Histoire de MAB
A Brief History of M.A.B.
Léon Barthe was born in the village of St.-Vincent-de-Tyrosse, about 25 kilometers north of Bayonne, in 1882. He studied gunsmithing in Liege and agriculture in St. Etienne. Soon after he finished his schooling he moved to Bayonne where, in 1904 at the age of 22, he opened a shop at 9 Rue Gambetta where he sold hunting supplies, guns, and ammunition. Before World War I he began to import a small 6.35mm pistol made by Gregorio Bolumburu of Eibar, Spain, which was marked ‘REX’ on the left side of the slide, or in some cases ‘PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE “REX”’ with the word ‘BAYONNE’ on the line below. According to Bastié & Casanova, the letters “MAB” appear in an oval cartouche at the rear of the slide--however, I have not observed this on pistols with the REX marking. These pistols have checkered horn grips with a single grip screw.
After the war, which flooded France with cheap automatic pistols from Spain, weapons for self-defense purposes were perfectly legal, and Léon Barthe’s business prospered. In December of 1920, Barthe established a business with the name Manufacture d’Armes Automatiques, which was soon changed to Manufacture d’Armes de Bayonne. It must have been about this time that he began to put his own grip plates on the REX pistol. The grip plates were made of checkered horn and had the monogram M-A-B in an oval in the center, and were held in place by two grip screws. The slide inscription was changed to read MANUFACTURE D'ARMES AUTOMATIQUES / PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE 635 “MAB” / BAYONNE, and later to PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE CAL. 635 / M.A.B. / FABRICATION FRANÇAISE. The letters “MAB” appear in an oval cartouche at the rear of the frame on the left side. These guns are sometimes referred to as the Type I Model A.
Barthe established a factory on the Allées Marines, the street which runs along the south side of the Adour River, and hired a number of Basque gunsmiths, many of whom were out of work after the war. He also retained his gun shop on the Rue Gambetta, which continued in operation until 1940. Léon Barthe died on 14 April 1937 at the age of 54.
Model C and C/D
The Model C (Modèle C) in .380 and .32 caliber was based on the 1910 FN Browning. The manual safety was moved to the front of the left grip, and the magazine release was positioned just behind the trigger, as on the 1911 Colt. The grip is deeper than that of the 1910 Browning, and the backstrap is curved rather than straight. The .380 version of the gun was introduced on 15 September 1933, and the .32 version on 18 October. The early version of the model C (Type 1)
Beginning on 2 January 1950, what Josserand & Huon call a Model C/D was produced, in both calibers, with the short barrel and slide of the Model C but with the larger grip and magazine capacity of the Model D. However, these guns were marked simply Modèle C, probably because the guns were assembled from existing stocks of Model D frames and Model C slides and the model designation was already engraved on the slides. The company saw no need to make a second set of slides with different markings. The standard Model C had a 7 round magazine capacity (6 rounds for .380), while the Model C/D had a 9 round capacity (8 for .380). The C/D was discontinued in March of 1964.
The Model D (Modèle D) in .380 caliber was simply an enlarged Model C with a longer barrel and slide, a deeper grip and a correspondingly greater magazine capacity (9 rounds of .32 or 8 rounds of .380), which appeared simultaneously with the .380 Model C in September of 1933. The .32 caliber version of the Model D appeared on September 30. The Model D pistols sported a military style lanyard ring at the base of the grip, and were widely used by the French police, customs, and the forest service. A special series was produced for the Bank of France with serial numbers prefaced by BF. The early version of the model D (Type 1) had a different style barrel bushing with a latch on the bottom of the slide (like the Type 1 Model C). The latch was eliminated for the Model D on 11 June 1945.
The Model D was MAB’s most successful pistol until the advent of the PA-15 in 1966. Medlin and Huon state that the French military contracted for 16,000 Model D pistols in 1939 and that their serial numbers ran from around 31,000 to 47,000. Model Ds produced during the German occupation should range from approximately 47,000 to 97,000, plus L1 through L1160. The Model D was manufactured from 1933 until 1964, and again from 1966 or ‘67 until 1982.
