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France's Tabatiére Breechloader


With the exception of the American Civil War, it would be difficult to find a conflict in which so many different kinds of arms were used than the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 — 71. Though of short duration, this now largely forgotten affray was of tremendous global importance in that it unified Germany and finally republicanized France, ending France's reliance on kings and emperors for good. It even gave a chilling foretaste of World War II, with Germans occupying portions of France for far longer than they were welcome.

The two primary rifles of the combatants were Germany's famed Zundnadelgewehr Needle Rifle and France's superior Chassepot, also a breechloader that fired a self-contained, completely consuming cartridge.

France's Tabatiére was the largest-caliber breechloader ever issued on any scale.

Many of Prussia's allies, however, were still using muzzleloaders, and France, realizing that its new rifle (it had been adopted in 1866, as opposed to the 1841 introduction of Prussia's principal infantry arm) was not available in large enough numbers to wholly supply its troops, began looking around for supplementary rifles.

The high, straight hammer of the Tabatiére lent itself well to a side-swinging breechloader, similar in function to Great Britain's legendary Snider.

Fortunately for Napoleon III, there were scads of rifles, carbines and handguns available surplus from the United States after the end of the Civil War, as well as from other nearby sources such as Belgium and Great Britain. At one time French forces were equipped with everything from older home-builts to American Spencers; Springfields; Sharps; Remington Rolling Blocks; Colt Berdans; Winchester 1866s; Joslyns; Smiths; Maynards; Colt, Remington and Rogers & Spencer revolvers; British 1853 Enfields; Sniders; and more.

Though France still employed some percussion arms, like other lands, authorities thought that it might be a good idea to figure some way to convert them to breechloaders as economy and emergency measures.

The sighting arrangement of the Chasseur Tabatiére consists of a ladder-style rear (right) and a blade front sight (above).

By the mid-1860s both Britain and the United States had decided upon using converted stores of their older frontloaders as primary arms and came up with systems of their own. In the case of the Yankees, it was the Allin Trapdoor and with the Brits, the American-designed Snider.

The primary French muskets of the period, the .69-caliber Fusile Modele 1822 T Bis (a percussion conversion from an older flintlock musket) and the Models 1842 and 1853 — 57, not to mention shorter rifles and carbines built on similar platforms, with their high, straight hammers, seemed to lend themselves to a side-swinging conversion, a la the Snider. Unlike the Snider, however, the rear of the breech was hollowed out to provide a loading chute to facilitate loading and ejecting the cartridge.

The Chasseur Carbine variant could be affixed with a heavy, brass-handled yataghan-style sword bayonet, which was mounted to the side (left).

What finally emerged in 1867 was a well-built breechloading mechanism (nicknamed Tabatiére, or "snuffbox"), operating much like the Snider and, like early Sniders, possessed of no locking catch (though one was added to some guns made after 1868). As the arms were originally .69 caliber and the amount of space available for a chamber was somewhat limited, the cartridge designed for the arm was a stubby round, with a 555-grain 17.5mm (.740) projectile backed with 69 grains of black powder. The case was of paper-covered coiled brass (again, like the Snider) with a separate base.

To operate a Tabatiére, the user simply put the hammer on half-cock, rotated the breech sideways, inserted a cartridge, closed the breech, cocked the hammer fully and fired. Clearing the chamber was effected by opening the breechblock and pulling it rearward to extract the spent case.

HANS-100026-TAB-07a-tabatiereQuality of the conversions was excellent, and many were put together by top-flight French gunsmiths. Where necessary, graduated sights were added. Breechblocks were made of bronze and, more commonly, steel, with minor differences employed to retain the heavy, long firing pin.The bayonets intended for the original arms were retained, the muskets mounting a standard triangular socket-style and the Chasseur Carbine a heavy brass-handled yataghan-bladed sword.

Tabatiéres proved to be excellent, reliable rifles, and if not on a par with the Chassepot or some of the imports, they were at least rugged and serviceable. They were generally not given to regular front-line troops, but were relegated to irregulars and militia.

The author constructed ammo using a 12-gauge brass shotshell and cast shotgun slug backed by 69 grains of FFg Elephant black powder. This load worked perfectly in the Chasseur Carbine but would not chamber in his musket because of chamber dimension variance — a not-uncommon problem when loading for 19th century guns.

While the majority of arms converted were muskets, both standard infantry style and those used by dragoons, a large number of the shorter, handsome Carabine de Chasseurs, modele 1859 were also converted. Despite its nomenclature, this was not a cavalry arm, but basically a short rifle used to arm specialty troops similar to American Rifle units or German Jägers. The Modele 1867 Carabine, as the '59 was now called, chambered a round similar to that of the musket, but which had a heavier (by more than 100 grains), smaller-diameter bullet. The charge was also upped to 85 grains.

To add to the confusion, failure of the coiled cartridge to properly extract led to the adoption of a drawn brass case that was slightly longer than its predecessor. These were often used side by side with the older cartridges.

It has been my experience in viewing a number of carbines and rifles that due to slight chamber differences, a round that goes in one may not always fit in another, creating something of a logistical problem. Authorities even came out with a special chart to be given to the troops armed with Tabatiéres that told them where on a man to hold to hit him at a given distance with the settings on the sights originally graduated for muzzleloaders.

HANS-100026-TAB-10-tabatiereWith the end of the conflict, thousands of Tabatiéres were put in stores. Because of their antiquated design, few saw active service much past the Franco-Prussian War, and they were kept as reserves until 1885 and then finally sold surplus.

Because of the large bore diameter, it was found that they could easily be made into cheap 12-gauge smoothbores, and many thousands were converted, cut down and sold worldwide as "Zulu shotguns."Interestingly enough, while most of the arms converted to Tabatiére were muskets, it seems as though more of the 1867 carbines have survived intact. I believe this is because the muskets, with their longer, thinner barrels, were simply better suited to the shotgun role.

This 70-yard group testifies to the accuracy of the Tabatiére.

I've had a couple of Tabatiéres in my collection for years — one an 1867 Carabine and the other a converted Fusile d'infanterie, modele 1857. For some time I tried finding the proper case to make cartridges, but standard 12-gauge brass, plastic and paper were too large and 16 gauge too small. My friend Christian Bories of Les Arquebusiers des France even sent me a casing made from a 12-gauge paper shotshell he has fired in his Tabatiére, and it simply would not chamber in mine — again giving credence to my theory concerning the variance in chamber dimensions between guns.

Finally, searching the Net, I discovered that CH4D makes loading and trim dies for the 17.5mm. Using Magtech 12-gauge brass shotshells topped with a 12-gauge .735600 shotgun slug cast from a mold by Rapine Bullet Mould Mtg. Co. and backed with 69 grains of FFg Elephant black powder, I was able to construct a round that fit my Chasseur's Carbine perfectly but would just not chamber in the musket.

A hit at the range: The author lights one off with his vintage Tabatiére. Despite the hefty projectile, recoil was surprisingly sedate. (Photo by Richard Venola.)

A trip to the range proved the efficacy of both the load and the Tabatiére system, with offhand 70-yard groups coming in at around four inches, right to point of aim. The gun worked perfectly, recoil was very light, and it was a heck of a lot of fun to shoot — in fact, it was my gun du jour for a while and always elicits considerable comment from other shooters — all of whom "just have to try it out."

Though during its heyday the Tabatiére never made it to the top tier of riflery, it does hold the distinction of being the largest-caliber breechloader ever issued to infantrymen and, in a bastardized form, provided many low-income families worldwide with a cheap, effective game-getter. Vive la Tabatiére! 

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