April 24, 2019
By Leroy Thompson
In my experience, French weapons often get a bad rap. I’ve fired most French military and law enforcement handguns, rifles, and SMGs in use since World War I and have found that for the most part they are reliable and accurate. To some extent, I believe this is because France has had more of a “gun culture” than most other European countries. Just watching French Flic (cop) or military films normally illustrates this, as more care is taken in use of the correct weapons than in films from other parts of the world. Even some of the titles reflect the part the gun plays in French films and the assumption of knowledge on the part of the viewers. Two that come to mind are: Police Python 357 and MR73, both about cynical French detectives and their trusted revolvers.
The MAC50 is one French pistol that is relatively unknown in the United States, despite the fact it served as a primary issue handgun for the French armed forces and the Gendarmerie Nationale from 1950 into the 21st Century. I’ve done a lot of shooting with the MAC50 in various parts of the world and have owned a couple. I’ve developed affection for it, but in using it and training others to use I’ve had to conclude that despite its positive features, it has one glaring flaw as a combat pistol — more about that later.
At the end of World War II, French military and police were using a wide assortment of pistols and revolvers including pre-war French ones, captured German ones, and allied ones received by Free French troops or Resistance fighters. Logistics problems with such an array of weapons became apparent as French forces fought in colonial campaigns in Indochina and Algeria during the first post-war decades. For example, eleven different cartridges were required to feed all of the handguns in use. The standard French handguns prior to World War II had been the SACM M1935A and MAS M1935S. Both of these pistols fire the French 7.65x20mm long cartridge. I have found both of these pistols extremely accurate. In fact, my friend Tim Mullin was doing a book in which he tested world military pistols. The only 7.65x20mm ammo we could obtain to test the two M1935 pistols was old surplus that misfired almost half of the time. Nevertheless, the groups were quite good. The M1935S, especially, would influence the design of the MAC50.
It became apparent after World War II that the French armed forces should adopt a 9x19mm caliber pistol. In October 1946, the French Army General Staff issued a directive for the development of a new pistol. The bid specs included the following:
- Should weigh no more than 650 grams (1.43 lbs.) without the magazine
- Barrel length should be between 10 and 12 cm (3.9–4.7 inches)
- Muzzle energy above 40 kg (289 ft. lbs.)
- Either locked breech or blowback was acceptable
- Employ a hold open device after last round was fired
- Magazine retention spring should aid in removal of the magazine
- Trigger travel should be no more than 3mm (.12 inch)
- Trigger pull should be between 2 and 4 Kilos (4 lbs. 7 oz. to 8 lbs. 13 oz.)
- Employ a visible hammer and separate firing pin
- Incorporate a loaded chamber indicator
- Have a manual safety
- Have a disconnector to prevent discharge until the slide was fully closed
- Front blade and rear notch sights
- Grip and frame designed for natural pointing
- Simple field disassembly
No mention is made of a double action mechanism — though the P-38. PP, and, PPK had been produced for French use while France occupied Germany; hence, it may be assumed the design would be for a single action pistol. Four pistols were chosen for testing, including two designs from MAS (Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Etienne), one from SACM (Societe Alsacienne de Constructions Mecaniques), and one from SIG, the SP47/8 later to become famous as the P210.
The pistol from SACM was a larger version of the M1935A beefed up for the 9x19mm cartridge. During testing its accuracy was not as good as the other designs and it had a higher rate of malfunctions. The inclusion of the Swiss SP47/8 made some sense as it was based on SACM Patents, the rights to which had been purchased before World War II. As a neutral, Switzerland had been able to work on development of the pistol during the war years. The SP47/8 was quite a bit heavier than the unrealistic 1.43 lbs. in the bid specs. As anyone familiar with the SIG P210 would surmise, the SP47/8 performed well in testing.
The two MAS designs were scaled up versions of the M1935S. However, neither did well during endurance testing, with cracks appearing in the breechblocks of both before the end of the 2,500-round test. However, the French, well known for ethnocentrism, ignored the superiority of the SIG and adopted a third MAS prototype with redesigned grips in August, 1950, as the Automatic Pistol, Caliber 9mm, Model 1950. MAS built three more prototypes, each of which passed an 8,500 round firing test, with the only malfunctions being due to two punctured primers.
