Chassepot: Best of the Needle Rifles

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The Model 1866 Chassepot was France’s first military cartridge-firing rifle. It used a self-contained paper cartridge on the same basic principle as the Prussian 1841 Dreyse rifle, but was a substantial improvement on that system. The Chassepot fired an 11mm bullet at about 1350 fps (410 m/s), which was substantially higher velocity than the Dreyse. It was more accurate and had a substantially longer effective range. The French would produce about 1.5 million Chassepot rifles, most of them before the Franco-Prussian War.

Despite the quality of the Chassepot rifle, that war would go tremendously badly for the French, with hundreds of thousands of men and arms captured by the Prussians and the new German state being declared in the palace of Versailles. In the aftermath, many German cavalry units would adopt Chassepots for their own use, until the Gewehr 71 was available in carbine form. The French would resume Chassepot production briefly after the war, but would soon transition to a new rifle, the metallic cartridge firing Gras.



  1. Effective range and needle replacement counts for the Dreyse? I know the information is in previous posts, but it would be nice to see here.

  2. The Chassepot may have been longer-ranged and more accurate than the Dreyse, but it was not without its problems. The biggest one being that the rubber gasket at the front of the bolt quickly hardened and cracked due to powder gases, and failed to seal the breech properly.

    It was also noted for expanding and making it impossible to close the bolt. Using force to try to overcome this usually resulted in a ruptured cartridge case, or sometimes the percussion primer cup firing with the bolt open.

    Prussian soldiers may have picked up Chassepots on the grounds that they were better than the Dreyse, notably due to having a more sensible firing-pin arrangement.

    French infantry were quite happy to see the Gras system replace the Chassepot in 1871.

    Meanwhile, the British and Americans, who had been using metallic cartridges for quite a while at that point, were wondering what was wrong with France and Germany. Something in the water?



    • One has to wonder how much brass the French and the German armies were willing to expend as tossed-away cartridge casings, then! And as for issues with water, I thought everyone was still on diluted beer due to contaminated water sources at the time (just kidding!).

    • If only U.S. Ordnance had adopted something like the Dreyse! Ripley kept the muzzle-loading rifle musket… Until Lincoln moved him up and out so to speak, “forced retirement.” Even things like combustible musket cartridges–as used with revolvers–would have prevented mishandling cartridges that had to be opened, emptied into the barrel, and then have the paper removed from the Minié/Burton ball before ramming it down the barrel… Such combustible cartridges that were used had to be privately purchased. A concerted industrial program to produce a paper cartridge or metallic cartridge breech loader, let alone a repeater, might have ended the Civil War much, much sooner. Prussia had made improvements to the clumsy Dreyse, but it had been adopted after all in the *1840s*.

      British metallic cartridges were initially not so great. And recall that in a war with the weakest of European nations the United States was packing the .30-40 Krag and the .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield against an opponent with M1893 7x57mm charger clip fed Mauser rifles (albeit without Spitzer bullets) and rolling block rifles, both superior to the U.S. arms.

    • “Meanwhile, the British and Americans, who had been using metallic cartridges for quite a while at that point…”

      That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The United States had used weapons like the Henry rifle as special issue, but these were all relatively low-powered weapons that weren’t really comparable to a full-power shoulder arm like the Chassepot. As far as I know, the first US weapon in the same class to see widespread service was the (1873) Trapdoor Springfield, which only entered service after the Chassepot had fought an entire war.

      The British were a little quicker, with the Snider-Enfield, which was basically contemporaneous with the Chassepot, but was a converted muzzle-loader, rather than an all-new weapon. There was no ejector on the rifle, so soldiers had to pull out hot cases by hand (or tilt the entire rifle, and let them drop) which likely reduced the practical rate of fire.

      It should also be noted that early cases – which were sometimes copper, rather than brass – were not always entirely reliable, especially when combined with gunpowder fowling. Early Martini-Henrys, for example, had serious problems with stuck cases.

