MAS-36 & MAS-49 Rifles: Cutting-Edge French Military Firearms
When we think of military firearms history and the leaps that the fighting rifle has made over the past few centuries, France is not necessarily the country that comes to mind. However, history tells a different story. France was often on the cutting edge for developments in small arms, such as the bolt-action rifle, smokeless powder, brass-cased cartridges, and the mass deployment of semi-automatic rifles in WWI.
These two collector rifles – the MAS-36 and MAS-49 – showcase the direction that the French were planning on going prior to WWII. Progress was obviously impeded by the French capitulation in WWII, but these guns are still important milestones in French arms development. So, let’s take a brief look at what the French were working on with these two firearms.
WWI French Rifle Development
France was the first nation to develop and mass issue semi-automatic rifles to front-line military units during the Great War. The French RSC 1917 was a semi-automatic rifle chambered in 8mm Lebel that made its debut in the trenches of Europe. However, once the war ended, France realized that 8mm Lebel and the RSC were not the answer, even if it was on the right track.
After WWI, the French government decided that the future of the fighting rifle for the military should be semi-automatic, which could change the tactics and momentum of the battlefield. The other area they knew needed improvement was the 8mm Lebel cartridge that was an antiquated rimmed cartridge featuring a double taper.
The life of the MAS-36 began in the early 1920s after the French decided that they were moving toward the more modern and rimless 7.5 French round. The original idea was to just rechamber old Chassepot and Lebel rifles in the new cartridge. However, that became a rather impractical idea due to the designs of the rifles and tooling difficulties. This led to a push to develop a new rifle to serve as a stopgap until the semi-auto rifles could be produced.
Now, even though development started in the early 1920s, the rifle was not officially adopted until 1936, and it did not go into full production until around 1939. Due to this late implementation, it is sad to note that this is a bit of a forgotten rifle even though it was the main rifle of a major power during WWII.
By the time the French were invaded by the Germans, only a little over 200,000 of these rifles were fielded. The reason that this rifle was not fielded in greater numbers was that the French were still planning on issuing a semi-automatic rifle to their main troops, but that development was hindered by design delays and ultimately WWII. Thus, the MAS-36 was pressed into serious service during the war.
The MAS (Modèle) 1936
The MAS-36 is a shorter carbine-style rifle, replacing the heavier and longer style of rifles that were widely used in the 19th century and during WWI. The need for a longer barrel was diminished by the development of more modern smokeless powder and the advancement of tactics to move away from volley fire.
The 7.5 French cartridge allowed for a smooth and short bolt throw, with a strategically placed bolt handle aiding in quick cycling for follow-up shots. The receiver also fed off aluminum stripper clips that would drop rounds into the internal magazine that features a drop plate. This was a big improvement over the 1886 Lebel rifle that was loaded with one round at a time.
The iron sights are also an improvement over most 19th-century rifles and moved away from the tangent ladder-style sight mounted in front of the action. Instead, the MAS-36 used a rear aperture sight, which offered a longer sight radius. The hood on the end of the sight protects the front sight blade, and the elevation adjustable rear peep sight is perfect for riflemen moving away from synchronized volley fire.
The most ingenious aspect of the design was the bayonet, which is captive at the end of the muzzle so that the rifle and spike are never separated and are easily deployed. This design idea was even taken by the Germans, who literally took them off MAS rifles to use them in the design and deployment of the FG 42 rifle. For all of its modern features, the MAS-36 still hosted a forward-mounted stacking rod since it was still French military doctrine to stack rifles in a “tent” style while in camp.
The MAS-49 was the next generation of French combat rifles to take the RSC 1917 semi-auto concept and press forward with the newer cartridge in a lighter and handier platform. Again, while the French already knew in the 1920s that they wanted to move in this direction, the plan was not started until the late 1930s. Even when it was finally in production, the MAS-49 really had several variations.
The first and most notable generation of the rifle was the MAS-38/39 prototype rifle, which led to the MAS-40. Aesthetically the MAS-40 was identical to the MAS-36, feeding from a stripper-clip-fed, fixed five-round magazine with the only difference being a gas system instead of the manual bolt of the MAS-36. This version was ultimately delayed because of the dual production of this new rifle alongside the MAS-36 in the same factory. It was then halted by the French capitulation in 1940.
Since the rifle looked identical to the MAS-36, the French actually hid the parts and plans alongside the MAS-36, never tipping off the Nazis that there was a semi-auto rifle in development and production.
The next version of the design took place upon the liberation of France in 1944. Under the cloak of secrecy, the French continued to work on and develop the design of the rifle, replacing the MAS-40 fixed magazine design with the MAS-44, which doubled the capacity and featured a detachable magazine. However, this rifle did not really hit production until the end of 1945, missing the action of WWII.
The MAS-44 was not ever realized in the numbers that the original contract called for and was replaced by the MAS-49 in 1949. The MAS-49 featured a version of direct gas impingement that deposited the gas into a hollow chamber above the bolt, instead of depositing carbon and debris into the actual bolt-face of the rifle like the previous generations had been doing.
In 1956, the MAS-49 went through its final iteration, with the barrel shortened, elimination of the long wood handguard, and the reprofiling of the gas system to include a gas-cutoff feature. A custom barrel system to accommodate an accurate rifle grenade apparatus was also added along with windage adjustments to the sights, a scope rail, and a muzzle brake. These rifle upgrades created a unique profile that often included a rubber butt pad and occasionally a night-sight muzzle device that reduced muzzle flash and featured tritium sight dots.
The MAS-49/56 served for several decades until it was replaced by the FAMAS rifle in 5.56 NATO. Nevertheless, the MAS-49/56 is one of the coolest rifles of the 20th century, with so much history and development going into the idea and concept.
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