Reffye Mitrailleuse (Video)

The mitrailleuse was one of the early types of mechanical machine gun, along with the Gatling, Gardner, Nordenfelt, and others. “Mitrailleuse” is actually a general name for a volley gun – one with many barrels in a cluster, which are fired sequentially. The two most common types were the Montigny (a Belgian design fired by a lever) and the Reffye (a French design fired by crank).

The Reffye was a top-secret weapon used by the French in the Franco-Prussian War, which was expected to be a huge game-changer. However, there was little experience worldwide in how best to use a weapon like this, and the French commanders chose to use them like artillery, firing at long range where they were inaccurate and underpowered. In this role, they were utterly outclassed by the Prussian Krupp artillery, leading to a general European disdain for the effectiveness of machine guns that would last until the First World War.

This Reffye is a reproduction, here shown firing blanks. The footage comes to us courtesy of Julien Lucot, a writer for the French arms magazine Cibles. Thanks, Julien!

There is also a fellow on YouTube who has posted an excellent video showing how the Reffye functions, using a computer generated 3D model:

39 Comments

  1. The amazing thing is that the French obviously knew how to build a center fire cartridge and gun, but nevertheless copied the obsolete needle fire mechanism for their main rifle. Of course, rifles of the time were typically only good for about 20 rounds before you needed to clean and strip so the question remains how many volleys you could fire before you broke out the cleaning rod (for 25 barrels).

    • What you say are wrong ..
      1 ) The French “national guard ” Tabatierre M .1867 rifle usued métal case cartrige
      2) Remember the battle of Little big horn and undertand than the problem was Brass

  2. According to Chinn (Machine Gun, vol. 1), the history of the “Montigny/de Reffye” gun is a bit convoluted.

    The American Vandenberg came first, in 1859. It was originally an 88-barreled design, and he even proposed one with 150 barrels. U.S. Army Ordnance tested the 88-barrel version in 1860, and turned it down because it wasn’t all that accurate and it took entirely too long to clean after only a few volleys.

    Rather miffed, Vandenberg took it to France. The French Army had Montigny design a more refined version with fewer barrels. De Reffye in Belgium did likewise; his version substituted a fore-and-aft moving, throw-over lever for the crank to do up the breech, thus making loading and extraction faster and even giving a bit more mechanical advantage.

    The major fault in the Montigny in combat was the whole “secret weapon” buildup. The French General Staff made it known that they had this Ultimate Weapon, but otherwise kept it so tightly under wraps that the crews didn’t even get to see the manual before they were issued the guns for combat deployment. The officers commanding were no better informed.

    As such, because it looked like a cannon, in combat, they tried to use it as artillery at long range. Naturally it didn’t work. And due to the whole “wonder weapon” buildup, the Prussians tended to greet any Mitrailleuse battery with the heaviest possible artillery counterbattery fire as soon as they were spotted coming into action.

    On the rare occasions that it was used correctly (at close range in TIC support) the Mitrailleuse proved to be almost fearsomely effective. But by that time, events had more-or-less outrun it.

    Incidentally, Oliver F. Winchester sent Dr. Richard J. Gatling to France (Gatling was of French descent) to sell Gatling Guns (acquired from Colt) and Spencer repeating rifles (acquired when he bought out Christopher Spencer who was moving on to other things) to the French Army.

    They bought some Spencers for their cavalry, but passed on the infantry rifle version because they considered that their Chassepot was about all the poilus could understand. And besides, in their opinion it was better than the Prussian Dreyse “needle rifle”, so they didn’t need anything else. Or so they thought.

    In fact, the Dreyse was more reliable in the field, because the “secret” of the Chassepot, the rubber seal ring on the bolt head, tended to harden and crack due to firing heat. After about twenty-five rounds, it was almost impossible to close the bolt on a round without using so much force the (linen) cartridge would rupture, jamming the whole production.

    The Dreyse leaked gas a bit, but as long as you remembered to change the firing needle every 100 rounds or so (due to powder gas corrosion), it kept right on shooting.

    The Chassepot did at least have a short “firing pin” with the cap at the very read end of the cartridge instead of stuck in the base of the bullet. But sometimes the powder charge and cartridge didn’t hold the cap firmly enough for the blow of the firing pin to set it off instead of just pushing it deeper into the powder.

    The Chassepot may have been technically superior; the Dreyse was a better fighting weapon.