      • Actually, the first “Trapdoor” Springfield was introduced in 1866 in .58 rimfire, followed by the .50-70 centerfire version in 1868. The 1873 model just introduced the .45-70 cartridge; the final, improved 1883 model introduced a redesigned spring-loaded extractor/ejector. The U.S. Army in the West was mostly rearmed with the Springfield breechloaders (rifle and carbine) in one caliber or another by late 1868, the Fetterman Massacre (21 Dec 1866) having convinced Congress of the need to replace the muzzle-loading rifle muskets ASAP.

        As for metallic cartridge arms during the war, roughly half of Federal cavalry units had such weapons, a mixed bag of Burnside, Gallagher, Sharps & Hankins, and Maynard single-shots plus Spencer repeaters. The rest were armed with linen-cartridge single-shot breechloaders like the Sharps, Hall, and Starr, plus the Smith that used an India-rubber cartridge. By the end of the war, Starr and Gallagher carbines were being produced chambering the Spencer rimfire metallic cartridge. (The Starr was an especially easy conversion, as its breechblock was already a near-copy of the Spencer’s.)

        The total number of Federal cavalry units armed with muzzle-loading carbines or “musketoons” by mid-1862 was…none. This, BTW, was due to Ripley, who has long gotten a bad rap, emphasizing the need for breechloaders and revolvers for mounted troops, as had his predecessor, Craig, another unjustly-maligned Ord chief. Ripley would have loved to have breechloading rifles for all infantry as well, but the Union’s industrial base just couldn’t deliver anything but muzzle-loaders in the numbers needed in the time span available. And even with that, imports from Europe were needed to fill in the gaps.

        The Martini-Henry’s problem was solely due to the parsimony of the Parliament. Instead of the drawn-copper or later drawn-brass cases the U.S. used from the outset, the Royal Army was afflicted with copper-foil and iron “battery cup” head cases, much like a modern shotgun shell but made of inadequate materials. This was simply because they were cheaper than copper or brass cases.

        In hot climates, firing heat would cause the thin foil to literally solder itself to the chamber walls, resulting in a case-head separation when the action was opened. The Snider never had this problem with its “composite” case, because its foil case “tube” was wrapped in an outer paper tube, even more like a shotgun shell.

        Another reason for this sort of case was British “experts” like W.W. Greener, who campaigned vigorously against the one-piece, drawn-brass case, because it was “American”.

        The Parliament finally saw the light after the Battle of Majuba (27 Feb 1881) in the First Boer War (there were two, not just the one), where it was shown that soldiers’ rifles had been disabled by the case-separation problem. Majuba Hill was very much the British Army’s Battle of the Little Big Horn, except against the Boers (Dutch-descended settlers in South Africa) who proved to be just as effective as any European army.

        Majuba also finally made W.W.Greener shut up about the supposed superiority of coiled-foil cases over drawn-brass ones.



        • If I recall correctly, battlefield archaeology has revealed reliability issues with the peabody Martini-Henry at Isandlwana 1879 against the equivalent of an ancient army, like perhaps the Romans, in the form of the Zulu (they also used quantities of firearms themselves in addition to the stabbing spear and knobkerrie truncheon).
          Presumably those were ammunition induced.

          Union industry might have churned out a Dreyse. And even with muzzle loaders, these might have been converted to breech loading systems. Ripley had a very, very tough job, certainly. And he built and supervised a marvelous factory at Springfield. The Spencer repeater is what ultimately cost him his job, recall. He was from the mold at Ordnance of chiefs whose baleful influence on small arms design you have decried elsewhere.

          • Of course when the French Imperialists of Napoleon III assailed post-Guerra de Reforma Mexico (and tomorrow is the cinco de mayo! Ahúa! Viva Ignacio Zaragoza! … albeit the first of *three* battles of Puebla, including the terrible siege…)French cavalry still carried single-shot pistols… Only officers were authorized to carry revolvers!

