The Belgian Military Mausers

The Mauser-based Model 1889 rifle and its variants were the inaugural products
of what became Fabrique Nationale, and they served the Belgian military for nearly
50 years and in two world wars.

        The small nation of Belgium barely avoided involvement in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. After that near miss, the Belgians decided a modern, well-equipped army was required to dissuade possible foreign invaders and also to secure the nation's colonial interests.  Belgium's quest for a repeating military rifle started in 1880 when state arsenals tried to convert singleshot Comblain rifles. The results were not satisfactory, and other existing rifle designs were studied. Official military trials started in 1886 and included rifles from Kropatschek, Francotte, Remington-Lee and Nagant.
        The trials' results were generally unsatisfactory as well, and the tests were extended through the end of 1888. Various designs were introduced and rejected throughout that period. A contender from Mauser was introduced in November 1888 and, although the Mauser became an immediate favorite, the trials board recognized problems with the design of the magazine and the extraction of cases. While promising, the Mauser did not participate in the 1888 field tests. Instead, the board requested that certain modifications be made to the rifle prior to continued testing. The modifications were implemented, and the Mauser was resubmitted in 1889.
 

The Century Turns To FN
       The May 1889 trials included designs from Mauser, Mannlicher, Nagant, Schulof and Pieper. At the conclusion of rather comprehensive comparison and field-testing, the Mauser was selected as the new Belgian service rifle, along with the smokeless and rimless 7.65x53 mm Belgian Mauser cartridge.
        As early as the beginning of the trials, the government had established a close liaison with the Belgian arms industry as there was significant political pressure to have the guns manufactured domestically in the armsmaking center of Liege. Bids had been requested from local manufacturers as early as 1887, and, although no specific rifle design had been specified, a quantity of 150,000 rifles was indicated. An order of 150,000 rifles represented a tremendous amount of work, and local gun manufacturers realized that the quantity was well above their individual manufacturing capacities. Therefore, the Liege manufacturers agreed to unite their resources for the contract. More than 10 arms manufacturers joined together, and, in August 1889, formed the legendary arms conglomerate Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre, or simply FN.
        FN was awarded the contract despite the fact that no rifle had yet been accepted. Upon selection of the Mauser, a manufacturing license was obtained from Mauser Waffenwerke, and technical assistance was acquired from Ludwig Loewe in Germany. The FN factory was still under construction when the board of directors learned that the government was also seeking to buy 3,000,000 7.65x53 mm Mauser cartridges. As a result, FN expanded into cartridge manufacture. Factory construction continued throughout 1891. The first three Model 1889 Mauser rifles were assembled on December 31, 1891, and the 150,000 rifle contract was completed by New Year's Eve 1894.
        The Model 1889 was a five-shot, magazine-fed bolt-action rifle, and it was among the most advanced designs of the day. Indeed, this first order, and the high regard in which the Belgian Army held the FN Mausers, helped to create FN's impeccable reputation. Orders for Mauser rifles began to come in from a number of countries, but these were usually for other Mauser designs and not the Model 1889.
        The Belgian military identified a need for a military carbine, and an initial order for 200 was placed in 1893. It evolved through the years and was adapted for use by several branches of the military. No less than five carbine variations existed in the pre-World War I days, and these variations demonstrated only small differences in overall length, stocks and sling swivels.
        Another 20,000 rifles were ordered from FN in 1903 and again in 1906. The Model 1889 slowly replaced the obsolete Comblain rifles until re-equipment was completed by 1908. Interestingly, the Belgian military was extremely progressive in the acceptance of modern designs, but rather slow at replacing outdated equipment.
        The Manufacture d'Armes de l'Etat (State Arms Manufacture) was the Belgian state arsenal. The license to manufacture Mauser rifles had been issued to the Belgian government and not directly to FN. Consequently, the government had the right to produce both parts and complete rifles. The state arsenal had a limited role prior to World War I, concentrating primarily on repairs and spare parts.


M1889 Carbine Pictures

World War I
       Starting in 1912, the Belgian army had undergone comprehensive reorganization, but while still in the midst of these changes, the Army was called upon to defend the nation against the German invasion of August 1914. Belgium, under King Albert I, stood alone for more than three weeks while the French and British mobilized and prepared for war. The excellent quality and accuracy of the Model 1889 soon became apparent. The Belgians had enjoyed numerous prewar shooting camps and competitions and had many sharpshooters and marksmen within their ranks. The Germans, too, recognized the quality and accuracy of the Belgian Mausers, as many Model 1889s were captured and converted to fire the German 7.92x57 mm JS round. Consequently, the 1889 Mauser ended up serving on both sides during the "War To End All Wars."
        The Belgians resisted gallantly but were no match for the enormous German invasion force. Indeed, the Belgians were often outnumbered five-to-one during the first month of the war. King Albert refused to be pushed into France, and the army stood its ground near the coast. The army's supply chain had been smashed, and the forces at the front were desperately short of equipment. In response to this need, the French supplied the Belgians with 8 mm Lebel rifles, which were disliked by the troops. King Albert feared dependency on France would lead to French interference in Belgian domestic affairs, so workshops were set up on the remaining stretch of Belgian soil near Calais, France. FN employees and employees of the state arsenals fled the German occupation and soon were employed in workshops repairing rifles and manufacturing parts. The unoccupied Belgian territory was not more than 30 square miles, but it harbored airstrips, airplane manufacturing and engine repair facilities, as well as all kinds of arms facilities.

