Object Title

Modèle 1886/93 'Lebel' rifle and bayonet

Modèle 1886/93 'Lebel' rifle and bayonet


Though relatively low-powered by later standards, the Lebel had been revolutionary in 1886. It used smokeless powder formulated by chemist Paul Vieille which burned hotter, faster and cleaner than 'black' powder. This enabled more powerful, accurate rifles that did not jam from fouling or give away the shooter's position with a cloud of smoke. This French 'Poudre B' was therefore ground-breaking.

The rifle itself is named, or more correctly nicknamed, after the designer of the bullet it originally fired. French Lieutenant Colonel Nicolas Lebel designed one of the first full metal jacket bullets for the new rifle. It had a flat nose to to solve the problem of the bullet igniting the primer of the round in front of it. This was an inherent problem with tube magazines, in which cartridges sit end-to-end. The problem came when the old round-nosed bullet design was being replaced by more aerodynamically efficient pointed bullets, known as 'Spitzer' from the German for 'spire'. This acute point could ignite the primer of the round in front and cause an explosion. Lebel took the compromise approach of squaring off the front of the bullet. Later, a groove was cut around the head of the cartridge case that would safely keep the point of the bullet in place, away from the primer. The 'M93' modification included a change to the bolt head that prevent hot gases from burning the firer's face if a cartridge case were to rupture.

Use and effect

Despite continuing development in French infantry rifles, the Lebel remained the primary weapon of the Poilu throughout the First World War. The more advanced 'en bloc' clip-fed Berthier series of rifles was restricted to colonial troops until after the War. Even faster than the charger clip system used with the Enfield or Mauser rifles, en bloc clips are held within the weapon until empty, then ejected. The older Lebel had the theoretical advantage over the Berthier in having a magazine nearly three times the size; the largest of any standard infantry rifle magazine issued at the time. The long tube magazine also kept the rifle slim. However, loading it was time-consuming and required fine motor skills that tired, stressed soldiers in the trenches might lack. It would have been necessary sometimes to resort to loading a single round into the breech, one at a time. With the Berthier's clip, multiple rounds could be inserted into the magazine in one motion, and in the same amount of time. The Berthier was held back only by the three round capacity of the Modèle 1907.

Once an updated version with a five round magazine was introduced in 1918, the Lebel became truly obsolete, but this was too late for the war effort. Soldiers affectionately renamed the rifle 'La Belle' (the beautiful), and its bayonet 'Rosalie', after a gruesome soldier's song by Théodore Botrel, the 'Bard of the Armies'. The latter, with its length and small cross-section, was a highly effective thrusting weapon, if more prone to breakage than a knife or sword design.


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Modèle 1886/93 'Lebel' rifle being loaded and fired into ballistic soap and being slam-fired on a the range.


Action / Operating system Bolt
Barrel length 80 cm (31.5 in)
Calibre / Bore 8x50mmR Lebel (.33 in)
Capacity (rounds) 8
Country of manufacture France
Date entered service 1886
Effective range 550 m (600 yd)
Feed Tube magazine
Manufacturer Chatellerault arsenal
Manufacturer Saint-Etienne arsenal
Manufacturer Tulle arsenal
Muzzle velocity 2400 m/s (730 fps)
Other operators Belgium
Overall length 1.3 m (51.2 in)
Primary operator France
Rate of fire (rounds per minute) about 12
Weight 4.18 kg (9.2 lb)


Jonathan Ferguson