Gun Review: MAS-49/56 Fusil Semi-Automatique (Modèle 1949 – 1956)

AR guy? Money too tight to mention? Time to go retro. For around $300, you can pick up one of the best ugly-step-sister semi-auto mil-sups on the market: the French MAS 49/56. Here’s a shocker: the French combat rifle isn’t a second-best choice. I’d much rather go into combat with an MAS 49/56 than an M-1 Garand. I know, I know. The rifle that’s never been fired and only dropped once. But before all of you die-hard, corn-fed, flag waving, internet Garand disciples flame me to a crisp for speaking such heresy, hear me out . . .

While the Garand’s weight and balance may feel great at the range at Camp Perry, you’d have a different opinion if you had to hump it 20 miles to get there. The Garand is a long, heavy, unwieldy bastard. As a former light infantry officer [not shown], I’m here to tell you that weight is a huge issue in combat.

By the time you get loaded down with your helmet, LBE/MOLLE, your basic load of ammunition, hand grenades, claymores, det-cord, 200 round belt of 7.62 x 51 and/or 5.56 x 45, flares, smoke, pistol, knife, radio, extra batteries, MOPP gear, optics, laser rangefinder, C-4, LAAW / AT-4, water, MREs, E-tool, magic blanket, poncho, etc, you are carrying a very substantial load.

Every pound starts to matter. Even so-called “snivel items” become questionable baggage. I remember looking at a roll of commercial toilet paper and wondering it was worth the weight. It was, of course… those little micro-packets of shit-paper in the C Rats and MREs just don’t cut it. I digress . . .

The MAS 49/56 weighs in at about 8.5 lbs. The Garand tips the scales at 10 lbs. The MAS 49/56 is almost four inches shorter than M1 and most of its weight is in the action; the MAS points faster than a Garand. What’s more, you can top-off or reload the MAS 49/56′s detachable magazine during a lull in the fighting. Garand shooters have to wait until they run completely dry. The Garand also makes a loud audible clanging sound when it runs out of ammo – a fact that got more than one trooper killed in WWII.

Admittedly, the Garand’s sights [as above] are better, making it better for long-range gunnery. That said, in most battlefield conditions, long-range direct fire with hand-held rifles is an overrated pastime. Long range targets are best engaged with indirect fire weapons; revealing your position to the enemy via rifle fire is usually the first step towards achieving an untimely death.

In general, research has shown that most infantry firefights occur inside of 300 yards. A substantial majority have historically occurred inside of 100 yards. Nonetheless, the MAS 49/56 has side rails built-in for mounting optics, which extends the effective range of this weapon from 400 to 800 meters.

Finally, I really like the fact that the MAS 49/56 has fewer parts and field strips much faster than a Garand. An infantryman is often cleaning his weapon in cold, dark, low-visibility, conditions, and having fewer small parts and simplified disassembly is a major plus. I know from personal experience that the firing pin retaining pin on an M-16 is easily misplaced in the field, esp. when you are sleep-deprived.  The MAS 49/56 field strips into seven hard-to-lose parts, and the beefy firing pin is the smallest one.

Operations 

The MAS-49/56 is a semi-automatic gas-operated shoulder-fired main battle rifle chambered for the 7.5 x 54 French caliber. The MAS-49 was formally adopted by the French Army in July 1949. [Example below] The MAS 49/56 is an upgraded version that entered in service in…  you guessed it …  1956. The major improvements (shorter barrel, shorter fore-end, grenade launching capability) were a direct result of feedback from troops fighting in Algeria and Vietnam (i.e. the First Indochina War against the Viet Minh).

The weapon is loaded either via 5-round stripper clips or a 10-round detachable magazine.  Original MAS 49/56’s were issued with four detachable magazines.  The magazine release is located on right side of the magazine itself, and hooks into a groove in the outside of the receiver:

The weapon is designed to fire a 139-grain spitzer bullet. The round’s ballistics are comparable to the 7.62 x 51 NATO cartridge. French mil-sup ammo is getting increasingly rare in today’s commercial market. The most commonly found ammo is the commercial loads from the Serbian Prvi-Partizan factory. A box of 20 Prvi-Partizan cartridges will typically run $13.75 to $15.99 for a box of 20 rounds.

In the image above, one can see how the 7.5 French round stacks up size-wise against other common military/hunting rounds: L-R: 5.56×45 NATO aks (.223 Rem), 7.62 x 51 NATO (aka .308 WIN, 7.5 x 54 French, .30-.06 (Winchester Black Talon).

The sights will be familiar to most AR-15, M-14 or M-1 Garand shooters. The MAS 49/56 features an extremely fat centered front sight post/blade with flanking protective “ears.” The sight is so fat it appears to cover about 8-10 MOA at 100 yards. The MAS’s sight post is only adjustable for elevation. There are four-clicks per each full rotation of the front sight post, with each click raising/lowering the point of impact (“POI”) by roughly two inches (5 cm) at 100-meters. Due to the width of the front post, the sights are best used with a 6 o’clock hold.


