The Most Advanced Gun in the World (in 1916): The 1916 Meunier Carbine

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Beginning in the last decade of the 19th Century, the French government began work on the next great advancement in infantry small arms technology: The selfloading rifle. By 1916, after the outbreak of World War I, they had produced what many consider the most advanced rifle of its time: The Meunier A6 Carbine.

This story begins in 1894, when a French weapons inspector at Puteaux named Etienne Meunier began work on an automatic rifle functioning via the then-new principle of gas operation. Meunier’s first rifle was finished in 1897, and presented in 1898 as the STA No 4, though it later would be designated the Meunier A1. It functioned via direct impingement operation, and used a rotating bolt with five interrupted thread type lugs, and held 8 rounds of experimental 6x58mm ammunition. For the time, this was an incredibly advanced firearm, firing a 103gr bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,953 ft/s semiautomatically, with an unloaded weight of just 8.4 lbs.

As French ammunition experiments continued, Meunier produced two more designs which unfortunately were lost during the liberation of France in World War II, the A2 (STA No 5) and A3 (STA No 6), both of which were in 8mm caliber. Following that, Meunier produced his first carbine, the A4 (Carbine STA No 1), which was chambered for the same 6x58mm round as the A1, but with a smaller 5-round magazine, a 10-inch shorter overall length, and – oddly – a grip safety behind the trigger guard. The carbine was intended for cavalry units, and a small number were manufactured for troop trials with six regiments in 1903. Despite the fact that the results of these trials were overwhelmingly favorable, and the rifle was recommended for adoption, development was abandoned.

Meunier’s next weapon, the A5 (STA No 7) of 1908, relocated the gas tube to the right side of the gun and added a Swiss-style “barrel keg” charging handle. It was chambered for a new 6x61mm caliber, which produced an incredible 3,300 ft/s muzzle velocity with its 104gr spitzer bullet. The A5 held six of these small caliber, high velocity cartridges.

In 1909, the French Supreme War Council formally announced the program for a new selfloading infantry, basing their requirements on a 1905 specification created by the Small Arms Commission. These specifications included a caliber no less than 6.5mm, accuracy and penetration equal to the Lebel to 1,000 m, ability to fire the rifle as both semiautomatic and repeater, and – importantly – length permitting firing from two ranks. This last seriously outdated requirement ensured that the next rifle would be no shorter than the Lebel it replaced.

Meunier responded to these requirements with a completely new design, the A6 (previously STA No 8), which used the short-recoil principle* instead of direct impingement gas operation, coupled with a bolt using interrupted-thread lugs, similar to Meunier’s previous designs. The A6 was also chambered for a new 7mm round, a caliber that would be modified several times, producing a confusing number of variations.

*Huon routinely describes the Meunier rifles as using “long-barrel recoil”, but the actual description of the Meunier’s operation in his book is consistent with what we know as “short-recoil”, not “long-recoil”.

EDIT: I am wrong (but so is Huon, it seems)! After publishing this article, I was contacted by the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, who have in their possession several Meunier rifles, and they informed me that the barrels on those rifles are capable of full rearward travel, whereupon the bolt unlocks. For posterity, here is the description given in Proud Promise of the Meunier’s action:

When fired, the barrel recoils, carrying with it the bolt assembly. Through the helical cam groove in the bolt carrier, the bolt head is rotated and unlocked. The barrel stops its rearward travel, allowing the bolt assembly to continue rearward, extracting and ejecting the empty case. The barrel returns to its place while the bolt assembly compresses the hammer spring and cocks the hammer. It then goes forward, introducing a new cartridge into the chamber. After the last round, the bolt catch retains the bolt assembly in the rear position.

It seems I am also wrong about the rifle having detachable magazines; instead, it has magazine extensions, like a Mauser, Springfield, or FN-49. Therefore, the 5, 10, and 15 rounder magazines could not be removed and swapped, but only reloaded via stripper clips at the charger bridge.

The Meunier design again performed so well that it was actually adopted in 1910, though the French ordnance officials were still debating whether to begin production by 1913. Eventually, they decided not to, and the entire French autoloading program was cancelled due to concerns of impending war.

