Clair Brothers Semiauto Shotgun from the 1890s

The Clair brothers were three men from Saint Etienne, France – Benoit, Jean Baptiste, and Victor Clair. They submitted their first patent in 1889, which described in general a gas-operating system for firearms. This was followed by a British patent (#15,833) in 1893 for their system, which they claimed was applicable to anything from a pistol up to a rifle, Gatling-style large gun, or even cannon. We know that they did apply the design to shotguns (like the one in today’s video), rifles, and handguns. At least one functional example of their pistol was built, because it was tested (unsuccessfully) against the French Mle 1892 revolver. The basic system is a long stroke gas pistol system and a magazine extending from the action backwards into the stock. For more information on Clair firearms, see my previous blog post on the Clair self-loading pistol.

Thanks to the Liege Arms Museum for access to film this for you! If you are in Belgium, definitely plan to stop into the museum, part of the Grand Curtius. They have a very good selection of interesting and unusual arms on display.



  1. What date was this weapon produced? Did the Clair shotgun precede the Browning-FN A5 onto the market? Was it actually “the first autoloading (production) shotgun?” Was it any good? (The Browning was successful worldwide, I’ve never heard of this.) And were they prohibitively expensive?

    • There’s a reason if gas action shotguns didn’t take off until well after WWII, while there had been a pletora of recoil operated, delayed blowbacks and so on.
      Shotgun ammos are ineherently dirtier than bottlenecks (go figures at the end of 19th century). Even worse with the gas port so forward in the barrel, and the gas chamber here even contains the recoil spring. I would not be surprised to know that the mechanism was locked by the gunk after about one hundred rounds.

    • “What date was this weapon produced?(…)”
      According to
      In all probability, the very first automatic shotgun in the world is FRENCH, but it has been custom made in a very small quantity. At least one example remains today in the Liege museum. It is the ”Clair-Eclair” made by the CLAIR Brothers, gunsmiths in St Etienne with a patent in 1888-1891 and 1893. The actual dates are unknown.

  2. “Benoit, Jean Baptiste, and Victor Clair. They submitted their first patent in 1889, which described in general a gas-operating system for firearms.(…)” states that
    On September 8, 1888, two gunsmiths living in Saint-Etienne, Jean-Baptiste and Benoît Clair, patented an invention which is recorded under N° 192.828. The general idea relates to “a system which applied to repeating rifles, makes their operation automatic.” This system used the pressure of gases developed in the barrel, a gas port and a piston parallel with the barrel.
    So it was actually 1888 xor 1889? Was it patented by 2 xor 3 men?
    What is quite surprising for me is that they decided to use .38-40 (see photo in article) and .44-40 cartridges for their hunting self-loading carbines. Were these popular back then in France?

  3. Unusual checkering — at least to me, and I’m always on the lookout for novel patterns and approaches to checkering. So was my father, who could fit metal to wood better than some professional stock-makers, but: He taught my brother and me some new words while struggling with conventional checkering. Toward the end of his life he devised a basketwork pattern that was easier to execute in those handtool-powered days than ordinary checkering, and way more functional. Looked good, too, although not as sleek as the Clair brothers’ stock-maker’s.

  4. The clair brothers turned their hands to many types of guns even air rifles. About 5 years ago on a british action site their was a Clair co2 rifle for sale.
    Remember in this time period 1880’s? even the Colt company had bought the american rights for the french Gifford co2 rifle,

  5. I really like this gun, it is just so French. Obviously, pushing the cartridges backwards into the magazine seems odd to us today, but they didn’t have much to compare with did they?

    Eclair means lightning in French, so the name and logo is a play on words on the name of the Clair brothers.

    All told, a very interesting and well made forgotten weapon.

    • The first patent, for a box-shaped central magazine Leе 1879.
      Before the advent of underbarrel magazines, stock magazines were common.

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