The French infantryman was considered a bayonet specialist

Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Dunlap can’t resist poking some fun at the French:

The French infantryman was considered a bayonet specialist rather than a rifleman and as such was equipped with long bayonets and lousy guns.


The Lebel was one of the better-known bayonet handles of its day.


There were modifications of stocks and sights on all, and at least some carbines had an unusual front sight, which was a double blade affair, with open center — the mark was caught between the blades rather than over a single sighting point. It simplified holding over on stationary targets, but I do not think it would be much good on moving ones, or in bad light.

Above the bolt rifles, France had a semi-automatic rifle left over from World War I, the M1918, which I suspect would have caused a furor in infantry tactics had they perfected it a year or so earlier and if they had had the sense to use it as a rifle rather than a supporting weapon. For 1918 it was good; for 1940, not so good. It was a gasoperated five-shot autoloader, caliber 8mm Lebel.


I do not believe either was ever made in numbers, and they were dropped after World War I because they were too expensive! The French have always been “thrifty” folk.

On submachine guns the French were hopeless.


French machine guns were quite sad.


  1. Kirk says:

    Dunlap is just… Wrong. Well, at least, here.

    French weapons are not well-known; they tended to want to keep their stuff proprietary, treating them as though they were “secret sauce”, and it’s only in hindsight we see things as they were.

    I’ll grant him the bayonet thing–The French were in love with the thing, and believed deeply in the superiority of the bayonet in the attack. However, comma… Couple of things about that: One, the Lebel was the first mass-issue smokeless powder magazine-fed rifle. The French were out ahead of everyone else, and the sad fact is, that crippled them. In WWI, they were stuck with a weapon that was arguably a generation behind, because they could not afford to go to their successor weapon in the middle of the mess that was WWI. So, they muddled through. Subsequent to the Great War, they sat down and said “Let’s not do that again…”, and procured a most excellent light machinegun, the Chatellerault 24/29, a new rimless cartridge that was basically the 7.62mm NATO before the 7.62mm NATO, and were working on a family of bolt-action and semi-auto rifles. The bolt-action was the only one that made it to service before the roof caved in, the MAS-36, and the MAS-40 semi-auto was in the early stages of production during the opening of the war. The Germans, very fortunately, did not realize this fact, and the Allies did not have to face their own weapon turned against them, because the MAS-40 was, in my opinion, superior to the Garand. It certainly served longer, going through various improvements to take it all the way up to the 1970s. The MAS-49/56 was basically the same gun they were getting ready to mass-produce in ’40, and a most excellent individual weapon it was.

    Likewise, the Chatellerault LMG. That weapon served from the 1920s until the mid-1950s and a bit beyond, out in the hinterlands. It was a better BAR than the BAR, and damn near as good as the BREN. Only, because French, nobody but the Francophones know about it.

    I was just over at Forgotten Weapons, which is nearly as great a time sink as TV Tropes, and I commented that the French small arms seem to have a binary state: They’re either obscure and excellent, or they’re infamous and crappy. There’s no in-between.

    So, I think Dunlap is just like most Americans–Automatically dismissive of French small arms, mostly because the French had really crappy luck with where they were on the technological wheel. Had WWI happened just a few years later, there would have been a totally different suite of small arms carried by French soldiers, one of which may have been the first successful mass-issue semi-auto, and the same thing happened in WWII–Had the war been just a year or two later, France might have had a much different small arms record for that war, and they might have even done better.

    Alternatively, the Germans might not have issued their troops methamphetamines, and the Fall of France might not have played out quite the way it did. Small things matter…

  2. Paul from Canada says:

    I’m with you and Ian. French stuff is way underrated.

    Even the infamous failures are not so bad put in their correct context. Yes, the Chauchat was a piece of junk, but under the circumstances, it was actually pretty good.

    Look at the alternatives. The French realize that they need a portable automatic weapon for the infantry, and they don’t have one. Development takes time. They need it NOW. In fact they need ten thousand YESTERDAY! BSA is making Lewis Guns flat out for the British, so they don’t have the capacity, and the caliber is wrong, and they are expensive. Madsen won’t sell to belligerents. Hotchkiss Portatives are also slow and expensive to manufacture, and not very good. Enter the Chauchat. Ian described it as the STEN of WWI, and it should be evaluated in that context.

    The French had a rational plan, and a priority list. Cartridge first. Then a LMG to replace the Chauchat, and once that was done, new rifles (self loader for front line infantry, bolt action for the rear echelon and mobilization reserves), new pistol to replace all the Rubies, and a new SMG.

    The problem for them was money and politics. They went through so many changes of government, which complicated matters. Each time you got a new Minister of War, you often had to sell programs all over again.

    To top it off, the civilian government was very insecure and suspicious of the military. They were afraid that the Generals (conservative and Monarchist) might stage a coup, so deliberately kept them in check and starved them for money.

    The military wanted to increase the length of conscript service because demographics meant a shrinking manpower pool, but the government didn’t want civilians in the hands of the military for longer, lest they indoctrinate them with conservative monarchist and militarist ideas (not kidding!)

    Nick Moran over at Inside the Chieftain’s Hatch did a wonderful lecture on the development of the French Tank arm between the wars, and how this political reality affected their development. A lot of the criticism of the French Army in WWII is misplaced. Many of the weaknesses were known by the Army, and they were desperately trying to remedy them, but didn’t have the time or money or manpower, or political backing.

    The infamous Maginot Line, for example, was required because of the lack of manpower resulting from the demographic catastrophe of the Great War, and was never meant to be impregnable; it was to buy time for mobilization and offensive maneuver warfare by the new modern mechanized Army. Contrary to popular belief, it was also meant to eventually cover the whole eastern border, from the channel to the Med.

  3. TRX says:

    …and even the weird and crappy French small arms were successful in French North Africa, French Polynesia, and French Indochina. And for that matter, despire their technical drawbacks, they performed well enough against the Kaiser’s troops as well.

  4. Sam J. says:

    I came very close to buying maybe 2 or 3 of, I think, MAS-56′s. I remember they were going for around $150 out of shotgun news in the early 80′s. This was for NEW rifles, bayonet, two mags and sling. What a deal. The availability or unavailability of ammo made me not do it.

    If you watch the mil surplus you can find some awesome deals but they don’t last long. I bought 4 German entrenching shovels for $12.99 a piece. Tough tools.

  5. Paul from Canada says:

    Sam J,

    You may have had a lucky escape. Some of them were not such a good deal. A bunch were brought in by Century in the original 7.5mm French caliber, and they are fine.

    Unfortunately, 7.5mm French ammo was difficult to obtain. Old surplus was really old and starting to go dud and hangfire, commercial ammo was either unobtainable, or very expensive, so Century converted a bunch to 7.62/.308.

    The bullet diameter of the 7.5 French is .309, so close enough . The French round is x54mm, so a bit longer than the 7.62/.308, but not by much, and the magazine will still work. All Century did, was shave off a few millimeters off the back of the barrel to set it back the required amount, shorten the gas tube the same couple of millimeters, and run in a .308 chamber reamer, and voila.

    Unfortunately, the shorter gas tube, and different pressure curve of .308/7.62 NATO, meant that the case was still slightly pressurized when the breech unlocked. Combine that with rough chambers from re-using chamber reamers too many times before replacing them, and the 7.62 versions had a reputation for poor reliability and failures to extract.

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