The 8x50R Lebel (8mm Lebel)
By Chuck Hawks
This obsolete number is based on one of the strangest looking bottle neck cases I have ever seen, yet the French relied on it for 50 years as a colonial power and through the First World War, which they won, with a lot of help from their friends. The French do things differently, and that applies to rifles and rifle cartridges as well as warships and movies!
The 8mm Lebel (based on the earlier 11mm Gras necked down to accept .323" bullets) marks the beginning of the period of the small bore military cartridges designed for use with smokeless powder. It was the first of the breed, introduced in 1886.
The original bullet was a 232 grain flat nose, flat base design (Balle M). This was sensible, as the bolt action M1886 Lebel rifle adopted for the cartridge used a tubular magazine! Including a cartridge in the chamber, this rifle could hold 10 rounds.
In 1890, the French began changing the feeding system of the Lebel rifle. A new carbine, the M90 Berthier, was adopted with an internal box magazine that was filled with an en bloc clip that held three cartridges. Cartridges and clip were shoved into the receiver together. The new clip forced the previous (empty) clip out the bottom of the action. Without a clip to hold the cartridges, the rifle could only be fed one cartridge at a time, directly into the chamber. This system was subsequently used in the 07-15 (3-shot) and M16 (5-shot) rifles, and the M16 carbine. All of these, including the original Model 1886, saw service in WW I.
In 1898 the French again started a trend by introducing a 198 grain spitzer boat-tail bullet for the 8mm Lebel (the "Balle D"--named for Colonel Desaleux). This begot all of the spitzer boat-tail military bullets that followed. To the present day military cartridges are bottle neck small bores designed for smokeless powder that shoot spitzer (usually boat-tail) bullets. But nothing made today looks like the 8x50R Lebel. In fact, despite its pioneering role, the Lebel looked obsolete even when it was new.
The famous Balle D load drove its 198 grain spitzer bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2380 fps with 2481 ft. lbs. of muzzle energy (ME). That does not sound particularly exciting today, but before the turn of the 20th Century it was a very potent load. Basically, for military or sporting purposes, the 8mm Lebel is similar in performance to the .303 British and .30-40 Krag cartridges. It is not quite the ballistic equal of the 8x57mm JS Mauser or .30-06 Springfield, but it is not too far behind.
Here is some European ballistic data contributed by Didier Mottay, a Guns and Shooting Online reader. First, the original "M" load (232 grain flat nose bullet):
Now, the improved "D" (198 grain spitzer bullet):
The 8x50R never caught on as a hunting cartridge as did the .303 British, 8x57, and .30-06. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that there is not much big game hunting in France, or much of a sporting rifle manufacturing base. And for the last 200 years it has been illegal to use any "military" caliber in France. (This includes all calibers from all countries that have ever been adopted, including cartridges such as the .30-06, 6.5x55, 8x57, 7x57, .308 Win., and .303 British that are popular hunting cartridges worldwide!) I have never seen a hunting rifle chambered for 8mm Lebel.
The 8mm Lebel case has a very large, thick, beveled rim. It is rather short, at 50mm (2") in length, and has a lot of body taper and a rather sloping shoulder. The rim diameter is a monstrous .621", the base diameter is a fat .536", the shoulder measures .483" at its base, and the neck measures .347". The Lebel uses standard .323" diameter bullets. As you can imagine from those dimensions, the whole cartridge tapers pretty radically.
For comparison, here are the equivalent dimensions for the 8x57 Mauser: case length 57mm, rim .473", base .469", shoulder .443", neck .353". As you can see, the Mauser case has a lot less taper spread over a longer case. It also uses a sharper shoulder angle. Unlike the Lebel, it still looks like a modern cartridge.
French Lebel cases are Berdan primed and therefore cannot be decapped by modern reloading dies. Remington manufactured 8mm Lebel ammunition and rifles for France during WW I, and offered a hunting load using a 170 grain Bronze Point expanding bullet in the caliber between the world wars. That load had a catalog MV of 2640 fps and ME of 2630 ft. lbs. Remington cases used standard Boxer type primers and can be reloaded.
The Lebel's huge rim and ungainly shape made it poorly suited for use in weapons with a detachable box magazine, so in 1929 the French introduced the 7.5x54 MAS, a modern rimless cartridge, for use in their machine guns. In 1934 they began adapting the Model 07/15 and M16 bolt action rifle for the newer cartridge (a slow and involved process), and in 1936 they saw the light and adopted the MAS 36 service rifle (another bizarre design!) in 7.5x54. At that point, both the old rifles and 8x50R Lebel cartridge were obsolete. But change-over takes time, and in fact 8mm Lebel rifles were still in occasional use when France fell in 1940.
8mm Lebel data is no longer included in modern reloading manuals. In fact, even my oldest reloading manual, dating back to the early 1960's, does not list the cartridge. Cartridges of the World suggests that 49 grains of IMR 4895 powder behind a 170 grain bullet produces a MV of 2570 fps and ME of 2500 ft. lbs. The same source suggests 46 grains of IMR 3031 powder behind a 198 grain bullet as a duplicate for the military load. The MV is 2380 fps and ME is 2481 ft. lbs. No other details about these reloads are given. I would guess that they were probably tested in surplus French Lebel military rifles, as there is virtually nothing else available chambered for the cartridge.
The 8x50R Lebel is important in the history of cartridge development for its pioneering use of smokeless powder and spitzer bullets, but its design was needlessly quirky even in its day. After all, it predates the 7x57 Mauser and 6.5x55 SE by only a few years and those cartridges are still popular today, while the 8mm Lebel has been obsolete for over 65 years!
Note: This article is mirrored on the Rifle Cartridge Page.
Copyright 2005, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.