first known application of the gas action, because John Browning developed his own device three years later for the weapon which became the Colt M 1895 machine-gun. The Browning pistol using a tilting piston, was patented in 1894.

The Clair brothers’ invention was improved by additional patents on December 7, 1891, March 28, 1892 and July 18, 1893 that was initially applied to a shotgun which was sold under the name of “Clair-Éclair,” later to .38-40 and .44-40 hunting carbines and also to a 7 x 57 military rifle. The Clair brothers as well produced a semiautomatic pistol, presented to military office and tested at the Camp de Chalons proving ground in 1898. The Clair pistol looks like an old flintlock pistol and has no similarity to a modern pistol. The flat sided frame contains the bolt locked by a cam actuated by a rod mounted on the piston. The feeding device is similar to that of the Lebel rifle, but with a curved tube located in the grip and a conveyer moved by the bolt. The gas cylinder is below the barrel and also contains the recoil spring. The weapon has a curved grip and a wooden forearm, both chequered. The mechanism is obviously too long, too complex and badly balanced. The specimen that was presented at Camp de Chalons seemed to be an experimental weapon rather than a final model. It was too heavy and cumbersome. The mechanism was considered to be much too complicated and disassembly and reassembly required a skilful gunsmith provided with a screwdriver and a vice.

The operation of the weapon appeared defective with many failures to fire and feeding. The mechanism was not sealed and gas leaked through. The pistol used the 8mm M 1892 revolver cartridge loaded with black powder, which was not well adapted to a semi-automatic weapon. General appearance of the specimen was poor and only bullet velocity and penetration could be measured. Accuracy and speed of shooting could not be judged. Consequently, the general impression was rather unfavourable.

The testing was made by a group of thirteen officers coming from infantry and artillery. The secretary was Captain Lecomte from the 59th infantry regiment and in his reports he writes: “the Clair pistol presents interesting innovations, but regarding its device it could never be retained as a service weapon." This accurate critique causes the disappearance of the Clair pistol. The designers continued to use their talents with other weapons. Clair Constructeur Mécanicien Fabricant d'Armes in Saint-Étienne, existed until 1914 or 1916. If the Clair brothers had the same dynamic and commercial spirit as the leaders of the Manufacture Française d'Armes et Cycles de Saint-Étienne (private factory), the fate of the gun would perhaps have been different.

MAS Pistol Prototype

At some unspecified time, but probably between 1900 and 1910, the Manufacture Nationale d'Armes de Saint-Etienne (state owned arsenal) produced a faithful copy of the Mannlicher 1896 pistol. This weapon did not have any markings and several specimens were made.

Two specimens were inspected, one of which had a Chrusher type pressure device. After more than forty years of research, we have found no other information about this weapon.

Bernardon-Martin Pistol

Mr. Martin, gunsmith, established in Dubois Street in Saint-Etienne joined Etienne Bernardon, small arms manufacturer, installed in Roland Street in the same city. Both deposited on November 25, 1905, a patent N° 359.992, for a semiautomatic pistol. This pistol follows a traditional design though the manufacture was complex and disassembly was even more so.

The straight handle is slightly inclined, and is fitted with chequered ebonite grips, with the B.M. monogram. A plate located on the left face covers the mechanism. The trigger guard is round. The barrel has a 7.65mm bore (.32) with four grooves right hand twist. It is of semi-cylindrical section which broadens at the rear. The bolt has two branches that slide in side cavities of the frame, which allows the connection with the recoil spring located under the barrel, via a screw which serves as a catch. The weapon is fed by a box magazine introduced into the handle and retained by a catch located at the base. The safety blocks the trigger mechanism, but not the bolt. The rear sight is an open V notch and a half moon front sight is located close to the muzzle.

There is another, more recent, Bernardon-Martin pistol. The trigger mechanism was modified by patents N° 10.491, 10.492, 10.493, registered by Etienne Bernardon. The general line of the weapon did not change and the only change is on some details of the manufacture. The external profile of the barrel is different at the breach, the muzzle is a truncated cone and the front sight is rectangular. The bolt has longer side branches and the attachment with the recoil spring is different. The grasping grooves at the rear of the bolt are fewer and broader. The trigger guard is oval and at the front it has a manual bolt stop. The magazine catch is now a push button.

