The Fusil Automatique Modèle 1917 (English: Model 1917 Automatic Rifle) (also called the RSC M1917 ) was a gas-operated, semi-automatic rifle that the French Army placed in service during the latter part (1917) of World War I. It was chambered in then-standard 8mm Lebel, the rimmed cartridge used in other French Army infantry weapons of the time. Altogether, the French National Armories (primarily MAS (Manufacture d'Armes de St Etienne) and MAT (Manufacture d'Armes de Tulle) had manufactured 86,000 RSC M1917 rifles when their production run ended in late November 1918. However very few have survived in fully functional, semi-automatic condition and those have become highly sought-after collectibles.
The adoption of the Modèle 1917 can be traced to early attempts by the French Army to replace its Lebel rifles with a more advanced semi-automatic design in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. In 1913, a semi-automatic rifle was selected to be adopted as a replacement for the Lebels and Berthiers in the army's inventory. In 1910 the army tentatively adopted the semi-automatic long recoil operated Meunier rifle as a replacement for the Lebel rifle. Considerable delays were experienced in the final choice for the ammunition, which ended up being a powerful rimless proprietary 7×56.95mm round. Only 1,013 Meunier rifles had been manufactured by 1916 and about 300 were sent for field trials in the trenches. They were well received but the special ammunition problem was a major handicap.
The M1917 RSC (for: Ribeyrolles, Sutter and Chauchat - the weapon's designers) was formally adopted in May 1916. The M1917 was being mass produced by April 1917, and a fairly large number (86,000) had been manufactured by November 1918. It was less expensive to manufacture than the Meunier rifle since it used standard Lebel rifle components, notably: the barrel, stock, handguard, barrel bands and trigger guard. Above all else, it was chambered for the standard 8mm Lebel ammunition, which was loaded on special five-round en-bloc clips. The Mle 1917 RSC was gas operated with a rotating bolt, the gas port being located underneath the barrel and near the muzzle as in the later M1 Garand rifle. The Mle 1917 was widely distributed among French infantry during 1918. However the troops did not like it as they found it too heavy, too long and too difficult to service and to maintain in the trenches. The weak point of this rifle was the size of the gas port located under the front end of the barrel. Because of its very small internal diameter the gas port tended to foul up with repeated firings thus leading to weaker and weaker bolt returns in prolonged use. Hence the gas port required frequent cleaning out (every 100 rounds or so) which could be performed after removing the large brass screw under the front end of the barrel. Furthermore, the special clip for the Mle 1917 was not particularly strong.
Following as a substantial improvement, the Mle 1918 RSC was adopted in 1918 as a rifle planned to replace all other rifles beginning in 1919. Production began in November of 1918 just as the war was ending. No Mle 1918 RSC rifles are known to have been used in WWI. The Mle 1918 was significantly shorter and lighter than the Mle 1917 RSC and corrected basically all of the Mle 1917 RSC drawbacks. One of the primary complaints from French soldiers regarding the Mle 1917 RSC was its excessive length at 1330mm (52"). The Mle 1918 RSC was shortened to an overall length of 1100mm (43.3"). The Mle 1918 RSC used modified Mle 1917 RSC receivers; the Mle 1917 RSC marking will have an "8" overstamped on top of the "7" in "Mle 1917." Among the changes were:
Firing tests had also shown that the Mle 1918 RSC was more accurate than both the Lebel rifle and the Mle 1917 RSC. The Mle 1918 RSC's production did not begin until November 1918 at MAS (Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Etienne). Only ~4,000 were made, most of them in 1919, and many were tested in combat during the Rif War of 1921–26 in Morocco, where "they gave complete satisfaction".
An experimental Mle 1917 carbine was tested late in the war but never went into production. An even shorter (17.7" barrel) "Mle 1917 Mousqueton" model was also tested and similiarly not put into production. During the 1920s, an unknown number of Mle 1917 models were converted to carbines by cutting down the barrels, discarding the upper portion of the handguard, and modifying the internal magazine to accept the Berthier clips used by the Mle 1918. These conversions are identifiable as they retain the rifle sights and handguard as well as the Mle 1917 style of butt plate. These conversions were made and used in the Riff War and may have been done as early as late 1918 during the closing months of World War I.
The design of the weapon continued to be updated through the 1920s with production ending in 1921. Notable upgrade kits include:
During the Rif War and the 1920s, many Mle 1917 and 1918 rifles and carbines continued to see use and upgrades and modifications. In 1935, a large number of the weapons had their gas ports blocked off by armorers, rendering the weapon into a straight-pull bolt action. This seems to have been done in conjunction with giving the rifles to French Colonial or reserve troops who were less trusted. It has also been suggested that this was done in the name of preventing ammo waste, a relatively common theme in late 19th and early 20th century military thinking. Remaining semi-automatic examples are reported to have been in use by the Groupes Franc Motorisé de Cavalerie (GFC) during the Battle of France. During the German occupation, the weapons were type classified as Selbstlade-Gewehr 310(f) and used by Vichy and Volksturm elements.
The Musée de l'Armée, Les Invalides, Paris, France displays both the Mle 1917 RSC and the Meunier rifle as a part of the permanent World War I (1914–1918) arms, uniforms and equipments exhibits. Within the US, the United States Army Ordnance Museum, the US Military Academy museum at West Point, and the National Rifle Association Museum all display excellent specimens of the Mle 1917 RSC. The much rarer Mle 1918 RSC is currently not displayed in any public museum exhibits either in the US or in Europe except at the Musée de l'Armement de la Manufacture d'Armes de Tulle in France .