Rifles of the Foreign Legion, Then and Now

It has now been confirmed that Sunday night the French Foreign Legion conducted an air assault in Mali, parachuting into the northern suburbs of Timbuktu. Other French forces control the south, while indigenous troops native to Mali attempt to hold the east and west. The Al-Qaeda linked fundamentalist rebels who have held Timbuktu for ten months are now attempting  to “squirt” out of the city and bypass rings of roadblocks set up by French and Malian troops.

Apparently the French troops also enjoy playing Modern Warfare 2. Nice mask!

Apparently the French troops also enjoy playing Modern Warfare 2. Nice mask!

The last time the Foreign Legion performed a combat drop was also in Africa. In 1978 they dropped right into the middle of enemy held territory in Zaire to fight the battle of Kolwezi. At that time the standard issue service rifle was still the aging MAS 49/56, a semi-automatic rifle holding only ten 7.5x54mm cartridges. Although a sturdy rifle with good accuracy and reliability in harsh conditions, it hardly offered overwhelming firepower.

And the award for ugliest service rifle goes to...

And the award for ugliest service rifle goes to…

Many of the Foreign Legion troops opted to sacrifice the range of the MAS 49/56 in favor of greater firepower, and deployed to the Kolwezi mission carrying MAT-49 submachine guns. Holding 32 rounds of 9mm ammo and firing at 600 rounds per minute on full auto, effective range of the MAT-49 was limited to 100 yards or so, but since the Legion was dropping right into an urban area where house to house fighting was likely, the benefits of the MAT-49 outweighed the disadvantages.


With the magazine removed, the magazine well can be rotated forward for storage.

During the firefight that began even before the drop was completed, French snipers killed ten rebel soldiers from distances of around 300 yards with the FR F1, a brand new sniper rifle based on the old bolt action MAS 36 and chambered in the same 7.5x54mm caliber as the MAS 49/56. Surprisingly little is known about the FR series of rifles here in the United States, but they are said to be well liked and durable, if a bit heavy (over 11 lbs).

FR F1 sniper rifle was ahead of its time when introduced in the 1960s.

FR F1 sniper rifle was ahead of its time when introduced in the 1960s.

Fast forward 35 years and some equipment has changed quite a bit, but the precision rifles haven’t. French troops are now deploying to Mali with the FR F2, which is the same basic sniper’s rifle rechambered in 7.62 NATO and otherwise modernized with modern optics and a thermal shield covering the free floated barrel. The old service rifles and submachine guns have all been replaced by the bullpup FAMAS, known as Le Clarion or “The Bugle” by the troops. The FAMAS is an older gun now, but well proven. Holding 25 rounds of 5.56 NATO ammo, it fires in semi-automatic, three round burst, or fully automatic at a rate of 900-1000 rounds per minute. 

Airport Security at Timbuktu with an FR F2 and Le Clarion slung behind as backup.

Airport Security at Timbuktu with an FR F2 and Le Clarion slung behind as backup.

The FAMAS is also an integral part of the Felin system, which mounts a day/night imagery unit onto the rifle and pipes the picture to a monocle mounted on the soldier’s helmet. Unlike the USA’s abortive Land Warrior project, Felin is not a prototype but is actually deployed and proved very valuable in Afghanistan. A big fight may be brewing in Timbuktu, and the Felin equipped FAMAS rifles represent a real advantage over the iron-sighted Kalashnikovs of the fundamentalist opposition forces.

Felin equipped FAMAS rifle in action. Works just as well in the dark.

Felin equipped FAMAS rifle in action. Works just as well in the dark.

The Foreign Legion have come a long way from having to choose between a ten shot rifle or a 9mm submachine gun. How the new rifles fare in house to house fighting in Africa, the world may soon know.


  • Michael Pham

    Talk about height over bore with that Eotech…

    • Very true–kinda makes you wonder if he can hit anything

      • Michael

        Nah, designed for proper bore height when shooting from the hip.

        Word on the street is, John Rambo is very jealous.

    • milo

      makes you wonder about it’s weight

  • Jim

    For sale, never fired, dropped once.

    • PML

      I thought this kind of stupid comments weren’t permited on this fine blog. Moderator do your job please.

      • Michael Branson

        Meh. Let him own his ignorance.

      • I’m watching—- It’s not political or insulting to other readers Sometimes it’s better to let others read such questionable conclusions.

