French 1866 Chassepot Rifle

  • Country: France
  • Ignition System: Needlefire
  • Calibre: 11mm

This rifle is a refinement of the Prussian Dreyse needle rifle, the first true bolt action military rifle self-contained cartridges. Unlike the Dreyse, it fires a lead 11mm bullet which engages the rifling and does not use a sabot. During the Franco-Prussian war the Chassepot far outperformed the Dreyse both in range and accuracy.

In operation however it is similar to the Dreyse. To open the bolt one first has to pull the cocking piece backwards, effectively cocking the striker and needle, only then can be bolt handle be rotated 90° up and pulled back to open the chamber. A cartridge is pushed in and the bolt pushed home and rotated closed. The major improvement over the Dreyse was the use of sliding bolt head to form a chamber seal. The bolt head has a rubber gasket behind it and when the rifle is fired the pressure within the chamber pushes back on the bolt face which causes the rubber gasket to expand, providing a very effective chamber seal.

The bolt can also be placed in a half-cock position with the handle at 45° and the needle partially retracted. It acts as a safety of sorts as the trigger is blocked, the bolt locked and the needle is retracted. To fire one would fully pull the cocking piece and slap the bolt fully closed.

The Chassepot is burdened with the same two stereotypes as the Dreyse, namely a) the needle broke frequently, and b) the rubber seal would fail frequently, but from practical experience I can say the following:
a) The needle only protrudes a few millimetres into the chamber thus it is hardly exposed to the explosion, it is very well supported within the bolt such that it is very unlikely to snap due to bending, and further, unlike the Dreyse, the needle can not be changed without dismantling the bolt using tools, if the needle was prone to breaking, surely it would have been easy to replace in a fire fight.
b) At the time the seals were made of natural unvulcanised rubber. During the time of use a fresh rubber seal would have been up to the task and in my opinion be unlikely to fail during the course of an engagement. This does not mean they lasted forever though, natural rubber does perish, but in this case the design takes this into account since the bolt head is easily removable with the soldier’s tools to enable replacement of the seal.

It is also said that the Chassepot was introduced in a rush, however Antoine Chassepot had been tinkering with the bolt mechanism with the same sealing mechanism for use on capping-breechloaders a decade before. The M1866 rifle was designed, tested and approved in the correct fashion.

The Chassepot cartridge is in all respects like a modern metallic cartridge but uses an inverted percussion cap instead of a primer. When fired, the needle pierces the cartridge base and strikes the inside of the cap, igniting the charge. It is referred to as a combustible cartridge but actually the cartridge skin was not supposed to be consumed upon firing, the debris was in fact supposed to be blown out after the bullet. There are many tutorials online for making cartridges using paper. Unfortunately paper leaves a lot of soot in the breech which eventually makes loading impossible. A quick brush of the chamber to loosen the debris is all that is needed to get going again. Some have even treated the paper with fire retardant to good effect. Making cartridges is not technically difficult but takes time. Most critical to the process it determining the right cartridge length. Too short and the firing pin will not strike the primer with enough force to ignite, too long and the cartridge will tear or burst when loading or closing the bolt. Naturally the powder should be packed tightly to make the cartridge as rigid as possible for good ignitition. It has been found that using inverted berdan primers gives a better ignition than inverted “top-hat” percussion caps.

This example is stamped with a small anchor indicating naval use, as is common for arms from the Tulle arsenal.

Quite a few naval brigades fought with distinction during the Franco-Prussian war. The top of the chamber shows a German “Crown V” proof mark which denotes that the rifle was in Germany prior to 1891, it is thus highly probable that it was captured during the Franco-Prussian war or sent as part of the post-war reparations.

The navy marked bayonet also indicates Prussian use since the scabbard has been modified with a frog hook rather than the official French strap loop.

Should you wish to fire your Chassepot, the clearance of the needle through the bolt head should be checked as well as the guide hole in the bolt body. If the fit is too loose in either of these hot gas can blast back into the bolt. Finally, don’t forget to make/get a new needle and new rubber seal for it before taking it to the range!