    The French officer class didn’t seem to understand weapons very well if at all. As I have said previously, France has always had good soldiers, but she seems to have trouble coming up with sufficiently intelligent officers.

    cheers

    eon

    • “The French officer class didn’t seem to understand weapons very well if at all. As I have said previously, France has always had good soldiers, but she seems to have trouble coming up with sufficiently intelligent officers.”
      After war of 1870-71 French command assume that Germans wins because that have Krupp field guns, some time (and technology advacement) later French developed famous 75mm Mle 1897 and consider it as a “wonder weapon” but when the First World War turn to trench warfare, 75mm proved be rather ineffective weapon (due to flat shell trajectory) so French Army get older guns without recoiling mechanism like 120mm De Bange mle 1878.
      For me French Army command was prone to “wonder weapon syndrome”

      • The 75 vas very effective in the crucial battles of 1914, before the trench warfare, only for that it has to be remembered has a gamechanging weapon.
        There is a lot of talking about the french ”elan charges” of 1914 and how many men were killed by the machine guns but much less about the enormous firepower that the 75 (extremely high rate of fire for this kind of gun at the time, and precise) were able to put against german advancing troops in the same battles. Althougt the HE rounds became the most common during the war the 75 in those early times were an absolute infantry killer firing shrapnel at ranges lower than 1 km toward packed german assault groups.
        And it remained a quite good medium gun up to WWII.

    • Not sure on the “keep on firing” of the Dreyse. In Fontane’s book on the war of 1866 and the battle of Sadowa he quotes a sergeant in a description of an especially ferocious part of the battle as “I fired 80 round during that hour, from four different rifles I picked up in the field, as one after the other became unusable due to fouling”.

    • Where’s the evidence the mitrailleuse was influenced by Vandenberg? Chinn, who you reference here, says the mitrailleuse came first.

  3. “The French General Staff made it known that they had this Ultimate Weapon, but otherwise kept it so tightly under wraps that the crews didn’t even get to see the manual before they were issued the guns for combat deployment.”

    And in the Wiki article for the Wz. 35 anti-tank rifle; “Until mobilization in 1939, the combat-ready rifles were held in closed crates enigmatically marked: “Do not open! Surveillance equipment!””

    I know the Poles tended to follow french military doctrine, but…

    • Polish wz. 35 rifle must be secret in order to stay effective, if German technical intelligence would get information about it, Germany can easily up-armour (applique armour) their tanks, so they become immune to wz. 35.
      Users of wz. 35 shouldn’t have problem with usage of it, as it resemble (up-scaled) Mauser rifle (then standart rifle of Polish Army)

  4. All of the “machine guns” of that era (Mitrailleuse, Nordenfeldt, Gatling, etc.) suffered from being like a piece of light artillery. They were large and heavy due to their multiple barrels and correspondingly large receivers, and so had to be mounted on small gun carriages. The Maxim Gun was the first successful “real” machine gun as we know it today.

      • The Union Army during the America Civil War. The Billnghurst/Requa “Battery Gun” was used to cover the flanks of artillery batteries at several battles late in the war, as well as being used to protect bridges, hence its nicknames, the “Mosqutio Batteries” and the “Covered Bridge Gun”. The latter was due to the fact that its array of barrels fired a volley that neatly blanketed the width of an average covered-bridge deck, making an assault across it (as per Remagen in WW2) very hazardous for the assaulters.

        The Gatling gun was used by Union forces at the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-March 1865) in the trench lines to cover potential assault routes, much as both sides would use machine guns in France a half-century later;

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Petersburg

        Also, the Confederate Williams “machine gun” (really a rapid-fire, breechloading , mechanically-repeating light 1-pounder mountain gun) was used by some Confederate units as close-in fire support for cavalry attacks. Reportedly, John Singleton Mosby had at least one or two he used to provide support fire on some of his raids in event that a “point of resistance” had to be dealt with. The fact that it was made in Kentucky, where he was, may have had something to do with it;

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Williams_Gun

        http://civilwartalk.com/attachments/dsc05699-jpg.12428/

        As you can see from the photo, it’s really quite a small gun compared to even the field guns of the era, let alone the multi-barrel machine guns like the Gatling and Mitrailleuse. It was less a true “mechanical machine gun” than an ancestor of the light, breechloading, quick-firing (QF) field gun of the late 19th and early 20th Century period, such as the Hotchkiss 3-pounder used by the U.S. Army in the 1880s and 1890s.

        American Civil War tactics and use of weapons was a harbinger of what was to come.

