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Beaune-la-Rolande 1870: one of the most lopsided battles of the Franco-Prussian War pitted a superior rifle against superior generalship and artillery.

BATTLE BRIEFING

Though the disastrous Battle of Sedan sounded the death knell for Napoleon ill and the Second Empire, the French Republican government felt it prudent to continue the war. By November 1870 the Prussians had besieged Paris. As conditions worsened within the city, French troops sought to break through and lift the siege.

Anticipating such a move, the Prussians dispatched troops to counter it. On November 28, one such unit of three brigades of Prussian regulars--comprising 9,000 men and 70 artillery pieces--were resting in the Canton of Beaune-la-Rolande when they were attacked by 60,000 French troops supported by 140 cannons. Even though most of the French were raw Garde Mobile, their commander felt that the overwhelming odds worked greatly in their favor.

Despite the longer range of the Chassepot and a considerable artillery advantage, the French--after three futile assaults--were forced to retreat, suffering more than 8,000 casualties. The Prussians lost 854 officers and men. The war would continue until May 1871, ending in an ignominious French defeat.

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No conflict was more eagerly sought by both sides than the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. France's Napoleon Ill desperately needed a diversion to prop up his crumbling, farcical empire, and Prussia's Otto von Bismarck could use victory to finally realize his dream of a Prussian-dominated unified Germany. Other European powers were less than thrilled with the idea, fearing that a melding of all the German states would upset the balance of power and create a nation that would become a future major threat. But what was there to worry about? The French had the finest infantry rifle in the world at the time, a huge regular army and seasoned general who would roll over the Prussians and settle affairs in a matter of months, if not weeks.

Alas, it was not to be. Despite the fact that France's Chassepot was a far superior arm to Prussia's Dreyse, France's static defensive strategy vs. Prussia's superb planning and modern breechloading artillery greatly compromised the Chassepot's advantages. As well, inept French commanders made it obvious after the first few battles that the Second Empire was in real trouble. Bismarck confided to a captured French officer following the disastrous battle of Mars-la-Tour in 1870 that, even though the Prussian army was doing well, it could "win the war in just 15 days if armed with the Chassepot ... but if you had our generals, the war would be over as quickly with the opposite outcome?'

While the Chassepot and Dreyse are the dominant arms we'll be looking at, they were by no means the only guns used in the war. France also fielded a conglomeration of American and British muzzleloaders and muzzleloaders converted to breechloaders.

Also, the French did have the much feared Reffye mitrailleuse, a 25-shot, crank-operated machine gun that they employed with alacrity, its only drawbacks being that the spread of the bullets was somewhat limited at closer ranges and, rather than striking multiple targets, it had a tendency to simply disintegrate individuals. Like all early machine guns, it was used as a form of artillery, and oftentimes the desired effect was dissipated by firing at extreme distances.

Most Prussians carried Dreyses, but many of its allies fielded obsolete muzzleloaders or converted muzzleloaders such as Bavaria's Podevil-Lindner. Some Bavarians were also issued the excellent Werder metallic-cartridge breechloader, but not in enough numbers to make a major impact.

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NEEDLE GUN

Invented by Nicklaus von Dreyse and adopted by Prussia in 1842, the Zundnadelgewehr "needle gun" was far ahead of its time. While breechloaders and paper cartridges were not exactly novel in the mid-19th century, combining the two into a system involving a cartridge that could not only be loaded at the rear of the barrel--and did not need external priming--was.

The Dreyse's cartridge was self-contained, incorporating bullet, powder charge and primer in a paper wrapper. After some experimentation with bullet configuration, the final cartridge (Model 1855) evolved into a load containing (rear to front) a 75-grain black-powder charge, priming compound set in the base of a tightly wrapped paper sabot and an odd 500-grain, acorn-shaped bullet secured within a dished-out portion at the front of the sabot. Caliber was 15.43mm (.62) and muzzle velocity some 800 to 1,000 fps. The rifle itself was a sturdy bolt action that, because of the cartridge's internally mounted primer, necessitated a long, needle-like striker that had to penetrate the powder charge prior to discharging the round.

To operate the gun, one must first push down on a catch sited atop a cocking piece in the rear of the bolt, allowing it to spring to the rear. The bolt handle could then be rotated to the left and the bolt withdrawn. A cartridge was inserted in the chamber and the bolt closed. Finally, the cocking piece was pushed forward, and the gun was ready to fire. Like practically all breechloaders of the period, it was hard to seal the action, so Dreyse came up with a clever solution to the problem by designing the bolt face with an inner groove that enveloped a rim on a cone at the rear of the chamber, sealing the breech and directing the gases forward, away from the shooter's face.

