What Went Wrong with the 1886 Lebel Rifle?

It deterred the Prussians and was supposed to be among the finest rifles in any contemporary army – so why did the 1886 Lebel rifle fare so poorly? We (well, Mike the Mook) will explain in today’s Weapon Trivia Wednesday.

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If there was ever a rifle that had the potential to be the best service rifle in history yet ended up being one of the worst, it would be the 1886 Lebel rifle and its offspring in various carbine formats.

1886 Lebel Rifle
1886 Lebel Rifle – not as good as they expected.

The best?

In one of those rare moments in firearms history, two advances in technology converged at the same time which would change the future of ammunition forever.

1886 Lebel Rifle
1886 Lebel Rifle – it kinda started with Captain Eduard Rubin.

Captain Eduard Rubin (of the K-31 Schmidt-Rubin rifle fame) invented the Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) rifle bullet in 1882. This allowed a projectile to be launched at high velocities that would melt a lead bullet.

Two years later in 1884 Paul Vieille, a French scientist, invented a primitive form of smokeless powder from stabilized nitrocellulose (also known as gun cotton). This had been had been used in cannons and field artillery for at least three decades, but was considered much too powerful for use as a black powder substitute in small arms of the day. Vieille developed a stable version by making it with lower concentrations of acids and lower temperatures during the mixing process.

His invention was three times as powerful as black powder and left little to no residue after ignition. It was known as Poudre B, which was short for poudre blanche or “white powder,” and resembled grayish white specks or flakes of paper.

French war minister General Georges Ernest Boulanger ordered the urgent application of these two technical breakthroughs in the the design of a new infantry rifle for the French Army. A team led by General Baptiste Tramond and Colonel Basil Gras developed the rifle by adopting Gras’ earlier 11 mm black powder rifle and straight wall cartridge to a necked down 8×51mm rimmed cartridge that became known as 8×50mmR Lebel.

Lt Col Nicolas Lebel designed the actual bullet, made of cupro-nickel with a lead core that weighed 232 grains. Launched by 46 grains of Poudre B, it boasted a muzzle velocity of 2000 fps and a maximum range of 3500 yards.

The 1886 Lebel Rifle
1886 Lebel Rifle – and a little friend.

Initially the rifle was known as the Tramond-Lebel, and it proved to be a capable and sturdy weapon in field testing. Full issue of the Lebel happened just after France’s rival, Prussia, had adopted the Mauser M-71/84. After witnessing the performance of the Lebel rifle at tests at Spandau, Foreign Minister of Prussia Otto Von Bismarck called off plans for an imminent war with France.

So we’re looking at smokeless powder, an FMJ bullet and a bottlenecked rifle cartridge nearly two decades before the Boer war.  Plus, its range and accuracy scared off a Prussian invasion.

What could possibly go wrong? Just about everything.

Let’s start with the magazine tubes. Yes, these rifles used a magazine tube like you would find on a lever action carbine or pump action shotgun. Those might have made the difference if France’s enemies were rolling out with single shot rifles, but by 1888, the Prussians were fielding Mauser bolt-actions with an internal box magazine that could be fed via stripper clips.

The 1886 Lebel Rifle
1886 Lebel Rifle – if something could go wrong with this design, it did. 

So while Pierre was fumbling in his ammunition pouches for loose rounds to insert through the top of the receiver into a tube set below the barrel, Hans on the other side of the line was loading five rounds via stripper clip. The long tubular magazine also changed the balance of the rifle while it was being fired, and could be rendered inoperable if dented or damaged. By the end of the First World War, it was obvious that France needed a new rifle.

Unfortunately, the investment made by the French Government into the rifle and ammunition coupled with a post-war economic disaster precluded them from making any changes. While superior rifles were being developed around the world, France retained its stockpiles of now-outdated Lebel rifles well into the 1940s when they were invaded by the Germans in a little dust-up known as the Second World War.

The 1886 Lebel Rifle
Close in on it. Still a handsome gun.

Many of these rifles hit the surplus market, and modern ammunition is made by Privi Partizan. However, these rounds lack the groove around the primer pocket to trap the tip of the conical bullet in order to prevent slam fires. So if you find one of these gems, it’s pretty much going to be a single shot deal at the range with modern ammo.

The Lebel rifles “shoulda been a contender,” but in the end, they only proved how not to build a service rifle.

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Mike Searson

Mike “the Mook” Searson is a veteran writer who began his career in firearms at the Camp Pendleton School for Destructive Boys at age 17. He has worked in the firearms industry his entire life, writing about guns and knives for numerous publications and consulting with the film industry on weapons while at the same time working as gunsmith and ballistician. Though seemingly a surly curmudgeon shy a few chromosomes at first meeting, Searson is actually far less of a dick and at least a little smarter than most of the Mad Duo’s minions. He is rightfully considered to be not just good company, but actually fit for polite company as well (though he has never forgotten his roots as a rifleman trained to kill people and break things, and if you look closely you’ll see his knuckles are still quite scabbed over from dragging the ground). You can learn more about him on his website or follow him on Twitter, @MikeSearson. [huge_it_gallery id="19"]


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