The patent, registered on February 18, 1909, concerns a grip safety, located on the front face of the grip, under the trigger guard, but the various specimens which we examined did not have this feature. This second version of the Bernardon-Martin gun was also marketed under the Hermetic trade mark.

The two inventors also patented on March 23 1906, a “siphon type” magazine for their pistol (patent N° 364.506). It is a large capacity magazine, similar to the horseshoe magazine developed thirty years later for the Union pistol.

Bernardon-Martin pistols also exist in the .25 ACP cartridge, which was patented in the United States. The firm seems to have ceased its activities, or to have stopped the production of guns, about 1912. Some sources quote a production of 4,000 guns, which seems exaggerated taking into account the scarcity of existing specimens. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century, a .32 automatic pistol may be found on the French market.

Semiautomatic Rifles: Prototypes

Since 1894, several French establishments studied several programs aimed at developing a semiautomatic rifle or carbine. These include:

For nearly twenty years they developed many prototypes using the most varied driving mechanisms (gas action with piston or direct action of the gas, short recoil of the barrel, long recoil of the barrel) and locking systems (spiral rotating mobile head and multiple lugs, retractable block, retractable side lugs). They produced experimental rimless bottlenecked cases, from 6mm to 8.5mm (.236 to .33) for staggered column magazines. Their designers, who should be noted, included: Belgrand, Chauchat, Chezeau, Meunier, Pralon, Ribeyrolles, Rossignol, Sutter, Vallarnaud. Additionally, a rifle designed by Chossé was made by MAC in 1912.

Meunier A6 rifle

This was one of the many prototypes tested at the beginning of the 20th century and certainly one of the most elaborate models that existed at the time. It was officially adopted in 1910 and some specimens were made in 1913; but the manufacture was suspended because of the deteriorating political climate in Europe. Anticipating a possible war, the Army considered it was not timely to change rifles and adopt a new cartridge. Things would have remained thus since during WWI the development of a new 8mm semiautomatic rifle was difficult. While waiting, some Meunier rifles were tested in war: 15 specimens were used by the 15th Zouaves Regiment at Cuvilly (north of Paris). Tooling was produced to manufacture the Meunier rifle and a few of them were produced in 1916, waiting for the appearance of the M 1917 semiautomatic rifle. The Tulle arsenal (MAT), with the cooperation of MAC and MAS, built 1,013 Meunier A6 rifles, 813 of them were used by troops.

The one-piece, pistol grip stock ended half way up the barrel. The barrel is surrounded by a tubular wooden handguard between the lower and upper bands, which acts as a cooling jacket, with lateral ventilation grooves plus a large opening at the top. The barrel is 7mm with four grooves hand twist right. When fired, the barrel recoils and compresses two recoil springs placed in a tube below the barrel at the rear. This tube is also houses a buffer spring. The receiver is made up of a housing and a cover. There is a large feeding and ejection port and a groove for the cocking lever. The moving parts are the bolt carrier, which carries the cocking handle, and the rotating bolt with its three series of interrupted-thread lugs. The recoil springs are in the stock, and is connected to the moving parts by the operating rod. The trigger housing is an independent assembly that holds all the parts of the trigger mechanism. To fire, an external hammer, powered by a flat mainspring, strikes the firing pin. The rifle has a manual safety. Feeding is done by a disposable stripper clip, the cartridge lying staggered in the magazine, which is part of the receiver housing. The magazine has a pantograph type follower with an "X" crosspiece, pushed by a leaf spring with a roller. It receives 6 cartridges. Ten- and fifteen-round magazine were also studied but not adopted.

The rear sight slide has steps marked from 300 to 2,300 m. The leaf also has a position marked "C" for normal combat shooting. The front sight with its protective wings is placed on the long end cap which serves as a forward mounting for the barrel.

