Belgium’s forgotten .30-06 Mauser

Strictly speaking, Belgium’s Mle. 50 rifle, a .30-06 Springfield Mauser-type design, does not belong here as it was a post-WWII weapon. As far as being unique, it was not the last bolt-action military rifle made after WWII, nor was it the only one using .30-06. None the less, it remains a forgotten “final bookend” of the bolt-action era which largely faded away with the end of WWII in 1945: It combined the USA’s WWII rifle cartridge, probably the best of the war, with the operating features of European rifles, like Germany’s 98k, which had dominated conflicts for half a century. This rifle was a last hurrah of WWII’s generation.

top

(FN Mle. 50 rifle.)

1964a

(A Congolese soldier with a Mle. 50 rifle during 1964.)

backstory

Belgium was neutral at the start of WWII in 1939. It was overrun by Germany during May 1940.

During the occupation a Belgian gunsmith named Dieudonne Saive had made it out to Great Britain. He took with him the concept for a new advanced semi-automatic rifle he had been advocating since the late 1930s, the EXP-1. If the Belgian government had not dragged its feet this design, on par with the M1 Garand for that era, might have been in service by the time WWII began in 1939. Instead Belgium was still making bolt-action Mausers on the eve of the German invasion in 1940.

saive

(Dieudonne Saive after WWII with his most famous Cold War era creation, the FN FAL.)

During the later part of WWII Saive assembled a design team known as Groupe 72. Belgium was liberated during September – November of 1944.

Groupe 72 split into two paths. One was to manifest the EXP-1 into production for the reconstituted Belgian army. The other was given samples of Germany’s 7.92 Kurz cartridge (the ammunition of the StG-44 assault rifle) to develop an even more advanced full-auto design, in what was envisioned to be a joint British-Belgian project.

WWII in Europe ended on 8 May 1945. The EXP-1 was finally approved in 1947 and during 1948 belatedly began mass production as the SAFN-49.

safnRoyalTiger

(SAFN-49. The version used by Belgium, Zaire, and Luxembourg was chambered for .30-06 Springfield.) (photo via Royal Tiger Imports)

Meanwhile the other pathway of Groupe 72 assembled a prototype called the “Universal Carbine” in November 1947. It was chambered in 7.92 Kurz as a placeholder caliber only, with an experimental British .280 cartridge being the planned ammunition.

universalcarbine

The British .280 cartridge was abandoned and in final form, the Universal Carbine came to fruition as an assault rifle using 7.62 NATO, the FN FAL. The FAL would enter service in 1953 – 1956 and with over 2 million made, would go on to replace WWII-era rifles around the world during the 1960s.

short-term needs

Rewinding back to the late 1940s, Belgium had an immediate need for new rifles. Other than a small Free Belgian contingent which had evacuated to Great Britain and colonial forces in the Congo, the Belgian army had been obliterated during May 1940. After the Allies liberated Belgium, the army began the process of reconstituting itself. The restarted army was equipped with second-hand Enfield No.4 Mk.I rifles donated by the UK.

1946enfields

(Belgian soldiers with WWII British Enfield No.4 rifles during 1946.)

While there was nothing wrong with the Enfield during WWII, it was not what Belgium was looking for long-term. For starters the rifles themselves were used and often dinged-up. The .303 British cartridge had never been utilized by Belgium before WWII, and Belgium had no interest in using it for anything in the future.

By 1948, three years after WWII, the SAFN-49 was starting its production run but it would be a while before it was fully integrated into the army. There was still the chance that some unforeseen failure might affect the SAFN-49 in service; it being the very first Belgian semi-auto rifle. There was no guarantee that the assault rifle project (which eventually became the FAL) would ever see service at all.

There was also an issue separate from battlefield concerns, in that FN had been a good source of taxable revenue and trade for Belgium prior to WWII. It was considered preferable to sequester defense spending within the national economy as opposed to buying guns off-the-shelf from abroad.

fnherstal

(Fabrique Nationale’s headquarters in Herstal, Belgium in 2022.) (photo by FN Herstal company)

1944

(The building in 1944, having been damaged during WWII.)

