The MAS 36 was a solid, if unspectacular, French Army service rifle appearing in small quantities before the start of World War 2. The MAS 36 owed its origins to a post-World War 1 French Army need for a new, more powerful man-stopping cartridge to replace the outdated 8mm mle 86 round. Studies ultimately led to the development of a new 7.5mm round and a new light machine gun system to fire it. Subsequently, attention turned to a new French Army service rifle which ultimately became the MAS 36. The rifle system saw decades of service with French military and colonial forces and was utilized by other parties throughout its decades-long existence. The system may still be found today in limited use and is easily identified by its peculiar bolt handle sporting an extreme forward angle.
Following the close of World War 1 in 1918, French authorities looked to replacing the 8mm mle 86 cartridge used throughout the conflict. The 8mm mle 86 had effectively met its day and proved ill-bred for use in the burgeoning automatic weapons market. Additionally, the French Army was on the lookout for a new light machine gun system to fill its inventory for the coming decades and the decision was made to first develop an effective cartridge for the system.
The 7.5x64mm cartridge appeared in 1924, itself based on the 7.92mm Mauser, and was accepted for service by the French Army. It was a "rimless" bullet system with potential from the start but evaluation by way of lengthy trials soon found it wanting and revisions were made necessary. The cartridge exhibited some unwanted characteristics under certain conditions and generally proved itself unsafe to field. After some modifications, a new version appeared in 1929 with a shorter overall length. After additional evaluation, the round was cleared for use and development of the aforementioned light machine gun soon followed.
With the cartridge in place and the light machine gun on its way, attention soon turned to thoughts of a new French Army frontline magazine service rifle to fire the 7.5mm round. After three more years of development, a prototype bolt-action rifle was unveiled only to suffer through more time in the requisite evaluation and testing phase. The rifle was given the designation of MAS 36 and production-ready forms were accepted and delivered to the French Army beginning in 1936. At the time of its inception, the MAS 36 became the last bolt-action rifle to be inducted into frontline service by any major world power, others instead choosing to upgrade their inventories with more modern "self-loading" types.
The MAS 36, like most any other bolt-action rifle of the time, still played heavily upon the successful Mauser system. The MAS 36 action, however, was a heavily modified version of the German design and required the bolt handle to be situated with a sharp forward angle. Unlike the Mauser, the MAS 36's bolt handle locked behind the magazine as opposed to within the breech aperture. This arrangement made for a shorter bolt stroke action but, at the same time, delivered a less powerful Mauser-style effect. Thusly, the short action necessitated the forward-angled bolt handle approach for ease of use by the operator. Like other French military service rifles, the MAS 36 was also designed and produced without any sort of safety catch to prevent accidental discharge.
Outwardly, the MAS 36 maintained a conventional rifle appearance with strong use of wood furniture against a steel body. The shoulder stock was integrated into the rear of the receiver with an ergonomic grip in tow. The grip allowed for proper handling of the weapon rear and allowed easy access to the ring-encircled trigger. The aforementioned bolt handle was fitted to the right side of the body and operated in a normal fashion, allowing the user to eject a spent cartridge casing and introduce a new cartridge from the magazine well. The five-round integral box magazine, chambered for the 7.5x54mm cartridge, was held internally and fed by "clips". Empty weight of the rifle was around 3.7 kilograms. The 4-groove, left-hand twist 575mm-length barrel sat within the forward frame detailed by a wooden forend, which itself was banded in two places - along the middle and at the extreme forend end. The forend also featured handy grip depressions along either side for a firm forward grip. The muzzle protruded a short distance away from the forend. An adjustable rear sight and fixed forward sight allowed for precision firing. In all, the weapon maintained a running length of 1,020mm while her muzzle velocity was rated at 2,800 feet per second with an effective range out to 350- and 400-yards through the open sights. In true World War 1 trench war fashion, a bayonet could be fitted into the forend under the barrel for close-quarters work.
Beyond the lengthy trial periods for both the new cartridge and rifle, the MAS 36 was further delayed into frontline service by lethargic production. Indeed, World War 2 would find France asleep, allowing the German war machine to more-or-less steamroll over half of the country but it is for consideration that the French nation was still reeling from the horrendous losses incurred during their first go-round with the well-trained German Army throughout World War 1. Four long years of brutal warfare took its toll on the once-proud nation. By 1939, only small contingents of the French Army were, in fact, armed with the new MAS 36 rifle. Stores of frontline rifles were so limited, in fact, that old World War 1-era rifles were brought back into contention by way of modification programs. By the time of the German invasion of France, the MAS 36 were available in some number but not enough to make much of a difference - however, there is little doubt that the outcome of the invasion would have been different.
From then on, the remaining MAS 36s in service were still being utilized by the fortunate few French Army personnel lucky enough to have been issued it prior to the invasion. These weapons were now put to use by French infantrymen fighting under the "Free French" banner when possible. Enough MAS 36 examples were also captured by the invading Germans who reconstituted the weapon into their Wehrmacht ranks as the Gewehr 252(f). Many of these were limited to guard duty on French soil however.
The MAS 36 rifle's official service run was from 1936 to 1978, making it - in some ways - a long-running success story by any firearm standard. Beyond use in World War 2, the weapon was notably featured in the upcoming Algerian War, the 1st Indochina War and in the Suez Crisis. Many former French colonies continued use of the rifle after World War 2 and the rifle also came back into official use by the French Army during the rebuilding years. Surplus stocks were eventually retained by the French government for formal ceremonial duties some years later.
While the base designation of "MAS 36" represented the original production form rifle, the MAS 36 CR39 became a slightly modified, short-barreled version of the MAS 36 service rifle but made compact for use by French airborne troops. In addition to the shorter barrel, the type was constructed with a swiveling hollow aluminum butt that aided in compactness and portability of the weapon. However, the MAS 36 CR39 was produced in limited numbers. Later on, the MAS 36 LG48 was used to designation MAS 36 rifles with provisions for the 48mm rifle grenade launcher. These were utilized in the First Indochina War. Similarly, the MAS 36/51 was an MAS 36 rifle with provisions for the 22mm NATO standard rifle grenade launcher. The "Fusil modele FR-G2" was a modified form of the base MAS 36 for the Designated Marksman Rifle role (DMR). These were fitted with a Match barrel, harmonic compensator and telescopic sight for sniper duty.
Incidentally, the designation letters of "MAS" stand for the French-based manufacturer known formally as "Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Etienne".