      • wetcorps

        I’m French and find those funny ^^

    • Billy Oblivion

      Dude, this is the legion. They’d smack that stupidity out of your mouth without putting their sandwich down.

      • tacticaltshirts.com

        I have to agree. They ain’t no conscript group. –TTR

    • Warhead84

      Go tell that to a legionnary big mouth, but I agree it’s better to say tupid thing hidden behind your computer.

    • forrest

      You stupid guy. For Christ’s sake, open an History book…

  • OmegaDR

    French Troopers are pound for pound some of the best in the world, right after the US, Canadians and Brits. But, the suffer from crappy National Leadership and field equipment. Look at the crap they have to work with.

    • schizuki

      I’d put the Israelis at or near the top.

      • Old Warhorse

        Oh really? Do some thorough research on the 2006 war. You are aware of the fact that the Israeli’s have made suicidal cuts in training and maintenance over the last 2 decades or so? The IDF is in dreadful shape my friend and it’s going down the very same drain as the SADF-to-SANDF transition…. Man for man UK, AUS, NZ, CA, NO, SE and DK troops are hands down the absolute very top best in the world. Just look at how long their extremely profound training lasts and how many years of current combat experience these highly skilled and developed guys and girls have. La Legion is somewhere in the middle. They’re certainly good, but not that outstanding as they are more of a policing/peace keeping force. The IDF is no where near the top let alone in the middle since it has zero expeditionary experience. It’s an underfunded civie policing/near the border screening ops force manned by underpayed, under-equipped and undertrained conscripts and reserves who seriously lack motivation, professionalism and discipline. The IDF wouldn’t last 5 minutes against say the Telemark Battalion -which albeit a newly established unit has proven itself to be excellent and has been in the sandbox now for 12 or so years straight-, Scots Guards,Princess Patricia’s Mounted, the RAR or even 2REP. Heck, even the Irish -who have no combat experience whatsoever- would rout them with ease as they are a highly professional, superbly trained, disciplined, skilled and not badly equipped at all lot. And besides that, life in the alarmingly unprofessional IDF sucks, let’s see what that does to morale…

        • aka_mythos

          The IDF conscripted units suffer from that but the professional service not as much. The problem with IDF is the same issue of any conscripted force, it becomes about numbers and not quality of training and arms.

          • Old Warhorse

            Not true. Look at Denmark, Sweden and Norway: Quality conscripts! The IDF just stinks as an organization. There is no ‘professional’ segment apart from Sayeret, Shayetet and the senior leadership (which will be retired within a few years from now). The IDF is in decay -it has been for over 10 years- and is rapidly declining to the standards of a levée en masse. Look what happened to SADF! The IDF is going the same way if the Knesset does not tun the tide and starts pumping some serious funds into the armed forces (you’ve got to hate them 1960’s era uniforms!), while trimming it and transforming it into an all-volunteer, well-funded and professional fighting machine. To stay on-topic: it’s the same thing with the Legion. It is seriously underfunded and not so well-equipped. The book has to be rewritten line by line and much of it’s hard-used equipment is simply worn out. The Frogs need to get their act together. The Kepis blanc are the best game they can bring on to the pitch, it’s a shame France neglects it’s most experienced, first in last out unit. The Legion deserves better than the long obsolete Famas to begin with. My personal choice would be a RobArm 16″ XCR-L 6.8, but France is traditionally close with Belgium, so I’d go SCAR17. Hate the crappy stock though, but that can be remedied with after-market tacticools. Rumors are they will go for Beretta ARX-160 thoughm which seems to be a not bad at all rifle. Love that barrel change!

        • Joe Schmoe

          Your ignorance is displaying itself.

          IDF combat soldiers have more training than some SF forces in the world. The training lasts a full year before they are allowed to join their field battalions. The IDF also invests heavily in massive field training and live fire training, because unlike some armies who only invest in their soldiers for a signed three year stint, the IDF soldier is signed for the next ~25 years (3 years mandatory, rest reserves).

          “You are aware of the fact that the Israeli’s have made suicidal cuts in training and maintenance over the last 2 decades or so?”

          This just further shows your ignorance. After 2006, the IDF invested heavily in training and maintenance, it also upgraded its Merkava 4 tanks with the first operationally deployed hard kill system in the world. The reserves now receive nearly the same training as the front line units each year.

          That, and they introduced a brand new sniper rifle (Barack) for the armed forces and a brand new assault rifle (X-95 mini tavor).

