The M.A.B. PA-15 Pistol
by Ed Buffaloe and Bill Kelsey
The Manufacture d’Armes de Bayonne was founded by Léon Barthe in 1920 to make automatic pistols for self defense. Until the 1950s the guns made by M.A.B. were mostly based on Browning designs. In 1951-1952 the Modèle R was produced and offered in five different chamberings: .22, .32 ACP, .32 French Long, .380, and 9mm Parabellum. In the case of the .32 French Long and the 9mm Parabellum, this was the first time any M.A.B. pistol had been chambered for a military round. The R Series guns retained the blowback design that had been used since the company was founded, with the recoil spring around the barrel, á la the 1910 Browning. But the Modèle R featured an external hammer, eliminated the grip safety, and had a slide that remained open when the last round was fired and closed when a new magazine was inserted. The magazine for the 9mm R-series gun held 8 rounds. This gun, sometimes referred to as the R-9 or the R Para, was manufactured from 1952 to 1963, but not many were made and they are very scarce today. Most of the R Series guns were imported into the U.S. by the Western Arms Corporation, later Winfield Arms Corporation, of Los Angeles and sold under the brand name W.A.C.
We suppose the M.A.B. designers realized they needed a locked breech, or at least a delayed blowback, design for the powerful 9mm Parabellum cartridge, particularly if they wanted the gun to qualify for a military contract. Sometime in the late 1950s they produced an experimental pistol utilizing a delayed-blowback rotating barrel system very similar to that of the Savage automatic pistols, based on Elbert Searle’s patent of 1905 (the French had acquired about 27,500 Savage Model 1907 7.65mm automatic pistols for use during World War I). The mechanism also has some similarities to the Czech vz.22 and vz.24 pistols. The gun was marked as Modèle R, even though it was a very different design from the original R-9. Above the model designation, on the left side of the slide, was “PISTOLET AUTOMATIQUE MAB BREVETTE - S.G.D.G.” Identical markings are found on the P-8 and PA-15 pistols, sans the “Modèle R.” To distinguish it from the true Model R Para, this gun is sometimes referred to as the “R Para Experimental.” It is the direct predecessor of the P-8 and the PA-15. Probably fewer than 100 were made with the Model R designation, but the later P-8 is very similar.
The P-8 and PA-15
The P-8 pistol was manufactured from 1966 through 1968. It was an updated version of the R PARA Experimental, with a slide lock lever nearly identical to the 1911A1 Colt .45, the recoil spring beneath the barrel instead of around it, all steel construction, plastic grips, and a rotating barrel. The gun was quite heavy at 1.04 kilograms, or about 36.6 ounces, though it was slimmer and lighter than the PA-15. The P-8 retained the grip shape of the R-Para Experimental. M.A.B. closed temporarily in 1968, but restructured and reopened in October of 1969, after FN acquired a 40% stake--but production of the P-8 was never resumed.
The PA-15 (Pistolet Automatique 15, later referred to as the P15, or P.15S) was manufactured from 1966 through 1982, when the M.A.B. company went bankrupt. Named for its 15-round magazine capacity, it was the first pistol to exceed the 13-round capacity of the Browning HiPower. Two basic versions of the PA-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. In 1982 a prototype of a .45 caliber version was developed, and was close enough to production that labels listing it were printed, although development ended with M.A.B.’s bankruptcy.
In 1986 several previous executives of M.A.B. bought the remaining M.A.B. tooling and stock and formed another company, called MABCO, to continue production of the PA-15 and PAP F1. MABCO modernized and computerized the production process, designed an updated “Series 2” PA-15 (PA15-S2) and, in hopes of winning a French government contract for a high capacity double-action pistol to replace the aging PA-1950, created a new double-action version. However, in 1989 the Beretta 92-F, already in service with the French army as the PA MAS G1, was selected. Neither the updated PA15-S2 nor the double action version ever went beyond prototype production.We have been unable to find a date for MABCO’s demise, but it only lasted a few years. According to Jane’s Infantry Weapons (2008 edition), during 1991, the (then) Yugoslavian arms Manufacturer Zastava Arms produced the PA-15 for export sales, although actual production has not been verified. If you could find a PA-15 with MABCO or Zastava markings, it would be an instant collector item.