        For real fun, point out that in their own time, the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles were rapid-fire, high-magazine capacity weapons using cartridges of “intermediate” power between the standard rifle and pistol rounds of the era. They were primarily used in CQB in rapid fire at ranges under 100 meters, but had effective ranges of up to 300 to 400 meters in deliberate, timed fire, or about two-thirds of the MER of the standard infantry rifle of the day, the muzzleloading, single-shot, percussion-fired .58 rifle-musket.

        Another term for this type of weapon is “assault rifle”.

        cheers

        eon

  5. The Mitrailleuse was well used sometimes, in some chokepoints (like bridges) but was hardly a ”gamechanger” even if it use would have been 100% efficient. The Krupp Artillery and the fact the German Alliance (It was Prusia+Bavaria and another german states against France) have always more reserves (and better, much better overall management of a modern big army) were the real game changers, Chassepots rifles wich were much more important in adding firepower that any mitrailleuse didn’t make the french win the war.

    See the battle of Gravelotte–St. Privat, the biggest of the war, the Prussian losses were a bloodbath, but they simply have more men, better logistics and better overall plan. The french only have the chassepots and the bravery of their infantry. This battle could have been a total disaster for the prussians.
    Same for Mars-la-Tour or the siege or Metz.

    • “Bavaria”
      The French and Prussian guns are mainly remembered in context of Franco-Prussian War, but Bavaria also have their advanced rifle: Werder-Gewehr M/1869 which during this war get nickname „Bayerisches Blitzgewehr“ (Baviaran Lightning Rifle) due to its high rate-of-fire.

    • Maybe if you hid the mitrailleuses under haystacks and used barbed wire to impede enemy mobility they would serve as a nasty surprise to any dimwitted cavalrymen who tried to chop the wires with their sabers. Yes, I got this idea from a war manga (Gunka no Balzer). In the illustrated example, the enemy forces charged at a decoy force and got surrounded by farm wagons that dragged barbed wire into a triangular fence. The enemy attempted to chop the wire with halberds and got stuck, and then the protagonists unveiled the mitrailleuses from under the hay stacks and ventilated the trapped unfriendlies (none of whom carried any effective firearms). Only one baddie and his horse survived.

    • The animation shows it. A filled “block” of cartridges is dropped in the top of the chassis t the breech, and the big crank handle is turned to close it up like a bench vise. The crank on the side turns a bevel gear that turns the striker plate; the spring-loaded striker itself moves in a spiral on the plate to hit each primer in succession.

      After which you remove the block, drop another loaded one in, and repeat the procedure.

      It’s somewhat incorrect to call the Montigny or de Reffye “volley guns”, because unlike the Billinghurst/Requa “covered bridge gun”, they didn’t fire all barrels simultaneously. The rate of fire depended on how fast the gunner turned the crank, much like the Gatling or Hotchkiss guns.

      The major drawback of the Montigny, etc., relative to the rotating-barrel manual machine guns was that sustained fire depended on having lots of pre-loaded “blocks” handy, which were unwieldy to transport and load. The Gatling and Hotchkiss weapons fed from a hopper; you just kept dropping loose rounds into the top.

      A lot less weight to haul by horse or mule draft, too.

      cheers

      eon

  6. To me, seeing something like this causes amazement over state of technology existing in second half of 19.century. Thanks for showing it.

  7. I would say the Danes were the first to come up with doctrine for the use of Machine Guns as something other than artillery.Perhaps they learned something from watching the Russo-Japanese War. They did have the Madsen and the fire team concept down down early in the 1910’s.

    I would say the Russo-Japanese war was the first major application of machine guns with both sides using them. The Russians had their Maxims in siege type operations while the Japanese were using the Hotchkiss in a more mobile manner. The Russian Cavalry also used the Madsen extensively. If I remember correctly, there were some Colt Potato digger guns in use prior to this in the Spanish American War and the 2nd Boer War but I think they were used in artillery type mounts.

    Intertesting enough, the Bavarian Werder and the Madsen were very refined evolutions of the Peabody-Martini actions!

    • Going back to the flintlock period, the Danes had “espingoles”, weapons that worked on the Roman Candle principle. Some of the muskets had interchangeable “magazines”, basically short barrel sections about a foot long that were locked to the open rear of the musket barrel like a chamber in a revolver cylinder. Each one held about ten “rounds”. They also had “organ gun” versions with several barrels that were on two-wheeled carriages.