          “you’ve got to hate them 1960’s era uniforms”

          More ignorance. The uniforms are actually brand new as of 2010 with new features. The reason they stay the same color is since it is the best overall color for Israel’s needs (desert, urban and bush/green fields) as well as target identification. And whenever there is a need for specific camouflage they have camo uniforms that they can throw over themselves. That, and they also introduced new combat boots.

          “The IDF is no where near the top let alone in the middle since it has zero expeditionary experience.”

          More nonsense, unlike certain countries, the IDF (Israel DEFENSE Forces) has no need to go and take over a country halfway around the world (not a criticism, observation). All their enemies are directly around them, so why the hell would they need an expeditionary force other than its SF?

          And where the hell are you bringing up this nonsense about moral? Moral in the IDF hasn’t been higher in decades.


          And how exactly is the IDF “under-equipped”?

          You obviously have never cross-trained with the IDF, or you wouldn’t be sprouting this ignorant nonsense.

          • Joe Schmoe

            Furthermore, field experience has show you to be wrong.

            Since 2006, the training has appropriately changed and in 2009 the IDF took over the most densely populated area in the world against a force equipped with weapons that even the Taliban in their wettest dream can’t even think about; and killed upwards of 500/600 enemies while only losing 6 soldier to enemy action.

      • gallan

        Problem is the IDF think they’re awesome cause they compare themselves to arab armies, arguably the crappiest in the world.

    • I’d but Jihadist up on top, with such a small number and lack of arms they sure put up a great fight

      • kivaari

        Polish Army – half the money, twice the skill 😛

      • Of course you would. Because you’re a “moderate” muslime…

        The only thing preventing the civilized world from wiping out your degenerate jihadist brothers and sisters is willpower…

        • Esh325

          Yep, the USA is civilized. Tortures people in Guantanamo bay,kills innocent people with drones strikes.

      • Stay on topic guys

        • That this dumbfuck moderator allows a pro-jihadist comment to stay while deleting mine says everything you need to know about this shit blog…

    • Old Warhorse

      The FFL is a good example of how a chronically underfunded, not so well-equipped unit can still be turned into a fairly decent, adequate force with sufficient skill (though I’m not impressed with their relatively simple, outdated infantry deployment tactics). But they are
      certainly not the best in the world. Look at it’s desertion rate and you’ll see what kind of soldier you’re dealing with. They can do their own thing and they are fine at wthat they do best, but I would most definitely mind them watching my back. Rather have Belgians fighting alongside. They are a very capable and intelligent force, similar to the Canadians for that matter. Maybe not as aggressive (perhaps due to lack of combat experience), but they’re surely competent and well-trained.

      • Aurélien

        Well you have to keep in mind that the FFL training is a very harsh one. They accept pretty much anyone for basic training, but most people flee the corp after a few weeks due to the hard conditions, hard training and the crap they have to put up with.
        Furthermore, you have to know that Legionnaires aren’t considered full-blown until they have 5 years under their belt.
        “Outdated” infantry deployments are a trusted way of dealing with this kind of situation on that kind of battlefield. It’s efficient and well-rehearsed. No need to go into complicated things when not needed.

        • gallan

          I think you mean it’s cheap. No need need for tanks, artillery, air-strikes, helicopters etcetera.

    • Agreed. From some of the reports I read about them in Afghanistan, as well as the lack of funding they have to put up with, it is a wonder they can be as effective in the field as they are.

  • These are the French “Foreign Legion” and consist of all nationalities worldwide, so although their trained and commanded under the French I don’t think they should all be referred to as “French”

    • AD

      when u enter the foreign legion u become French …

      • 101st

        French Toast………

      • Old Warhorse

        Only if you wish to take that offer after 5 years of service and enlisted under your current name. If you took the new identity option upon joining the Legion you wont get French citizenship. You might decide to serve another 5 years or retire from the Legion and roll back to your previous identity.

    • gallan

      True, but the majority are probably french, there’s alot of competition to get in to the FFL. And from wiki “A proportion of the Swiss and Belgians are actually likely to be Frenchmen who wish to avoid detection” Also the leadership is mostly french.

      • Tim

        Yup, the policy is to recruit around 1/3 of “french speaking” legionnaires. Most of those being French under a belgium/swiss/monaco/french canadian/whatever ID .

        As far as the leadership goes. The proportion of former enlisted among the officers will be higher than in the rest of the army, some of them actually being from foreign countries. The rest will probably be the top of the class of our officer school of ST-Cyr.