The main parts of the rifle are completely made of machined steel, blued except for the bolt and butt plate, which are polished. The rifle uses the long recoil system. It mounts a sabre bayonet derived from that for the M 1892 carbine.

Meunier A 6 Carbine

In 1918, Etienne Meunier modified some rifles into carbines. The gun was shortened and its magazine floor replaced by a box – the capacity increased to 15 rounds. Two variations of the carbine were developed:

Intensive tests took place with these weapons until 1921, including presentations to English and American military observers. They were tried with other models and their performances gave them high ratings.

The Meunier A 6 carbine with 15-cartridge magazine, was probably the most advanced individual weapon of WW I. Despite the qualities of the Meunier system, complains were made concerning the great complexity of the action, impossibility of manually operating the rifle in the event of a part breakage and also the use of a non standard cartridge.

Model 1917 Semiautomatic Rifle

Developed by Ribeyrolles, Sutter and Chauchat, this rifle saw its manufacture delayed by technical difficulties. It was presented as a transformation of the M 1886-93 rifle. However, this rifle used only a few elements of the Lebel rifle: stock, barrel, fore end, barrel, sight and bayonet. It had a gas action device with the piston placed in the tubular magazine under the barrel and a magazine derived from many prototypes at the pre-war period.

Production of the M 1917 rifle began on April 1, 1917, and was divided among several small arms manufacturers:

These parts were assembled into rifles largely by MAS, with only about one hundred being completed by MAC. The series production continued until September 30, 1918 and 85,333 M 1917 rifles were manufactured.

The stock is that of M 1886 rifle. The trigger housing contains the trigger/sear and a hammer. The upper part of the receiver is tubular, the lower part is square. The rear end of the tubular receiver is closed by a serrated plug. On the right is the cocking lever with a bolt hold open latch. The safety lever is on the left side. The cylindrical bolt is made of two parts: the bolt carrier and the head with its locking lugs. It is partially covered by a hand-shield. The gas cylinder is placed under the gun. It works by gas action. The rod on the piston actuates the bolt carrier. The magazine holds a Mannlicher-type loading clip. The clip is not interchangeable with the one for the bolt-action M 1916 rifle, because its bottom is flat and does not have a locking device. The feeding mechanism is complex. It consists of the follower, two links and one cam. A similar device is used on the American Garand M1 rifle. The sights are also from the M 1916 rifle. The triangular front sight is placed on a base. The rear sight has increment in steps from 400 to 800 m and by raising the leaf, from 900 to 2,400 m. This rifle receives the M 1915 sword-bayonet. It was issued to the better marksmen who were additionally chosen for their mechanical abilities!

Model 1917 Carbine

A shortened variation of the rifle was also developed. The only differences between the M 1917 carbine and the regular M 1917 rifle were the shorter barrel, a larger upper band, and a pointed and curved stacking rod. The rear sight was the same. This model was experimental and a only a few were made.

Model 1918 Carbine

The Model 1918 had the following improvement over the M 1917 short rifle:

The manufacture of this weapon began at the end of November 1918. Total production is unknown but it is estimated between 4,000 and 20,000 specimens.

Some were used during the Rif war in Morocco (1921-26). The M 1918 carbine was very satisfactory: it was reliable and gave better accuracy than the Lebel rifle.

In 1935, M 1917 rifles and M 1918 carbines were converted into manually repeating weapons, by sealing the gas port with a steel pin secured by the regulating screw. M 1918 carbines were used by:

Faucon Rifle

Lieutenant-colonel Armand Faucon from the Colonial Infantry was interested in the development of automatic weapons well before WWI. He developed a "balanced rifle" concept which, when applied to an automatic weapon, made it less bulky. Faucon did not invent any particular automatic rifle himself, but rather, according to the inventor: "a configuration adaptable to any existing weapon and capable of bettering its performance."

Basically, the rifle was changed into a configuration that today we call a “Bullpup,” by doing away with the stock and locating the pistol grip at the rifle's centre of gravity. The rifle was fired by placing it over the shoulder like a rocket-launcher.