As adopted, the design of the Model 1950 had similarities to the Colt 1911 in that it used a short recoil action with a swinging link. It had an external hammer and was single action only. However, there was no grip safety. Influenced by the M1935S, the M1950 employed a captive recoil spring attached to the guide rod and lock work that could be removed from the frame as a unit. This feature was shared with the SIG P210 and made maintenance easier while lessoning the chance of losing small internal parts. The M1950 took a single stack magazine with a nine round capacity. This magazine capacity required a long grip, which is quite comfortable. There was a magazine safety as on the Browning High-Power. While the barrels of prototype pistols had four grooves, production pistols had six grooves.
Initial production of the M1950 began at Manufacture d’ Armes de Chatellerault (MAC), with the first 100 pistols delivered on 1 June 1953. MAC used typical French numbering with each batch of 10,000 being assigned a letter, followed by a number. The first 10,000 pistols are in the “A” block. And, interestingly, the MAC50s that were later imported into the United States as surplus are normally from the “A” block, perhaps because they were the first pistols declared surplus. Pistols produced by MAC had a grey parkerized finish. On the left side of the slide “M.A.C.” was stamped and on the right side of the slide “Modele 1950/CAL. 9mm” was stamped.
MAC eventually produced 221,900 MAC50 pistols between 1961 and 1963. Production was shifted to MAS, which produced the pistol in 100,000 round batches. The first 100,000 had the “FG” prefix and the second 100,000 the “FH” prefix, though only 20,000 pistols were produced in the “FH” series. Between November 1963, and April 1978, MAS produced 120,000 Model 1950 pistols. Although it is possible that a few have reached the United States, I have never encountered a MAS50 here, though I have seen them in use in France. Between the two manufacturers, a total of 341,900 Model 1950s were produced. Because of the “M.A.C.” markings on the barrel of pistols normally found in the United States, the “Modele 1950” is usually known here as the “MAC50,” the term I have used in this article.
Reportedly, based on an ad in the June 1961 issue of the American Rifleman advertising them for $29.95, most of the MAC50s in the United States were imported from Indo-China.
The MAC50 was issued to the French Army, Navy, Air Force, and Gendarmerie Nationale. Other than a few former French colonies such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Morocco, and Senegal, the MAC50 was not adopted outside of France.
By 1985, the Gendarmerie Nationale, which was part of the Ministry of Natonale Defense and which acted as military police for the French armed forces while also having civil jurisdiction in certain areas, was ready to adopt a double-action 9x19mm service pistol. The Beretta 92F was chosen in July of 1987. The new pistol was designated the PA (Pistolet Automatique) MAS G1: PAMAS G1. NOTE: The model adopted was what is usually known as the “G” model, which employs a safety/de-cocking lever rather than the standard Beretta safety lever of the “F” model. The reason for choosing this model will be explained later. MAS was the principal manufacturer of the pistol on license, though some parts were produced by other French arms companies. In addition to the Gendarmerie Nationale, the French Air Force adopted the G1 in 1990. The French Army and Navy adopted the G1 in 1999, though a substantial number of MAC50 pistols remained in use. Some French special operations forces have used versions of the HK USP and Glocks.
The MAC50 remained the primary issue pistol for the Army and Navy through the end of the 20th Century, while some Air Force units and some members of the Genderamarie also continued to be issued the MAC50. An acquaintance of mine who was a patrol officer with the Gendarmerie Naitonale in Normandy was still carrying a MAC50 long after the G1 was adopted. He had previously been assigned as one of the Gendarmerie Nationale guards of nuclear weapons aboard a French ballistic missile submarine in which duties he also carried a MAC50.
As the 21st Century began, French military units were armed primarily with the MAC50 and the G1, though some special units such as GIGN still had MR73 revolvers available as well. French police units were armed with a variety of handguns including Manurhin revolvers and Glock autos with some special units. In May 2003, the SIG SP 2022 was adopted for various French federal law enforcement agencies, including the Gendarmerie Nationale, to replace the G1 and the MAC50.
