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.)