Faucon requested a patent on January 12, 1910, which was awarded on January 1, 1911 under number 422,154. The invention consisted in making a special housing that had an articulated butt plate, a central pistol grip plus a rear handgrip. Sighting was done through a sight on the left side. Testing was done at the Military Musketry School in 1909 and 1911 with a wooden model of a “Faucon Balanced Rifle.” The most one can say after reading the conclusions of the trials is that the officers in charge were not enthused by the system.

The inventor persevered and in 1918 manufactured two units following this concept, utilising an A5 Meunier rifle with a 6-round magazine as base. These Faucon-Meunier rifles were manufactured in Sevres and presented at Versailles proving ground on July 5, 1918 to a British commission directed by Lord Cottesloe. They were later tested at Chalons in May and June 1920. The tests related to the comparative experimentation of the Faucon Balanced Rifle and the M 1918 semiautomatic carbine. Two specimens were placed at the disposal of the commission, with 640 cartridges and 25 clips. The original stock was removed and replaced by a rectangular form of stock giving the rifle a short and appreciably rectangular aspect. The shoulder had an articulated butt plate and a rear handle is used for fencing with the bayonet and the trigger is connected to the firing mechanism by a long rod.

The tests revealed that the weapon was prone to many malfunctions that originated from the modified trigger mechanism. But it was noticed that the gunner was less tired after a long shooting session than with a traditional weapon. The experimentation covered all of the shooting positions of a combatant, including wearing a gas mask.

In spite of some advantages of the Faucon system, the commission noted several defects that did not allow the use of the weapon under all conditions. Finally, the commission estimated that the rifle presented by the inventor did not seem suitable for practical application and that it was not necessary to continue the experimentation.

Semiautomatic Rifles 1921 - 1940

Just after WWI, the French Army, afraid of new conflicts in Europe, launched a vast program of replacing their infantry armament. This covered the majority of the weapons in service and the project was to replace or to create the following models:

Unfortunately, despite the efforts and the quick response of the state factories and private establishments, the project was not finished in 1939 when WWII started. The reasons are multiple: inability of the military to make choice, the closure to permit private factory designs to be retained, the economic crisis after 1929, the socialist government in 1936, etc.

In other developments, MAS very quickly presented several prototypes: MAS 1918-21 and MAS 1922, both in .30-06, followed by other similar rifles made by MAC and MAT for 7.5mm cartridges. In 1931, a competition was organized. Officially it was a selection among the weapons presented by industrialists, which would likely be retained. This competition (or alleged such…) did not have any other goal than to bring privately developed models and design development to the attention of state designers of armament in national factories. The French industrialists did not fall for this and none of those which had been requested (Hotchkiss, Darne, Manufrance) were presented. Also, none of them could develop a semiautomatic rifle within the time limits, their order books were already well filled: Hotchkiss produced machine-guns and rapid fire guns for the French Army and export, Darne produced shotguns and aircraft machine-guns, and Manufrance produced hunting and target weapons.

The same contestable method was renewed on several occasions in the 1930s, particularly for the light machine gun and the pistol. The tests proceeded between spring and summer 1931; the competition itself being held between the autumn 1931 and January 1932 with the participation of several French MAS and MAT rifles, a Czech rifle (ZH 29) and a Swiss rifle (SIG KE 9).

At the conclusion of the tests, no weapon was considered to be sufficiently reliable to be retained, however MAS and MAT rifles were more satisfactory than the other competitors. The characteristics of the future weapon were redefined and only MAS developed new prototypes. Finally, after tests of a MAS 38-39, it was adopted on March 28, 1940, as the MAS 40, whose series production was to begin in July 1941… World events decided differently! Finally, this rifle reappeared at the end of the war, as the MAS 44, followed by MAS 49 and MAS 49-56. Its driving system with direct gas action on the bolt carrier, is that which controller Rossignol had developed at the end of the 19th century. The tilting bolt was developed at MAS by controller Chezeau in 1928, it is similar as the Darne machine gun bolt.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V17N2 (June 2013)
and was posted online on April 26, 2013


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