A French 1935A pistol and a 1950 general pattern holster. This example was made in 1950 which places it among the last to be produced. The 1935A was a well-designed and well-made pistol that would serve with French and German forces during World War II, and then later in the French colonial conflicts in Indochina and North Africa.
With the end of the First World War there was a serious assessment made concerning French small arms. As millions of rifles and pistols were placed into storage a general consensus was reached among military officials that French small arms were obsolete and in need of a complete overhaul. When it came to sidearms however, the French government was not quick to act.
There was interest in replacing the 7.65mm Ruby and the standby M1892 revolver, but no serious trials were held during the 1920s. Instead this period was used more as an examination and specification phase for the next French military pistol. One development that did occur during this time was a growing interest in the .30 cal. Pederson round.
In mid-1918 John Pederson had developed a method for converting a bolt action Springfield rifle into a semi-automatic carbine using his .30 Pederson cartridge. Pederson successfully demonstrated his modification, but before anything else was done the war had ended, and with it, all interest in the makeshift carbine. Although French inspectors had witnessed the Pederson carbine, they too had little interest in the weapon. The cartridge however, seemed to mesh nicely with ongoing French requirements concerning the development of a domestic submachine gun design, and as such, it was adopted and designated the 7.65mm Longue.
The French MAS-38 submachine gun. The selection of a cartridge for this firearm was to have a profound impact on the development of the SACM 1935A pistol.
Given that for logistics reasons it was desirable to chamber the new standard sidearm in the same caliber as the submachine gun, a new requirement was set down in 1927 calling for the future standard military sidearm to be chambered in 7.65mm Longue.
Finally, in June, 1933 an open competition was held by the French military based on a series of pistol specification laid down in the late 1920’s. It proved to be a crowded field of entries. Eleven pistols were submitted based on the 1927 requirements, while half a dozen more were submitted in calibers other than 7.65mm Longue. These were tested nonetheless.
The tests were thorough. After an initial 50 rounds to characterize the accuracy and muzzle velocity, another 950 rounds were fired without any servicing to gauge the durability of the firearm. A series of environmental tests to simulate field conditions and repeated firing under these conditions followed, as did basic maintenance and servicing evaluations.
Images from Charles Petter’s U.S. patent covering the basic design of the SACM 1935A pistol. Petter’s design was a locked breech, short recoil DA/SA pistol based on the Browning 1911. The sidearm incorporated a magazine safety, and an awkward hammer block safety that allowed the pistol to be carried safely with the hammer cocked. The entire hammer, sear, and trigger spring assembly could be removed as a single unit as with the Tokarev T-33, and the gun could be field stripped without any tools.
The results were tallied, and although no selection was made, a number of recommendations and additional requirements were presented to the manufacturers. Near the end of 1934 a new round of testing was announced for early 1935. This time there were only four entries: one from FN, one from Bonifacio Echeverria (Star), one from the French company MAS, and a design by Charles Petter sponsored by the Societe Alsacienne de Construction Mechanique (SACM).
A winner emerges
The following year the decision was made to select the Petter design as the winner, and SACM as the company to manufacture the sidearm which was now designated the Mle 1935A. Although a number of the foreign entries had done well, there was political pressure to award the military contract to a French company, which no doubt helped SACMs cause. But even without such efforts the 1935A was able to stand on its own merits.
Charles G. Petter, 1880-1953. Petter was a Swiss born engineer who had worked for Krupp before finding employment in Belgium in the mining industry. When the First World War erupted in 1914 Petter, who had already served as a Swiss infantry officer, joined the French Foreign Legion. He quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a Captain. Heavily engaged with his unit along the western front Petter was wounded on several occasions, and after one attack, was treated for gas poisoning. Known as a brave officer with numerous citations to his credit, the French Minister of Justice granted Petter French citizenship without waiting for the customary five year waiting period. After the war Petter worked for the Lewis Arms Company, a subsidiary of the famous Birmingham firm. During his spare time at Lewis Arms, Petter worked on a pistol design. When the company went bankrupt in 1933 Petter used the opportunity and his contacts at SACM to enter his pistol into the French military trials. Petter would go on to produce the MAS-38 submachine gun, and perhaps more importantly, a series of modification to the 1935A that would lead to the famous SIG P210 pistol.
Mechanically the pistol was a locked breech design based on John Browning’s M1911. The committee recommended a few changes such as strengthening the disconnector, but otherwise beyond an odd safety arrangement which was insisted upon by the military requirements, there was little to criticize. The 1935A was extremely well balanced, accurate, and given its overall construction, capable of handling a far more powerful round than the 7.65mm Longue (or .32 French). In fact, if there was any criticism at all regarding the firearm it was the caliber selected, which of course, was out of Petter’s hands.
France was a tumultuous political arena in the 1930s, and as such, concerns regarding French re-armament efforts frequently took back seat to other matters of state. The decade long delay to even select an official sidearm is testimony to this, and as it turned out production of the 1935A was no exception to this rule. Although officially selected, the contract to SACM for pistols was slow to materialize and it was not until October 1937 that SACM delivered 450 pistols for field testing. The following June SACM was directed to start full scale production, a decision no doubt aided by the storm clouds that were rumbling throughout Europe.