The rear sight has a windage-adjustable “peep-sight” type aperture. The European-style ramp or ladder scale system is used to elevate the sight for varying distances. The site is graduated from a low of 200-meters, to a high setting of 1,200-meters. There are four-clicks of windage per each full rotation of the rear windage drum, with each click moving the POI approximately one inch at 100 meters.

 The safety lever is located on the right side of the rifle and at the front of the trigger guard. If the safety lever is in this forward position, the rifle is ready to “fire”. Moving the safety lever downward and to the rear of the trigger guard (i.e., toward the butt of the rifle) will place the weapon in “safe” mode.

The rifle traces much of its evolutionary lineage to the French 7mm ENT B5 experimental rifle by Rossignol (1901), which – as far as I have been able to determine – is the first rifle to feature the direct gas impingement system. This feature was also found on the MAS-38/39 trial rifle (1939) and the MAS-40 (which entered limited service in March 1940), followed by the MAS-44, 44A and 44B used in small numbers by the French Navy after WW2. The Swedes made the first widespread operational use of the  system via their AG-42 Ljungman rifle (1942).  Users of traditional AR-15 rifles will have a good understanding of this system.

The MAS semi-automatic rifles features a tilting bolt, which is a design feature that I believe originated on the Browning Automatice Rifle, (1918). Other rifles that sport this design include the French MAC-1928 experimental rifle, the 1940 Russian SVT40, the 1944 Siminov SKS the Belgium FN-49 (1949 and the FN FAL (1952). Users of the SKS will immediately recognize the similarity between the two systems, as above and below.

Unlike the SKS, however, the firing pin on any MAS-49/56 is “free-floating” within the bolt. This system works fine with the surplus military ammunition it was designed to fire, or with handloads using CCI No. 34 primers. However, use of commercial ammunition, or reloads with “soft” primers, may cause the rifle to experience “doubles” or even full automatic fire.  Obviously, this is not a safe condition.

One odd feature of the rifle is the use of proprietary screws.  Apparently, the French military did not trust their soldiers to fully disassemble their rifles, so it uses weird screws.

 Another interesting (but now useless) feature is the grenade launching apparatus attached to the front of the barrel.

Shooting Characteristics

The MAS 49/56 is an accurate rifle—for its era. The MAS’s trigger is fairly heavy (8-9 lbs). Using high-quality surplus French military ball, I was able to achieve, on average, 1.75 to 2.5 MOA five-shot groups at 100 yards (called flyers omitted). The best group was a lucky three-shot, 1.2 MOA group at 100 yards:

 The following group was more typical of what I was consistently achieving in terms of 100-yard accuracy:

Perhaps even more impressive, however, is the MAS 49/56’s overall handling and light recoil. The sights stay on target very easily and I found the recoil to be extremely light for a full-power rifle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did experience one major malfunction while on the range. After cleaning and re-assembling the weapon, I took the gun to the range at Tri-County. My very first shot caused the bolt and bolt carrier to get stuck in their most rearward position. I was not able to return the bolt carrier group back into battery without the assistance of a rubber mallet.

Further disassembly and inspection revealed no apparent damage to the rifle, and I was also not able to re-create the malfunction with the remaining 90 rounds I had in my possession. At this point, I am inclined to believe that I may have re-assembled the rifle incorrectly, although it is hard to say for sure until more long-term tests are conducted.

Potential Problem Areas

The vast majority of the problems associated with MAS 49/56 arise from bubba’ed .308 conversions. Century Arms converted a bunch of imported MAS 49/56s to .308. Win. in the 1990s  and the results were pathetic.  Some work, some don’t.  Bottom line: stay away from CAI conversions unless you can verify that they are “shooters.”

Another common source of problems stems from the use of commercial 7.5x54mm  ammunition made in countries other than France.  These rounds have been known to produce burst fire (two or three rounds at a time) because of more sensitive primers. For a while, it was possible to buy a commercial titanium firing pin to replace the heavy steel factory firing pin. These commercial pins were much lighter and generally cured the problem of burst fire on these weapons when using soft primers.  Unfortunately, the supply of these titanium pins has dried up.

According to internet lore, it is also possible to prevent the “slamfire” issue by shortening the firing pin by approximately 0.5 mm (from 1.3mm down to 0.8mm), or by modifying the bolt to accommodate a firing pin return spring.  I have no experience with these modifications, and therefore cannot endorse them.  Having said that, I fired 30 rounds of Prvi-Partisan through the test gun without incident (I did wait until everybody else had left the range to try them out – if the rifle was going to go cyclic on me, I didn’t want to have anyone else there to witness it!).