The story doesn’t end there, though. As some may have noticed, the A6 Meunier Carbine hasn’t even entered the picture yet. When war did indeed break out in 1914, the prescience of the French decision was evident, but by mid-1916, it was evident that a selfloading rifle was desperately needed for the war effort. The French were already tooling up to make another selfloading rifle, the RSC 1917, but it was happening more slowly than they could afford. Meanwhile, the Meunier A6 had passed state trials and had already been produced in small numbers, so a small batch of A6s were produced in 1916 as the 7mm Fusil Automatique Modéle 1916, and was produced by the Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Tulle, with some help from the arsenal at Châtellerault. Interestingly, all Meunier rifles were issued with a cloth action cover, to protect the rifles from mud and debris.

Finally, we get to the Meunier A6 Carbine. Etienne Meunier recognized the need for a shorter rifle than his A6, which had been designed around the obsolete 1909 specification, and developed three new rifles, a cavalry carbine, an infantry carbine, and an aircraft carbine without bayonet lug or handguards. The A6 infantry carbine in particularly was probably the most advanced weapon of its time, as it clocked in at 1,096 mm in length (slightly less than the later M1 Garand), featured a detachable 5, 10, or 15 round magazine (fed by stripper clips, as all Meunier designs were), and night sights. The Meunier A6 Carbine was an effective handy rifle that did very well in trials until the end of the war, but was never mass-produced. Othais of C&Rsenal photographed one of these extremely rare carbines on his recent trip to the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, and has graciously shared these images with TFB:

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The awesome Meunier A6 Carbine, one of the very few in the world. Image source: Othais of candrsenal.com, many thanks to him for sharing it.

We mentioned previously that the Meunier rifles beginning with the A6 were chambered for several similar but distinct 7mm rounds, but the final variation that eventually saw production was the 7×56.95mm (often shortened to 7x57mm, although that risks confusion with the 7x57mm Mauser), which used a 50 degree shoulder and fired a 139 gr (9 g) bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,789 ft/s (850 m/s), which was excellent performance for the period. The 7mm Meunier calibers, collectively, represent the French arm of “infantry magnum” caliber development I mentioned in another post. All 7×56.95mm Meunier rounds were manufactured at Puteaux for the war effort.

An animation of the rear sight on the Meunier A6 Carbine; note the three-dot night sights. Image source: Othais of candrsenal.com

 

Production of the Meunier long rifle ceased on August 13 of 1917, with 1,013 rifles made. Out of that total, just 843 rifles made it to the front lines, making the Meunier a technically significant footnote in the history of selfloaders in combat. The Meunier was generally well-received, although soldiers constantly complained about its length (hence the Carbine), its unique ammunition, and – like almost all weapons in World War I – its susceptibility to the mud of the trenches. The M1916 Meunier was superseded by the fantastically successful RSC 1917, which was chambered for the standard 8mm Lebel cartridge. That rifle proved to be the first great success story in selfloading rifle history, with over 85,000 units built.

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The RSC Mle. 1917, arguably the first truly successful selfloading rifle ever. Adopted by France, used in World War I in combat, and produced in the high tens of thousands. Image source: candrsenal

 

Meunier filed a patent on his design in October of 1915, but the patent was kept secret until 1920. It is available on Espacenet, here.

The information in this post was mostly collected from Jean Huon’s excellent book Proud Promise, which I reviewed in an article here. I highly recommend that treatise on France’s selfloading program from the 19th Century through to the 1970s.



Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


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  • Porty1119

    Fantastic article! I find it interesting how autoloaders seemed to have been held back by outmoded philosophy among the brass.

    • ostiariusalpha

      Still happens today. 😒

    • Tritro29

      It’s not only the brass. It’s the economy, the manufacturing, the support assets. Self loading rifles in WW1 combat conditions weren’t going to change much of the issue. The rifles were a tiny speck of the actual warfare environment.

      • iksnilol

        Wouldn’t carbines and smaller projectiles saved resources?

        I mean, saving 10 cm on one barrel isn’t a big deal but on a 1000 or 10000 rifles and then it adds up somewhat.

        • Tritro29

          In industrial scale warfare, there’s no “savings”. Also for those 10 cm saved, you have to add the complexity of the rifle action going up, the time on the tooling going up (or another worker or ten working on that chain).

          Smaller projectiles is a trickier issue, since there’s nothing largely diffused back then to assess this. As far as the mentality goes, the hierarchy was against the idea. I touched upon this at the “intermediate” calibre thread some months back.