  • TSw

    “Le clairon” , not “Le clarion” 😉

    • johnc

      counterstrike, anyone?

      • LB

        Sure ! Clairon 556 lol

        • Michael Branson

          Oh man, I forgot about that. When I was playing Cstrike they were still using the real names. A LONG time ago.

      • TSw

        I’m french

  • bbmg
    • Geo

      Drone attacks = standard operation procedure. Scary masks = outrage &

  • Michael Branson

    I didn’t know this when I wrote the article, but some French Special Forces have been spotted with HK 416s during this deployment. Those SF guys get all the cool toys…

    • Repman

      TP and TE were both carrying either the FRF2 or the HK417 (308) during their deployments to Afghanistan. I suspect that will be the tread in the coming years, although their is plenty of room for the FRF2.

  • 12Bravo

    Not to nitpick, but an air assault and a combat drop are different methods of insertion.

  • dbar

    Dude, these photogs work hard, in combat areas. Photo credits would be nice. http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2013/01/the-conflict-in-mali/100446/

    Stealing other people’s work is not cool.

    • You might take the time to ask if the picture was copyrighted. This photo has been on every news article you can name. Stay on topic

  • dbar

    Wow. Stealing other peoples work and then deleting the comments that point that out. I used to read this blog every day. From now on, I’ll just take the articles and repost them as my own work, since you seem to think that’s ok.

  • brevearsa

    I’d like to make a request here : please, stop calling the FA-MAS “Clairon” !

    Or if you do, make it clear that you’re talking about an obsolete, forgotten nickname that seems to be kept alive only by foreign enthousiasts on the Internet, while I’ve NEVER heard in the french military since at least the early 2000s (YMMV though).

    I don’t deny that the FA-MAS was nicknamed as such in its infancy in the late 70s-early 80s, but stay updated : it’s a thing of the past. Recruits today weren’t even born that it already wasn’t used anymore. 🙂

    • Michael Branson

      I stand corrected on the nickname. So what do they call it now?

      • breversa

        It’s no longer given any nickname, it’s just called FA-MAS, as you’d say M16. 🙂

        Emphasis nowadays is on the safe and permanent carrying of the rifle in order to build confidence in handling and reduce accidents. Actually, the 4 safety rules were not taught as such until rather recently (i.e. mid-2000s). It may sound astonishing to some people, but bear in mind that the “gun culture” is next to non-existent in France, and in the mind of the general public (from where new recruits come) weapons are before and above all instruments of death and almost have their own will. To teach someone, even soldiers, that it’s but a tool was quite novel at the time.

  • Lance

    Like the French navy seems they like the FAMAS and use the updated FA 2. Seem France may use FAMAS longer than most think.

  • snmp

    You could had more rifle :

    * MAS 49/56 MSE betwen the FRF1 & FRF2 : http://armesfrancaises.free.fr/soldat%20et%20FSA%20MAS49-56%20de%20sniper-WEB.jpg

    * SIG-Manurhin SG540 before the FAMAS
    => http://image-parcours.linternaute.com/image/750/2/1181719807/1659481.jpg
    => http://image-parcours.linternaute.com/image/750/2/4316358327/2582647.jpg
    (Bangui (RCA) in 1979 paratroper of the 8e RPIMa)

    BTW : FRF1 is not an MAS 36 action, that’s like compare VW beetle with Porche. The MAS FR-Fx action is an sort MAS36 with many steroid. FRF2 have new match barrel with special rifling that’s extend the tactical accurency 800 meters to 1000 meters, new pendulard bipode and could have the thermal protecion. The both rifle have an haronic compensator.

    * PGM Précision Hecate II de .50 :
    => http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/PGM_FR-12.7_2007_07_14.jpg
    => http://i139.photobucket.com/albums/q315/ultrabats/DjiboutiHecateII.jpg

    * HK417 with FELIN sight Or SCROM J8 for DMR pupose

    * SIG – SAN SG55X

    For the FAMAS : you could sea 3 versions of FAMAS F1 infantry

    * Original version F1 with SCROME J4, or another sight of the market http://i139.photobucket.com/albums/q315/ultrabats/2476486740061827932fvGVnE_fs.jpg

    * FAMAS F1 FELIN with FELIN Sight or without, remote controle Foregrip, new bipode & new Beretta/SAKO barrel : http://i139.photobucket.com/albums/q315/ultrabats/07t2255r092mq4.jpg

    * FAMAS F1 low profile with new bipode and new Beretta/SAKO barrel http://perso.orange.fr/korrigans.airsoft/www/div/lanceur/famas_surbaiss%E9.jpg

    • Michael Branson

      Thank you for sharing this information!