The 1916 Carbine and Rifle Overhaul (1889/16)
       There was a major overhaul of Model 1889 in 1916. It consisted only of general repairs and, in some cases, the addition of a loop near the muzzle to allow the use of the converted French bayonets. There were more than five different variants of the 1889 carbine in service; some were repaired and a sling connector and sling swivels added. It should be noted that not all 1889 Mausers were overhauled to 1916 standards, and the reference to guns that were not overhauled at this time as 1889/16 models is incorrect. Guns manufactured in Birmingham, England, and at Hopkins and Alien in Connecticut fit the Model 1916 nomenclature better.

English and American 1889 Mausers: The True 1916 Models
        By the end of 1915 the Belgians were using both French and Belgian arms, and the number of calibers, accessories and parts made for a huge logistics problem. Matters were compounded by reliance on the poor Allied supply chain to provide them with ammunition. King Albert decided to resolve these problems by establishing purchasing commissions in London and New York. Employees of the state arsenal had been able to evacuate plans, spare parts and machinery for the manufacture of the Model 1889 during the invasion. The state arsenal established itself in Calais, but limited its role to repairs and bayonet modifications, and the production machinery was unused. The London acquisitions office assisted the state arsenal and was able to establish a complete manufacturing facility in Birmingham, England. The arsenal employees, armorers and machinery were transferred there. The British Model 1889s were marked "ETAT BELGE - BIRMINGHAM" (Belgian State - Birmingham). It should be noted that this was not the British Small Arms (BSA) factory at Birmingham, but a separate facility.
        Almost simultaneously, the New York acquisitions office was working with American armsmakers. While it is likely that Colt was approached, the Mausers ended up being manufactured at Hopkins and Allen, but Colt did supply the Belgians with Colt/Browning 1903 pistols, as well as Browning 1895 "potato digger" machine guns. Rifles, carbines and long bayonets were made at Hopkins and Allen, and ammunition for them was manufactured by UMC. Many rifles, carbines and bayonets were still in the United States after the war and were sold as surplus.
        Both the 1889 rifle and carbine were manufactured in the United States and in England, but there was only one rifle design and one carbine design in order to simplify supply. The 1889/16 carbine is outfitted with numerous sling swivels and mounting hardware, enabling use by the infantry, cavalry and special troops.

The Interwar Years
       The 1889 Mauser remained the standard long arm of the Belgian military after World War I, and no modifications were introduced, although soldiers had complained that the barrel jacket got hot after repeated firing. No new rifles were purchased from FN, either. Guns were overhauled at La Manufacture d'Armes de l'Etat, and parts as well as receivers were manufactured there. The first receivers marked "FABRIQUE D'ARMES DE L'ETAT" (State Arms factory) showed up after World War I and, although marked differently, were products of the same state arsenal.
        Aware of post-war military budget reductions, FN marketed an economical training rifle in order to sell the military on the idea of saving ammunition. The "Carabine Scolaire" (scholastic carbine) was introduced after the turn of the century and was a .22 LR, single-shot, scaled-down version of the 1889 rifle. It came complete with scaled down-bayonet, cleaning rod and an option for fixed or adjustable tangent sights. The military did not buy into the concept, and FN sold the trainer solely to military academies.

The Model 1935
       The Model 1935 was the first departure from the 1889 design. By the late 1930s, very few new rifles had been purchased since World War I, and the looming threat of Nazi Germany made the Belgians review their arms. Among the rifles available were some Turkish and German Mausers received as war reparations. The Belgians decided to modify them into a new rifle. The stocks came primarily from Turkish Mausers, the small parts and bolts came from the German Mausers, while the receivers and barrels were newly manufactured. The external box magazine was no longer used, and the rifle was chambered for the 7.65x53 mm Belgian Mauser cartridge, but it was the first rifle to feed the newer spitzer bullet version.

The Model 1889/36                       Pictures
       It was decided during the Model 1935 assembly program to update the old 1889 Mauser rifles and carbines, which were converted to a new Model 1936 configuration. New barrels and receivers were mounted on existing Model 1889 parts, and the new model was made to feed the newer spitzer bullet cartridge. The stock was modified and shortened, and the barrel jacket finally abandoned.

        The legacy of Belgium's turn-of-the-century Mausers rifles is one of technological innovation in arms-making for the sake of a nation's security. Ultimately, it also resulted in the birth of the military and civilian armsmaker now simply known as "FN."

M1950 FN Short Navy Rifle

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Jan 2004
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