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The Chauchat: Far from the Worst Gun Ever

It has been dubbed “the worst machine gun ever,” and more than 100 years after it first appeared on the battlefield it remains notorious. It is known to be unreliable, awkward to carry and just plain not being suited to the task at hand. This is of course the Chauchat – a light machine gun that American soldiers in France knew as the “sho-sho” and one they mocked and even hated. However, when looking back we may find this reputation might not be so just. Many people who decried its problems over the years likely never held one, let alone even saw one up close.

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A close up of the “Fusil MitrailleurModele 1915 CSRG” (or Machine Rifle Model 1915 CSRG) at the Arizona Military Museum in Phoenix. This example was used by the U.S. Army during World War I and presented to the museum following the war (Photo: Peter Suciu)

In fairness this light machine is far from perfect, and it did suffer from numerous design flaws. However, despite its problems the Chauchat was actually an innovative firearm for its day and age.

Ex Historiam: Development of the Chauchat

If there is a statement that is fair to make about the Chauchat, it could be that it was too innovative. Many gun buffs are quick to point out that it was rushed out to fill the need for a mobile light machine gun in the trenches of World War I. This is plain wrong.In fact, the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG (Machine Rifle Model 1915 CSRG) was in development prior to the outbreak of the First World War.

What is largely misunderstood about the French is why they so unprepared for a war that so many other nations saw coming. Critics today look back at various demonstrations of this. For instance, the French were outfitted in uniforms that were little changed from those of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and which featured heavy dark blue coats and bright red pants. This was hardly the look of a modern army, nor was it practical.

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The Chauchat was used in the Interwar period (1919-1939) by various nations in Europe. It proved to be a popular weapon with the Czechoslovakian military in the 1920s. This example is in the Prague Military Museum (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The truth is somewhat different and typically over looked. The French had since the 1890s been in the process of modernizing its military This included new uniforms. A number of patterns were considered and, this being the French, designs were even submitted by French painter Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille. In the end the French failed to adopt new uniforms because as a republic everything was voted on at numerous stages in government.

“The military equipment was considered, voted and selected by the administration – what we call the war ministry,”explains advanced French military collector Francois Stouvenot. “But these people were not military, these were civilians. They were far more driven by the cost and the style than how it may have fared on the battlefield. So that was the driving force and it was strongly influenced by the artist and the fashion at the time, and basically the military was more interested in the protection and the cost.”

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A Belgian soldier with a Chauchat in 1918 (Photo: August 1918 edition of “The War Pictorial” magazine)Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belgian_machinegunner_in_1918_guarding_trench.jpg

What does this have to do with the sho-sho American doughboys hated to much? The same problems that plagued uniform modernization also slowed the development of new weapons. The Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG began development in 1903 when a few military planners, including French military arms designer Colonel Louis Chauchat, saw the potential for a light machine gun that could be carried by a single person. Col. Chauchat considered the problem of equipping his men with a more mobile machine gun and he borrowed many mechanical principles from the existing long barrel recoil, semi-automatic rifle that John Browning had patented in 1900. The result was the Chauchat machine rifle.

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A French used Chauchat at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. Note the open magazine and exposed spring – this opening allowed the soldier to keep track of ammunition supply but also let in dirt and grime. (Photo: Peter Suciu)

By 1908 more than a half a dozen prototypes had been tested at theAtelier de Construction de Puteaux (APX), the French Army’s weapon research facility located near Paris. As with the uniforms the weapon was ahead of its time, and sadly it is believed that none of these prototypes survived. It was more or less put on the back burner until events transpired to plunge the known world into the First World War.

When the war broke out in August 1914 no one expected the horrors that were to come Both sides expected a quick and glorious little conflict. By the Fall of that first year the men dug in and the trenches that would come to symbolize the war were created. In the process the war became hell on earth. The German army was equipped with several times the number of machineguns as the French These had a devastating effect on efforts by the French to liberate lands taken by “the Hun.”

At the time it should be noted the French military had adopted the Berthier Fusil Mle1 1902/07 rifle to supplement and replace the aging Lebel. The problem with the Berthier is that it featured an en bloc magazine that made it quick to reload but only held three rounds! This was hardly the best option to go against fixed positions defended by Maxim machine guns.

The French military suddenly saw the need for Col. Chauchat’s innovative gun and it was rushed into production. Here is where the first of its notorious problems were seen. The French had tested the prototypes prior to the war, saw the need for a light machine gun and opted to rush forward – almost like far too many of the battle plans that were to transpire. In many ways the Chauchat could be seen as a metaphor for French tactics during the entire conflict.

Contemporary photo of the Chauchat in action

Innovative Features of the Chauchat

What must be noted is that for 1915, the Chauchat was actually quite revolutionary. It fired the 8mm Lebel cartridge at a rate of 250 rounds per minute. This might be slow when measured against later machine guns and assault rifles, but some would argue this helped with accuracy and even fire control. The slower rate of fire would ensure a nervous soldier wouldn’t empty the magazine in a burst or two, or so some hoped.

