Marching to the Battement of Their Own Tambour

This is the inaugural post in our new series “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

The French army has done things its own way since at least the Revolution and nurtured a distinct military tradition quite separate from those of the Anglo and Germanic countries. And this independence has showed up in its gear.

After World War II, France relied on hand-me-downs from the United States. Her army struggled through the Fifties to reassert itself and met with ruin in Indochina, Suez, and Algeria, finally ending the decade with a failed military coup. After those demoralizing débacles and the irksome dependence on the US, the French military was going out of its way to be different again. President de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO and reasserted French uniqueness and its independence from even its Western allies. For the military, this meant that the Sixties were a decade of reequipping itself with uniquely French designs in weapons, clothing, and gear.

From the beginning, the French government had always designed and built its own equipment in-house, rather than contracting with private companies. Instead of famous brands like Colt, Remington, Heckler & Koch, and Steyr Mannlicher, France’s arms manufacturers were state-owned arsenals like Saint-Étienne. These government designers could approach engineering problems differently from their commercial counterparts, since they worked within different constraints.

That is one reason that French gear can look as different as Australian fauna do from Asian or African animals: they are the products of separate lines of development and evolution.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comparison_of_ammunition_of_automatic_rifles_(WW1_and_WW2).png
France’s Lebel cartridge was revolutionary but not quite mature. By the time designers recognized its problems, it was too late to start over. France was stuck with it through WWII. (Source: Wikimedia)

One moment in this evolution had huge downstream consequences, one of those junctures where it doesn’t pay to be an early adopter. In 1884, French government inventors devised the first rifle firing “smokeless powder,” a propellent that drives rifle bullets much faster than old-fashioned gunpowder. Eager to capitalize on their discovery before their German rivals, the army rushed the new cartridge into service.

Had they waited, they would have discovered bugs in the new cartridge, like its severe taper, that would soon make it obsolescent. And they could have fixed these bugs (as the Germans did) while they still had time. Instead the French swiftly committed themselves irretrievably to a dead-end design and remained saddled with the Lebel cartridge for the next 60 years.

Trapped by a lousy legacy cartridge, ingenious French designers were limited to developing oddball guns around it to make the best of a bad situation. (Source: The Chauchat Wasn’t the Shittiest Machine Gun–But It Was Still Pretty Shitty)
Credit: US DOD imagery database
The FAMAS was ahead of its time in certain ways (like its integral bipod and user-friendliness for lefties). But it looks like it descended from a UFO because the French designers took an unconventional approach to almost every problem. (Source: US Dept. of Defense)

Unchastened, the French took their own direction again in the Seventies with the FAMAS rifle, which is effective but incorporates so many delightfully weird approaches that I’ve wondered whether the designers in Saint-Étienne were just trying to be novel. Some of the differences are eye-catching, like the “bullpup” configuration (with the magazine behind the trigger), the distinctively huge carry handle, and the three-point sling that lets the rifle seem to float in mid-air at the chest. Other differences are internal, like the virtually unique and superbly cool operating system (called “lever-delayed blowback”).

But systems are systems–they’re integrated. When you make one unconventional change, that can have ripple effects throughout the system and obligate you to change still more elements. Before you know it, your country’s whole system of équipage is the kangaroo, going it all alone at the end of a long branch of isolated, independent evolution.

Photo used by kind permission of Keep Shooting.

In the French case, their cool operating system could not quite handle NATO standard ammunition, so they had to devise and manufacture their own special version of the NATO cartridge. Their design also could not use NATO standard magazines either, so they had to invent their own, smaller magazines too. And the French sling attaches the rifle to soldiers’ chest, so in order to free up space there, the designers then also needed to devise an asymmetrical load-bearing vests with pouches only on the right side of the chest and the left hip. And voilà, the French soldier was now the kangaroo of the Western world, with distinctive pouches in odd places.

Though not exactly rare, France’s alien-looking gear shows up in our surplus market less often than castoffs even from the tiny Dutch and Belgian services, and it’s hard to find information about the peculiarities of its design and use even in French, much less in English. Much as with Russian gear, trying out la tenue française is an engrossing exercise in gearological anthropology, tracing the thoughts of the designers who were tackling all the familiar problems in novel, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes brilliant ways.

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