The French weapon design ethos has always been an odd one. Some weapons are created with no safeties, others utilize obsolete methods of operation and some are chambered in calibers that no other major nation used at the times. Call it independence or obstinacy, the history of French small arms development is littered with odd choices. And the MAS Model 1938 is another such example.
Created in 1935, officially adopted in 1938 but never widely used during World War II, the MAS-38 is a submachine gun that was well made, accurate, underpowered and accessorized with odd features. Even the outline of the weapon seems off, the barrel on one plane and the receiver and stock slightly bent by a degree or two.
A basic direct blowback firearm, the MAS-38 was a full automatic submachine gun chambered in the French 7.65mm round. While the rest of Europe, Allies and Axis were going with the 9 x 19 mm round, French small arms designers chambered a weapon in a caliber that was underpowered for modern combat.
Undeterred, the MAS-38 received the stamp of martial approval from French ordnance officers, endorsing a submachine gun with features unlike any other of its day.
Starting with the sights, the MAS-38 had a pair or rear sights that diverged from the typical folded or fixed "peeps" used on a number of other SMGs. The front post sight was offset from the barrel axis to line up with the two individual peep sights. The first aperture rated for aimed fire out to 100 meters folded up and forward. The second iron sight, for 200m fire, folded up and back. Realistically, the MAS38 effective range was a stretched 100 meters.
Another unusual feature was a dust cover for the magazine well. Designers were convinced that an open, downward facing magazine well was an invitation for debris and dirt. And while nearly all other weapons with bottom loading magazine wells (from pistols, to rifles and SMGs) suffered no ill effects, the MAS38 had a spring loaded well cover. When the weapon was charged and the magazine inserted, the well cover flipped
forward. When the 32-round magazine was ejected, the well cover closed.
In combat a weapon with too many fragile pieces or move unnecessarily inevitably break.
That motto apparently was lost on the MAS-38 designers who decided a separate lever or button safety was not needed. Instead, the MAS-38 trigger was its safety, and not like the modern Glock safety within its trigger. No, the MAS-38's safety was physically pushing the trigger itself forward to where it nearly folded up into the recess of the trigger guard. This move engaged a spring loaded lever that block the bolt's rearward movement.
As for the bent look of the MAS-38, engineers believed that a slight downward tip to the rearward travel of the weapon bolt would add just the right amount of friction to slow its travel, therefore rate of fire. That strange off axis cant was in addition to a long bolt and recoil spring assembly already built into the weapon.
Not unlike the M-16 series, where the bolt moves rearward and interacts with the buffer tube assembly in the stock, the MAS-38 bolt reciprocated backward, down the recoil spring tube and into the weapon's stock. The entire stock of the MAS-38 was essentially designed to encase the recoil spring for the long bolt of the MAS-38.
The weapon, relatively unknown to most in the west, is claimed to be the type of submachine gun wielded by the Italian partisans who executed dictator Benito Mussolini. It would serve briefly in Indochina (Vietnam) and continue on in service of French police until the 1960s.