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The Berthier rifles and carbines were a family of bolt-action small arms in 8mm Lebel, used in the French Army from the 1890s to the beginning of World War II (1940). After World War II, the Berthier carbine with a five round clip ( Mle 1890M16, 1892M16 and Mle 1916 "mousquetons" ) was again utilized by French Foreign Legion and some colonial infantry and cavalry units, including the French Spahis. Mle 1916 Berthier carbines were retained in some French law enforcement units (e.g. the "Compagnies Republicaines de Securite" or "CRS") until the 1960s. The Berthier weapons were invented by a French civilian engineer in the Algerian railways, named Emile Berthier, whose first short carbine designed to arm cavalry troops was adopted by the French Army on March 14, 1890. The preserved French records indicate that altogether in excess of 2 million Berthier rifles and carbines were manufactured by the French State manufactures supplemented by civilian industries.
Berthier Mousqueton (carbine), Mle 1890 and Mle 1892
The Berthier design began as the "Mousquetons Berthier" - a series of bolt action cavalry and artillery carbines with distinctly different actions from the Mle 1886/M93 8mm Lebel rifle. For instance the Berthier carbine's bolt lugs lock vertically into the receiver instead of horizontally as in the Lebel rifle. Berthier carbines were first issued in 1890 and 1892, and had been designed by Emile Berthier, an engineer at the French Algerian Railways,to be used with standard 8mm Lebel ammunition. The Berthier design was introduced as a replacement for the various aging Mle 1874 Gras single-shot carbines - still standard for French cavalry, artillery, and gendarme forces even after the introduction of the Mle 1886/M93 Lebel. Prior experiments with several carbine versions of the Lebel action proved unacceptably heavy and slow to load while on horseback. While retaining most of the bolt action's strong points, the Berthier carbine improved on the earlier Mle 1886 rifle by using a one-piece stock and a Mannlicher-style, charger-loaded en bloc 3 shot clip. These Berthier carbines were progressively allocated to all cavalry,artillery and gendarmerie troops during the 1890s.
Fusil Mle 1902 and Mle 1907
After the success of the Berthier carbines or mousquetons, two full-length Berthier rifles were introduced during the years preceding World War I. They were the fusil Mle 1902 ("rifle, model of 1902") and the fusil Mle 1907, which were issued respectively to Indochinese and Senegalese Tirailleur troops. Lighter and easier to handle and load than the Mle 1886/M93 Lebel rifle, the Berthier rifles proved more suitable for offhand shooting and easier to maintain in tropical environments. In comparison to the Mle 1886 Lebel, the Berthier's sights were also wider, higher and more substantial. Like their shorter carbine counterparts, these Berthier rifles also featured a Mannlicher-type 3-round en bloc clip-loaded magazine and used 8 mm Lebel ammunition. The Mle 1902 and Mle 1907 were made on special order and in small numbers (altogether about 5,000 rifles) by the Manufacture d'Armes de Châtellerault.
World War I and the Fusil Mle 1907/15
During World War I, a modified version of the 3-round clip Mle 1907 rifle called Fusil Mle 1907/15 was manufactured in large numbers (altogether 435,000 rifles) and issued to colonial troops, to the French Foreign Legion and to many minor allies (e.g. Russian Legion in France, Serbia, Greece, American Expeditionary Force African-American regiments detached to the French Army). It was also issued to some French regular infantry regiments after 1916 in order to bring relief to an endemic shortage of the Lebel rifle although well over 2 million Lebel rifles had already been produced between 1887 and 1917. Both the Manufacture d'armes de Saint-Étienne and the MAC (Châtellerault) were the principal state contractors for the Mle 1907/15 rifle. French civilian contractors ("Delaunay-Belleville","Continsouza" and "Manufacture Parisienne d'Armes et de Mecanique Generale") ) also participated massively in the industrial production of the Mle 1907/15 rifle.
Remington UMC also contracted to produce a French Army order for 200,000 Mle 1907/15 rifles. Although very well finished, the Remington order was rejected by French Government acceptance inspectors, who alleged that the rifles did not meet French barrel rifling and chamber dimensional standards. The contract was canceled after approximately half of the rifles were manufactured; and those rifles were sold on the private market. Rifles issued to American 'African-American soldiers of the US 93rd Division', were of French manufacture and not US made (B. Canfield, US Weapons of WW1). Many of these rifles subsequently appeared on the surplus market in the United States, often converted for hunting or sporting purposes. These rifles hold special significance to African-American historians.
