Despite being armed with a superior breechloader, France's defeat by the Prussians in 1871 was both ignominious and unexpected. During the Franco-Prussian War, the Germans were largely carrying different versions of their famed Dreyse "Needle Rifle" that had been introduced back in the 1840s. Firing a self-contained paper cartridge, it was the first arm of its type to see widespread military usage.
In 1866 the French came out with their own bolt-action breechloader that was superior in just about every way to the more cumbersome Prussian arm. Like the Dreyse, the Chassepot was a bolt action and handled a paper cartridge. Unlike the Needle Rifle's round, which had its priming in the center of the cartridge, necessitating the use of a long, delicate firing pin, the French round positioned its priming in the base. The Chassepot was lighter, handier and boasted a better breech seal via a rubber gasket.
Unfortunately, the rifle's advantages were not enough of an offset for poor leadership, and the Prussians handily defeated their Gallic foes, finally laying siege to — and capturing — Paris a scant nine months from the opening shots. Napoleon III's Second Empire fell, the French were forced to cede Alsace Lorraine, and Germany became unified under Wilhelm I — all events that led to irreparably acrimonious relations between the belligerents and set the stage for two world wars.
The French were humiliated and swore that such a debacle would never happen again. Sweeping changes were made in the military, to include the adoption of a new bolt-action rifle chambering a self-contained metallic cartridge. Though the Chassepot was France's main battle rifle during the war, other arms — including converted muzzleloaders and a wide variety of arms imported from the United States — were also used, creating something of a logistics problem. Standardization was definitely in order.
The new rifle really wasn't all that new. Like many countries, France felt it prudent to adopt an arm that could be altered from, or take advantage of, the technology already in service. Accordingly, the new Fusile Modele 1874 was adopted from the Chassepot by Capt. Basile Gras.
Though the Gras rifle design employed the same basic bolt body as the Chassepot, there were differences. Both locked by means of bolsters on the base of the bolt handles, which abutted the forward portions of the right side of the receiver cutaway. To open the Chassepot bolt, it was first necessary to thumb back the cocking piece.
The Gras rifle eliminated this extra bit of business by incorporating a cock-on-opening feature. When the bolt was closed, it forced the bolster against the receiver ledge, camming the bolt forward to allow the heavy, spring-loaded extractor to grip the base of the cartridge. The Chassepot had no extractor because it fired a self-consuming linen cartridge.
Because of the Gras rifle's stationary extractor, it was necessary to modify the Chassepot bolt by adding a separate bolt head within which the bolt rotated when it was closed. This would be the same basic bolt used on the Model 1886 Lebel smokeless-powder repeater — seems like the French never threw away what they felt was a good idea. Neither gun had a safety, but they did incorporate cocking pieces on the rear of the bolt bodies.
While the large majority of Gras rifles were made from scratch, similarities to the Chassepot allowed the latter gun to be easily converted to the Gras rifle system by simply modifying the chamber and altering the bolt. Dubbed Modele 1866 — 74, converted Chassepots of all configurations were widely distributed to French troops.
Like many other European cartridges at the time, the Gras rifle cartridge was 11mm (.43 caliber). It had a slightly bottlenecked brass case, external Berdan primer, 386-grain paper-patched lead bullet and was charged with black powder. Muzzle velocity was 1,493 fps and muzzle energy some 1,903 ft-lbs. The performance was similar to that of the British .577-450 Martini-Henry and surpassed that of the German 11mm Mauser and Austro-Hungarian 11mm Werndl, to name just a few. It also bested the Chassepot velocity (same caliber and bullet weight) by almost 200 fps and the muzzle energy by 350 ft-lbs.
Though officially superseded by the 1886 Lebel, the Gras continued in service, especially in colonial applications, well into World War I. In fact, many French postcards from the period (not the naughty ones) depict poilu armed with Gras and Chassepots rather than Lebels, the presence of which was required in the trenches.
As noted above, while it's difficult to go to a gun show and not bump into at least a dozen Gras rifle bayonets, the rifles themselves are on the elusive side. In any event, we were able to acquire a specimen in excellent condition for our evaluation. Old Western Scrounger kindly supplied some new Gras ammo, fabricated from .348 Winchester brass topped with a .434 385-grain unpatched lead bullet backed with 78 grains of rifle-grade Pyrodex.
The bolt action on the Gras rifle was far from butter-smooth, but it was easy to work and required little locking effort. The trigger pull came in at five pounds after about a half-inch of travel. Cartridges slid into the chamber smoothly; extraction was positive and robust.
Recoil was just fine, and even after firing a number of rounds, my shoulder was none the worse for wear.
Benchrested groups were shot at 50 and 100 yards, as nowadays the 100-yarders are just about the limit I can handle with open sights. Groups struck almost a foot high at 50 yards and 10 inches at 100 — typical for most military rifles of the period in which it is not uncommon to have the battle sights regulated for over 200 meters (in the case of the Gras rifle, exactly 200).
Groups were acceptable but not barn-burners, coming in at about six inches at 50 yards and 10 inches at 100. My guess is that paper patching would probably tighten up things a bit, and when I reload the OWS converted brass I'm going to try just that.
As I've shot just about every other major military single-shot from the period, I can say that the Gras rifle is certainly on a par with most of them. It's not as fast to fire as the trapdoor Springfield or Martini-Henry and not as smooth as the Model 71 Mauser, but still I would not feel underarmed were I carrying one while trudging through Morocco or the French Sudan.
I've always been partial to French military arms, and — next to British and American — they are the favorites in my collection. One forgets just how many innovations French armorers came up with, and while the Gras rifle is not exactly a seminal piece, it was at least a serviceable one. In the end, that's all a soldier can ask for.