The rifles of the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871: the French were caught in transition from muzzleloaders to the Chassepot bolt-action. They scrambled to find substitutes, many of them from the USA.
As has been their wont before, and since, most of the French public greeted Napoleon's declaration of war with acclaim. Many Frenchmen felt that it was payback time for Leipzig and Waterloo; they would put those Teutonic barbarians in their place, and reestablish France's supremacy in Europe.
To use a modern expression, L'Armee Imperiale francaise were "legends in their own mind" They were enamored of visions of glory and the belief that they were the heirs of the armies of Napoleon (the first one!) and thus would be invincible on the battlefield. But it fact, while publicly it was considered one of Europe's top fighting forces, it suffered from lack of organization, training, poor leadership, low morale and--as was far to common in Louis Napoleon's France--was rife with corruption.
With the lessons of the Danish-Prussian and Seven Weeks' War, to say nothing of the American Civil War, obvious to all, the French army began searching for a breechloading loading rifle to counter the Preuflische-Zundnadel-Gewehr. Their first "solution" was the Manceaux System. Very similar in concept to the Bavarian's Podewils-Gewehr, it was a bolt-action, breechloader fired by means of an outside hammer and percussion cap. But it was quickly superseded by a bolt-action rifle designed by Antoine Alphonse Chassepot, an employee of the Central Artillery Depot.
While Chassepot's rifle also fired a self-contained, combustible cartridge, it differed greatly from the Dreyse. While the Prussian Scharfe-Patrone M.57 used a paper cartridge with the primer located in front of the powder charge, the Chassepot's nitrated paper/silk cartridge located it at the base of the cartridge, doing away with the Dreyse's long, fragile firing pin.
In contrast to the Dreyse, whose cartridge had a .535 cal. bullet embedded in a paper-mache sabot (Treibspiegel) that engaged the rifling of a .607 cal. barrel, the Chassepot's "smallbore" 11mm (.44 cal.) bullet engaged the rifling directly and provided far superior accuracy.
But it was in the area of sealing the breech against gas leakage that the Chassepot really outshone the Dreyse. Antoine overcame this problem by the use of his patented caoutchouc buffer, a moveable, Gutta Percha (an early form of industrial rubber) sleeve fitted to the front of the bolt.
Upon firing, the force of the exploding gunpowder pushed the buffer back against the bolt body, compressing it and expanding its diameter to seal the breech so as to prevent the escape of powder gases. The French army was suitably impressed with Chassepot's rifle and beginning in 1859, began testing it against competing designs.
With the Prussian threat looming on the horizon, the Chassepot was adopted as the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle. 1866 and production was undertaken by the imperial arsenals at Chatellerault, St. Etienne, Tulle and Mutzig and by the Belgian firm, August Francotte of Liege.
Two short versions of the Chassepot were adopted for use by mounted troops and artillery crews. Both the Carabines de Cavalerie Mle. 1866 and Mousqueton d'Artillerie Mle. 1866 differed from the infantry rifle in having 27.6-inch barrels, turned down bolt handles and weighing 7.8 pounds. The only real difference between the two was that the latter took a bayonet.
Like the Dreyse, the shooter had to retract the Chassepot's cocking piece manually before the bolt could be opened. A primitive type of "safety" could be applied by holding the cocking piece with the thumb and raising the bolt handle halfway. Then, the trigger was pulled and the cocking piece allowed to move forward into a safety notch cut in the bolt. To fire the rifle, the bolt was manually cocked once again, the bolt handle slapped down and the trigger pulled.
Field tests showed that the Chassepot's 382-grain, 11mm projectile had a velocity of approximately 1370 fps, compared to the Dreyse's 970 fps, providing greater range, flatter trajectory and superior on-target performance. In addition, it was shorter, lighter and, because its breech system caused less fouling, more reliable with a higher rate of fire.
Even though the Chassepot proved one of the more practical non-metallic cartridge, bolt-action designs, there were problems. Heat from repeated firings--or cold weather--caused the caoutchouc buffer to lose its elasticity, with resulting gas leakage around the breech. But as the caoutchouc could be easily replaced, soldiers were issued with spares for just such occurrences. Additionally, incomplete combustion of the paper/silk cartridge often fouled the chamber to the point where it was impossible to insert a new cartridge without cleaning.
Now the question always comes up, why didn't the French chamber their new rifle for a metallic cartridge? After all, by 1866 the American Civil War had proven the practicality of such weapons. I think a combination of two factors caused the French to concentrate on combustible cartridge rifles:
1. The French were 'concerned with adopting a rifle superior, but also very similar to, that used by Prussia, which was then considered to have the most modern army in Europe.
2. At the time most European military "experts" had a jaundiced view of anything used by the crude colonials in America.
The French army was so happy with their new rifle that they bragged "300 Dreyse guns equal 900 Minie muzzle-loaders--but 300 Chassepots equal 500 Dreyse guns." Little did they know!