            Mexican forces had quite a hodge-podge of weapons, but ostensibly the Enfield three-bander Pattern 53 was the standard. At least that ensured that when the Union won the Civil War and attempted to reassert some of the provisions of the so-called Monroe Doctrine, captured stands of rebel arms could be shipped south to the Juáristas… As one example, something like 30,000 ex-Confederate Enfields from Baton Rouge went in one set of shipments.

            French troops in that affray had Modele 1857 Minié rifles, and all sorts of M1822T and M1853T rifled ex-smooth bores. And baggy red pants.

          • Those baggy red pants were the trademark of the Zouaves on both sides of the American Civil War as well.

            It was once said that if the money expended by the various states on the fancy-shmancy Frenchified costumery of the Zouave units had been spent on procurement of up-to-date small arms, a lot fewer Union and Confederate units would have gone to war in 1861 armed with not just smoothbore muskets, but flintlock ones to boot.



          • Ripley seemed almost schizoid at times. The book Civil War Guns by William B. Edwards (1962) describes his problems, many of them self-inflicted, in detail;


            The Spencer entered Army service largely due to the U.S. Navy, not the direct intervention of Lincoln as often stated by other historians. Also, the Navy were the first to adopt the Sharps & Hankins carbine, using the Spencer cartridge.

            Their interest in both was mainly due to their operations on the Mississippi and its tributaries, plus their blockade of the Confederate coastline, which in many ways were an eerie foreshadowing of the riverine and coastal operations of the “Brown Water Navy” in Vietnam a century later.

            Craig, Ripley’s immediate predecessor, was responsible for the adoption of the .58 caliber rifle-musket as standard, because experimentation under his tenure showed that caliber had better and more consistent accuracy at ranges beyond 400 yards than either of the previous standard calibers, .54 for rifles or .69 for rerifled smoothbores.

            Still, while Ripley may have been no genius, he was at least honest. Craig was highly intelligent and honest. Their immediate predecessors, Col. George Talcott and Bvt. Brig. Gen. George Bomford, were neither intelligent or honest, as Edwards elucidates.

            And most of the Ordnance staff Craig and Ripley had to work with were their predecessors’ “hires”.



          • Thank you eon.

            I’ll go back and re-read with a more open mind. I seem to have imbibed the “Lincoln intervention” story regarding the Spencer, so I’ll be more critical of the secondary sources. I have the Wm. B. Edwards _Civil War Guns_ and also Claud Fuller’s _The Rifled Musket_, Alexander Rose’s _American Rifle: A Biography_, Bilby’s _Civil War Firearms_, and Earl Hess’s excellent book on the Civil War rifle musket most recently.

            I’ve been visiting and re-visiting many Civil War battlefields of late, and reflecting on the sheer loss of life and so on, so I was susceptible to the essay on the matter of breech loaders or even repeaters by the popular historian Phil Leigh:



            I’ll return to the evaluations of Ripley’s legacy with a more jaundiced eye.
            Dave C.

  3. This is a seminal piece of work as masterfully explained by Ian. I was in particular interested in comparison of performance of French and German rifles. My respect to both – Chassepot and Ian!

  4. I think the Chassepot is such an elegant arm. The obsolescent paper cartridge seems an odd choice to us now but makes sense – the French knew they didn’t have the industrial capacity to make the millions of metallic cartridges they would need for the war they had very good reason to believe was just around the corner. OK available now is better than excellent available when it’s too late. It has some well thought out touches, such as the little “galet” or anti friction wheel you can see in the cocking piece that IIRC helps to make cocking easier as well as providing some protection from the ham-fisted soldiery applying too much downward force on the piece and damaging it.

  5. And if you don’t want to fiddle with the paper and silk cartridges, there is a conversion to center fire kit.

  6. Eon
    Where could I find complete engineering drawings for the Chassepot Mle 1866 pen fire rifle? I have access to a machine and would like to try my hand at reproducing a rifle action and chamber space to recreate a modern version of the rifle for possible custom retail sales to the prepper community!

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