Between October 1937 and June, 1940 SACM manufactured 10,700 Model 1935As. These were distributed to different armories and naval facilities around France, and a sizable number of these pistols made their way into armor and infantry regiments before the Germans invaded France in May 1940.
The SACM factory in Mulhouse, France. At the time of the picture the building was being used by Alstom, a company created by a merger with a division of SACM and the Thomson-Houston Electric Company in 1928.
With the surrender of France the following month, SACM fell under German Heereswaffenamt (German Army Weapons Office) control. The switch to German wartime production at SACM took a little longer than first thought, but by October 1940 the 1935A line had been restarted under its new designation, Pistole 625(f). The Germans would keep production standards high with the 1935A and ultimately manufactured 23,850 pistols before the allied invasion halted further operations. Although there is no evidence, given its unusual ammunition requirements it is likely that the pistols were issued to local and coastal security forces. This would also explain the relatively small numbers produced as compared to German production of captured MAB-D, FN1922, and Cz 27 designs, all of which employed a more readily available 7.65mm Browning cartridge.
After the war
During their retreat the Germans did not badly damage the SACM factory, and by October 1944 the facility was once again producing pistols, this time for the French military. Unlike most firearms of the time, M1935A production was not affected by the armistice. In fact, production of the pistol increased dramatically as France found itself quickly embroiled in restoring its former colonial holdings. The demand for sidearms was so great that even German made 1935A pistols still in inventory when the allies resumed production are reported to have been sent to Vietnam as the French government there scrambled to reestablish their authority in the region.
General Marcel Bigeard (center) and a pair of French paratroopers in Indochina, circa 1954. The officer to the left is wearing a model 1950 leather holster suspended by a pair of D-rings from his canvas belt. Such a mixture of equipment was common for French troops of the time. Note the radio operator on the right is wearing a canvas spare magazine pouch on his belt. As the 1935A, 1935S, and M1950 were all used in Indochina during this time, any one of the three are likely to be found inside the officer’s holster.
Model 1935A serial numbers are laid out in blocks of 10,000 using an alphanumeric sequence starting with Axxxx and ending mid-way through Ixxxx. Fortunately, the Heereswaffenamt authorities, as they had in other cases, simply continued the serial numbers starting with B701. Thus, it is fairly straight forward to date these sidearms.
As far as markings are concerned, pistols fall into three broad categories: pre-war French production, German occupation production, and French liberation/post war production. Early French production displays a variation on the slide legend presentation in the form of larger, broader script, while German production units will have one of two possible Heereswaffenamt inspector markings, WaA655 (early production) or WaA251. By far, post war examples are the most common encountered, but these display little in the way of markings beyond the standard Mle 1935A, military acceptance stamp, serial #, and SACM markings on the left hand side of the gun.
Example of Model 1935A production numbers from 1937 to 1950. Note that production numbers for 1940 reflect the combination of French (1725 units) and German (1400 units) output. This is also true for the 1944 production numbers with 2385 pistols made under German occupation and an additional 650 pistols made after the liberation of the SACM plant. (Photo: Arundel Militaria)
Examples can be found in the $300-1000 range depending on condition and rarity, though ammunition can be quite expensive when you can find it.
End of service
The French military’s decision in 1946 to develop a new 9mm sidearm — which was not only a more effective round but would fit into the fledgling NATO arsenal — all but finished the 1935A. In February 1950 all production was officially halted on the pistol and shifted towards making parts for the 1935S pistol, which was to be continued until the new 9mm design was ready.
The 1935A however, was not quick to come out of French inventories. The sidearm, along with its 1935S counterpart, would remain in service up through the 1960s at which point they were passed on to police and security units, or simply sold out of service. In all, just short of 85,000 pistols were manufactured over the course of 13 years with the bulk of the production coming after the Second World War.
2e Bataillon Etranger de Parachutiste, (2e BEP) In Hanoi, circa 1953. The Foreign Legion battalion made up primarily of Vietnamese volunteers was created in 1948 and would spend the next several years fighting in Indochina. The officer in the foreground is wearing a model 1950 style canvas holster. Although this might well carry a M1950, given the units long standing service in the theater and the fact that M1950 production did not start in earnest until mid- 1953, it is just as likely that it holds a 1935A.
While it never reached any level of acclaim, primarily due to its .32 Longue chambering, the Mle M1935A was an elegant and reliable design that was better suited for a more powerful round. This last point was soon apparent, and while the French military was gravitating towards a new 9mm pistol design based on the M1935As primary competitor, the M1935S, the Swiss took a different approach.
After purchasing the rights to build the 1935A under license the Swiss firm SIG hired the pistol’s original designer, Charles Petter, to help rework the firearm. The result was the superb 9mm M1949 or SIG P210; one of the most renowned military handguns of ever made. When the French military held the competition for their new 9mm service pistol two of the three entries were from France, while the last was a commercial SIG P210, which oddly, had been entered without SIG’s knowledge. Not only did the SIG prove more accurate than the other competitors, but it proved more reliable as well. Even in the testing officers’ estimation the SIG was clearly superior.
A French radio operator in Algeria c.1956. This soldier is wearing and M50 type leather holster which at this stage of the conflict could hold a 1935A, a 1935S, or a MAC 1950.
The French military however, had already made up its mind, and the contract was awarded to MAC for what would become the French M1950; and just like the with the 1935A, the idea of a French company manufacturing the new French service pistol would once again become an overriding factor.
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