1886 Lebel Rifle: The Gun That Changed The World

The legendary French Lebel rifle was a revolution in small arms design: It introduced smokeless powder, which gave the rifle double the power and effective range of its competitors like the Mauser 1871/84 or American Springfield Trapdoor.

The French Lebel and its new cartridge (usually called 8mm Lebel) set off a chain reaction in the world of small arms whereby all the other nations of the world were rushing to adopt a design on par with France’s latest fusil. In this episode, we dust off the Lebel and see what she can do on the range.

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Full transcript …

(gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) – [Voiceover] Hey guys, it’s Alex C. with TFPTV, and for today we’re doing some shooting with the famous French 1886 Lebel rifle.

This is truly a rifle that changed everything.

It introduced smokeless powder and, with it, the capability to drive lead twice as fast and twice as far as every other rifle on the planet.

It was the undisputed king, the champion, the best rifle in the world for two years.

But that’s kind of irrelevant for the sake of this video.

It caused an arms race and everyone, all of a sudden, had to keep up with the French, and the Germans went berserk.

They had the 1888 commission rifle which was not so good, but arguably better.

Some of the weak points of the Lebel, however, immediately become apparent once you start messing with it.

The sights are somewhat crude and, as you saw earlier, it does lay flat and you can shoot up to 800 meters that way.

It’s got this ladder here to where you can adjust up to 2400-meter volley fire which is optimistic, to say the least.

Or you can flip it forward and you’ve got a 250-meter battle sight.

The front sight is a simple post with a sharp taper.

The Lebel uses what’s known as a Kropatschek magazine system.

That is a tubular magazine located underneath the barrel.

It can fire spitzer ammunition, though, which is pointed bullets.

The French were crafty, however, and put recesses around the primer so that the points of the trailing round sat in these recesses.

It’s actually a pretty clever way to design and implement spitzer cartridges in a tubular magazine.

It does have this button also which disables the cartridge elevator and does not allow the magazine to be used.

People often joked that the Lebel was the best single-shot rifle of World War I.

Disassembling the Lebel is actually kind of strange.

You do have to undo a screw which allows you to separate the bolt body from the bolt head.

This is actually kind of similar to a Mosin-Nagant rifle where the bolt body and head are separate pieces.

The cocking piece is not shrouded very well, or at all, really.

And the primary traction is achieved by the bit on the front camming against the receiver ring.

So let’s shoot it a little bit.

(gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) Another parallel it definitely has with the Mosin-Nagant is the sticky bolt.

(gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) Here you can see how you load the Lebel.

You simply open the bolt and then insert cartridges one after another in the magazine below the barrel.

You can also see the recess so that the point of the trailing round does rest into it and prevents it from accidentally setting off a cartridge.

(gun cocking) Here you can kind of see a demonstration of the cartridge elevator in action.

When you pull the bolt to the rear sharply, it activates it.

(gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) I have quite a bit of experience shooting the Lebel.

I take it to a lot of shoots.

I don’t know why, I just really like this rifle partially because of the history, and partially because it’s so accurate.

Here I am at 100 meters and I am nailing the heck out of the plate with no problem at all.

The battle sight flips forward and gives a simple sight picture, but an effective one.

The rifle also is not balanced very well.

Obviously, especially when the magazine’s loaded, it’s very, very front-heavy and long.

With the bayonet, it’s even more ridiculous, but that was the 19th-century thinking that brought us this rifle.

That’s evident with the magazine cut off and everything like that.

(gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gun cocking) So it’s time to take the rifle back to 300 meters, as is the standard operating procedure on these kinds of deals with TFPTV, and see if I could hit anything.

And, to be honest, I really didn’t expect to do so.

I’ve shot these, like I said, quite a bit, but mostly at 100 meters or 100 yards.

So when I’ve lined the sights up on the gong and let her rip, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to actually do anything.

(gun fires) (gong rings) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gong rings) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gong rings) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gong rings) (gun cocking) (gun fires) (gong rings) (gun cocking) Anyways, I hope you guys enjoyed this quick overview of a very historically significant rifle.

I always enjoy shooting Lebels, and we have done a Run and Gun with this.

I will put a link in the in card and the description for mobile users.

Big thanks to Ventura Munitions for helping us out with the cost of ammunition.

And we hope to see you guys next time.

Alex C.

Alex is a Senior Writer for The Firearm Blog and Director of TFBTV.


  • Martin M

    It’s as if it was not designed to be cycled from the shoulder. Manual of arms for the breech loading era involved lowering the rifle to the hip for charging/loading. Surely someone has the Manual of Arms for the 1886.

    We’re all a little spoiled by later bolt action rifles (especially the Lee-Enfield).

    • LG

      Exactly. If one reviews the older manuals for the 1903 Springfield, the check rest was rotated outboard while the bolt handle was lifted for faster operation and for clearing the face. The unchanging check rest as used today was not standard operating procedure around WW1.

      • Martin M

        Precisely. I don’t have anything in my library for the Gras, Chesspot, or the Minié. Many of the methods I’ve seen for breech-loading rifles typically involve rotating the rifle to eject the spent case by essentially dumping it. The Lebel changed the game, but Lee and Mauser perfected the action.

        • DIR911911 .

          SAC , HAHA been awhile since i’ve seen that patch. dad was SAC , i wound up army.

