The MAS 36, the French main battle rifle of the Second World War, has long carried the reputation that it was “never fired; only dropped once.” This slight is apparently based on the fact that the French Army was utterly defeated in the field by the German “blitzkrieg“ in the May and June of 1940.
However, that statement forgets that the MAS Modèle 36 still was used by various Free French forces throughout the world, and remained in use as a training rifle all the way until 1978. Thus it not only overlooks the fact that many Frenchmen fought on, but also that the rifle was durable and reliable.
The MAS 36 saw action in many far-flung conflicts, including the First Indochina War and the Algerian War—where yes, France did end up on the losing end again. Yet France’s enemies still liked the rifle, as captured stocks were used in the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Civil War, proving that it is still the man carrying it that has to do the fighting. In the deserts of North Africa and the jungles of South East Asia the MAS 36 was more than up to the task.
Ironically, it wasn’t designed with either the desert or jungle in mind. It was actually meant for the war that France had fought and won earlier in the century—namely World War I. The MAS 36 was first adopted in 1936 by the French military, which looked to replace the Berthier and Lebel models of rifles. It was produced by Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS), as the Modèle 36, and was designed to be chambered for the modern, rimless 7.5x54 French cartridge, which was a shortened version of the 7.5x57mm model 1924 cartridge.
As noted, the designers remembered the horrors of trench warfare in the Great War (World War I), and the MAS 36 was designed to address the shortcomings of the earlier Berthier and Lebel service rifles. Most notably the MAS 36 was much shorter and lighter than those rifles of the previous generation.
Despite the fact that the French army might not have been up to the task to beat the German Wehrmacht in the early summer of 1940 does not take away the fact that the MAS 36 has maintained a reputation as one of the most robust rifles of the era.
First World War Influences
It should be noted that Germany, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and even the United States essentially entered World War II with rifles that were little more than updates of their respective First World War rifles, France actually looked forward. This is notable that the MAS 36 was meant to be shorter and lighter—clearly, the designers expected a repeat of the trench warfare. This no doubt helps explain why the French political planners invested so heavily in the Maginot Line from 1930-40.
While the Maginot Line—which was costly to build and even more costly to maintain—actually accomplished little as the Germans flanked it during the 1940 Blitzkrieg, the military planners did create not only a new rifle but a new cartridge to go with it.
This somewhat radical approach began in the early 1920s when the French, who were among the first to adopt smokeless rifle ammunition in the form of the 8mm Lebel cartridge in 1886, developed a modern, rimless cartridge for a new light machinegun in the 1920s. The first result was the 7.5x57mm cartridge, which proved to be unsuccessful. This however led to the 1929 7.5x54mm round—the Cartouche Mle.1929C—to be used with the new MAC 1929 light machine gun.
From this, the French military explored new designs for a battle rifle and the result was the MAS 36. It was designed with many features for issue to a large, quickly trained army of conscripts—which is noted in that it is very rugged. It was also designed to be shorter than the other rifles of the era.
The French designers apparently liked what they had seen with the British Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Mk III, which had been introduced in 1907 and was the main British rifle in use during the outbreak of World War I. At 44-inches it was considerably shorter than the French Lebel Model 1886, which came in at nearly 52-inches. In the tight confines of the trenches, the SMLE had a clear advantage, and Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne managed to reduce the MAS 36 to just over 40 inches in total length.
As with the SMLE, the MAS 36 featured a short barrel along with locking lugs at the rear of the bolt. This was to minimize the effects of dirty conditions, something that the French had experienced during the fighting in the trenches.
The MAS 36 features an internal five-round box magazine. It also features a manually operated, magazine-fed, rotating bolt action rifle design. The rotating bolt, which locks into the receiver walls, incorporates two opposing lugs located at the rear of the bolt body. The bolt handle is located at the rear of the bolt and is notable in that it features a bent forward design—with the intention being to provide a more comfortable operation, despite the fact that it looks rather awkward.
This design was reportedly devised to move the handle closer to the shooter’s firing hand, with the goal of faster and smoother cycling action. The reports from soldiers firing it are that the rifle does have a smooth action, but whether it cycles any faster than other bolt action rifles of the era is certainly open to debate.
The MAS 36 features a rather short barrel of just 22.6 inches, and the rifle is fitted with a large aperture in the rear along with a front post for sights. The rear peep diopter sight is comparable to the SMLE, and is marked from 100 to 1,200 meters in 100-meter increments. The planners likely realized that few soldiers were going to be true marksmen with this particular rifle and went with the concept KISS—keep it simple stupid.
The rifle also features two-piece stock with a slab-sided square-shaped receiver that is machined from steel and which contains the internal magazine. The stock thus includes a buttstock and forend, both of which are connected to the uncovered receiver in the middle of the rifle.
The magazine is loaded utilizing charging clips or single rounds. The clip guides are machined into the receiver bridge. The French military planners also clearly had conscripts in mind when devising the MAS 36. It is reportedly not an easy rifle to service, nor was it intended to be one that could be easily worked on in the field. Soldiers were responsible for the basic cleaning, and when kept relatively free of dirt the rifle responded accordingly.
Unique among French rifles of the era is that the MAS 36 does not feature any type of safety mechanism. Once a round is in the chamber there is no safety. The theory is that soldiers behind the line could carry a lighter weapon that was unloaded, and when approaching combat could load the magazine but leave the chamber empty until necessary.
This follows the French doctrine that called for soldiers to fire at the command of their respective officers and fire as a group, rather than firing at will. There was also the thinking at the time that safeties might be a hazard in a battle and that it could get stuck due to mud and dirt. While this might seem rather dangerous by our modern standards, even the conscripts would have been drilled to avoid negligent discharges. French troops were also taught to cycle the bolt twice and even visually inspect that the chamber was empty when ceasing fire as a way to ensure that there were absolutely no rounds left.
If the rifle did have a round in the chamber, there was a type of safety in which the shooter raised the bolt handle slightly, but this practice was widely discouraged.
The other unique characteristic of the MAS 36 is that despite or because of the role the bayonet had played in the trenches, the French military planners saw that a socket bayonet would be an improvement over the traditional sword-style bayonet. There is also the consideration that sword bayonets were expensive to produce and were typically not used.
The MAS 36 solved the latter problem and ensured that soldiers also had the bayonet as long as they had the rifle, as it was positioned in a tube directly below the barrel in a reversed position when not in use. When needed it could be pulled out and reattached in the same tube and removed the need for French soldiers to have a scabbard. At 17 inches the spike bayonet would certainly make a point when needed!
World War II and Beyond
The MAS 36 was used throughout World War II by the Vichy French and Free French forces, and as such likely may have been one of the rare cases where both sides utilized the same rifle in combat during the war. However, due to budget constraints—again the French had that Maginot Line to pay for—MAS 36 production had been limited, so that at the outbreak of war many colonial units and even some units in France were still equipped with the Lebel rifles. The MAS 36 was often reserved for front line troops, where many were captured by the Germans.