      All of these, of course, fired every round in “roman candle” fashion once the first round was ignited. Exactly how far back they were used by the Danes I don’t know, but they were standard weapons in the 1840s and were used until the 1870s.

      An illustration of a flintlock version can be found on p. 173 of Firearms Curiosa by Winant; it came from Thierbach’s Die Geschichtliche Entwicklung der Handfeuerwaffen (Dresden, 1888). For a book that late in the percussion period to use an illustration of a flintlock version indicates that the “technology” must have been fairly old even at that time.

      Incidentally, I don’t speak Danish. Would anyone who does care to explain the etymology of “espingole”? It sounds almost as though it were meant to imply Spanish origin. (?)

      cheers

      eon

      • eon, there’s a fantastic reference book called something like “superimposed load firearms” that is all about that concept of multiple loads stacked in the barrel. It was quite widely used albeit not extensively. The Roman candle types were often using sinker like balls which effectively had a touchhole down the middle. Some guns of this type had two locks. One to fire the volley from the forward most load backwards and the second one in the normal place so it could be loaded and fired normally afterwards.

        • Most period illustrations I’ve seen have those “sinker-type” balls; oval bullets with a central channel. The channels often had a fast-burning composition or even quickmatch in them, I suspect to try to regulate the fire rate just enough to allow the soldier to keep control of the weapon.

          Without such a “regulator”, not only would it climb just like a 20th Century full-auto rifle in 7.62 x 51, I suspect there may also have been a safety issue with pressure-wave buildup in the bore.

          Harold L. Peterson’s book The Great Guns has a chapter on oddities. One such is a wheel-lock rifle, German-made, mid-17th Century style, very ornate and clearly intended for a rich client, with two locks, one about a foot ahead of the trigger.

          According to him, it was loaded with one load with a solid slug followed by seven with “pierced” bullets. The front lock fired first, unloading the seven rounds in a successive discharge.

          The eighth round was to be reserved for a “follow-up” shot. Exactly what a nobleman in Germany could be hunting at that time that would require seven about .69 caliber balls to bring down, I have no idea. Wild boar, perhaps?

          Then again, the eighth round may have been held in reserve for the very real possibility that due to the recoil of the first seven, the intrepid nimrod might just miss the quarry altogether.

          Most game animals would take to their heels after a ruckus like that. Which would provide an opportunity for, at best, a “Texas heart shot” aka a “lead enema”.

          Of course, if the target was a boar, that much racket would probably just get him irritated enough to teach said nimrod a lesson about bothering him while he’s munching some tasty shoots.

          Boar aren’t exactly the sociable type.

          cheers

          eon

          • eon i can’t remember but suspect it did say powder was in the touch holes through the charge. From what I read the volley function was often involved in cavalry pistols and carbines. The idea being to lay down a considerable initial volley. The idea of trying to control one is definitely interesting! It’d be fascinating to know if it was used for hunting.

  8. Another Fauteur of the Infantry Doctrine of Mechanical MG use was “Machine Gun Parker, USA” Parker utilised his Gatlings in Cuba ( Span-Am War, as support for Infantry,in a Close-up support, despite their “Artillery” Carriages…But the real Game changer was the use of Colt M1895 Potato Diggers (Donated by Tiffany, the New York Jeweller, for His Son’s Unit, Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” (1st US Volunteers). Sadly, Lt. Tiffany was killed in the Battle ( San Juan or Santiago?)

    The Real “Infantry” use of MGs was The Boxer Rebellion (1900), then the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05, during the siege of Port Arthur ( the Japanese with Hotchkiss M1897 (Ju-ki “Ho”, in calibre 6,5mm)IN mobile use.

    By 1914, the Germans had MGs on regular Issue to specialised Infantry units, with well trained Crews and Officers ( The R-J War had been a training ground for many German officers as Observers with the Japanese and the Russians…see the Battle of Tannnenberg, 1914).

    As I said in another Commentary on MGs here, “Wooden heads” existed every where and in every era, even the present.

    Doc AV

    • Fun fact; both Parker (at Aberdeen in 1901) and Dr. Richard J. Gatling himself (at Colt about the same time, not long before his death), experimented with self-powered Gatling guns. Parker and Gatling both experimented with electric motors to turn the barrel cluster, and Gatling came up wit a gas-actuated system as well.

      Both achieved rates of fire of over 3,000 rounds per minute with standard .45-70 caliber guns.

