The M.A.B. P-15 Pistol
by Ed Buffaloe and Bill Kelsey
The story of the MAB P-15 pistol is, in many ways, the story of the end of the MAB company. The founder of MAB, Léon Barthe (pronounced Bart), had died in 1937 at the age of 54. After World War II, his son Jean took over the company, and within a few years MAB began to produce a number of new pistol designs. Due to the renaissance of target shooting in France in the late 40’s and early 50’s, the company had some success with their two target pistols, the Model F and the Model R in .22 caliber. But the Model R pistol in the larger calibers (7.65mm French Long, 7.65mm Browning, 9mm Browning Short, and 9mm Parabellum), manufactured between 1951 and 1964, simply did not sell well. The Models G and GZ were only modestly successful. By 1964 production had ended for the Model F, the Model G, and all the Model R variants. The stalwart Models A, C and D continued to be the mainstays of the company.
MAB built a new factory in 1964. Sales of their Models A, C, and D were good, particularly in the Middle East, but the company needed a new more powerful and more advanced pistol if it wished to continue to be competitive in the worldwide arms market. So design work began on a military-style pistol in 9mm Parabellum.
The new gun they designed bore an external resemblance to the Colt 1911 and the Browning Hi-Power, but was quite diffferent internally. While the MAB design, like the earlier Browning designs, features a recoil spring beneath the barrel, a magazine release behind the trigger, and a thumb-operated slide release lever on the left side, the gun has no breech locking mechanism. Instead, it utilizes a delayed-blowback rotating barrel system.
For some years I assumed that the P-15 design was based on Elbert Searle’s patent of 1905 which ultimately became the 1907 Savage automatic pistol. It is well known that the French acquired upwards of 40,000 Savage Model 1907 automatic pistols for use during World War I. However, I recently became aware of a number of prototype Mauser pistols with rotating barrels, designed by Josef Nickl (the Model 1915 and the Model 1917H) with mechanisms nearly identical to that of the P-15. The Nickl prototypes are illustrated in the book Mauser Pistolen, by W. Darrin Weaver, Jon Speed, and Walter Schmid (see pages 113-114, 120-122, and 126-135). The Mauser factory at Oberndorf was under French control immediately after World War II, and much of the factory equipment and many of the prototype pistols were subsequently shipped to France. I believe the P-15 is likely based on the Nickl designs.
The P-8 Prototype
The P-8 prototype is marked identically to a Model R. It was probably made sometime between 1963 and 1965. An early brochure titled Pistolet Automatique MAB 9 m/m Parabellum shows a photograph of the prototype pistol, clearly marked as a MODELE R. Inside the brochure, the gun is described not as the “model” but as the “type” P-8 or P-15.
The 2005 edition of the Standard Catalog of Firearms designates this gun as the “R Para Experimental,” based on its slide inscription. According to Bastié and Casanova only a few dozen of these pistols were ever made.
The P-8 pistol was manufactured from 1966 through 1968. It is an updated version of the P-8 prototype. The slide walls are thicker, the upper portion of the slide is squared off, and the slot cut through the top has been eliminated, becoming a channel in the top interior of the slide. The gun has seven flat-bottomed vertical slide serrations just above the grip plates. The grip plates are retained by two screws. The hammer has a round head with a hole drilled through it.
Like the Mauser/Nickl prototypes, the P-15 has a full-length recoil spring guide rod affixed to a block at the rear. The block (referred to in French as the berceau du canon, or barrel cradle) has a slot in the top in which the bottom lug of the barrel turns. In both guns the block is held in place by a pin, but in the Nickl design the pin is inserted vertically from the bottom of the gun, whereas in the P-8 and P-15 it is held in place in the frame by a transverse pin attached to the slide release lever, which serves as the take-down mechanism for the pistol. The rear of the P-8 and P-15 block is angled and polished to serve as a ramp for cartridges entering the barrel. The barrel is closely fitted into a massive slide. The slide, barrel, and some other parts are numbered to match the frame.
Due to the loss of their export license, MAB was forced to close in 1968, but restructured and reopened in October of 1969 after the company was sold to Claude Duvignacq, founder of the French baby products company Baby Relax. But production of the P-8 pistol never resumed.
William B. Edwards, one of the founders of Guns magazine and later a gun dealer, relates that when he visited the MAB factory in late 1968 or early 1969 he saw the remaining P-8 frames, in the white, stored as spare parts. Some of these frames may have been used later to make a few rare P-8 target pistols.