Fabrique Nationale, located in the city of Herstal in northeastern Belgium, manufactured the Mle. 35 rifle which was the most modern of four “standard” rifles within the Belgian army at the start of WWII. It was a Mauser-style bolt-action short rifle similar in form and function to Germany’s 98k, and to the export “contract rifles” which had made FN a wealthy company. In particular, during the Great Depression era, the company’s made-for-export Mle. 24 and Mle. 30 rifles sold very well in Central and South America.

Of the Mle. 35 rifles Belgium had in 1940, the survivors were absorbed into the Wehrmacht under the designation Gewehr 262(b).

Contrary to what is widely believed today, FN was not a major source of German 98k rifles during the WWII occupation. A few were run with the “ch” makers mark assigned, which also appears on 7.92 Mauser ammunition made for the Wehrmacht during the occupation. Small numbers of commercial Mle. 24/30 rifles were also made. But for the most part, the Germans used FN to make “raw” 98k barrels and bolt bodies for use by established 98k manufacturers. Along with handguns (which were widely made start-to-finish during the occupation) this work allowed FN’s pre-1940 machinery to remain on-site in Herstal throughout WWII instead of the company being disestablished.

Herstal was liberated by advancing Allied forces in September 1944. During the final five months of WWII in Europe, and continuing afterwards into 1946, FN restarted operations by refurbishing US Army small arms. These US Army contracts probably saved the company from extinction.

1945

(FN employees refurbishing US Army weapons in 1945. Types serviced were the M1 Garand rifle, M3 submachine gun, and M1/M2 carbines. Before the contracts ended in 1946, two million American guns were refurbished and returned.)

Surprisingly, FN’s jigs for making the prewar export-contract Mle. 24/30 rifles survived all of WWII. During 1948 FN manufactured the “Dutch Police Carbine”, a half-breed of the Mle. 30 and 98k chambered in 7.92 Mauser, for the Netherlands. Otherwise the company’s immediate overseas prospects were dim. The world was flooded with surplus WWII bolt-action rifles and few countries would pay for new ones when gently-used examples were so cheap.

Meanwhile at home, the Belgian army was looking for a low-cost, no-risk way to bridge the gap between donated WWII Allied arms and future designs.

As the 1940s drew to a close, it was decided that the best solution would be a seemingly retrograde one: to field a brand-new bolt-action rifle for the Belgian army even as the bolt-action era was ending worldwide, and even as something better was in production.

The caliber chosen was .30-06 Springfield. The American military had huge quantities of this ammunition, specifically the M2 ball variant, in Europe which it was willing to part ways with affordably. Belgium had already selected it as the caliber for the upcoming SAFN-49.

comparison

(To the left a WWII German 7.92 Mauser cartridge, to the right a WWII American .30-06 Springfield cartridge.)

As a test in 1946, a 7.92 Mauser-chambered Mle. 35 was converted to .30-06 Springfield. A shaped notch was cut into the forward side of the receiver to accommodate the slightly longer American cartridge. The magazine floorplate was extended and the gun was rebarreled and restocked. The sights were adjusted for the different ballistic drop of the American cartridge. Overall this was a success. Belgium ordered that remaining Mle. 35s (which were probably not very many by then) be converted to .30-06, with the new designation being Mle. 35/46.

Mle3546converteed

(Mle. 35/46 rifle. These are even rarer today than Mle. 50s.)

The next step was to put into production and service a bolt-action Mauser-style rifle made from the outset for .30-06 Springfield. This would be the Mle. 50.

advantages

The seemingly regressive step of fielding a new bolt-action rifle after WWII had already ended, actually made sense for Belgium’s situation at the end of the 1940s. In 1949, this whole project was only a “bridge” between the ageing WWII ex-British Enfields and the SAFN-49. A basic bolt-action rifle with zero development costs would be quite affordable by early 1950s standards.

There was no technical risk to the project. FN had decades of experience with the Mauser system. The Mle. 35/46 had already proven the Mauser platform adaptable to the .30-06 Springfield cartridge.

Likewise, the ammunition choice had every possible advantage. It was already proven in battle during two world wars, was widely available for minimal cost in the late 1940s, and would be future-compatible for rifles the Belgians would field in upcoming decades.

ammointo60s

(After cheap WWII-leftover .30-06 from the United States dried up, FN simply manufactured this cartridge itself, with a run going to the end of the 1960s and on spot orders, a decade or so past that.)

nomenclature

The nomenclature of FN rifles is often confusing and the .30-06 Mauser was no exception.