Although the process of replacing the MAC50 has been ongoing now for decades, it would not surprise me if some are still being issued. Those taken out of service are reportedly being held in reserve. As the Gendarmerie Nationale, which had a lot of MAC50 pistols, is a federal law enforcement agency, though under the Ministry of Nationale Defense, it is questionable if the MAC50s issued to them might be legally imported into the United States.
I’ve done quite a bit of shooting with the MAC50, probably at least 2,500–3,500 rounds over the last 40 years. I mentioned earlier that it has one large flaw, a flaw that influenced the Gendarmerie National to insist that the Beretta 92 they adopted had to have a de-cocker rather than the standard slide mounted safety. The MAC50’s safety is applied using a lever on the slide. When the safety is in the down position the pistol may fire, when in the up position the hammer is blocked so that it cannot reach the firing pin. This safety may be applied with the hammer either cocked or down. The problem arises because the location of the safety is such that it is easily applied unintentionally while pulling back the slide to chamber a round. It may also be applied when pushing the pistol into a holster. If applied by accident, it may not be noticed, the trigger may be pulled, and the pistol will not fire. If the shooter is trained in malfunction drills, he may immediately rack the slide and pull the trigger again; however, if he doesn’t realize that the safety is applied, the pistol still won’t fire. Hence, the Gendarmerie Nationale insisted on the “G” model Beretta, which eliminated this problem.
I have inadvertently applied the safety while pulling back the MAC50’s slide. In one way it is a positive safety feature, as the pistol is rendered safe during the process of chambering a round. But, it is a feature that could get the user killed if he failed to realize his pistol was on safe. The solution that I developed and that was used by some French Foreign Legionnaires with whom I was acquainted was to always carry the pistol with the safety applied whether in Condition One or Condition Three and to always flick the safety off with the thumb, even if a round had just been chambered prior to engagement. Simply put, with the MAC50 always operate on the assumption the safety is on and to be flicked off prior to engagement.
Other than the issue with the safety, I have always found the MAC50 very reliable. I would rate its sights above average for a service pistol, the rear notch being wide enough to allow quick acquisition. The long grip is comfortable. Mag changes are easy as the release button is reachable and the retention spring kicks the mags out quickly. Takedown is easy and lubing the internals is easily carried out after removing the lock work as a unit. I would note that it takes a little care to make sure the slide release/takedown lever is fully seated when it is replaced. Trigger pull on the MAC50s I’ve shot has always been good.
When working on this article, I fired 100 rounds through my MAC50. My 25-yard groups were all fired with 115-grain FMJ ammo, as I felt that for a military pistol dating to the early 1950s that was appropriate. Accuracy was more than acceptable, with my better 5-shot groups in the 3.5" range. Reliability was 100%.
At one time or another I’ve ended up being somewhere that required me to carry an older military pistol. That has never been the case with the MAC50. I have shot it in training with some French troops, but it has never been a pistol I carried in harm’s way. If that were the case, it wouldn’t be my first choice, but it wouldn’t be my last choice either. French troops fought in a lot of colonial campaigns during the second half of the 20th Century and saw combat in the First and second Gulf Wars, as well as in Afghanistan. Quite a few of them were carrying MAC50 pistols. It’s seen combat in some rugged places and performed well enough to have lasted.
I consider the MAC50 a classic military pistol. I’ve owned one for many years and am glad to have it. Should any of the large number of MAC50s still held in reserve by the French be imported into the United States, I would certainly try to acquire a serviceable MAS50 as a companion to my MAC50.
FRENCH MAC50 PISTOL
Action: Locked Breech, Short Recoil, Semi-Auto
Overall Length: 7.7"
Barrel Length: 4.4"
Weight: 30 oz.
Magazine Capacity: 9-rounds
Sights: Front: Grooved Ramp, Rear: Notch
NOTE: Original French MAC50 manuals are available through Northridge International: https://www.northridgeinc.com/product-p/book-mac50.htm