France began experimenting with self-loading rifle designs in the late 1890s, although most of this work is mostly unknown today. The work was done by the State arsenals, and kept as military secrets, without patents being filed or commercial sales considered. All sorts of systems were developed experimentally, including short recoil, long recoil, and direct gas impingements. The most successful result of the various programs was the A6 model designed by one Etienne Meunier. This rifle was approved for limited production in 1910, but the ever-present bureaucracy meant that by 1913, the production line was still being worked on at the Tulle arsenal.
Semiautomatic rifles were set aside when the Great War broke out in 1914, but when it became clear that the war would not be over quickly, weapons development came roaring back as a priority. The French put the Chauchat automatic rifle into production as a close support weapon, and were looking for a semiautomatic infantry rifle as well. The natural choice was the A6 Meunier, and its production tooling was finished in 1916 and 1013 rifles were built – with 843 of these being sent to the front for combat use.
Unfortunately, while the A6 was the best that had been available in 1910, it was not ready for the rigors of World War One combat. Tight clearances in the long recoil mechanism led to problematic reliability, and the use of a non-standard cartridge really hobbled the rifle. The A6 used a proprietary 7x57mm round (unrelated to 7mm Mauser). This cartridge was quite advanced at the time, and much better than 8mm Lebel, but given the logistic choice between a few hundred semiauto rifles and literally millions of bolt action rifles and machine guns, the 7mm Meunier cartridge was obviously untenable. The project was ended in the summer of 1917 when the RSC 1917 rifle began to come off production lines in substantial quantities.
Special thanks to Paul for letting me use his rifles! Check him out on Instagram!