The rifle's weak point was the critical needle itself. Upon penetrating the powder charge, it was subject to the corrosive effect of hot gas when the round went off. To partly remedy this defect, soldiers were issued spare replacement needles. This meant that the long, slender striker had to be unscrewed from the rear of the bolt, and while reasonably accessible, this was still not a task to be enjoyed during a heated battle. The British publication Chambers Journal of August 18, 1866, gives a description of how the gun and ammunition were actually used:

"Every man going into action is supplied with sixty of these cartridges, which he carries in two pouches moving on a belt, so placed that they balance each other. When he has fired away the contents of one, he pushes it out of the way and substitutes the other. As the operation of loading consists merely in dropping the cartridge just as it is in the cavity prepared for it, without biting or any other preliminary, there is no difficulty in firing the gun ten or twelve times a minute, but the soldiers are directed, even in the hottest part of the action, not to fire more than five times a minute. As a matter of fact, they seldom fire even at this rate, and for the very sufficient reason that, as the picked shots begin firing at the enemy when they are eight hundred yards distance, the whole of their ammunition would be exhausted before they came to close quarters. Much of the destructiveness of the Prussian fire arises from the accurate aim taken by the men ..."

Over its lifetime the Dreyse underwent several incarnations, and there were different models, from pistols through cavalry carbines and Jaeger short rifles to the long Model 1862 infantry rifle that was used by the bulk of Prussian infantry during the Franco Prussian War. The 1862 was fitted with a socket-style triangular bayonet with a 19-inch blade. The barrel was blued, though other components such as the buttplate and receiver were left bright. The triggerguard and barrelbands were of brass. Overall length was a musket-size 55.9 inches and the heft 10.4 pounds. An overbuilt V-notch fixed/flip-up/ladderstyle rear sight was graduated to 900 meters, though effective range of the gun was probably closer to 400 to 500 meters.

By 1870 firearms development had overtaken the Dreyse. The powder charge was considered relatively light for such a heavy gun, the bullet was not particularly ballistically efficient, and range was limited. With the emergence of the metallic self-contained cartridge and repeating arms, the wonder weapon of 30 years past had become a dinosaur.

A DAINTY LITTLE THING

The French were not oblivious to the attributes of a breechloader firing self-contained cartridges, and they began working on their own version of such an arm in the mid-1860s. They had the advantages of being able to draw from earlier cartridge developments, refine them and mate them to ballistically improved projectiles. The resulting new rifle was officially called the Fusile Modele 1866, but unofficially named the Chassepot, after its inventor, Antoine Alphonse Chassepot.

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Like the Dreyse, it was a needle-fire bolt action. After that, virtually everything differed. To begin with, the bolt action itself was much more modern, with the bolt handle sticking out horizontally on the right side of the action, unlike the Dreyse's, which jutted upward, leaning just far enough to the right so the shooter could use the sights.

The linen-wrapped cartridge, though somewhat complicated, was much more efficient than that of the Dreyse and smaller and lighter, allowing soldiers to carry more ammunition. It was also less vulnerable to adverse weather, poor storage and rough handling. The Chassepot fired a 386-grain, 11 mm conical bullet backed by 86.4 grains of black powder, giving a muzzle velocity of 1,345 fps and an effective range of 1,000 meters (maximum range 1,500). Too, ignition was at the rear of the round, resulting in the elimination the long, delicate needle of the Dreyse.

The rifle itself was lighter (nine pounds five ounces), shorter (51 inches) and handier than its Prussian counterpart. In the words of a German officer inspecting a captured Chassepot, it was "a beautifully worked murder weapon, a dainty little thing."

Operating the Chassepot was fairly simple. One merely thumbed back the cocking piece, opened the bolt, inserted a cartridge, closed the bolt and pulled the trigger. Fifteen rounds a minute was not an unusual rate of fire, and the Chasse-pot had the added advantage of a rubber gasket on its bolt that virtually eliminated any gas escape at the breech. The bolt was simple and rugged, allowing it to ultimately be easily modified to metallic cartridge use in the Mdle 1874 Gras system. Sights were graduated to 1,200 meters, which was upped to 1,600 after the war. Like the Dreyse, the Chassepot had no safety. It was fitted with a heavy, brass-handled, 22'/2-inch yataghan bayonet. There were also cavalry and gendarmerie carbine versions and artillery musketoons.

The Germans found out early in the war that they were totally outclassed by the Chassepot's range and effectiveness. More than once, the French managed to inflict telling casualties at considerable distances. It is estimated that some 70 percent of Prussian losses during many battles were caused by the Chassepot. One Prussian officer later wrote, following an assault in which Germans suffered 60 percent casualties, "The bullets hit us from ranges we thought impossible."

Despite this advantage, French generals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; Napoleon HI was captured, and his Second Empire crumbled following the Battle of Sedan at the beginning of September 1870. Still, Republican forces continued the fight for several months, both for internal political reasons and to try and ameliorate harsh Prussian demands. Prussia ultimately triumphed, exacted huge reparations and territorial concessions from France, united Germany and went on to become the major power so feared by other Europeans.

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SHOTS FIRED

For our shooting evaluation we located a Model 1862 Dreyse manufactured at Danzig in 1868 and a Mdle 1866 Chassepot built at Chatellerault in 1871. Both were in excellent condition with pristine bores.