          • Martin M

            HAHA I’m not even that old. Dad was Army, I wound up SAC.

  • Kelly Jackson

    • Doom

      god benny was such a rat. I love that movie.

  • Austin

    Claiming that it was the best in the world in 1886 is a lofty claim considering the other leather legendary rifle of that year and it’s chamberings.

    • Kelly Jackson

      You mean this?

      • If he does I hope he’s joking.

        • RealitiCzech

          Yeah. Smokeless powder was a huge leap forward – it’s why semi-auto and full-auto weapons exist in non-Gatling forms. Black powder fouling happens fast and heavy, and ruins your accuracy quickly – not to mention that it gives your enemy a nice smoke cloud to shoot at.

          • George

            One could do a blowback or API blowback black powder gun. Or recoil operated. Or gas operated if you have a genuinely self cleaning really rugged gas system.

            Given how heavy contemporary guns were it’s a little surprising that once brass cartridges got good enough, nobody thought to try blowback…

            Some day my class 3 mfgr status will come and I will make some of these as prototypes just because one can…

          • marathag

            Though every Machine Gun Hiram Maxim made at first used Black Powder, and fouling and accuracy wasn’t a problem.

            His MGs only failed with the French trials using the M1886, the more energetic smokeless started breaking parts because the RoF nearly doubled.

            Though I wish Edison could have taken pictures of the duration test of .45 Gatling-Gardner. 480 grain bullet, 84 grains of powder. 600 RPM

        • Austin

          The .45-70-500 produced lethal wounds in testing at 3200 yards in 1879. There is no reason that a smokeless powder loading of that round much less a smokeless .45-90 WCF couldn’t reach past 2000 yards in the 1886 Winchester(which just needs a barrel change to shoot smokeless) if it had an elevated sight. Furthermore, the Winchester has a faster fire rate and thanks to the side loading gate can be reloaded with a round in the chamber.

      • Austin

        Designed by John Browning himself and used by the RAF in WWI

  • UnrepentantLib

    If I may suggest a subject for a related video, the Swiss Vetterli. The Vetterli, adopted in 1869, had a turnbolt action with a tubular magazine, but fired .41 caliber black powder cartridges.

  • John

    Serious question. Could you use a modern C-clamp grip to operate this rifle? Would that help with the front-heavy weight?

  • Tassiebush

    Very cool to see this one. I am surprised that the original style ammo is still available with the recessed groove around the primer. Is it reproduction or original?
    It seems really odd that the idea wasn’t adopted for .3030 Winchester ammo.

  • Joshua

    “…300 meters… I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to actually do anything.”
    yeah, that is what that rifle was built to do, if you can’t play your part of that, it ain’t that rifles fault, she was built to knock down men at 300-500 meters.

  • michel Baikrich

    Ok, mais le fusil Lebel 1886 est derive du fusil naval Kropatschek Mle 1878

  • michel Baikrich

    Le fusil Lee Enfield SMLE Mk IIIfut plus efficace et plus representatif de la WW I
    Il fut un excellent fusil, plus rapide a charger et avec 10 cartouches alors que les autres avaient seulement 5 cartouches…. Sauf les Italiens avec 6 cartouches, mais les soldats italiens ne tiraient pas … C’est pour ce motif que l’on retrouve tant de fusils Carcano en parfait etats

  • carlcasino

    How do I sync the sound to the video?

  • Disgusted Citizen

    I have one of these, that sometime before I obtained it was shortened “sporterized”. it is a surprisingly accurate rifle even with the shorter barrel- I even have a couple of the original 8 round paper and string wrapped packages of cartridges. Now it is the most interesting wall hanger I have.

  • maodeedee

    I actually like the Berthier better than the Lebel. Both were chambered for the same cartridge and both were used by the French in WWI.

    The only drawback to the Berthier is that like the Garand and the straight-pull Steyr, you needed the sheet metal clips to make it function as a repeater. I suppose the main reason I like it better is that it’s a much nicer looking and better balanced rifle while the Lebel is just plain ugly-looking and awkward.

  • Archie Montgomery

    I have an objection on logical grounds. I find it pointless to admit the Lebel was the first of its kind – which it was in several respects – and then pick at all the ‘flaws’ in the design in the light of a century or so of refinement of the idea.

    Yes it was heavy and ill-balanced. So were muskets and most of the black powder cartridge rifles contemporaneous to the Lebel.

    The magazine was ‘odd’ and not original. No, it just worked, didn’t add any parts to lose and as adapted, didn’t require more research and development.

    It had volley sights up to 2400 meters. No, that wasn’t ‘optimistic’, it was useful. The concept was similar to using a machine gun at long distances, much in the same manner as artillery. It was not performed by one soldier, it was a function of a unit to deny an enemy troop movement at longer ranges. (If one thinks in terms of picking off one soldier at 2400 meters, that is pretty optimistic; but that wasn’t the purpose or concept.)

    It had a bayonet. Sure did. More than that, it was usable at close range. Of course, use of the bayonet requires some training past “This is the pointy end.” Somewhat like marksmanship, except it requires more upper body strength.

    The Lebel was a marvelous rifle when introduced. It changed martial rifles forever.

  • Pistolero

    I wish I could have seen a shot of the recessed groove or whatever it was that allowed pointed bullets to be used. I’m trying to picture how that works.