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GUNS Magazine February 2012 Digital Edition - Page 28

HOLT BODINSON The world’s first smokeless powder arm. the revoLutioNary LeBeL O ne of the most revolutionary cartridge-rifle combinations ever to sail down the milsurp stream is the French Lebel. “Revolutionary,” you say? You thought the only revolutionary development in France was the French Revolution, not sterling small arms? Ah, but you’re wrong. The Lebel Model 1886 was the first rifle chambered for a smokeless powder cartridge, the 8x50R, commonly known as the 8mm Lebel, for you see, the French developed smokeless powder in 1885 and a few months later, fielded their new cartridge. It was a revolutionary development in the 1885-1886 period, potentially shifting the balance of power overnight in Europe and quite unsettling to France’s Germanic neighbor. The military ramifications from France’s development of smokeless powder were enormous. No longer was an infantryman’s position given away by a bloom of white smoke. No longer was the frontline’s vision of the enemy obscured by a pall of black-powder smoke. No longer did rifles have to Many of the long, heavy 8-shot Lebel rifles were cut down into 3-shot carbines. be cleaned nightly. Most importantly, smokeless powder, leaving minimal fouling in the bore, facilitated the development of smallbore cartridges with jacketed bullets, working at higher pressures, delivering velocities over 2,000 fps, producing flatter trajectories and extended ranges. The advent of smokeless powder also made possible for the first time the development of the machinegun as a practical design. Both the 8mm Lebel cartridge and the 1886 Lebel rifle had their Gallic quirks. The 8x50R cartridge was derived from France’s 11x59R Gras cartridge. Refashioning an 11mm case into an 8mm created a large rimmed, steeply tapered case with a very squat and dumpy appearance. Yet, it worked in rifles and machine guns from 1886 to 1929 when it was officially replaced by the French 7.5x54mm rimless cartridge, but in fact continued to be in use through WWII and beyond, as well as serving as a big game cartridge in milsurp Lebels and Berthiers. The Model 1886 rifle was not as revolutionary as the cartridge it fired. The rifle was largely designed by the French arsenal at Chatellerault and produced there as well as at the government arsenals of St. Etienne, St. Denis and Tulle. The Lebel design was in part derived from the Austrian Kropatschek rifle, which was used by the French Navy and featured a fulllength tubular magazine, and a bolt design derived from France’s M1874 Gras rifle. With the development of smokeless powder, General Boulanger, the French Minister of War, ordered the immediate design of a smallbore rifle to be ready for trials in 90 days. Fortunately, Chatellerault had already developed an advanced prototype for a new infantry rifle, so the pieces began to fall in place. Lt. Col. Nicholas Lebel, commandant of France’s Ecole Normale de Tir (the army school dedicated to the improvement of small arms and marksmanship), was selected to serve on the trials commission. The name, “Lebel” has been associated with the rifle and the cartridge ever since. To handle the higher pressure of the smokeless powder, the existing Kropatschek/Gras design was strengthened with the addition of a detachable bolt head that both enclosed the case rim and carried two frontlocking lugs that locked horizontally into recesses in the Lebel’s distinctive, 2-piece stock and receiver. Held in place on the bolt with a single machine screw, the Lebel detachable bolt-head design permitted the ready regulation of headspace in the production process, but seems somewhat impractical Old Remington 170-grain softpoint ammunition has proven exceedingly accurate in all French arms Holt has shot. 28 W W W. G U N S M A G A Z I N E . C O M • F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 2

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