In sharp, contrast to Prussia's rapid and orderly mobilization, France's would have been considered comedic if it had not proven so fatal! While Napoleon III had championed the modernization of the French army, industry and the expansion of its railroad system, the inefficiency and corruption of his government had greatly hindered those efforts.
The lack of organization of the French army, especially the reserves, led to mass confusion. Reservists often had to travel long distances to join their units; lack of railroad capacity meant troops could not be moved quickly enough to counter Prussian advances; supplies Were either sent to the wrong units or did not reach the troops in the field at all; communications were poor; medical care of the wounded woefully inadequate; while professional jealousies among high ranking officers prevented coordination of military efforts. The result was a series of disastrous defeats and steadily declining morale among the troops, while a sense of helplessness gripped many of the officer corps.
SPECIFICATIONS Fusil d'Infanterie Mle. 1866 Caliber: 11mm (.443) Overall length: 51.4 inches Barrel length: 31 inches Weight: 9 pounds Sights: Front- Inverted V-blade Rear- V-notch adjustable by ramp and leaf from 200 to 1600 meters. Bayonet: Yataghan-style with 22.5 inch blade
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, the French army had not been fully rearmed with the Chassepot. French units went into battle carrying a hodgepodge of new and obsolete French, Belgian, English and American rifles--muzzleloaders, breechloaders and repeaters using paper, rimfire, and centerfire cartridges.
France's situation in 1870 was similar to that of Imperial Russia during the Great War. In an attempt to equip their troops with something capable of launching-projectiles in the direction of the enemy, the French bought any and all military rifles they could obtain, regardless of the type, caliber, condition or country of origin. It would be impossible id discuss them all, and so we will examine a few of the more common of these "substitute standard" weapons.
Fusils a Tabatiere
Even though the Chassepot had been adopted in 1866, French arsenals experienced many difficulties tooling up to produce the new rifle. As a stopgap measure, it was decided to convert the large stocks of rifled muskets and mousquetons into rudimentary breechloaders.
This was accomplished fairly quickly and inexpensively, by the use of the so-called Tabatiere system. Inspired by the Snider breech system--developed fey the American, Jacob Snider and recently adopted by the British army--the conversion consisted of cutting off the end of the musket barrel, boring a cartridge chamber in it and threading to fit into a breech unit.
This contained a sideways tipping breechblock opened by a serrated thumbpiece, with spring-loaded firing pin that was struck by the musket hammer. After firing, the hammer was drawn back to half cock, the breechblock flipped over to the right side and then pulled smartly to the rear on its axis pin, which activated the extractor, pulling the spent cartridge case from the chamber where it was removed either manually or by tipping the rifle over and letting if fall free.
Because of the low-pressure cartridge used, breech locking was accomplished simply by the heavy hammer holding the block shut. The system quickly earned the appellation "Tabatiere" (snuffbox) because the side-hinged breechblock operated like the lid of a snuffbox. The large caliber cartridge meant a large section of wood had to be cut out of the wrist of the stock, weakening the area.
Converted rifles were produced with both iron and bronze breech units and blocks. Four different rifles made up the bulk of the conversions: the Fusil d'Infanterie Mle 1853-54, Fusil de Dragon Mle 1853, Fusil d'Infanterie Mle. 1857 and the Carabine de Chasseur Mle. 1859.
There were 'also various Mousquetons (carbines) produced and, as the French became increasingly desperate for rifles, numbers of ancient Mle. 1822 muskets were converted by means of the Tabatiere system. All converted weapons all had a "/67" added to their model designation.
The 17.8mm Cartouche Mle. 1867 used a Potet type case consisting of a brass foil body encased in paper that attached to a rimmed base with a centerfire primer. While cartridge cases will vary from 32 to 38mm in length, most were loaded with a 556-grain Minie-type projectile that 69 grains of blackpowder pushed to 1050 fps.
Many thousands of muskets were converted by various government arsenals and by French and Belgian contractors, and the various Fusils a Tabatiere were the rifles that saw the widest used by French reservists during the war.
As the French engaged in a panicky rush to find enough rifles to arm their rapidly expanding forces, they turned to the United States. With our Civil War over, the government had sold off vast quantities of excess rifles to American and foreign entrepreneurs who lost no time in offering them to the desperate French.
SPECIFICATIONS Fusil a Tabatiere Mle. 1857/67 Caliber: 17.8mm Cartouche Mle. 1867 Overall length: 60 inches Barrel length: 37.7 inches Weight: 9.8 pounds Sights: Front- Blade Rear- V-notch fixed for 200 meters, fold-up leaf for 400 & 600 meters. Bayonet: Socket Style
Most prominent among these were Model 1861 Springfield rifled muskets and various Spencer repeating rifles and carbines, the latter chambered for the .56-56, .56-52 and .56-50 Spencer rimfire cartridges.
Since the end of the recent fratricidal conflict, the Americans had been in the process of finding a suitable breechloading, metallic cartridge rifle for their own army. Trials were held with dozens of different models; significant quantities of some were manufactured for field testing and then rejected.