Mle. 50 was actually never official within the Belgian military. The official designation was Fusil Mle. 24 (Rifle Model of 1924) which was also FN’s commercial sales name for the 7.92 Mauser-chambered Mle. 24 made for export between the world wars. This being despite using completely different ammunition, having other changes, and being made in the 1950s.

The .30-06 rifles were built around the 8¾” receiver used on the commercial Mle.24, while most of the new rifle was actually based on the export-contract Mle. 30 which FN still had tooling for from before WWII. Why the Belgians chose to name it this way has been lost to time.

In any case, Mle. 50 is used by most firearms historians for this rifle and is used here.

Mle. 50 rifle

Other than the caliber, little functionally differentiates a Mle. 50 from other FN bolt-action Mausers made during or before WWII, or the German 98k of WWII.

rti

(photo via Royal Tiger Imports)

description

The Mle. 50 weighed 8¾ lbs. It had a straight bolt handle. It fired the .30-06 Springfield cartridge from a stripper-loaded 5rds internal magazine. Compared to FN’s 7.92 Mauser variants, the Mle. 50’s .30-06 magazine was expanded to just under 3½” and the well was deepened by a little less than ¼”. The front of the receiver has the characteristic shaped notch however it is slightly less pronounced than on rechambered Mausers, as the Mle. 50 was designed for the longer American cartridge from the outset. The trigger pull was set at 6 lbs.

libertytree

(Underside of the magazine well, which is slightly swollen to take the .30-06 Springfield cartridge. Otherwise it is unremarkable compared to a 98k or most any other bolt-action Mauser, with the screws in the same places as is the disassembly plunger hole.) (photo via Liberty Tree Collectors)

breechLacysRange

(The bolt of a Mle. 50 pulled back showing the rear of the receiver and extractor around the bolt.) (photo via Lacy’s Range)

The rear face of the receiver was modified to take American stripper clips used for the US Army’s M1903 rifles. These were widely available to Belgium at minimal cost as the US Army had almost completely phased out the M1903 Springfield by 1950.

rear

(The loading groove on a Mle. 50, sized and shaped for the American stripper clips.)

stripperclip

(GI stripper clips for the M1903 and M1917 rifles had the frustrating small tabs which eventually wore out and broke off.)

The furniture was of select-quality walnut, and made with excellent worksmanship. The sling was a fabric 1″ “skinny” type. The buttstock had a serrated metal endpiece. The original design cupped around the butt as seen below on a Colombian Mle. 50. There is another style for the Mle. 50, which is also serrated but sits flush with the end of the butt. These are the same as in the Dutch Police Carbines and may have been left over from that project.

buttplate

The Mle. 50 used the normal Mauser “safety flag” to the rear of the bolt. This thumb-tab was moved left to fire, straight up to unchamber a round or service the rifle, and right to the safe position.

Overall nothing was revolutionary about the Mle. 50. Anybody who knew how to use a pre-WWII FN contract rifle, or a WWII German 98k; could operate and maintain a Mle. 50 and vice-versa.

sights

There was little remarkable about the sights compared to FN’s other bolt-action Mausers. The front sight was a blade, with no hood.

libertytree2

(Front sight on a Mle. 50. This photo also shows the bayonet boss and cleaning rod, and front retention band which was the “H” style typical of the WWII German 98k and prewar Czechoslovak and Belgian Mausers.) (photo via Liberty Tree Collectors)

The rear sight was similar to the FN pre-WWII style and adjustable from 0 to 1,900 meters (2,078yds) in 100m increments.

sightlibertytreecollectors

(photo via Liberty Tree Collectors)

markings

Mle. 50 rifles were engraved with “ABL”, a portmanteau of “Armée Belge” and “Belgisch Leger”, both meaning Belgian Army in French and Flemish, the nation’s two official languages. Beneath was the production year.

Atop the receiver was the national property marking, a crown with the monarch’s initial. The Mle. 50 is historically interesting in this regard, as its brief production run straddled an tumultuous time within the Belgian monarchy.

L

King Leopold III was reigning when WWII began in 1939. By late May 1940, most of Belgium had been overrun by the Wehrmacht and the British Expeditionary Force was trapped in a pocket around Dunkirk. With the Belgian government already having departed for London, King Leopold III surrendered the nation on 27 May 1940.

The government-in-exile in London declared the surrender unconstitutional but being unable to convene the Belgian parliament, could not remove Leopold III from the throne. The king stayed in occupied Belgium until 1944 when he was arrested by the Germans and taken to Germany and later Austria, which is where he was when WWII ended.

In the meantime Charles, Count Of Flanders had been appointed as regent in Leopold III’s stead. After WWII Leopold III lived in Switzerland, still technically Belgium’s king. On 12 March 1950, a bitter national referendum was held as to whether he should remain king. Belgian voters cast 57% to 43% in favor of him returning, however the nationwide results masked severe regional differences, which were more than 2-to-1 one way or the other.

Leopold III returned home on 22 July 1950. Production of the Mle. 50 rifle started that year bearing his L initial.

Faced with lingering public bitterness, Leopold III abdicated on 16 July 1951. Any Mle. 50 with the L initial was made before that date.

1952markingB

King Baudoin assumed the throne upon the abdication. Mle. 50 rifles made after July 1951 bear his B initial. The rifle’s production run ended in 1952.

Serials are located on the bolt handle, the right side of the receiver, and the right side of the furniture above the action lug screw.

markings5

On the left side of the receiver is FN’s makers mark.

markings4

The arrow-like marking shown below is called a Perron and on Belgian firearms, signifies that the action has been cycle-tested.

markingsLibertytreecoll

Elsewhere on the receiver (the position varied over the Mle. 50’s production run) is a crowned nitro proofmark and an inspector’s stamp.

The Mle. 50s were not “storage items” and the Belgian military got thorough use out of them. Many were arsenal-overhauled or even rebuilt during their service lives. These have a * next to the serial on the receiver. In the Belgian system, each factory overhaul added a star and there are Mle. 50s with two stars.

star

The Mle. 50 rifles made for Force Publique, the colonial army in the Belgian Congo, are described more fully later below. These rifles were marked with F.P. followed by the production year, with the property mark being a lion in a wreath.

fp

color, and the “army / navy versions” inaccuracy

Perhaps surprisingly, the Mle. 50’s color is maybe what it is best-known for within the firearms collector community today.

gunboards

(photo via gunboards online forum)

Mle. 50 rifles were finished with Suncorite, a patented British coating. Except for the bolt, the rifle’s metal parts were treated with phosphoric acid, parkerized, and then coated with the soluble liquid Suncorite. This hardened to a semi-glossy enamel resistant to oil, water, and wear. Much like paint, added pigment could make Suncorite any color desired.

Suncorite was not new in 1950. For example FN had used it on the Mle. 30 export-contract rifles sold to Colombia just prior to WWII. Elsewhere, Great Britain used it on Enfield No.5 “jungle carbines” late in WWII.

The “default” Suncorite color for Mle. 50s was jet black.

black

There were also some finished in olive drab green. These were not many and are extremely rare today. More common is the haze grey color.

grey

The haze grey color also started an inaccurate description of there being “army” and “navy” Mle. 50 versions. Suncorite could be used on any metal object, not just rifles. Late in the Mle. 50’s short production run, an unwanted surplus of the haze grey pigment was on hand. After a test showed there was little camouflaging difference in average ranges and lighting with this grey vs jet black, it was decided to use it for Mle. 50s.

Both the Belgian army and Belgian navy used Mle. 50 rifles during the type’s career. However the color chosen did not determine which or the other got them.

The mistake gained traction with Robert Ball’s otherwise excellent book Mauser Military Rifles Of The World. Written over a decade ago now, the Mle. 50 was obscure at the time. Since the Belgian navy received Mle. 50s later than the Belgian army (they actually received them from the army) and retired them later; and since warships are painted haze grey; the error is understandable.

At least until it starts to stain and chip off, the Suncorite coating is aesthetically pleasing and makes for a smart-looking rifle. It is possible to strip and re-apply Suncorite, and some Mle. 50s used by the Belgian Gendarmerie, the final user in Europe, were apparently re-done in black replacing the original black or the green or grey color.

Conversely some of the Force Publique Mle. 50s may have never been Suncorited at all and simply parkerized.

navyVs98k

(A WWII German 98k at top, and a Mle. 50 at bottom. The .30-06 Belgian rifle was slightly longer overall. The most obvious difference is the straight bolt handle. Other differences are the absence of the maintenance disc on the stock, the furniture surrounding the rear sight ahead of the receiver, the use of swivel sling loops, and the grey Suncorite.)

bayonet

The Mle. 50 rifle used the pre-WWII Mle. 24. This was a sword-type bayonet with a 15 1⁄8″ blade.

Mle24WorldBayonets

(photo via World Bayonets website)

FN had its own in-house cutlery department and before WWII, had included Mle. 24 bayonets with export-contract Mausers. The company’s philosophy was that a bayonet was a removable part of the rifle, not an optional accessory to it.

After WWII FN’s cutlery department got back on its feet by making clones of the British No.4 Spike bayonet for the donated Enfield rifles. For the Mle. 50 project, it was decided to simply restart production of the Mle. 24 bayonet. WWII had shown a tendency away from long sword bayonets towards more utilitarian designs. However the thinking here was in line with the whole Mle. 50’s concept: avoid any design expense or risk and just field a serviceable thing as fast as possible.

Before WWII, these were delivered steel in-the-white; and a few of the post-WWII ones were as well. However this was changed to a blueing the metal, and some even received Suncorite to match the rifle.

This was the last “long” bayonet FN would make. The SAFN-49 used a 9″ blade design, and the initial FAL bayonet had a 7¾” blade. Later FAL bayonets were 6¼”. During 1977 FN changed its philosophy and only included bayonets with FALs for extra cost. The company shut down its cutlery department in 1988.

the Mle. 50 in the Congo

Belgium’s colony in central Africa, the Belgian Congo, was infinitely bigger than Belgium itself. It had a local defensive army called Force Publique.

During WWII the Belgian Congo was a marooned entity with the colony remaining on the Allied side even as Belgium itself was under occupation. Force Publique’s main rifle during WWII was the bolt-action Mle. 89/36. This was a Great Depression-era rebuild of a First World War long rifle. It used a FN-made 7.65x53mm cartridge (usually called 7.65 Argentine in the rest of the world). When resupply of this caliber was cut off during 1940, Great Britain donated some Enfields and .303 British ammunition to Force Publique to allow the Mle. 89/36s to make it through WWII.

Procurement for Force Publique was done in a somewhat weird way. The colonial force was parallel to, not part of, the Belgian army. Rifles and ammunition were chosen and ordered not by the Belgian general staff, but rather by the Ministère des Colonies (Colonial Ministry) which had offices in Leopoldville and Brussels. One would think that after the strains of WWII that this roundabout system would have been abolished, but it resumed in 1945.

In line with the above, the Enfields were removed from service between 1948 – 1951 and replaced by small batches of FN’s pre-WWII commercial Mle. 30 design, of which small lots were ran during the late 1940s chambered in 7.65 Argentine.

At the same time significant quantities of 7.65 Argentine ammo were reordered to continue feeding the obsolete Mle. 89/36 rifles, which it intended to keep in service alongside the new Mle. 30s.

The 7.65 Argentine decisions were soon regretted and during 1951, .30-06 Springfield SAFN-49s were ordered. However Force Publique would need to wait in line behind the regular Belgian army and these would be some time in coming. As a stop-gap, Mle.50s were ordered later that year.

boltroyaltigerimporrts

(photo via Royal Tiger Imports)

All of the Force Publique guns came from the 1952 production year. Other than the aforementioned different markings, they were the same as the baseline Mle. 50. One interesting feature on the Force Publique guns was an optional muzzle cap. Nearly a direct copy of the WWII German muzzle cap for the 98k, this hooked behind the front blade sight and had a flip-door. In Africa these were often quickly lost or broken and are rare today.

Some Force Publique Mle. 50s in private hands today lack the Suncorite; it is unknown if this is due to the coating just completely coming off over the years or if they were delivered that way.

Mle. 50s in Colombia

colombian2

(Colombian Mle. 50 rifle.)

During WWII the Colombian army used a variety of Mauser-style bolt-action rifles, mainly Austrian-made Steyr M-1929s and FN’s commercial Mle. 30; both chambered in 7x57mm. Colombia was on the Allied side during WWII but did not send any army units into combat, and thus received limited Lend-Lease from the United States.

In 1948 Colombia became eligible for Rio Pact aid and the expectation was for significant amounts of WWII-surplus American rifles, namely .30-06 M1 Garands, to be upcoming. This was indeed what happened with deliveries starting after the Korean War. By the mid-1960s Colombia had received nearly 10,000 M1 Garands.

In the meantime Colombia was in a not altogether different situation as Belgium: It wanted to first flush out the remaining very old Steyr M-1912s and then the Steyr M-1929s; replacing them with something in .30-06 Springfield to match the ammunition of the expected future M1 Garand deliveries. However with a limited budget, this new “intermediate placeholder” rifle would have to be affordable and uncomplicated.

A Colombian arsenal rechambered some pre-WWII FN Mle. 30s from 7x57mm to .30-06 Springfield. This was a success. Colombia already had a good relationship with FN from before WWII and an order was placed for Mle. 50s. It is thought that 3,000 rifles were ordered.

In all but markings, the Colombian rifles were the same as the Belgian ones.

colombianotch

(The Colombian national cartouche is atop the receiver. This photo also gives a good close-up look at the notch on the Mle. 50 to accommodate the longer American cartridge.)

colombianserials

(The Colombian Mle. 50s had “.30” stamped. It is impossible to fit .30-06 Springfield into a rifle chambered for 7x57mm, but it is theoretically possible to accidentally load 7x57mm strippers into the .30-06 receiver.)

This order was considered successful and was followed up by FN assisting Colombian arsenals in rechambering the rest of the pre-WWII FN Mle. 30s to .30-06 Springfield as well. The Colombian Mle. 50s were very well-liked in service; considered of being exceptionally high quality and very durable.

The Mle. 50s served alongside M1 Garands in the 1960s Colombian army and even later during the 1970s, alongside M14s. The last was not discarded from storage until 1988.

the .22 trainer

There was one final offshoot of the Mle. 50, a .22LR training rifle.

22trainer

Before WWII, the Belgian army trained using special full-caliber training rounds manufactured by the Marga company. These had semi-frangible bullets of a plastic-like compound. The cartridge had a normal primer but only a bit of smokeless powder mixed with a wad of nitrated paper, which produced less energy.

The Marga company did not survive WWII. As opposed to developing a new training cartridge, FN opted to instead adopt the Mle. 50 for .22LR as a cheap, single-shot basic marksmanship training gun.

The rear sight was altered to be 0 – 200 meters (218yds) in 25m increments. A plate inside the chamber blocked off the magazine well. As there was no magazine to service, the trigger guard was extended forward into one long continuous piece of metal. The firing pin was fitted with a disc-like rimfire adapter ahead of the bolt’s mainspring.

22traineraction

(A .22 extractor was mounted on the front of the chamber. This photo also shows the blocked-off magazine feed and the sight described below.)

After the FAL entered service during the mid-1950s, Belgium modified between 500 – 700 of these training rifles with a simple diopter sight screwed into the rear of the receiver, as seen above. A tiny set screw allowed minute adjustments of it.

There was no formal designation for these .22LR trainers, they were simply called Fusil d’Entrainement (training rifle). FN manufactured 1,000 of which 300 were sent to the Belgian Congo which was urgently requesting a low-cost ammunition trainer type. Those sent there were apparently informally designated “Mle. 1924(C)” by Force Publique.

When the Israeli army contracted FN to run a 7.62 NATO-chambered version of the 98k, it also bought a .22LR trainer version of the 98k based on the Fusil d’Entrainement.

These were a success in Belgian service, with the cheap rimfire .22LR ammunition being much more affordable than .30-06 Springfield for basic training. These ended up being the very last remnant of the Mle. 50 project to remain in Belgian service, with the last not being retired until 1986.

in service

belgian

(Belgian soldier with a Mle. 50 during a NATO training exercise.)

