The MAS-49 Was the Foreign Legion’s Favorite Rifle
France’s stalwart postwar weapon still shows up in Syria
by JON MORGAN BARTH
In 1957, the French army was hurting. Still reeling from the painful defeat in Indochina and the debacle of the Suez Crisis, France found itself embroiled in counterinsurgency operations in Algeria, battling the Algerian National Liberation Front for control of the country.
The French armed forces’ experiences in Indochina showed the glaring need for a new, domestically-made rifle. Fighting Vietminh forces armed with auto-loading SKS rifles or submachine guns, French troops — themselves armed with a motley collection of weapons ranging from the bolt-action MAS 36 to American-supplied M1 carbines and Garands — often found themselves outgunned.
A small number of the French troops, however, were armed with the MAS Mle.49, a dependable and accurate self-loading rifle. The weapon earned a reputation for being dependable and hard-hitting — especially in the hands of the Commandos Marines, France’s elite naval infantry, who were widely issued the rifle in Indochina.
The Mle. 49 was an evolution of the earlier MAS Mle.1944 and Mle. 1940, France’s attempts at arming its forces with a rifle comparable to the American M1 Garand. Despite the string of promising designs, it proved easier to simply acquire American M1s through the Military Assistance Program and continue issuing the MAS-36, whose manufacturing and maintenance costs were half those of the auto-loading designs.
Following the withdrawal from Indochina in 1954, the French armed forces went through extensive restructuring. The far-reaching American material and financial support was beginning to dry up, making efficiency, professionalism and innovation the orders of the day. With these changes came a the fulfillment of the decades-old desire for a new, universal rifle for French troops.
The new MAS-49/56 was a shorter, handier version of the Mle.49, built around the requests and suggestions of troops in the field. A major inspiration for the new rifle was the Berthier Carbine of 1916, a compact and accurate rifle whose design drew from the lessons French troops learned in the trenches of World War I. The Berthier combined stopping power with ease of maintenance, along with offering the ability to fire rifle grenades. The 49/56 attempted to incorporate all of these important elements into a more modern battle-rifle.
With a shorter barrel and hand-guard, the 49/56 managed to shave off a pound-and-a-half of weight, along with helping to balance the awkward length of the Mle.49. A new, combined rifle grenade launcher and muzzle break helped to cut down on both recoil and muzzle flash, making quick-snap shooting much easier.
The 49/56 was an effective weapon for designated marksmen, as well. Beginning with the Mle. 49, the French placed a rail on the left side of the receiver, ensuring that rifles could easily mount the standard Modele 1953 APX optic, which was issued on the platoon level. Chambered in the proven French 7.5-by-54-millimeter round and operating on a direct-impingement gas system — similar to the Eugene Stoner’s AR system — the 49/56 quickly proved its reliability in the harsh mountain and desert climates of the Algerian interior.
The 49/56 had several features that made it a favorite of the troops who used it. Firstly, the detachable 10-round magazines that fed the rifle were secured by a clip on the side of the magazine, rather than simply locking into place when placed in the magazine well. This allowed the shooter to quickly and smoothly clear a finished magazine with one hand. Stripper clip guides machined into the front of the bolt carrier allowed a soldier to top up a magazine easily during lulls in combat, as well.
Soldiers found a number of additional functions for the small spring clips, using them to secure extra magazines to the bands around helmets or the shoulder straps of rucksacks and webbing. Unit armorers found that one could solder the clips to the larger magazines of the dated — though often-issued — FM24/29, bumping the magazine capacity up to 25 rounds.
The other popular feature of the 49/56 was the ability to fire standard NATO rifle grenades. France has had a special relationship with the rifle grenade since World War I, where French troops made wide use of them to bring firepower to the trenches. Latter versions of rifle grenade and primitive grenade-launchers built around the Lebel rifle soon became a fixture in French colonial campaigns.
Decades later, these lessons applied again, allowing otherwise lightly-armed paratroopers or infantry to dominate the rocky terrain of the Algerian mountains where the majority of combat took place. Troops carrying 49/56 rifles and rifle grenades were able to bring a good deal of fire power into combat without needing to lug bulky mortars around or coordinate with distant fire-bases for support.
Battle doctrine called for a combination of precise rifle fire and rifle grenades to eliminate Algerian guerrillas pinned down by FM 24/29 or AA52 machine guns. Grenades were easy to aim. Simply flip up the launcher sight situated in front of the rifle’s gas cut-off, then line up the target.
The MAS-49/56 would go on to serve admirably until 1979, seeing action in Algeria, Chad and famously in the Foreign Legion-led rescue mission at Kolwezi in Zaire in 1978. Production of the rifle ended the same year, and it had fully passed out of service by 1990, replaced by the well-known FAMAS assault rifle.
The 49/56 lives on, though, with a great number having made their way to the American civilian market both in the weapon’s original 7.5-by-54 caliber and also re-chambered in the more-common .308 round. Earlier Mle. 49s have even been spotted in the hands of rebel groups in Syria, whose armed forces purchased 6,000 of the rifles decades ago.
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