The gun is stamped on the left side of the slide:
PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE MAB BREVETTE S.G.D.G
and on the right side the marking reads simply:
MADE IN FRANCE
The back side of the barrel block forms part of the ramp the guides the cartridge into the chamber. The barrel is closely fitted into the reinforced slide. The slide, barrel, and some other parts are numbered to match the frame.
Two basic versions of the P-15 were sold, an “M1” military pistol available either blued or parkerized, and an “S” (for “Standard”) commercial pistol, available with various finishes and options, including target sights.* The military version was also sold commercially. By 1981 a prototype of a .45 caliber version had been developed and by 1982 was close enough to production that labels listing it were printed, although development ended with MAB’s bankruptcy the same year.
Variations and Markings on the P-15
The P-15 went through a few internal and external changes in its 14-year lifetime.
The magazine safety directly blocks the sear, preventing the trigger from being pulled. On early pistols. if the hammer is down and the magazine is removed the slide cannot be opened because the sear binds the hammer. If the hammer is cocked and the magazine removed the slide can be worked easily; however, the hammer cannot be lowered until the magazine is reinserted. On later pistols the mechanism was modified to allow the hammer to be cocked or lowered with the magazine removed.
The shape of the frame cut-out beneath the grip plates was modified slightly, requiring a change to the backs of the grip plates in order to fit properly on the frame. This change has been noted on later guns labeled P-15 rather than the earlier PA-15 designation.
The earliest magazine release button was checkered, whereas the later release button featured circular grooves.
All gun made by the MAB company appear to have eight flat-bottomed vertical slide serrations.
All versions of the gun, like other MAB pistols, are stamped, in sans-serif characters on the left side of the slide:
PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE MAB BREVETTE S.G.D.G
Most of the factory magazines had a heavy milled steel baseplate, but a few of the late magazines had a stamped metal baseplate. Factory magazine followers were of milled steel, though aftermarket followers are often seen in plastic. Thirty-round magazines were also made, but we are not entirely certain if they were made by the MAB factory or not.
Variant II: Later guns have six-digit serial numbers with model designation in the format PA.15 M1 XXXXXX on the right side of the frame above the trigger guard. These guns have, stamped on the right side of the slide in front of the ejection port, MODELE PA-15 in sans-serif characters. Some of these guns are marked FRANCE in serif characters below the trigger guard on the front edge of the frame grip. The marking does not appear to be stamped into the metal but is imprinted into the finish by some means. The mark may have been done manually, as it is often crooked or poorly centered. This variant has been observed in serial numbers 552352-601764.*
Variant III: Later still, or possibly parallel with Variant II, we have observed guns with six-digit serial numbers with model designation in the format PA-15 XXXXXX on the right side of the frame over the trigger guard. They are stamped, on the right side of the slide in front of the ejection port, MODELE PA-15 in sans-serif characters, directly beneath which (on some, but not all, guns) is MADE IN FRANCE. This variant has been observed in serial numbers 518154-601393, so there is some overlap with Variant II.*
Variant IV: We have observed guns with no model prefix having six-digit serial numbers on the right side of the frame over the trigger guard bow. They are stamped, on the right side of the slide in front of the ejection port, MODEL P-15 in sans-serif characters, directly beneath which is MADE IN FRANCE. Three thousand MAB of these fourth variant pistols were imported into the U.S. in 1981 By Howco Distributing. Guns imported by Howco are typically marked on two lines on the front portion of the left side of the frame HOWCO DIST. INC. / LAUREL. MD. USA. This variant has been observed in serial numbers 610818-625103 and appears to be the final series made by MAB.*
There may be other variants which we have not yet observed.
About 100,000 PA-15s are reported to have been produced between 1966-1982.
The competition version of the PA-15 is built on the same frame as the standard model, but has an extended slide and barrel. According to Huon, the barrel is 150mm long, and the overall length of the gun is 234mm. A special bushing at the front of the slide assures precise barrel alignment, and the rear sight is fully adjustable. The gun weighs in at a hefty 1215 grams (43 ounces). The gun is designated as the Model F1, and is also referred to as the P.A.P., which stands for pistolet automatique de précision. According to Huon, the F1 was manufactured from 1966 through 1985, but it is not listed in the company’s 1966 catalogue.
We have noted various inscriptions on the slide. Most guns have
PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE MAB BREVETTE S.G.D.G
inscribed on the left side of the slide in all capital sans-serif characters, though we have noted one gun (serial number 600026) that has only the
monogram on the left side.
Two different right-side slide inscriptions have been documented:
on earlier guns, and
P.A.P. Mle. F1 Cal 9 m/m
on later guns.
In addition, Olivier Chevasson tells me that MAB made about 50 P-8 target pistols which simply say MODELE P-8 on the right side of the slide, but have the long barrel, long slide, and target sights of the P.A.P. F1.
The End of MAB
By 1976 the MAB company is in financial trouble. There is a shakeup in the board of directors, expenses are cut, and Fabrique Nationale (FN) of Herstal, Belgium becomes a major shareholder in the company with a 40% stake. FN provides much-needed capital, but FN is primarily interested in obtaining contracts to make weapons for the French military and when this prospect falls through they quickly lose interest in MAB. In 1981, the then CEO, Vincent Dubecq leaves the company, taking some of the best technical talent with him to two new precision engineering companies he has created. The new CEO, Marcel Gozzi, knows little about firearms, but he is a knowledgeable manager. It doesn’t take him long to realize that the company is using outdated machinery and obsolete production methods, and he needs to cut production time in half for the company to be profitable, but he has a young, militant, unionized work force that is resistant to change. Gozzi brings in experts from FN. They streamline production and outsource the manufacturing of P-15 frames to Astra in Spain, where the frames can be precision cast quickly by the lost-wax method. In return, Astra outsources the finishing and assembling of the .357 magnum Barracuda revolver they are manufacturing for FN to MAB.
But labor disputes ultimately sink MAB. The union refuses to work with the company Gozzi had contracted to do nickle plating. Then Astra refuses to accept a large percentage of the guns that have been finished by MAB, saying the work is sub-par. Finally in May of 1982, as a prank, a worker substitutes real cartridges for blanks that were being used to test pistols and real bullets fly about the factory. The worker is fired and the union goes on strike. FN withdraws all financial support, and by September bankruptcy is inevitable. Gozzi resigns and the workers are dismissed. The union workers try desperately to put together a worker’s collective to buy up the company and resume operations, but are unable to organize financing. A very small number of workers are eventually hired by the companies owned by the former CEO, Vincent Dubecq, who still owns the 60% of MAB not owned by FN. Dubecq’s companies take over some of MAB’s remaining contracts. But the vast majority of MAB’s workforce is left unemployed.
In 1984 several previous executives of MAB bought the remaining MAB stock and formed a new company, called MABCO, to continue production of the P-15 and PAP F1. MABCO modernized and computerized the production process, designed an updated “Series 2” P-15 (P15-S2), designed a convertible P-15 that could shoot both 9mm and .45 caliber and, in hopes of winning a French government contract for a high capacity double action pistol to replace the aging P-1950, created a new double action version of the P-15. Unfortunately, the new design was not ready in time for the military contract competition, and in 1989 the Beretta 92-F was selected. This pretty much sealed the fate of MABCO. Neither the updated P15-S2 nor the double action version ever went beyond the prototype stage. According to Bastié and Casanova, MABCO went out of business sometime in the early 1990’s. According to Jane’s Infantry Weapons (2008 edition), during 1991, the Yugoslavian arms Manufacturer Zastava Arms was licensed to produce the P-15 for export, although there is no evidence they ever did.
After MAM quit making the P-15 pistol, the remaining frames and unassembled parts, all together totaling about 200 pistols, were acquired by a French firearms dealer Olivier Chevasson who, in the year 2000 incorporated Chevasson Armes (dba Armurerie Lechkine) in the central French city of Romorantin-Lanthenay, and advertised new and custom P-15s among his firearms. The pistols he assembled from MAB parts he called the “PA-15 2000” and stamped them with serial numbers beginning with “CH.” These pistols came with target front and rear sights, and could be customized to order. In February of 2010 Chevasson Armes was declared bankrupt and closed. However, M. Chevasson has now gone into business as Long Range and can be reached at email@example.com. At the time of this writing, he can still build PA-15 pistols to order from existing parts.
These guns feature a flat slide with six broad, flat-bottomed vertical slide serrations, and are marked on the left side of the slide in script:
The right side of the slide is marked PA15-2000 and MADE IN FRANCE.