The Mle. 50 did everything it was supposed to do. It was a no-risk, low-cost, fast way to transition from 7.92 Mauser and .303 British to .30-06 Springfield. It kept Belgian taxpayer money within the country. There were no problems with it in service. While the Mle. 50 was “obsolescent from the get-go”, this had been accepted from the start. FN made 20,000 plus the Colombian contract and the .22 trainers.

ridgeway1953

(A Belgian honor guard with Mle. 50s during 1953. The reviewing officer is US Army Gen. Matthew Ridgeway who had commanded the 82nd Airborne Division during WWII and Allied forces during the Korean War.)

Mle. 50s were in frontline service only a short while. They lingered on in second-tier, training, and finally reserve use with both the Belgian army and navy longer. After disposal from the army, some were reissued to the Belgian Gendarmerie which still had a few in the late 1970s.

huisvanalijnDOTbe1963trainingcenter

(Belgian soldiers in a training unit with Mle. 50s during 1963. Old WWII British Mk.II Tommy helmets were still in training use at this time as well.)

While the Mle. 50 itself did everything expected of it, Belgium’s rifle technology tree did not really progress as intended. There were still donated Enfields lingering around at the end of the 1950s. The SAFN-49 became famous as “the rifle which didn’t change the world”, a semi-automatic design too late to be what would have been an advanced WWII rifle, and already eclipsed by select-fire assault rifles only five or six years later.

The Mle. 50s in Europe never saw combat. The same is not true of the ones sent to the Belgian Congo.

1958

(By 1958, when this photo was taken, Force Publique had a menagerie of rifles ranging from FN FALs to SAFN-49s to bolt-action Mausers in two calibers to the old Mle. 89/36s of WWII.)

In a chaotic mess, the Belgian Congo gained independence as the Republic Of Congo on 30 June 1960. Force Publique morphed into the new Congolese army; an ill-equipped and poorly-led force. It inherited the wide variety of rifles which had equipped Force Publique at the end, including Mle. 50s.

leopolvvillemid1960s

(Congolese soldier with a Mle. 50 during the mid-1960s.)

Between 1963 – 1965, Congo had a serious insurrection known as the Simba Rebellion. Beginning in the eastern Great Lakes region, the Simbas (lions) were a motley mix of army deserters, agitated tribesmen, and communists. Their “revolution” was excessively brutal and very violent. Despite lacking nearly any military training, the Simbas soon swelled their holdings to nearly a third of the big nation.

simbas

(A group of Simbas armed with a SAFN-49, a Mle. 50, and a civilian Mauser hunting rifle.)

The corrupt, under-funded, and poorly-led Congolese army still had Mle. 50s in service and some of these were likewise wielded by the Simbas, who also used pretty much anything under the sun ranging from the old WWII Mle. 89/36s to new SKSs and SAFN-49s to Mosin-Nagants to civilian hunting guns.

Mercenary units, most famously “Mad” Mike Hoare’s 5 Commando, were instrumental in finally turning the tide. 5 Commando did not use Mle. 50s or any bolt-action weapons for that matter. However a Congolese army subunit was often attached to the mercenary units (which never amounted to more than a few hundred men) to “mop up” regained territory. These Congolese units often had Mle. 50s. Being chambered in .30-06 was a benefit as the United States was now a benefactor to Congo and this caliber was more widely available than 7.65 Argentine by the mid-1960s.

simba

(The arrest of a suspected Simba by Congolese forces. Their weapons are a mixture of FALs and a Mle. 50.)

The efficiency of the rifle in combat is difficult to gauge as the Congolese army often performed dismally on the battlefield. They were withdrawn from Zaire (the renamed Congo) use during the 1970s although some were apparently still in inventory as late as 1987.

for the collector

Surplus Mle. 50 rifles of Belgian use began appearing on the collectors market during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with ex-Colombian guns following them. The Mle. 50 was initially shunned by collectors. As the rifle was not well-known, it was often ignored by people seeking “a real 98k”, with the Mle. 50 being dismissed as some kind of post-WWII knock-off. The Suncorite coating was maybe another turn-off, as for people unfamiliar with it, it may have appeared that the rifle had been amateurishly painted by a previous owner. For many years, Mle. 50 rifles were unpopular and could be bought for as little as $275 in the United States.

