How to Get More Rifles Fast: France, WWI

One of the universal misconceptions about World War One on the parts of its combatants was how long it was expected to last. When war broke out, the prevailing assumption on all sides was that the conflict would be short – troops would all be home by Christmas of 1914. The meat grinder of trench warfare stalemate was not anticipated, nor the horrific toll such warfare would take on the men and armies participating.

The euphemistic term for men and equipment being blown into unrecognizable pieces was “wastage” – and even as early as the autumn of 1914 wastage was consuming as many as 40,000 rifles per month. This led to a huge pressure to equip soldiers on the front lines, with a combination of a growing army as more troops were recruited and conscripted and the loss of rifles to combat. The primary rifle of the French army at this time was the M1886 R93 Lebel, which was a reasonably expensive and time-consuming weapon to produce. Not really a big deal during peacetime, but the sudden demand for rifles far outpaced production capacity. So while that production capacity was increased, other solutions had to be found.

One major solution was to take away the Lebel rifles from troops who didn’t really need the best weaponry (POW camp guards, drivers, some artillery crews, etc), give them a substitute rifle, and send their nice new Lebels to the front. Of course, you would ideally want those substitute rifles to use the same standard 8x50R ammunition as the Lebel. Two of the most common solutions were the Remington Rolling Block and the Mle 1874 Gras.

Mle 1914 Remington Rolling Block

France (along with dozens of other nations) had issued Remington Rolling Block rifles in the late 1800s, when the RRB was one of the most prolific military rifles on the planet. As a single-shot black powder rifle, they had few major competitors on the commercial market. Well, in 1914 the arms production capacity of the Remington company was available to anyone with money. The Rolling Block was obsolete by this time (Remington had ceased production of all but the rimfire models), but the tooling was still there and the design remained inexpensive, robust, and reliable. In November 1914 the French government placed an order for 100,000 of the rifles (including some carbines) in 8mm Lebel, with wooden upper handguards and bayonets.

These would prove to be the only single-shot rifles manufactured new for use in the Great War. The first deliveries began in March 1915, and by June of that year Remington was producing 500 per day. The entire contract was delivered on schedule by early 1916. These Remington rifles were marked a bit differently than typical French-production military arms. They were serial numbered on the stock and the barrel only (and this was done upon receipt in France, not by Remington), and some inspections like confirming parts interchangeability with other manufacturers was skipped (since Remington was the only manufacturer). The one identifying mark from Remington (aside from the patents marked on the tang) was “CAL 8MM” stamped on the barrels. These were the only smokeless-powder 8mm Rolling Blocks made, and thus are fairly easy to identify upon inspection.

The bayonets provided had 405mm blades per French requirement, but were otherwise basically identical to the bayonets Remington had manufactured for military Rolling Block contracts in past decades. After the end of WWI, the Rolling Blocks remained in inventory, and some – including the one photographed below – remained there at least into the 1930s, as evidenced by it’s “N” chamber conversion.

Mle 1914 Remington Rolling Block in 8mm Lebel:

Mle 1874 M14 Gras

Another major source of substitute standard rifles for the French early in the war was the conversion of 1874 Gras rifles. Originally chambered for the 11x59mm black powder cartridge, there were a lot of Gras rifles sitting in inventory in 1914. In order to modernize them for the 8mm Lebel cartridge, a somewhat unusual plan was devised. Rather than bore out and sleeve the existing barrels, brand new Lebel barrels and sights were fitted to the Gras receivers. Presumably the barrel production capacity for the Lebel exceeded the overall rifle capacity, and excess barrels could be siphoned off to projects like these conversions with impacting overall rifle production.

One consequence of using Lebel barrels, however, was that they had a significantly smaller outside diameter than the original 11mm barrels. This meant that pieces like the front barrel band would not fit without modification. The solution to this problem was to cut off the front few inches of the old 11mm barrels, bore them out, and fit them over the new Lebel barrel. This allowed the front band and the front end of the stock to fit as originally designed, and it also meant that the front sight and bayonet lug from the Gras could be reused, reducing production costs (and allowing the use of existing Gras bayonets rather than requiring additional new Lebel bayonets).

Some of the Gras rifles in inventory were in fact conversions from the even earlier Mle 1866 Chassepot needle rifle, and so 8mm conversions can be found marked both as Mle 1874 and as Mle 1866-74. Virtually all of these rifles would have been updated to the 1880 pattern (which improved gas venting, among other things), and will thus also be marked “M80” on the right side of the receiver. The 8mm conversions can be identified by an additional “M14” stamp on the left of the receiver as well as the use of the Lebel style rear sight and a wooden upper handguard.

As with the Rolling Blocks above, M14 Gras rifles were put into storage at the end of the war and some remained at least into the 1930s. The one pictured below has been converted to the “N” chamber in the 1930s, and also painted with black enamel (another 1930s practice).

It should be noted that while the Rolling Blocks were designed from specifically for smokeless powder modern cartridges, the Gras is a single locking lug design not intended to high pressure ammunition. It was deemed safe enough by the French, but present-day collectors and shooters would probably be well advised to inspect them carefully prior to fiting, and consider using only light handloads – or not shooting them at all. Definitely don’t use surplus Balle N machine gun ammunition.

Mle. 1874 Gras converted to 8mm Lebel: