French Gras 1874 Infantry Rifle

  • Country: France
  • Ignition System: Centrefire
  • Calibre: 1 1 x 59R Gras

The Chassepot rifle, despite its clear technological superiority over the Prussian Dreyse, was nonetheless destined to become obsolete almost instantaneously.  It was obvious, even at the time of its adoption, that needle ignition and semi-combustible cartridges were a temporary solution; however, as on many occasions hence, the geopolitical situation forced the hand of the French ordnance commission.

The relentless tide of progress made the adoption of a metallic cartridge firearm inevitable, but this major step would have to wait until the end of the Franco-Prussian war.  As soon as August 1871, the war ministry opened an inquiry into the firearms and munitions used in the conflict. Needless to say, the feedback from officers was unanimous concerning the advantages of metallic cartridge firearms.  The results of the inquiry, together with Germany’s adoption of the Mauser 1871 rifle, convince the gentlemen of the ministry of the necessity to modernise the the army’s rifles. A design study was thus opened and trials begin in 1872 with a wide range of breech systems and munitions, even a few vestigial combustible cartridges!

With regard to ammunition, a Berdan primer was selected over the more delicate rimfire primer.  Interestingly the development of the cartridge itself was entrusted to the private industry, no doubt because at the time they had far more experience in metallic cartridge design and manufacture than the national laboratories. Ultimately, the cartridge proposed by the well established munitions manufacturer Gévelot was selected and 11x59R “Gras” cartridge came to be.

For the rifle, any system permitting the easy conversion of the Chassepot rifle would be highly favourable.  France had just paid an enormous sum of money to Germany in war reparations hence any means of cost cutting was crucial. After some rigorous testing only two designs were retained for final evaluation, namely the system proposed by captain (later general) Basil Gras and the 1870 Dutch Beaumont system. The French were already very familiar with the Beaumont system since the St Étienne arsenal had been involved in early production for the Dutch.  Even though there was little to differentiate between the two breech systems, the Gras was chosen due to the ease with which the bolt could be turned down for guns destined for mounted troops, a problem even the Dutch were aware of since they themselves equipped their own mounted troops with Belgian Nagant manufactured rolling block carbines.

The army thus officially adopted the Gras on 7 July 1874.  The navy however; decide to keep their Chassepots and patiently wait for the next evolution in rifles, namely repeating rifles.  The national arsenals began manufacturing the rifles in 1875. Steyr in Austria assists early on by producing bayonets but later obtains the license to produce and sell 1874 pattern rifles outside of France. Greece in particular bought approximately 129,000 Gras rifles from Steyr between 1877 and 1886 in a range of configurations to replace the indigenous Mylonas rifle, which had proved too fragile.

The Gras rifle retains the same dimensions as the Chassepot rifle, with the main difference being in the breech and bolt.  The cocking piece is now cocked automatically upon opening the bolt due to a camming surface at the rear of the bolt body. It must be said at this point that this principle was known at the time of adopting the Chassepot, but it was decided not to include it as there was a risk that, when opening the bolt smartly following a miss-fire (and thus with the needle having pierced the cartridge primer), the friction from the sudden retraction of the needle back through the primer when opening the bolt could ignite it, thus causing an out of battery detonation. The bolt head is a separate piece and carries a V-shaped extractor spring.  Keeping a separate bolt head means that it does not rotate when the bolt is turned, which greatly simplifies the machining of the extractor slot in the chamber rim. The receiver remains largely unchanged aside from minor cosmetic differences but it does include one tiny yet crucial new part, a tiny screw in the bottom of the bolt channel, which functions as an ejector. Interestingly, the Mauser 1871, which is technically equivalent to the 1874 Gras, does not have an ejector.

For the infantry, the 1866 bayonet was deemed too heavy and too bulky and replaced by a far lighter sword bayonet with a strong T backed blade.  The artillery musketoons and carbines for the foot gendarmerie retained their 1866 bayonets whilst the carbines for the mounted gendarmerie was equipped with a socket bayonet.

The new rear sight was calibrated to the 11x59R cartridge and comprises a 200m battle sight visible with the leaf folded forward.  For longer distances the sight leaf is raised and has graduations on the left for shooting between 350m and 1200m using the lower sight notch of the leaf extension, and it has a further set of graduations from shooting between 1400m and 1800m on the right for use with the upper notch of the leaf extension.

As mentioned above, the wish of the commission was to have a system that could be retrofitted to existing Chassepot rifles, and this was indeed the case. A Gras bolt fits without the slightest modification to the receiver, only the slot for the sear head of the trigger assembly was widened to accept a new reinforced version.  The barrel was either replaced or sleeved with a 11x59R chamber insert depending on its condition. The receiver and barrel were also blued depending on the model. The rear sight was also replaced by a sight analogous to that of the Gras but which is generally slimmer. It is readily identifiable since the range is limited to only 1700m.  The receiver making is also updated to read “mle1886-74”. The remanufacturing of the Chassepots to the 1866-74 standard was started in parallel to the new rifles and was equally applied to all carbines and musketoons.

The only major modification to all Gras 1874 and Gras 1866-74 longarms occured in 1880, which involved machining a deep gas venting groove in the receiver adjacent the chamber and deeping the existing shallow groove in the bolt head. The aim was to ensure that the majority of gas from a ruptured case would be vented the the side away from the shooter.  The rifle pictured here somehow escaped this modification. The stamp “M80” was added to the left flat of the receiver for modified rifles.

The Gras proved to be a simple robust and well liked gun in all its forms and served in all the territories of the French empire.  Despite its remplacement from 1886 by the M1886 “Lebel”, the Gras nonetheless reemerged in WW1 for rear echelon troops, having been fitted with a new bolt head and rebarreled for 8mm Lebel.  The action was also commonly repurposed in the early 20th Century to build harpoon guns and flare launchers, a testament to it’s ruggedness.