While the Dreyse was ready to go, the Chassepot, as is the case with all of these rifles, after 140 years had a petrified, hardened rubber gasket that had to be replaced. Fortunately, these are available commercially, so there was little to do other than remove the forward portion of the bolt, chip off the old gasket and replace it with the new one.

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Cartridges were another matter. These are seriously labor-intensive to construct. Watching me fire the Dreyse, a fellow shooter at the range inspected some of my rounds and commented, "Those look worse to make than tying flies." And he's right. I'm not going to go into all the reverse engineering it took to get the things to function properly; I'll only relate the methods I eventually used to make ammunition for each rifle.

First the Dreyse. Despite the fact that I procured a bullet mold that cast the proper acorn-shaped bullets, fabricating a working sabot for it was another matter. I know fellows who have actually coiled and compressed paper, coming up with a product as close to the real article as possible. After a few tries I decided that this was simply beyond my time (and patience) constraints. An attempt to compress some out of papier-mache was not only a failure, but messy into the bargain. Finally, in desperation I turned to using plastic shotgun wads (horrors!). Stabilization was abysmal. As deadline time approached, I admitted defeat and switched to using 400-grain .650 round balls. The resulting cartridges were composed of the bullets; a sabot made from four 20-gauge cardboard shotgun wads glued together, with an RWS musket cap cemented to the base; 70 grains of FFg black powder; and a thin, 20-gauge paper base, wrapped, glued and tied into a nitrated paper tube and lubricated with a 50/50 combination of beeswax and Crisco.

Chassepot cartridges were slightly simpler. I rolled a nitrated paper tube using an empty .410 cartridge case as a mandrel, punched a .442 base from cardboard, stuck on a musket cap and glued them together. I then poured in 75 grains of FFg and tied on a 400-grain lubricated .448 bullet. Case length ran between 2.80 and 2.92 inches. Dreyse cartridges measured an average of 2.30 inches.

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Dreyse ignition was 100 percent, though the Chassepot did experience some misfires. A postmortem on the dud cartridges showed that the bases were canted at a slight angle and the needle missed the ignition compound. This aberration was corrected, and the Chassepot functioned perfectly from that point on.

There is no question that the Chassepot handles more easily and is simpler to load than the Dreyse. At the close ranges at which we were shooting, both performed well. Gas leakage with the French product was nil, while that of the Dreyse was quite acceptable--less than some American Civil War carbines I've tested.

Still, there is no question that the Chassepot shoulders like a late-19th century rifle and the Dreyse like an earlier musket. Too, the sights on the Chassepot were more modern. Triggers weren't all that bad, with the Dreyse coming in at 51/2 pounds after about % inch of travel and the Chassepot at six pounds with slightly less play.

Both rifles shot about 12 inches high (a common phenomenon I have noted with other military rifles of this period), the Dreyse giving a best 50-yard, rested spread of 21/2 inches with three holes touching and the Chassepot 2% inches.

Now the drawbacks. As noted, the Dreyse is on the clunky side. I'd much rather tote the Chassepot on a march. The loading sequence with the Prussian rifle is definitely slower. At one point some cartridge paper debris stuck in the bolt face recess and the bolt would not close. I had to remove the bolt (which was not hard; all you have to do is draw it to the rear and pull the trigger) and clean out the groove. Tugging back that thumb piece on the Chassepot got a bit onerous after about 20 rounds, though that could've been my arthritis kicking in. Too, after about 10 shots the rubber gasket started to seize up because of fouling, though that was remedied with a bit of Tube. I have never heard this complaint elsewhere, so I'm putting it down to the fact that it was brand new and perhaps a tad oversize.

Both guns were lots of fun to shoot, though it took me three hours to make 20 rounds of Dreyse ammo and about the same amount of time to make 40 Chassepot rounds. Of course, back in the 1870s there was plenty of labor to handle such chores.

By 1870 most modern nations realized that the next wave of the future was the metallic cartridge, and the same year the Franco-Prussian War ended, Germany introduced the first of the great Mausers, the Gewehr Model 1871. Three years later the French came out with the Gras--basically, an improved version of the Chassepot. Both guns chambered 11mm rounds.

The Franco-Prussian War was more than a watershed for firearms technology. The French loss created a new European superpower and paved the way for two world wars. Though now largely neglected in the classroom, it remains, nonetheless, one of the most far-reaching and important conflicts in history.

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RELATED ARTICLE: THEY WERE THERE: Frederic Bazille

Born into a wealthy family, Frederic Bazille was one of the early exponents of what would evolve into the Impressionist movement. Though initially studying to be a doctor, after moving to Paris he became enamored with art and was an intimate of such greats as Pierre-August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet. He began painting in 1864, was a generous supporter of Monet and Renoir, and produced a relatively large body of work before he was killed at the Battle of Beaune-la-Rolande.

Bazille joined a French Zouave regiment early in the war and took command of an assault on a German position after his officer was wounded. Hit twice, he died at the age of 29. His best-known work is "Family Reunion," which is on display at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

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Photos by Lynne McCready
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Author:James, Garry
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Aug 16, 2011
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