      Nobody was really interested, because the new single-barrel gas and recoil-operated guns were lighter and smaller, and at about 600 rounds per minute fired fast enough for ground work.

      When air combat began in WW1, everybody tried to get higher rates of fire. It was found (according to Chinn) that about 800 rds/min. was the best that most conventional MGs could do without fracturing something, usually the receiver. The .50 MGs used in U.S. fighters and bombers in WW2 fired about 850 rds/min, that being the maximum RoF practical without unacceptable heating of the barrel and breech.

      In Germany, the Luftwaffe wanted, and got, a 1,000 R/M RoF from the MG-13 and MG-81, accepting that even with airstream cooling, “cookoffs” were going to happen. They considered it no big deal in a dogfight.

      In 1947, the U.S. Army Air Force (before it became the U.S. Air Force, period) instituted Project Vulcan to develop a rapid-fire gun system for future air combat. The major problem? They wanted a high rate-of-fire (1,000 R/M+) gun that wouldn’t melt its barrel, even with the slipstream providing ram-air cooling.

      At Aberdeen Proving Ground, somebody remembered the Parker and Gatling work, dug an old .45-70 Gatling out of stores, and attached an electric motor to it. It achieved 4,000 rounds/minute even firing blackpowder ammunition. (!)

      Now you know why we have Vulcan cannon and Miniguns today. So far, no other system has been able to reliably generate the high rates of fire required by the under-one-second gun boresights typical of modern air combat. To say nothing of what the A-10’s 30mm version does to tanks on the ground.

      Consider what we might have had if someone had pursued Parker or Gatling’s work earlier. The P-38 Lightning, for instance, could easily have accommodated a nose-mounted .50 caliber “electric Gatling gun”- in 1939.

      Rather an unpleasant surprise for an FW-190 or Zero. To say nothing of what such a weapon in an F-80 could have done to a MiG-15 over the Yalu in 1951.

      cheers

      eon

      • “the Luftwaffe wanted, and got, a 1,000 R/M RoF from the MG-13 and MG-81”
        Not MG-13 (which was ground machine gun firing 550rpm, also used as tank machine gun) but MG 15. Interestingly despite the high rate of fire (1000-1100 RPM) MG 15 was fed from magazines (capacity: 75) not from belt.

        “So far, no other system has been able to reliably generate the high rates of fire required by the under-one-second gun boresights typical of modern air combat.”
        Arguable; what about Soviet ГШ-23 (GSh-23)? It is working on Gast prinicple, has RoF= 3000-3400rpm and wide array of Soviet planes was and is equipped with it.

        “A-10′s 30mm version”
        Sukhoi Su-25 (which is Soviet equivalent of A-10) is armed with ГШ-30-2 (GSh-30-2) which also work on Gast principle, and has RoF = 3000rpm.

      • “Russian’s were able to get up 1800 rof from their revolving chamber guns which were widely used in WWII”
        You mixed up two different machine guns: mass-produced ШКАС (ShKAS) and experimental SIBEMAS (Сибемас).
        The first has rate of fire up to 1800 rpm and was widely used in WWII, the later was working on revolver cannon principle.
        Сибемас stands for designer names (Силин, Березин, Морозенко) and aircraft, rapid-firing.
        Силин designed a lot of interesting weapons, but only few were put into mass production like SPG-9 recoilless gun and 2A28 smooth-bore low-pressure gun (main armament of BMP-1)
        Березин is best known for his UB (12.7mm) machine gun

  9. The Danes are interesting…

    I guess Espingole is French for blunderbuss which comes from the Dutch Donderbus “Thunder Gun.” Maybe there is a French gunsmith connection.

  10. french military doctrine was to use the mitrailleuse to protect artillery positions against cavalry charges, only to see them blown up by barrages from the longer ranging krupp cannons.

    the french commanding general abel douay lost his life, when stored mitrailleuse ammo was blown up by prussian arty at weissenburg, but the battle was lost already.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Wissembourg_(1870)

  11. “Mitrailleuse” is actually an equivalent for “machine gun” and does not limit to the volley firing mechanical gun. I nevertheless assume it did when the machine-gun as we see it today didn’t exist, but not anymore.
    Nowadays, any “machine-gun” is called a “mitrailleuse” in french

  12. The Gatling used for the vulcan tests was using smokless ammunition. The weapon and story is at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center @ Cody Wy, USA… and if I’m wrong, then the nice research assistant in the basement misinformed me.

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