In combat service, most infantrymen found the Berthier rifles and carbines, with their one-piece stocks and fast-loading en bloc magazine, to be an improvement. However, the limited ammunition capacity of the Berthier Mle 1907/15's magazine (3 rounds) was viewed as a great disadvantage by troops in close contact with the enemy or participating in assaults or trench raids.
In response, French military authorities introduced a modified Berthier rifle in 1916, designated Fusil Mle 1907/15-M16 but generally called the 1916 rifle (Fusil Mle 1916). The new rifle had a five-round charger-loaded magazine. The Mle 1916 Berthier infantry rifle only appeared on the front lines in small numbers during the late summer of 1918. With its greater cartridge capacity, it was better received than the Mle 1907/15 rifle and later became widely issued to infantry troops during the post-war years after their production had intensified . Nevertheless, some commanders continued to lobby for reissuance of the older Mle 1886/M93 Lebel for their infantry troops. After World War I, the French Foreign Legion, which carried the 3-shot Mle 1907-15 during most of its post-1916 combat operations, was re-equipped with the older Mle 1886/M93 Lebel rifle.
The most successful and long-lived variant of the Berthier system was the short and handy carbine version of the five-shot Mle 1916 Berthier rifle, designated "'Mousqueton Berthier Mle 1892/M16". Contrary to the Mle 1916 Berthier five-shot infantry rifle whose manufacture had barely started during the late summer of 1918, the mass production ( over 800.000 "mousquetons" ) of the Berthier Mle 1916 five-shot carbines had begun much earlier, in May 1917, at the Manufacture d'Armes de Chatellerault (MAC) . The Berthier M-16 five-shot carbine immediately proved to be very popular with mounted cavalry, artillery, and reconnaissance troops. It was still in service with some French law enforcement units as late as the 1960s.
After World War I, the French military sought to replace the 8mm Lebel cartridge, which was poorly suited to large-capacity rifle magazines and to automatic or semi-automatic weapons. After considerable delay, a modern 7.5mm mle 1929 rimless cartridge was finally introduced for the FM 24/29 light machine gun. Berthier rifles were converted (Fusil Mle 1907/15-M34) or newly manufactured (Fusil Mle 1934) to make use of the new round. However, this was merely an interim measure, as the French Army adopted the MAS-36 as its new standard bolt-action rifle. In the end, the production of converted Mle 1907/15-M34 Berthier rifles was limited to approximately 80,000 units.
World War II
Despite the advent of the MAS-36, the French Army did not have enough of the new rifles for all of its forces. Berthier rifles and carbines remained in service and saw action in both France and Norway in 1940. Selected Berthier Mle 1907/15-M16 (Fusil Mle 1916) rifles were fitted with telescopic sights and used, along with scoped Mle 1886/M93 rifles, by marksmen detailed to serve with some French units. In September 1938, the French Army also introduced the corps franc, special formations of infiltration and deep reconnaissance soldiers formed into l'equipe or assault teams. These elite reconnaissance and infiltration troops were equipped with a variety of small arms, including a combat knife, a handgun, grenades, and Berthier Mle 1892/M16 carbines.
During World War II, the Third Reich issued plenty of captured Berthier carbines to German occupation forces in France, mainly to Atlantic Wall units. Some were used by police units fighting partisans in various eastern European countries including security units operating at the rear of German front lines in Soviet Union.
After World War II, most Berthier rifles were retired, except for some rifles held by indigenous units and reserve forces. However, the Berthier carbine with a five round clip ( Mle 1890 M16, 1892 M16 and Mle 1916 "mousquetons" ) was again utilized by French Foreign Legion and some overseas colonial infantry and cavalry units, including the French Spahis, French motorized cavalry units, and frontier border guards. Berthier carbines were retained in some French law enforcement units (e.g. the "Compagnies Republicaines de Securite" or "CRS") as late as the 1980s.
In the late 1940s, Turkish Forest Service began issuing three-shot Berthier carbines, altered to utilize a full-length Mannlicher-style stock. These rifles, known to collectors as "Turkish Forestry Carbines", were used to protect the Caucasian walnut forests from illegal logging.
- Claude Lombard, "La manufacture Nationale de Chatellerault",1987, Brissaud a Poitiers, ISBN 2-902170-55-6
- Bruce N. Canfield, US Infantry Weapons of the First World War, Copy right Bruce N. Canfield 2000, Andrew Mowbray, Inc- publisher ISBN 0-917218-90-6, Page 95-98
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