March 2011

French MAS Semiautos: History-Making Rifles Compete

What happens when two 60-year-old battle rifles get put through their paces? We find that these gas-driven actions are surprisingly accurate and durable, despite their ages.

Long before WWI the French were hard at work on semiauto rifle designs. Unfortunately they didnít have much in production at the start of the Great War, so they fought that war largely like the rest of the world did, with bolt-action rifles. It was not until 1949 that France had its own successful semiauto rifle in the MAS, chambered for the 7.5x54mm cartridge, which is similar to the 7.62 NATO round. That rifle was designated the Model 1949, and it incorporated some features of the bolt-action Model 1936, including its cartridge, rear-sight arrangement and two-piece stock. Later modifications developed the M1949 into the Model 1949-56. For this report we acquired one of each type from Collectors Firearms (www.collectorsfirearms.com), the M1949 chambered for the original cartridge and the Ď49-56 rechambered by some arsenal to 7.62 NATO. The French cartridge is a bit longer and very slightly fatter than the NATO cartridge, so we presume the barrel had to be set rearwards to effect the conversion.

MAS stands for Manufacture Nationale díArmes de St-Etienne. This is a gas-driven design that would be familiar to the fans of the various AR-15/M-16 rifles. The gas tube impinges directly on the bolt carrier, blowing it rearward with each shot. There are no moving parts, like pistons or pushrods, in the gas system.

Although the rifles had essentially the same actions, the M1949 had only a stacking lug at the front and no muzzle brake, presenting what amounted to a naked barrel muzzle. The Ď49-56 had a grenade launcher, muzzle brake/flash hider, and folding grenade sights. The rear sight on each rifle was an aperture, adjustable upward from 200 to 1200 yards. The front blade on the M49 was a fixed post, but the later rifle had an elevation-adjustable front post.

The detachable magazines had their clasp as part of the magazine, a simple and rugged system that locked into a notch cut in the right side of the action. The 10-round magazines were interchangeable between our two test rifles. Apparently higher-capacity magazines have been available for the MAS rifles. The original parts kits issued with the rifles apparently were well thought out and included critical spare parts, magazines, bayonet, cleaning stuff, and for some, a compact 3.9X scope. All the MAS rifles have a rail on the left side of the action permitting easy scope mounting.

The later rifle had a larger trigger guard, permitting firing with gloves. Both rifles had a simple leather sling attached to the left side of the rifle. The 49-56 had a black slip-on recoil pad, apparently original issue.

Each rifle had a two-piece hardwood stock with a wood hand guard covering the forward part of the barrel and the gas tube. The woods were plain walnut and birch. The safety consisted of a lever located to the right front of the trigger guard. In the safe position it partially obscured the trigger opening, which was more obvious for right handers. Both bolts had a serrated white plastic covering on the bolt knob. The actions were solid, well-made, nicely machined items that looked to be extremely strong. There were no plastic nor flimsy metal parts anywhere on either rifle. These were serious war-time rifles made to work and to last.

Takedown for these rifles was remarkably simple. After clearing the rifle, remove the magazine and let the slide go forward. Then slide the large button at the rear of the receiver downward, toward the wrist of the rifle. Press forward on the top-rear portion of the action, which is the cover, and when it moves just over half an inch toward the front of the rifle it can be lifted off toward the rear, releasing tension on the recoil spring. Then slide the bolt carrier rearward until the bolt and carrier are all the way back, and they can then be lifted out. Thatís it. With a normal cleaning rod the barrel must be cleaned from the front. For reassembly reverse the process. You have to fight the spring a bit, but itís an easy job. If you have to remove the trigger assembly, youíll need a screwdriver to remove a slotted screw at the rear of the trigger guard.

Largely because of extremely poor winter weather, we tested the two rifles with one type of ammo each. For the Model 1949 we used Serbian Prvi Partizan 139-grain FMJ, and for the 1949-56 we used Magtech 150-grain FMC. Hereís what we found.

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