Saturday, August 05, 2006

Boomsticks: Sometimes it doesn't pay to be first...

Making fun of French military prowess (or lack thereof) is almost a cottage industry in the blogosphere, and makes it easy to forget that they were responsible for the biggest revolution in military small arms since the invention of the flintlock.

In 1884, France's archnemesis across the Rhine upgraded their thirteen year-old Mauser rifles with the addition of a tubular magazine, giving their troops a significant advantage over the French, who were still using the single-shot 11mm Gras turnbolts. The French, who had already issued a tubular-magazine repeater, the Austrian-designed Kropatschek, to their Naval Infantry, immediately began to modify the design for general issue to the army.

Work on the project was halted by the news that one Mssr. Vieille at the French state gunpowder factory had invented a remarkable new propellant that didn't foul the bore, produced greater velocities with less pressure, and (most importantly) didn't fill the air with a dense cloud of white smoke when fired. The importance of the last can't be overstated: on the pre-radio battlefield, command and control would break down rapidly once everything became obscured in a thick fog of powder smoke.

Realizing that if their chemist could discover it, so could anyone else's, the French rushed to get a small-bore smokeless powder repeater into the hands of the troops as fast as possible. The off-the-shelf Gras-Kropatschek hybrid designed by Lebel got the nod. Conversion to the new smaller bore was done by the simple expedient of fitting a smaller barrel to the existing and proven design. The case for the new round was made by shortening and radically tapering the existing 11mm Gras cartridge case. This would allow older rifles to be re-barrelled and would get the radical new weapons into the field as fast as possible, but the decision would return to haunt the French for decades to come.

When the veil of secrecy over the new French wonder-weapon was lifted in 1886, the result was world-wide military panic. Every nation's rifle (especially the Germans, who had just re-armed their troops with expensive new Mausers) was obsoleted overnight. Committees around the globe began looking for modern designs to outfit their troops. In the next twelve years, any country with even a pretense of military prowess adopted a new rifle, many of them designed from clean sheets of paper and firing brand-new cartridges.

Among the storm of new innovations was the charger-loading system designed by Mauser, whereby a rifle's magazine could be filled instantly by thumbing rounds in off a stripper clip. The French, saddled with their tubular magazine Lebels, began casting about for a box magazine rifle. They settled on a design by Berthier which mated a Mannlicher-type box magazine to the Lebel's action. The only problem was that, due to the chubby, tapered, adapted-from-a-black-powder cartridge, the magazine only held three rounds in an era when Mausers held five and Enfields, ten.

As WWI engulfed the continent, the importance of organic automatic weapons at the company or even platoon level was grasped. Designs like the Lewis gun and the BAR would etch their names in history. The French effort, chained to a relic of a cartridge that was completely inappropriate for a box-magazine-fed automatic, has become a synonym for dismal failure in gun lore: The Chauchat.

Every time you get the urge to be an early adopter, think of France and the 8mm Lebel.

(This post also available on Betamax.)

11 comments:

Chris Byrne said...

And Blu-Ray?

Dr. StrangeGun said...

Come now, betamax isn't an allegory against early adoption, it's against corporate greed :)

Zendo Deb said...

No Betamax is exactly a tale of early adoption .... before the technology is fleshed out and standards are in place - or in the case of the Chauchat, at least all of the design issues are understood.

The Whole HD-DVD battle is exactly the same. 2 groups with different design goals produce 2 different bits of technology. The one big difference today is that Sony is also a movie studio, so I don't think you will see too many of the other studios releasing films on Sony's format, as they did with Betamax.

Fathairybastard said...

Points well taken. People forget all the innovations the French contributed, from lots of artillery designes, ship designes, to the minie ball and smokeless powder. Still, can't get away from the fact that they are primarily famous for all the wars they've lost, from Versingetorix onward. Of course, we read a lot of history from the Brit side of things. That can't help if you want a more even handed view to come out.

Jeffro said...

Life for concealed snipers got considerably better with smokeless powder, too.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

I'm not going to get too deep into Sony's woes, but http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betamax explains very well why betamax crashed. VHS was for a long time the inferior format.

It's tangential to the original argument and I regret bringing it up.

phlegmfatale said...

chauchat - hot cat? Cats are temperamental things.

I've found it ironic how many terms of warfare originated from the original French. Well, ironic in that with the exeption of some of the exploits of a short general, the French haven't seemed to come out on top a whole lot of the time, war-wise.

Marko said...

Yeah, and their short general was from Corsica, and not even a "true" Frenchman.

George said...

Well ... to make it worse, Napoleon's family originated in Italy.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with this thread, however I just saw this comment in today's ViaMichelin Newsletter
"...the [BMW] Z3, which is on the way to becoming a highly sought-after collector's item,..."
FYI

Billy Beck said...

Well, okay.

It remains nonetheless true that the largest single French naval action of WW II was when they sank their own fleet at Toulon.

I'm just sayin'...