French 1857/69 Rifle

  • Country: France
  • Ignition System: Centrefire
  • Calibre: 18 x 35R Tabatière

This rife started life as a model 1857 percussion infantry rifle. The system is a derivative of the snider system although allegedly it originates from an earlier system patented in 1867 by a certain Mr Schneider. The rifle was intended to equip second line troops, a role it could perform perfectly well, but war thrust this ponderous firearm into the hands of frontline troops, a role it was never intended for. Its hour of glory, if we can call it that, was the defense of Paris in the autumn of 1870 when it was the weapon of the National Guard due to the shortage of Chassepots after the defeat at Sedan.

To convert rifles the original breech was cut away and a new receiver fitted to the barrel. In this case the receiver is open at the rear and serves as a feeding ramp for the rather large cartridge. The breech block is much the same as the snider but much bigger. It is hinged on the right of the receiver and slides back to work the extractor. Since the rear of the receiver is open, the soldier just had to flick the partially extracted cartridge backwards to clear the chamber. A coil spring around the breech hinge pin biases the breech block back to its rest position. The spring is left exposed.

The block has a large thumb piece which clicks into a recess in the left of the receiver and is locked in a closed position by a spring catch. This block is known as the second model breech block in which the spring catch one limb of a V spring screwed into the back of the block. The other limb of the block retains the firing pin in the block. In the first type of breech block is locked by a ball détente mounted in the receiver recess.
An interesting feature is the shape of the firing pin head, it is sized such that it can be grabbed and pulled back should it be stuck in a pierced primer (not uncommon in those days).

The lock was left unchanged except for the hammer being bent slightly to hit the firing pin square on. The mainspring on these locks is very strong and to some extent the pressure from the hammer contributes to hold the block shut. The rear sight is very rudimentary as you can see.
The conversions were all performed by private contractors as the national arsenals were busy turning out Chassepot rifles. Breech blocks can be found in both steel and bronze and some minor variations can appear as manufacturing got more and more desperate during the 1870/71 war. The original plan was to convert the 1853 Dragoon rifle, the 1857 Infantry rifle and the 1859 Chasseur carbine, but in the end even 1822 rifles and even old flintlock rifles in usable condition were converted. These are easily identified by the shape of the lock plate. This rifle seems to be a standard conversion as all the parts of the receiver and breechblock bear inspection stamps.

The cartridge was designed by Pottet and is very similar to the first model snider cartridge, i.e. a coiled brass foil case covered by a layer of paper. The difference is the sheer size since the bullet is a huge 18mm minié which interestingly had a square base cavity. Cartridges can be made using brass 12 gauge cartridges. Firing this is a bit like firing a mortar from the shoulder; you can see the bullet heading down range. The picture shows a cartridge next to a 6mm Flobert cartridge, the case is made from a 12g shotgun shell.

The nickname for this rifle was “fusil à tabatière“, in refernce to the hinged snuff boxes in fashion at the time. English language forums sometimes refer to them informally as “Tabby”.