  • How can we fail in making a rifle use the Direct Impingment yet the Frenchies get it right?

    • Jeff

      The Famas has so many issues that are still uncorrected.
      The original FAMAS’s, many of which were 1:12 twist and could only stabilize light loads.
      The delayed blowback action also is hell on brass cases, so much so that the french had to resort to issuing steel cased ammunition, buying ammo from China at some point.

      • I was talking about the MAS-49/56.

        • snmp

          Cause the MAS FSA49/56 is relaible, Ruggued, battle proven (Indochina, algerian, Egypth & African small war) , and have good accurancy for DMR job

          In plus, The original AR10 Build by Dutch for portugase armys is same way is relaible, Ruggued, battle proven (Angola war) , and have good accurancy.

        • Because many of the troublesome issues the early M16s faced had very little to do with the fact it was DI. Little training, using the wrong type of powder, no chrome lined barrels, no cleaning kits and rushed production under the direction of McNamara and the “whiz kids” would have even made a piston-based rifle fail.

      • snmp

        You speak about Original FA-MAS F1 infantry (Build in 80’s for Ammuntion at this time) and about the FAMAS G2 Navy or Retrofit FA-MAS F1 FELIN & Low profile.

        For Steel case amunition France not buy to china, they take ammunition from Swiss ( RUAG), and with many problemes of qualities contole from UAE & IMI.

    • Aurélien

      Because at the time France was in a few conflicts abroad, and needed reliable and efficient rifles. Also at the time, had a small-arms industry.
      Also they went for “least complicated gun of the decade” award. It’s a soldiers rifle : easy to maintain, easy to use, packs a punch and can be dropped on the ground multiple times.

      • Forrest

        “…this rifle can be dropped on the ground multiple times.”
        Please, don’t tell me this is the usual frensh bashing again…

        • Aurélien

          Well seen as i am very much French, i’m guessing it’s not.
          I’m just saying that any real front-line military rifle will get beaten pretty bad on a daily basis, as soldiers don’t really care about the well-being of their equipment.
          As a no-nonsense frontline rifle, the MAS 49/56 could sustain falls front all kinds of heights without getting all flustered.

  • tacticaltshirts.com

    I will add that the MAS 49/56 is quite the wicked little rifle. I had one some years back. In 7.5 French. Not the 308 conversion.

    It was handy, short, battle-rifle caliber, and didn’t look all “ninja”. My point is one can make the argument the MAS 49/56 is the most discreet Assault Rifle ever made. Unless someone knows what they are looking at, most people seeing it over your shoulder think it’s a hunting rifle. Great article –TTR

  • The FAMAS is not a bad rifle at all. I have had a chance to shoot it during tactical drills and I liked it. Won’t replace an AK or m1 garand but that is just me!

  • I was hoping that the GoPro App would allow DIY remote aiming of a firearm. But there is a 4 second lag from the camera to your mobile device. Not good for trying to shoot moving targets.

  • Gusto

    Jesus I have an Airborne spirited erection… the FFL jumped in ……up yours to those that think Airborne has no place in the modern battlefield.
    Well done France

  • Forrest

    How can you say that the MAS 49/56 is the ugliest service rifle ? Why a M14 or a M1 Garand should be nicer ? A rifle is a rifle. In their time, bullpups were seen as freaks.

  • Paracelse

    Why is the blog taking about a Mas 49/56 and show and Mas 49??? The MAS 49/56 has a grenade launcher mount at the end the model shown doesn’t . sorry guys 😛

  • Louis Zocchi

    Over the past several weeks, I think the History 2 channel on Dish network, ran a short 60 second blurb which described a force of 400 Legionaries with a small cavalry detachment were attacked by 8,000 Arabs while marching across the desert, back to their base. The Arabs killed off most of the cavalry which was unable to get inside the infantry square. The battle was fought for several hours, during a raging sand storm. When it ended about 2100 Arabs and 40 legionnaire’s had been killed. Can someone tell me when and where this happened? What is the name of this battle? What type of rifle did the legionaries use? Was smokeless powder in the legionaries cartridges? Did the legionaries have a Gatling gun or artillery? Were all of the Arabs mounted and what type of rifles or other weapons did the Arabs use?

    • Karl Johnson

      Battle of al-Musayfirah

  • brian0918

    Delete me.