The Model E (Modèle E) was essentially a down-sized Model D (total length about the same as a Model C) chambered for the .25 ACP cartridge. It held 9 rounds. The Model E was manufactured from March of 1949 to April of 1964. I speculate that this gun was produced primarily for French consumption because ownership of the larger calibers was restricted. They are scarce in the U.S.
Model G & GZ
The Model GZ (Modèle GZ), according to Josserand and Huon, was originally made in France, beginning on 1 January 1957, but the license was sold to Echasa (Echave y Arizmendi) in Eibar, Spain in 1962. I have a photograph of a French-made GZ, otherwise I might doubt it was ever made in France. The Model GZ is nearly identical to the Model G with the external hammer, but has distinctly different slide serrations. Some GZs have five broad, angled, square-cut slide serrations, while others have eight narrow angled square-cut serrations. Huon states that the GZ has an alloy frame. The Spanish GZ has an alloy frame, and was available in .22, .25, .32, and .380. The Spanish-made guns are clearly marked ECHASA. EIBAR (ESPAÑA) and MAB ESPAÑOLA on the left side of the slide, and some have MAB ESPAÑOLA on the grips as well. Production ended in May 1964.
I believe that the primary distinction between the G and GZ pistols is that the frame on the G was made of steel, whereas the frame on the GZ was made of alloy. However, I have not examined enough examples of both types to state this with certainty. (Please write if you have information about either pistol.)
The Model R (Modèle R) was a blowback operated gun in 5 calibers, including .22 long rifle, .22 short, .32, .32 French long, .380, and 9mm. It looked like a Model D with an external hammer and no grip safety. Most previous M.A.B.s had been striker-fired. Unlike all previous MAB’s, the slide locked open after the last round was fired, and closed when a new magazine was inserted. The first R-series gun to be released was a version in the .32 French long caliber on 23 July 1950. This gun was the first MAB directed at the military market, but unfortunately the French military were already looking for a pistol in 9mm Parabellum, so the MAB R-32 Long was never even considered.
In February of 1951 the R-32 was intruduced in .32 caliber (7.65mm Browning), and in October of the same year the R-9 was introduced in 9mm Parabellum. There is much confusion about the R-9 (also known as the R-Para). Most sources state that the R-9 had a delayed-blowback rotating barrel action based on the Savage design. If I read Huon’s book correctly, this rotating barrel version is the model that was first produced in October of 1951, and is referred to in the Standard Catalog of Firearms as the R Para Experimental. Collectors who are familiar with this gun tell me that probably less than 100 were made, and it served as the prototype for the later P-8 and P-15 pistols, but it was not the R-9 that was mass produced.
The more common version of the R-9 is a blow-back operated gun akin to the R-32. This is the version which I believe Huon is referring to when he says, “The mass production of the MAB R 9mm Parabellum began on February 1952 and did not end until November 1963.” In those 12 years of production, probably not many more than 1250 R-9s were produced.
The Model R-22 differed from the other R-series guns. Built on the same frame as the R-32, it was made, according to Josserand, with an open-top slide in three barrel lengths (4.4 , 6.7, and 7.4 inches). It was a very different gun from Model F , with an external hammer and different lockwork. However, the R-22 shares a nearly identical barrel with the MAB Model F, and is similar in many ways to the Star Model F. Huon only lists barrel lengths of 110 and 185mm. Unlike the other R series guns, the R-22 did not have the feature which locked the slide open after the last round was fired. Production of the R-22 in .22 short began on 26 July 1954, and a .22 long rifle version appeared on 5 December 1954. According to Huon, production ended in April of 1965.
Model P-8 and P-15
The P-8 (Pistolet Automatique 8), or PA-8, was a 9mm pistol designed for military and police use. It was a direct development from the R-Para Experimental, and retained that gun’s grip shape. The P-8 was manufactured from 1966 through 1968. It had its connector bar on the left instead of the right. Like the Model R, it did not have a grip safety.
The P-15 (Pistolet Automatique 15), or PA-15, was similar to the P-8, but with a 15-round double-stack magazine and a different grip shape. It was the first pistol to have a greater magazine capacity than the Browning Hi-Power. The P-15 was manufactured from 1966 to approximately 1985. The gun was still listed in the 1985 Gun Digest, but not in the 1988 issue. A target version of the P-15, designated the P.A.P. F1, was also produced.