Usage of the P-15
Ezell states that the P-15 was the French army’s standard handgun in 1980, which is not true, although French military special operations units are reported to have included the P-15 among their weapons arsenals. The website http://world.guns.ru states, “When, in late 1970s, production of the 9mm M1950 pistols ceased, the French army obtained small numbers of commercially available MAB P15 pistols, also in 9x19. These pistols were never adopted for general army service, but saw some use in the hands of French Naval Commando units, Military Police and Marines.”
In Josserand’s 1979 article on MAB pistols, he states that the P.A.P. (pistolet automatique de précision) modèle F1, the target version of the PA-15, was in use by the French military and gendarmerie. A technical manual for the gun online at http://www.littlegun.be displays the note: “Approuvé par le chef d’état-major le l’armée de Terre le 18 avril 1968...” The book French Service Handguns also states that the MAB P-15 was never adopted by the French military, but that the target version was used by French military and police pistol teams.
The Bank of France adopted the P-15 for its security personnel, stamping their guns with “BFP” for Bank de France Paris, just as it had once stamped “BF” before the serial number on the M.A.B. Model D, also used by its security agents.
The MAB P-15 was adopted by the Finnish Rajavartiolaitos (Border Guards defense force) in 1975 and by some European police forces, as well as by military and police forces in some Francophone former French colonies of Africa, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Gabon, Central Africa, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, and Chad.
Functionality and Impressions of the P-15 by Ed Buffaloe
Though the PA-15 is a single action design, it has a top-mounted connector bar like many double action guns, giving it a relatively light, smooth trigger pull. The lockwork for the P-15 is quite different from all previous MAB pistols, which had nearly identical mechanisms back to 1925. The entire P-15 is of milled steel, with the exception of the trigger bar and magazine safety, which are stamped. The gun has the great merit of simplicity and ease of disassembly, but is quite heavy.
According to Bastié and Casanova the P-15 was tested by the French military in the 1970’s, but they found that parts were not always interchangeable between guns. Apparently the obsolete manufacturing methods in use in the MAB factory included the hand-fitting of parts for each individual gun, giving the P-15 tremendous accuracy but limiting parts interchangeability. (I note that most parts are stamped with the last three digits of the serial number.)
A critical examination of the P-15 can be found in the book Great Combat Handguns. The authors state that if the safety is on and the trigger is pulled with great force the sear pin can be subjected to a lot of torque and might break. Additionally, the magazine safety is frail and the authors suggest that if either the safety lever or the lip of the magazine were to wear over-much the gun would be rendered inoperable. The manual safety lever is difficult to operate, as is the magazine release. They do, however, state that the grip design is good, providing fast sighting after a quick draw, and the slide release is easy to operate. They also state that their test gun shot too far to the left.
The PA-15 is nicely finished--not a mirror finish, as you can see faint mill marks, but nicely polished nonetheless and deeply blued. Some guns have a phosphate finish, and a few are stainless steel. When I first removed the slide and grips, interior edges were quite sharp and caught threads from my patches and cloths. I took some 1500 grit microfine sandpaper to the sharp edges under the grips and in the slide--just enough to prevent them from snagging threads. The gun had sat for years in a gun shop cabinet and was quite dry, so I carefully lubricated it with some Hoppe’s Moly Oil and Militec grease. Recoil is heavy--a lot of people attribute this to the rotating barrel design, but I think it is due to the heavy slide, which is of course necessitated by the unlocked breech. The recoil spring is also quite powerful, and it requires considerable manual strength to work the slide and chamber a round.
The PA-15 has functioned flawlessly every time I have taken it to the range. Despite heavy recoil, it is extremely accurate. With the grip of the gun on the tabletop, at 10 yards I had to look again after firing the first four rounds--they were all in a hole I could cover with a dime right at the top of the bullseye. The gun shoots about 4 inches high at 25 yards, but I can compensate for that, and at 50 yards it is right on. The only other 9mm pistol I own that approaches the accuracy of the P-15 is the H&K P7 M8 with its fixed barrel and gas-operated delayed blowback mechanism.
Field Stripping the P-15
* If you would like to help us gather more information, please send photographs and/or detailed descriptions of your gun that indicate the serial number. Please tell us how your magazine safety works, and if your gun has import marks. If you purchased your gun new, we would particularly like to know when you purchased it. If you still have any of the literature that came with your gun, scans or photographs would be very helpful.