The MAT-49 Was the Iconic Submachine Gun of the First Vietnam War
This French weapon is one of the few successes associated with the disaster of Dien Bien Phu
In 1954, more than 14,000 French troops were locked in combat during one of the most decisive battles of the 20th century — Dien Bien Phu.
Hopelessly outnumbered by communist Viet Minh forces, starving and exhausted with little more than cigarettes and instant coffee to sustain them during the 54-day siege, the French faced humiliation and defeat.
Surrender was their only hope.
“On May 7, 1954, the end of the battle for the jungle fortress of Dien Bien Phu marked the end of French military influence in Asia, just as the sieges of Port Arthur, Corregidor and Singapore had, to a certain extent, broken the spell of Russian, American and British hegemony in Asia,” Bernard Fall, author of Hell in a Very Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, wrote 10 years later. “The Asians, after centuries of subjugation, had beaten the white man at his own game.”
U.S. Pres. Dwight Eisenhower authorized support for the French military during the crisis. The United States poured tons of material aid into the battle. However, America refused to commit troops to fight alongside its French ally.
Photos of the period show French soldiers wearing American helmets and battle dress, carrying U.S. equipment ranging from canteens to radios, and receiving air drops (when they could get them) from American aircraft.
But the French did all they could to keep a weapon from their own nation — the MAT-49 submachine gun — from falling into the hands of the enemy. To this day, the French regard the nine-millimeter MAT-49 as an iconic symbol of their war in Southeast Asia and the more than 75,000 soldiers who died there.
For nearly 30 years, the MAT-49 saw action wherever the French had once planted their flag — during the First Indochina War, in Algeria, and as favorite weapon of the French Foreign Legion when legionnaires fought in Mauritania, Zaire and during the Chad-Libyan war of the 1980s.
Despite the frequent — and often undeserved — criticism that French weapons are inferior, the MAT-49 is anything but substandard.
Above — the MAT-49 submachine gun. At top — French paratroopers at Dien Bien Phu armed with the MAT-49 SMG. Photos via Wikipedia
Designed and manufactured because the French military was stripped of weaponry by Germany during World War II, its designer took his lead from the success of weapons such as the Sten Gun and the M3 “Grease Gun.” Both were examples of cheaply made but widely used submachine guns made from stamped metal parts.
Pierre Monteil, the French firearms engineer with Manufacture Nationale d’Armes de Tulle (better known as MAT), wanted to keep things simple and production costs low so the post-war French military could quickly re-arm. He, too, went with stamped metal parts for the MAT-49. But despite the cost-saving features, the resulting firearm operates very well.
The MAT-49 has a blowback design, heavy mainspring, 7.7-pound weight when empty, and a 1.3-pound bolt. Altogether, the weapon is a bit on the heavy side, but its weight helps reduce recoil.
The gun has flip-up “L”-shaped sights marked for a range of 50 and 100 meters. It fires in full-auto only at 600 rounds per minute, but a skilled shooter can learn to fire in short bursts quite accurately.
The MAT-49 also has two unusual features for a submachine gun. The magazine housing folds forward and up where it attaches to a bracket, and the weapon has a grip safety that prevents accidental firing if the shooter drops the gun.
Altogether, the gun is a rather attractive little package. It’s easy to field strip, easy to clean and easy to fire — qualities that ensured that the weapon stayed in active service as long as it did.
Airborne forces in particular loved the MAT-49. French paratroopers from both the regular forces and the French Foreign Legions played a pivotal role in the First Indochina War.
“Until 1954, they formed a mobile striking force which was rushed as needed from one end of the country to another,” wrote Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage in The French Foreign Legion: An Illustrated History. “They saw action and suffered heavy losses in numerous security operations, offensive and defensive battles, and countless rescue operations.”
Many members of an équipe choc (assault team) or équipe feu (fire team) carried the MAT as their basic weapon. They needed a reliable, compact submachine gun for their missions — and if parts of the weapon folded in order to make the weapon easier to secure to their web gear before a jump, so much the better.
And when the French left Indochina, captured MAT-49s often filtered into the hands of the Viet Cong, who later fought American soldiers and Marines.
All the guerrillas had to do was convert the submachine guns to the Soviet 7.62-millimeter Tokarev pistol cartridge, which was amply supplied to communist forces in Southeast Asia by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.