          Higher rate of fire weapons were a mixed bag in the views of Marshals and “Généraux”. They were using smaller calibre rounds, but were also for whatever reason seen as wasteful. This symptom would haunt the repeaters and then the semi autos for a long time.

          The various researches on effectiveness of semi-auto (and later full auto) stem from there. We have all heard the crazy numbers about rounds fired per KIA. Well there lies the rub.

          Having more, means using more.

          • iksnilol

            I meant just making the rifle shorter. Not caring whether it is a semi auto or bolt actions. I am thinking that a Mosin carbine with a 50 cm barrel is cheaper to make than the 73 cm barrel rifle-version. And you can make almost 3 carbine barrels for the length of two rifle barrels. That certainly would represent some savings, especially if you have few resources/need to arm a lot of people.

          • Tritro29

            Again, the carbines would have had their own shortcomings (as they had). In WW1 typically the mentality was firing from ranks. So the guns were supposed to get their muzzles in front of the…front rank. And then WW2 showed that the M38/44’s weren’t that much of a saving, when it came to the actual quality of the rifle. Wartime production will affect the items on their entirety, so basically the quality generally will be rougher and therefore the main issue wouldn’t be “savings”, but actual overall quality of the product.

          • MichaelZWilliamson

            Hence Gen S.V. Benet’s insistence on using “precise, aimed fire” in the Springfield, rather than lever actions. End result: Little Big Horn, and Custer never became president.

            Hmm…maybe he had a point there.

  • Ryan

    odds on this weapon being in Battlefield 1?

    • PK

      At a guess, basically zero unless there’s a serious firearms enthusiast on staff. Before now, while I had done research into early semi-automatic arms, I had never heard of this particular rifle. “Obscure” doesn’t quite cover it.

    • DW

      Not good, RSC1917 is too similar and way more known.

  • PK

    Excellent reading, this is the quality I know and love from TFB! And thanks to Othais for the superb photos. What an elegant rifle.

    Now I’m seriously considering a modern reproduction (more in looks than in every detail, of course) in a more common caliber, perhaps using BAR magazines and in 30-06. The lines remind me of the Vz52 rifle sans blade bayonet. Something about that classic look with a box magazine standing out has always appealed to me.

  • Max Popenker

    I doubt that it was any more advanced than a Fedorov avtomat of the same year, especially considering original Fedorov cartridge, the 6.5×57, later replaced by readily available but less powerful 6.5x50SR Arisaka

    • Kivaari

      Using the Japanese round made good sense. Russians were already using the 6.5mm carbines bout from the Japanese. It’s amazing how WW1 allies became WW2 enemies. Then reversed again during the Cold War Era.

      • iksnilol

        What’s a couple of wars between friends?

    • Night sights, Max. Night sights. 😉

      • DW

        Russia has vodka, so rifle is fine without nightsight. Hell, rifle is fine without sight at all, because vodka.

  • Kivaari

    Wow, that’s one I have never heard of until now. Great article.

  • dunadan

    @Ryan

    Will Battlefield One even have the French? DICE said there would only be only four factions in multiplayer… The trailer focused on the story mode and I could only spot Germans, Brits, Afro Americans, Italians, Ottomans even a female Bedouin but I haven’t seen a single French.

    • Tritro29

      That would be as a WW2 game wouldn’t have the Soviets…the French are the in the big 4 of “The Great War”. Basically them, the British, the Germans and us Russians were all stuck in a Balkanic stand-off. So if a WW1 game hasn’t got the actual major Western Front Location included, that’d would be the single best reason, NOT to buy it. Also the fact you’d ask such a question, makes me wonder if you understand what WW1 was about. No disrespect meant, just a honest question.

      • dunadan

        But I know which is why am worried about it. French bashing has been high in anglo medias past decades culminating with the French veto back in 2k3 and still has wide effects whenever France and military are put together.

        This has become such a widely used meme on the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised most people would actually believe it making it easy for someone, who has a distate for France, to eclipse French involvement in the Great War as a result.

        The simple fact they would leave out France altogether from their big announcement trailer while showing so many nations and “diversity” is kind of insulting.

        Tbh I wouldn’t be surprised if they left Russia out of the picture as well. Looks like to me they are focusing on the Hundred Days Offensive as far as Europe is concerned.

        • Warren Ellis

          Well Dice is a Swedish company IIRC so I’m sure they’re more knowledgeable on European countries.

