The 8×50mmR Lebel (8mm Lebel) (designated as the 8 × 51 R Lebel by the C.I.P.) rifle cartridge was the first smokeless powder cartridge to be made and adopted by any country. It was introduced by France in 1886. Formed by necking down the 11mm Gras black powder cartridge, the smokeless 8 mm Lebel cartridge started a revolution in military rifle ammunition. Standard 8mm Lebel military ammunition was also the first rifle ammunition to feature a spitzer boat tail bullet (Balle D), which was adopted in 1898. The long-range ballistic performance of the 8mm Lebel bullet itself was exceptional. For use in the magazine tube-fed early Lebel rifle, the 8mm case was designed to protect against accidental percussion inside the tube magazine by a circular groove around the primer cup which caught the tip of the following pointed bullet. However, the shape of its rimmed bottle-necked case, having been designed for the Lebel rifle's tube magazine, also precluded truly efficient vertical stacking inside a vertical magazine. Although it was once revolutionary, the 8mm Lebel was declared obsolete after World War I and was soon after replaced with the 7.5×54mm French round.
There are two commercially available 8mm Lebel cartridges: one for the Lebel Model 1886 rifle, and one for the Modèle 1892 revolver. They are two entirely different cartridges and are not interchangeable. The term "8mm Lebel" for the French Mle 1892 revolver ammunition, which incidentally was not designed by Lt Col Nicolas Lebel, is only applied outside France for commercial reasons. However, the term "8mm Lebel" to identify a rifle cartridge is widely recognized to distinguish the French rifle cartridge from other 8 mm rifle cartridges, such as the 8×50mmR Mannlicher cartridge used by Austria-Hungary and its successor states.
It was originally loaded with a 15.0 g (232 grains) cupro-nickel-jacketed, lead-cored, flat-nosed, wadcutter-style bullet ("Balle M") which had been designed by lieutenant colonel Nicolas Lebel. The flat point (flat nose) of the Balle M bullet had been designed to be totally safe inside the Lebel's tube magazine. It was propelled by the first practical smokeless, nitrocellulose-based, (Poudre B) powder as developed by Paul Vieille in 1884. The ballistic performance and range of Balle M eclipsed all the previous military ammunitions in existence at the time (1886).
The Balle M was replaced in 1898 by a 12.8 g (198 grains) 90/10 brass mono-metal, pointed (spitzer) boat-tail bullet called "Balle D", which provided a flatter trajectory and improved long-range performance. Designed at APX (Atelier de Puteaux) by a captain Desaleux, Balle D was the first spitzer and boat-tail bullet to be placed into service by any army. Later on, in 1912, Balle D ammunition was improved into "Balle D am" ("am" stands for "amorcage modifié" or modified primer) by crimping the primer in to prevent primer expulsions when fired in machine guns. Balle D am ammunition was in near-universal service during World War I (1914–1918) in all Lebel caliber weapons. Somewhat later, Balle D am ammunition was followed in 1932 by "Balle N" ammunition which featured a lead-cored, cupro-nickel-over-steel-jacketed, spitzer boat-tail bullet weighing 15.0 g (232 grains). It was held into a case which had a slightly larger neck diameter than the older Balle D am ammunition. Balle N was heavier than Balle D am and had been designed to improve the long-range performance of the Hotchkiss machine gun. Converting most Lebel caliber rifles and carbines to the "N" ammunition was carried out during the 1930s. "Balle T" tracer and "Balle P" armor-piercing rounds were also produced, along with blank and reduced charge ammunition.
In order to safely accommodate pointed (spitzer) bullets inside the Lebel's tube magazine, a circular groove was machined around each primer cup on both Balle D am and Balle N ammunitions. The role of that circular groove is to receive the tip of the pointed bullet that follows when loaded inside the Lebel's tube magazine. Furthermore, all Balle M and Balle D French military ammunitions feature convex primer covers which are crimped in over the primer itself. Those small convex primer covers are not noticeable, but do provide a second effective protection against accidental primer percussion inside the Lebel's tube magazine. Wartime experiences (1914–1918) involving hundreds of millions of Lebel rounds fired in combat have entirely confirmed the effectiveness of these protections.
While revolutionary for its time in terms of ballistic performance, the 8mm Lebel cartridge had its drawbacks. Formed by necking down the 11mm Gras rifle cartridge case, it was an odd design, with a thick rim and a rapid double taper. This made it more difficult to feed from standard magazine firearms such as the Berthier rifles and the Chauchat machine rifle. The rifles from which it was fired (Lebel, Berthier, etc.) were also nearly obsolete by the time Balle D, let alone the Balle N, came along.
Balle N ammo should never be fired from any Lebel or Berthier rifle unless it has had the chamber reamed to accept the larger neck of the N cartridge. Such weapons are stamped N on top of the barrel, just in front of the receiver and behind the rear sight. Balle N ammo is identifiable by the fact that the bullet, while pointed like the solid brass Balle D, is lead-cored and jacketed with soft steel.
While newly manufactured 8mm Lebel ammunition has recently become available in the U.S., reloadable cartridge cases can also be produced by reforming .348" Winchester brass. Newly manufactured Prvi Partizan 8mm Lebel ammunition is of excellent quality and replicates the performance of the original 8mm Lebel round. However, its older brass cases lack the circular groove around the primer cup, so the reloader must be careful to use only round-nosed or flat-nosed bullets when producing handloads for the tube-magazine Lebel rifles with the older Privi Partizan cases. Recently manufactured Privi Partisan 8mm Lebel ammunition with spitzer (pointed) bullets and incorporate the circular groove in the head and will be perfectly safe when stacked in the box-magazine of the Berthier rifle and the Mle 1886 tubular magazine rifle . However, it is highly advisable that shooters visually verify the ammunition to be loaded in their Mle 1886 tube-magazine Lebel rifle. Older Privi Partisan cases loaded with spire point bullets should only be fired single shot. Newer Privi Partisan cases with the circular groove may use the magazine for loading.
In 1929, the 7.5×54mm MAS mod. 1929 (7.5 French) cartridge was introduced. This made the 8mm Lebel cartridge obsolete overnight, but due to post-World War I financial constraints and political neglect, it was not introduced as a rifle cartridge until the adoption, just before World War II, of the MAS-36 rifle.
1886 pattern 8×51mmR Lebel Balle M load
1898 pattern 8×51mmR Lebel Balle D loadLebel Model 1886 rifle
Model 1917 semi-automatic rifle
Gras rifle M74-80-14
Remington Rolling Block Rifles- A limited production for France before or during WW1.
Hotchkiss M1909 Benét–Mercié machine gun
Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun
Chauchat light machine gun
Chauchat-Ribeyrolles 1918 submachine gun
St. Étienne Mle 1907
Kingdom of Greece Saint Etienne machine gun in 1917–1940
Kingdom of Italy: Saint Etienne machine gun in 1917–18
Second Spanish Republic: Lebel rifles obtained from France were used by Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War.
United States: Hotchkiss machine gun and Chauchat machine-rifle in 1917–18