More recently, perhaps from the late 2000s and into the 2010s, the Mle. 50 has gained some popularity among collectors. The well-made rifle itself is a good weekend shooter or hunting gun. In the USA, .30-06 Springfield remains a tremendously available civilian caliber, available at most any sporting goods or rural hardware store. The Mle. 50 is classified as Curio & Relics eligible by the ATF and as a bolt-action gun lacking a detachable magazine, is generally subject to the least regulation in most states. By 2022 they typically sell for between $700 – $900 at firearms shows.

gunsinternational

(An interesting Mle. 50; this is a “force match” with rifle serial # 6668 having apparently been remounted into the furniture of # 6667, with the 7 carved into a 8, and a replacement bolt with 6668 hand-etched on. This Mle. 50 has the * indicating arsenal-refurbished.) (photo via Guns International)

The original Suncorite is no longer available as it was found to contain noxious chemicals; ironically when it was invented it was thought to have been a “cleaner & safer” metal finishing method. However close substitutes are manufactured today, for anybody wanting to restore a poor-condition Mle. 50.

Within the niche community of bayonet collecting, post-WWII production Mle. 24s have always been extremely desirable. Around the turn of the millennium ones in good condition, especially those with both knife and scabbard Suncorited, they sold in excess of $100 which was between a third and a quarter of the then-average for the whole rifle.

militariabarcelona

(photo via Militaria Barcelona website)

Perhaps a final factor in the Mle. 50’s newfound popularity is a recognition of the unique little alcove it occupies in military firearms history. The Mle. 50 is, essentially, a WWII gun which happened to be made 5 years too late for WWII. Appearing after the creation of NATO, it was none the less “too old at birth” to really fit into the Cold War era. In several ways, the combination of America’s WWII cartridge and Germany’s WWII rifle style was the curtain call of WWII long arms.

9 thoughts on “Belgium’s forgotten .30-06 Mauser

  1. Pertaining to your ammo manufacture point: I bought a sealed box of 30.06 belted machinegun ammo from a fellow on 2022. It was made by FN in 1957. Seems to work ok in the family M1, although I’d like to get an adjustable gas port to be safe. Thanks.

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    • I think FN used to put “Pour F.M.” (for machine guns) on .30-06 intended for BAR’s or M1919s. I dont know if that meant it had some enhanced energy or if it meant that it just came not in en blocs.
      FN made a lot of calibers and sold them pretty much to anybody with cash in hand. There were FN-headstamped 9mm Para casings found in Iraq.

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  2. Cool Article!

    Any plans on writing an article on DISA or Madsen products? The Madsen LMG would Russo-Japanese War after WWII!

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  3. I was a teenager then, but looking in “The Shotgun News” (a newsprint gun collectors’ magazine, like the internet of its era) in the 1980’s I know exactly what you mean about the perceived undesirability of these and similar. I was looking for a “real German K98k” and thought of these “Belgian Mausers” and “Chilean Mausers” and “Persian Mausers” and “Swedish Mausers” (there were lots and lots of Mauser variations for sale then! some of them ridiculously long rifles or tiny short carbines) as uninteresting. I eventually did get a real K98k, a Russian capture from the wave imported a decade or so ago.

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    • Same here. Now I bet a lot of people who bought beat-up, run of the mill 98ks or Yugo M-48s wish they would have snapped up one of those Iranian Kootahs or Ethiopian short Mausers.

      The Russian capture 98ks do make it more interesting, a lot of them had multiple owners after WWII.

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      • Definitely. I think, in general, the offerings in a Shotgun News issue ~1985 would be fun to look through. I definitely recall Chinese made semiauto AK’s for about $300 and SKS’s for $89! The exotic stuff was the semiauto HK and, topical to this subject, FN rifles in 7.62 and 5.56. They were around $800/ea. But the “curio and relic” stuff was off the charts, so many nations were surplusing their old rifles and pistols to the US market.

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  4. On the subject of post WWII. 30-06 bolt action rifles, the Norwegians converted their stock of Kar 98k to .30-06 and IIRC one is in the Wikipedia Kar 98k article. The other one is the Danish Madsen M47 rifle which was a post war design whose only contract was batch for Colombia in .30-06.

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  5. Awesome article, I picked up one of these at a pawn shop that caught my eye. Then had a really hard time nailing down its history until I ran across this article with excellent descriptions.

    Thank you lots to the author!

    Liked by 1 person

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