The Lebel Model 1886 (more formally as the "Fusil Modele 1886 ") was the standard infantry rifle of the French Army before and throughout World War 1. The weapon lived a production life that was long enough to see action in World War 2. The weapon was designed in 1886 to take advantage of smokeless gunpowder invented in 1884. For a time, the Model 1886 was a revolutionary step forward and gave a distinct advantage to the French infantryman. By the time of World War 1 in 1914 however, rifle technology had advanced past the Model 1886 as compared to her contemporaries on the battlefield. It is estimated that some 2,880,000 total Lebel Model 1886 rifles were produced up until 1929. The Lebel was credited as being the first rifle designed for use with smokeless powder ammunition and the first to make a "boat-tailed" ammunition as standard.
The Lebel Model 1886 was a bolt-action rifle firing the 8mm Lebel round. The bolt system itself was a derivative of the one as found on the single-shot Gras 1874 rifle series it replaced. As the operator moved the bolt backwards, a mechanical lift introduced a new cartridge into line with the chamber. The closing of the bolt moved the cartridge into the firing chamber, introducing another cartridge onto the lift mechanism with help from a spring in the magazine tube. The rifle was now made ready to fire. The bolt head was locked into the receiver itself by two opposed front locking lugs.
The cartridge of choice for the new rifle became the equally-new Lebel 8mm (8x50R Lebel Mle 86), a smokeless powder ammunition utilizing a small caliber jacketed bullet. This first practical use of smokeless powder was made possible thanks to French chemist Paul Marie Eugene Vieille in 1884. The new cartridge was designed by Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Lebel, a French senior officer then part of the design committee and whom the rifle was eventually named after. The cartridge was known as the "Balle M". In 1898, the round-nose Balle M was replaced in use by the "boat-tailed" spitzer "Balle D" cartridge - this necessitating a revision to the spring-loaded tube magazine as well. Original Lebels were identified by their two-piece stocks and unique receivers. A cruciform-type bayonet of considerable length (20.5 inches) could be affixed to the underside of the muzzle. In all, the Lebel Model 1886 was a long and heavy battlefield rifle while at the same time being noted for her reliability and robustness.
The tube magazine was situated under the barrel and ran forward, fitting up to 8 cartridges loaded as single rounds and charged rearwards via a pressure spring. In addition to the cartridges in the magazine, the receiver could house an additional two cartridges - one in the transporter and another in the firing chamber - essentially allowing the French soldier access to 10 ready-to-fire cartridges in his gun. The weapon weighed in at 9.73lbs when loaded with 8-rounds and 9.21lbs when unloaded. She held an overall length of 4.28 feet but this was substantially increased when fitted with a bayonet. The bayonet was still part of the modern battlefield and many military authorities still sided with the idea of "the longer the better" when it came to bayonets, expecting all combat to eventually be decided within close-quarters. The barrel added a length of 2.62 feet to the rifle receiver with integrated stock and featured 4 grooves with a right-to-left twist. Muzzle velocity was listed at up to 2,300 feet per second. Range was reported to be up to 4,500 yards but this was, of course, dependent on operator training and certain conditions. The tough construction of the rifle also made it the perfect launcher for the VB rifle grenade.
The Model 1886 was a strange mating of ideas into what as to be a "modern" rifle system. The Model 1886 allowed its operator the ability to target enemies at greater ranges than its contemporaries while at the same time carry a lighter type of ammunition. The standard French soldier armed with his Lebel M1886/M93 brought along anywhere between 88 and 120 rounds of ammunition. While the weapon also introduced the revolutionary smokeless cartridge, the internal makeup of the Model 1886 design was something of a reverse approach considering that in some short years to follow, better rifle systems would outclass the Model 1886. The tube magazine was something of a throwback to earlier 19th Century rifle design - most commonly associated with "Wild West" Winchester lever-action rifles and the like - an arrangement that dangerously fitted each live cartridge in a nose-to-base arrangement and thereby potentially increasing the chances of an internal explosion within the magazine tube. Several steps were eventually initiated to the design of the Model 1886 that reduced the chance of such explosions including a double primer cup design for French-issued ammunition. The acceptance of "clip-loading" rifles such as the .303 Lee Enfield of 1895 would replace the spring-loaded tube magazine in due time.
The Model 1886 entered service with the French Army in 1886, immediately replacing the single-shot Fusile Gras M80 Modele 1874 rifle. Production was handled by a variety of factories that included Manufacture d'Armes de Chatellerault (beginning 1887), Manufacture d'Armes de St. Etienne (early 1900s) and Manufactured 'Armes de Tulle (throughout World War 1). At the time of its inception, the Model 1886 put the French Army ahead of the competition at least in the short term, particularly when in comparison to its immediate neighbors still using black gunpowder rifles and with whom France would most likely be placed into combat against. Once in circulation, practical experience revealed several drawbacks of the base Model 1886. This resulted in the entire receiver being revised and reinforced. The rear site was also redesigned for the better and a hook was added to the muzzle. The bolt-head had a hole bored into its design to allow for the escape of gasses resulting from a ruptured cartridge. The resulting changes produced the new "Model 1886/93".
As the length of the original Model 1886 and the improved Model 1886/M93 left something to be desired by mounted (cavalry) troops and battlefield support personnel, the "Model 1886R35" was devised as a shortened form of the base long rifle. As the original rifle measured in at over 4 feet long, the Model 1886R35 created a more manageable battlefield tool. The new variant featured both a shortened forestock and barrel assembly as well as a new rear sight to compensate for the rifles reduced length - now listed at 37.20 inches, down from its original 51 inches.
The Lebel Model 1886 saw official service with the French Army from 1887 to 1936 though many were in circulation that it survived long enough to see combat into the Second World War (including use by the French resistance). While the Lebel of World War 2 was often of a cut-down length, the full-length Lebel rifle was available as reserve weapons. The Lebel was also used in actions encompassing the Boxer Rebellion and during the French colonial battles at the turn of the century.
The Lebel was eventually supplemented in French Army service during World War 1 by the clip-loading Berthier Rifle introduced in 1902, this being issued primarily to colonial troops. While a general upgrade to the Lebel and also making use of the 8mm Lebel cartridge, the rifle in its early form offered only a three-shot capability. This was a drastic detriment to the French soldier when his German enemy would be fielding a 5-shot Gewehr 98 rifle. Likewise, his British counterparts would make use of their 10-shot Enfield rifles. A later revision finally introduced a five-shot cartridge version.
Similarly, the 7mm Meunier Rifle became the product of a secret French program begun in 1909. The program's goal was to develop a new-generation, semi-automatic infantry rifle of accuracy and reliability. The weapon was officially introduced in 1910 as a Lebel replacement intended to take the field as early as 1914 but the beginning of World War 1 cancelled the plan for its mass production - the fear being that introduction of an entirely new weapon system on the eve of war would be detrimental to the defense of France.