Finally, excess grease or oil can interfere with the free-floating firing pin.  Like an SKS, the firing pin channel should also be kept free of cosmoline, sticky grease or oily residues so that it can move about freely.

Collecting the MAS 49/56.

In the 1990s, importers bought large quantities of surplus MAS 49/56s from France. Many of the sample MAS 49/56s you see on the open market today were from these stockpiles. Many had been re-arsenaled and are therefore in excellent condition.  The original serial number will be stamped vertically next to the forestock.  From what I have been able to gather from reading internet lore, the F prefix rifles were manufactures between 1956 and 1958, the G series were made between 1958 and 1960, and the H series were made between 1961 and 1963.  Production stopped 1963 and it is estimated that total production numbered approximately 280,000 units.

Just to the right of the original serial number there may be another stamp: a “P” followed by two numbers in a square. Those two numbers represent the year the rifle was re-arsenaled. Most of the samples in excellent condition have re-arsenal dates in the 1980s or early 1990s.  The sample gun was likely manufactured in 1959 and it was re-furbished in 1981.

In their importation hey-day, nice examples could be had at retail for $220 with three magazines, bayonet, scabbard, rubber recoil boot, night sights, and full accessory kit. While no longer ubiquitous, the MAS-49/56 will still occasionally come up for sale at gun shows. Prices range from $150 for a FUBAR’ed .308 conversion to upwards of $450-$500 for a pristine example in the original 7.5 F caliber. The sample gun is valued at around $300-$400. Occasionally, higher asking prices may be encountered, particularly if the rifle comes with accessories.

When purchasing a MAS 49/56, inspect the lower, rear edge, of the bolt. The locking surface should be square and true, with no “rounding” or “peening” along the primary locking surfaces. Also inspect the trigger block to ensure that it is properly adjusted inside the stock: The correct protrusion of the hammer inside the receiver must be adjusted precisely (minimum = 0.8mm, maximum = 1.0mm).  To make this measurement, depress the trigger while the hammer is held back by the auto sear.

SPECIFICATIONS

Caliber:  7.5 x 54 French. Aftermarket conversions to .308 Win are common (and often crappy).
Action: Gas operated, air-cooled, tilting bolt; shoulder fired
Capacity: detachable 10 round box magazine
Overall Length: 43 inches
Barrel Length: 20.25 inches
Weight: 8.5.5 lbs unloaded; 9.2 lbs loaded with 10 round magazine
Sights: front sight is a vertical blade with protective ears (elevation adjustable) , rear sight is simple aperture (windage-adjustable) (think AR-15 type sights)
Finish: Military Phosphate
Price: $150 – $500

RATINGS (out of five)

Style  * 1/2
A bit like a moped: fun to ride but you don’t necessarily want to be seen in public with her.

Ergonomics (Shooting) * * * *
The recoil is light for a weapon of this caliber. The rifle “points” very quickly compared to typical WWII-era bolt action rifle or a M1 Garand.

Ergonomics (Carrying) * * * *
This rifle is incredibly well balanced and carries much better than a typical WW-II era bolt action or M1 Garand.

Reliability  * * * * * (with caveat)
An original MAS 49/56 is a very reliable weapon, especially when using French mil-sup ammo. The only common problem reportedly occurs when using commercial ammo with soft primers. On the other hand, many of the imported MAS 49/56s were subjected to bubba’ed conversions to .308 WIN by the drunken monkeys at Century Arms, giving the rifle an undeserved reputation for unreliability in the hands of American sport shooters.

Customize This  * * 1/2
Accessories include a rubber slip-on butt pad, bayonet, scabbard, tritium night sites, night site pouch, French instruction manual, cleaning kit, broken shell extractor, ammunition pouch, and telescopic sight.

Build quality  * * * * 
Top notch. The internals are all heavy duty, forged, machined parts. In terms of overall build quality and attention to detail, the MAS 49/56 will give most mil-sups (except maybe the Swiss K-31 or SMLE) a run for its money. A fair amount of machining marks are evident, which warrants a one point reduction.

Accuracy  * * * *
The MAS 49/56 will hold its own against any other semi-auto mil-sup rifle of its day, including the FN FAL, HK G3 /CETME, or an off the shelf M1 Garand. It will surpass the FN 49, SVT-40, AK-47 or SKS. I will take a half star away for the front sight post, which is too fat to be very useful for precision target work. The frightfully heavy trigger deserves another half star reduction.

Overall     * * * *
The MAS 49/56 represents one of the pinnacles of the semi-automatic, main battle rifle designs. In today’s market, where a decent M-1 Garand will fetch upwards of $1000, the MAS 49/56 a bargain for a lightweight, compact, hard-hitting main battle rifle. Although limited ammunition availability lessens this weapon’s appeal as an everyday shooter, it should be considered an important and inexpensive addition to the mil-sup collector’s arsenal.