    • Ryan

      The only info I’ve seen on factions was from an anonymous source and not from DICE directly. At this point it’s more accurate to say no-one-knows how many factions are in the game than to say there are only 4.

      I would be really surprised if they didn’t included all major players in the war. Considering that the more countries you have to select from the more content you can create. Since this is an EA published game that means more DLC they can sell you.

  • Jacob

    Thats incredible! We’ll take zero.

    By the God’s it’s perfect! Make a different one.

    Sweet Jesus our prayers have been answered! Cancel the project.

    • dunadan

      That’s funny because the MAS40 encountered a similar fate.

    • Blake

      I’d hazard a guess that it had something to do with politics…

      …see also the “they gave me a rifle designed by a committee” comment from InRangeTV’s WWI reenactment…

    • MichaelZWilliamson

      Wait, that sounds like the US Army as well.

  • Paul Joly

    BF1 is like the others one, its a fantasy game not reenactment one.

    • Ryan

      Correct. Which makes it more likely that we’ll see odd and prototype weapons.

  • Harry’s Holsters

    I love the more in depth articles on historical firearms1

    The weight on the gun is almost impressive by today’s standards. I wish repos of these guns were financially feasible.

  • Jeffersonian

    “The RSC Mle. 1917, arguably the first truly successful selfloading rifle ever.”

    How about John Moses Browning’s FN Model of 1900, which quickly became the Remington Model 8?

    Unless you’re talking strictly military use. And even then it should be noted the Model 8 had a charger guide.

    • I should have clarified that I meant service selfloaders! Mea culpa!

  • Devil_Doc

    What? No run and gun?

    • Rock or Something

      I’m actually more interested in the Mud test…

  • Jim_Macklin

    Looks like a Russian saw a few and was inspired to create the SKS.

    • No, that’s not correct at all, given the 30 years separation of the two designs and their completely different mechanisms.

      • iksnilol

        Pfft, don’t you know that the Russians also copied the STG-44 from the Germans?

        • Max Popenker

          yes, we also copied a T34 from KonigsTiger and La-5 from Bf109 😉

          • Tritro29

            We even copied alphabet from Ukrainians…we can’t can’t do anything (except sending people in space).

          • mykhailo chalupa

            ЗРАДА!!!!

  • The FAMAS was a good rifle when it came out, but they haven’t made any in over 15 years. They are all old and dogged out. It’s a shame to see industry disappear like that, for sure.

    • Arnaud Delice

      Famas in french army was clashed by some conservative officer
      The famas prototype come in 1973 , when the production begin in 1977-78

  • Darren Hruska

    DICE pls!

  • Squirreltakular

    Wow, it certainly beat the RSC in the looks department. Gorgeous gun.

    Great article, too.

  • Ben Pottinger

    The night sites are what I’m curious about. I don’t believe tritium existed at all before we developed a nuclear program so I suspect they were night sights made with radium paint correct? If so they would have probably been really bright compared to today’s night sights (and moderately unhealthy. Lol)

    • JRT6

      I read somewhere that french rifles had the radioactive sights back in the 1880’s.

  • Allan

    I have to disagree I believe the federov avtomat was the most advanced weapon of this time period and far more advanced that this meunier rifle.

    • guest

      define “advanced” : advanced as in unnecessarily complicated – or advanced as in functionally advanced? If you chose the latter, Fedorov probably wins hands-down over all other rifles of the time. If you chose the former – this thing wins, along with some other toggle-locked nonsese or something like that.

  • Old Vet

    WWI continued to suffer under trench warfare, mass rank charges, and old men in charge that should have been put out to pasture 25 years earlier. The requirements for a rifle length to rank fire is the perfect example of being stuck in the past, no fluidity in their tactics.

  • Jay

    I believe that I read that the American Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) was used in World I but saw limited action. That rifle was far more advanced than the French semi-auto rifles and carbines. The BAR fired a .30 caliber round and was devastatingly powerful and reliable. What is the true history of the BAR in WWI? Does it deserve at least honorable mention?

    • AD

      Isn’t the BAR quite heavy? I suppose the relatively low weight of the Meunier must be part of the reason why Nathan is suggesting that it can be considered to be very advanced for the time.

    • guest

      Though called “browning automatic RIFLE” it is in every way more of a light machine gun than a rifle – by weight, mag capacity, etc. Mostly weight though.

  • CavScout

    Pffff, it probably worked as well as their crew served machine gun. NOT VERY WELL.