I haven’t been able to ascertain if MAB pistols were imported into the United Stated prior to World War II, but I don’t believe they were. After World War II, MAB pistols were sold in the United States, first by the Western Arms Corporation, and later by the Winfield Arms Corporation, which was the distributor for Western Arms.
I believe importation started in 1948 or 1949. The December 1950 issue of Popular Science featured an advertisement for the WAC Model A, shown with the WAC monogram on the grip. The 1951 and 1952 editions of Gun Digest list the Model A, Model C, and Model D as being available from the “Western Arms Company.” By 1954 advertisements are found for WAC pistols from the Winfield Arms Corporation. MAB pistols listed in Gun Digest in 1958 and later were given names. The Modèle A became Le Defendeur, the Modèle C became Le Cavalier, the Modèle D became Le Gendarme, the Modèle R .22 became Le Chasseur, and the Modèle R Para became Le Militaire. WAC was also importing rifles as early as 1953, which they advertised in American Rifleman.
The MAB Model D was sold briefly by E.&M. Firearms of Los Angeles in 1954. They issued a catalogue, and I would very much like to find a copy of it and see if they sold any other MAB models. In 1960 Seaport Traders of Los Angeles were advertising the MAB Model G and R-22, and in 1961 they advertised the Model C, clearly shown with the WAC monogram on the grips. By 1962 Hunter’s Lodge of Alexandria, Virginia and Ye Old Western Hunter of Culver City, California (both subsidiaries of Sam Cummings’ Interarms) were advertising the MAB GZ and Le Chasseur.
By the time the PA-8 and PA-15 pistols came out, MAB was no longer distributed by Winfield, as I have not seen one with WAC markings. The 1968 and 1972 Gun Digest list the MAB Autoloading pistol (8 or 15 shot) as imported by Mars Equipment. The 1973 and 1975 Gun Digest state that the P-15 was imported by Gold Rush. There are no listings for MAB pistols from 1975-1980, but the P-15 appears again in the 1983 and 1985 Gun Digest which both show the pistol imported by Howco Distribution, Inc.
Late MAB Company History
The City of Bayonne and the M.A.B. factory were controlled by German occupation forces from the Summer of 1940 until late in 1944. Josserand states that French production of M .A.B. pistols did not resume until after the liberation of France, and Huon states that production resumed in 1945.
Medlin and Huon state that the company changed hands several times after 1945. Josserand and Huon both indicate that many MAB guns ceased production in 1964, even though some of them were still listed in a catalog published in 1966. It may be that the company had ceased production of some product lines but were still able to sell from existing inventory. MAB went bankrupt in 1968, but in October of 1969 the company was restructured and a 40% stake was acquired by Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium, after which production of the Model D, P-15, and P.A.P. F1 were resumed. Under partial ownership by FN the MAB factory made parts for the Browning Le Bébé, .22 Sport, and the Barracuda revolver, and MAB was able to sell its products through FN’s sales channels. In 1978, production of the Baby Browning was moved to the MAB factory in Bayonne. However, reduced sub-contracting work and poor sales of the P-15 forced the company to close in September of 1982.
After the closure of MAB several of its former executives founded a company called MABCO in 1986, which resumed production of the P-15 and the P.A.P. F1. MABCO also experimented with a gun, based on the P-15, that was convertable from 9mm to .45 ACP, as well as a double-action version of the P-15. However, neither gun ever progressed beyond the prototype stage. MABCO had plans to modernize production methods and redesign the P-15 so that it could be manufactured with CNC (computer numerical controlled) machine tools, but were apparently unable to obtain sufficient financing to go into production. There were rumors at one time that MABCO would move production to the former Yugoslavia, but nothing ever came of them. I do not have an exact date for the demise of MABCO, but the company probably only lasted a few years. MABCO was the last remaining manufacturer of large caliber handguns in France. Hogg & Walter state simply that “a rescue attempt failed.”
Note: In an earlier version of this article I incorrectly stated that MAB made a couple of Velodog revolvers, but I have been informed by a gentleman in Spain that they were manufactured by Martín Antón Bascarán of Eibar, who used the letters MAB as his trademark.
Copyright 2008-2010 by Ed Buffaloe. All rights reserved.