These included the Model 1866 Springfield Allin conversions and Model 1870 Springfield Remington Rolling Block conversions chambered for both the .58 Rimfire and .50-70 cartridges. As the U.S. Army discarded them, they were snatched up by arms dealers and French agents and shipped across the Atlantic posthaste.
At this time, a number of American gun makers were producing breechloading rifles for domestic and overseas sales and, having expanded their production facilities during the war, were capable of turning out large numbers of weapons. Prominent among these were the Remington Rolling Block rifle--which by 1870 had already been adopted by armies around the world.
Remington diverted considerable numbers of Model 1868 Spanish (11x58R) and Egyptian (11x50R) rifles to supply the French. Remington also took the opportunity to rid itself of Rolling Block carbines in .56-50 Spencer rimfire that had been built in hopes of a government contract that had never materialized.
In Rhode Island, the Providence Tool Company was manufacturing the Peabody Rifle, a dropping block design that served as the inspiration for the later Martini-Henry rifle, for Canada, Switzerland, Mexico and Spain. In 1870, French agents purchased 33,000 Peabody rifles chambered for the 11x58R Spanish cartridge.
Lastly, the Winchester Arms Company was marketing the improved Model 1866 rifle. A lightweight; lever-action repeater chambered for the .44 Henry cartridge, they were selling as fast as the Hartford firm could produce them and the French were only too happy to obtain a small number of them.
French agents also scoured Europe for additional arms, and from British and Belgian dealers they obtained numbers of Snider-Enfield rifles firing the .577 Boxer cartridge. Additionally, a quantity of Fusils para Infanteria Modelo 1867 were purchased from Spain. Both of these rifles were rifted muskets that had been converted to breechloaders.
The Snider's breech system (known as a "shoe") served as the inspiration for the Tabatiere, while the Spanish rifle's breech was a "trapdoor" design invented by the American, Hiram Berdan, and fired a 14.5x41R rimfire cartridge.
Other American and European weapons were obtained in smaller numbers and are too obscure to mention here. Already burdened with a disorganized and inefficient supply system, providing ammunition, spare parts and repairs for this assortment of rifles was beyond the capabilities of the quartermaster corps, and it is likely that this conglomeration of mismatched armament did the French war effort more harm than good.
On 4 August 1870, the Germans crossed the border into Alsace. France's reserves along the Rhineland border were insufficient to keep back the German armies and Moltke's plans proved a complete success as the French armies could not concentrate fast enough to counter any of his rapid movements.
The allied German forces defeated the French at Wissembourg, pushed the French under Marshal Patrice MacMahon to Chalons-en-Champagne, and forced a wedge between MacMahon's forces and those of the other main French army under Marshal Francois Bazaine, who was attempting to join MacMahon. Bazaine was defeated at Vionville and, two days later, again at Gravelotte.
A series of increasingly desperate battles were waged by the French Imperial Army and local Alsatian and Lorrainer militias, culminating in the disastrous Battle of Sedan, on 1 September. At that northern Alsatian town, a 100,000-man French army under MacMahon was crushed and the Emperor Louis Napoleon III was captured by Prussian and Baden forces.
In the two weeks after Sedan, the German forces continued their drive towards Paris and central France. After the fall of the fortress city of Nancy, the despairing Emperor abdicated. The day after, on the 19th of September, the Third French Republic was declared in Paris and a government of National Defense was formed.
The Germans surrounded and besieged Paris during the winter of 1870-1871, beating off several French armies that attempted to relieve the capital. Parisians suffered starvation, bombardments and disease until the city finally surrendered on 1 March 1871.
The government relocated at Versailles but continuing civil unrest led to an insurrection in Paris. The Commune was proclaimed on 28 March, and a bloody civil war was fought between the Commune and the troops of the Versailles government. With the aid of loyal troops, including the Foreign Legion, the government recaptured Paris and destroyed the Commune with great loss of life.
The Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 21 May 1871, the terms of which required France to surrender the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussian control and pay war indemnities totaling 5 billion francs. From that day forward, the army, government and people of France lusted for the day when they would avenge themselves upon the hated Germans. But they would have to wait until 11 November 1918 to do so.
On 1 September 1871, in commemoration of the first anniversary of the Battle of Sedan, the Deutsches Reich (German Empire), which united all the German-speaking states of central Europe--except Austria--was declared by the new Reichstag in Berlin. King Wilhelm of Prussia was crowned Kaiser Wilhelm I of Imperial Germany. Bismarck's dream of a united German state as the dominant political and military power in Europe had been realized
I would like to thank the following for providing materials, photos and information used to prepare this article: Russ Pastena, Kris Gasior (www.collectiblefirearms.com/), John McAulay, Dennis Ottobre (www.ebayonet.com) Craig Brown, Peter Schlehner, David Squier, Lou Behling and Stuart Mowbray.
Photos by: James Walters (unless otherwise noted)