After MABCO closed, remaining PA-15 pistols and unassembled parts, together totaling about 200 pistols, were acquired by a French firearms dealer, Olivier Chevasson. In 2000 he incorporated Chevasson Armes (dba Armurerie Lechkine) in the Central French City of Romorantin- Lanthenay, and advertised new and custom PA-15s among his firearms. The pistols he assembled from M.A.B. parts he called the “PA-15 2000” and provided 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 Sarl Long Range and can be reached at email@example.com. He can still build PA-15 pistols to order from existing parts.
Paul Mulcahy states that the M.A.B. PA-15 became the official arm of the French army in 1988, while Ezell states that it was already the French army’s standard handgun in 1980. They are both incorrect. The official French military handgun from 1953 to 1987 was the French Model 1950, also referred to as the MAC 50 or PA-50, although French military special operations units are reported to have included the PA-15 among their weapons arsenals.
The M.A.B. PA-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, Tunesia, Gabon, Central Africa, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, and Chad.
Hogg and Walter state that the PA-15 was “used by the French army,” but the model illustrated is the PAP F1 target model. 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.” This is the reason the PA-15 is so often reported as being an official sidearm of the French army.
In Josserand’s 1979 article on M.A.B. 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 M.A.B. PA-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 PA-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 M.A.B. PA-15 is an enlarged version of the P-8, with a 15-round magazine. At 1.165 kilograms, or 41.05 ounces (over 2½ pounds!), it probably qualifies as a deadly weapon even when unloaded. With 15 rounds in the magazine it weighs just short of 3 pounds! Like the Savage, the rotating barrel of the PA-15 has two locking lugs. The top lug fits into an angled groove in the roof of the slide, and the bottom lug rests in a barrel block attached to the rear of the recoil spring guide and pinned to the frame by the slide latch. 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 massive slide. The slide, barrel, and some other parts are numbered to match the frame.
The spin imparted to the bullet by the rifling acts in the opposite direction to the unlocking mechanism, tending to keep the breech closed until the bullet exits the barrel. Ideally, the bullet departs the barrel as the slide begins to move to the rear, then the barrel rotates, and as the slide continues rearward the breech opens and the cartridge is ejected. This is not a true locked breech mechanism, but may be classified as a delayed blowback system.
Though the PA-15 is a single action design, it has a top-mounted connector bar like many double action guns, giving it a light, smooth trigger pull. The trigger itself is strangely shaped, requiring finger placement near the top, but it works just fine. The lockwork for the PA-15 is quite different from most previous M.A.B. pistols, which had nearly identical mechanisms back to 1925. The entire PA-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.
About 100,000 PA-15s are reported to have been produced between 1966-1982. They were available with a blued, nickel, or parkerized finish. M.A.B. was working on a .45 caliber version of the PA-15 when it closed. While no examples are known, work had progressed to the point that the PA-15 box already displayed both 9mm and .45 caliber check-offs.
Variations and Markings
The PA-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. We noted this change 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 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 I: An undated MAB catalogue, reputed to date from 1966, shows both the 8- and 15-shot guns without model markings. The catalogue designates the guns as “M.A.B. Parabellum 15 et 8 cartouches,” but refers to them in the text as the P-8 and the P-15. The first Gun Digest listing for the gun appeared in 1968, where it was simply called the “MAB Autoloading Pistol,” and was described as having an 8- or 15-shot magazine; Mars Equipment, importers. Early guns, with four-digit serial numbers on the frame above the trigger guard, have no model marking anywhere on them. If imported, they are stamped MADE IN FRANCE on the right side of the slide beneath the extractor and ejection port. This variant duplicates the markings on the PA-8, and has been observed in serial number 3019.*
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: Lastly, 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. If imported into the U.S., these guns 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.*
There may be other variants which we have not observed.
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 MAB monogram on the left side.
Two different right side slide inscriptions have been documented: MODELE PA-15 on earlier guns, and P.A.P. Mle. F1 Cal 9 m/m on later guns.
Impressions by Ed Buffaloe
A critical examination of the PA-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 precision machined nonetheless. 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.
The PA-15 functioned flawlessly when I took it to the range. Despite its 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.
* 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.