Moreover, the Chauchat weighted just 20 pounds, far lighter than contemporary portable light machine guns like the Lewis Gun. It also was one of the first firearms to feature both automatic and semi-automatic fire. It offered a pistol grip, in-line stock, detachable magazine and selective fire capability. All of there were innovative features. The weapon could be fired from the hip and while moving. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the Chauchat was the first true assault weapon, if not the first “assault rifle.”

However, some of those very features are what created its reputation as a problematic weapon. Due to strategic demands the weapon’s construction was simplified to facilitate mass production. It was often produced using low quality metal components. The construction was composite – meaning that that it was a mix of steel and aluminum parts of differing quality. While the barrels were standard Lebel rifle barrels that had been shortened and were thus of high quality, other parts including the stamped metal side plates were of far lower quality. This gave the gun the not entirely undeserved look of a substandard weapon.

The weapon’s actual production had both pros and cons.

Says advanced First World War weapons collector Gus Byngelson,

“It was produced in massive numbers by factories that were not part of the armament industry, so it did not impact the production of weapons for other applications. But these firms also had less experience making weapons.”

The Sho Sho’s Bad Reputation

Clearly this was a gun with both advantages and shortcoming, but why did it earn such a bad reputation? One contributing factor is likely the fact that American soldiers were issued machine guns that had already been in used by French forces for two to three years — and poorly maintained to boot.

The common story is that the American soldiers who arrived in France in 1917 and 1918 were “kindly” provided with Chauchats by the French army, an act looked upon by some Americans with cynicism or derision. In fact, the U.S. was completely prepared for such war, with deficiencies in materiel, training, experience and other crucial ares.  It is also true that the French offered the Chauchat in large numbers; however, this was at the request of the U.S. military and General Pershing opted for the French Hotchkiss M1914 as well as the Sho Sho. Remember, an entire generation of soldiers from the nations and their colonies were being mustered, equipped and sent to fight. There were only so many guns to go around. Ultimately some 16,000 used Chauchats in 8mm Lebel were provided to the U.S. Army.

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A French couple greet American soldiers of the 308th and 166th Infantry Divisions in Brieulles-sur-Bar, France after being liberated from four years of German occupation. The soldier on the left is carrying the infamous Chauchat. (Photo: Lt. Adrian C. Duff – Department of Defense Archives)
http://dodimagery.afis.osd.mil/imagery.html#guid=8b1e4637d04738b40db0566e55a5f6280f189dfb…

It was not loved by the American “Doughboys.” One problem frequently called was the open magazine, originally designed to allow the shooter to monitor the flow and supply of ammunition. This allowed mud and dirt to get in under the best of conditions (let alone in trench warfare) and resulted in a weapon that was prone to jamming.

Dorn Cart, curator of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, explains.

“The tendency to jam at inopportune times, especially because of the open design of the half moon magazines which allowed all sorts of debris in. Also advancing cartridges in a half circular fashion also lent to a jamming problem. A third example was its relatively slow rate of fire and small capacity, again with the small magazine. There was also a buildup of anecdotal evidence of soldiers just not liking it with the freely swinging front bipod to the uncomfortable shoulder stock.”

However, other gun experts counter that the bad reputation has been greatly overstated. Many say it has grown in the telling. They opine that in practice the firearm was reasonably reliable, but only if properly maintained and cleaned.

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Photo credit to “IMA-USA.com.”

Says Byngelson,

“A lot of the ‘unreliable’ issues with the Chauchat were due to politics and had little to do with the weapon. I keep hearing about how the open sides of the magazines were part of the problem, but you seldom hear any of those critics talk about the fact that the belt fed MGs had nothing to protect the ammo form the dirt of the trenches. The MG 08s had difficulty with mud fouling the guns because it was impossible to keep the mud out of the belts.”

This argument about the open magazine is not made about the Lewis Gun however, and that weapon did have a partially exposed magazine. Byngelson also noted that the French largely don’t complain about the gun as much – and it wouldn’t be just a matter of pride.

“The French soldiers were well trained with it and used it effectively for the intended purpose. The American criticism is based on poorer training of their riflemen. Most employed the CSRG15 effectively, but some were what would be called ‘poor craftsmen’ in that they blamed the tool for their inability to make it work. The magazine issue is a non-issue in my opinion, and they were considered disposable and if dirtied or damaged in battle, they would be dropped and another inserted.”

Byngelson joked too that, “I cannot cite anything from the period, but my experience is that young American males are not well inclined to take instruction.”

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Two different attempts at mobile “light” machine guns from World War I – the Chauchat and the British Lewis Gun. These are on display at the Athens War Museum (Photo: Peter Suciu)

The Legacy of the Chauchat

For a weapon that was so badly hated, the Chauchat had a lasting legacy. It was widely used after the end of the First World War and saw use not only in the French post-war army, but was used during the Russian Civil War. It was also in the arsenals of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Finland, Greece, Romania and Poland.

More importantly, the basic Chauchat design was tested as a submachine gun that could be used by tank crews.

The Chauchat was a weapon that may have been too innovative for its time, but it certainly inspired others to examine its features.

Byngelson explains.

“One point that is often missed is that Chauchat may have caused a shift in warfare to the point that the Germans even had to develop the MG08 in a lighter form as the MG-08/15, which made the heavy machine somewhat mobile. Everyone was looking at what the enemy did and tried to improve on it.”

In the end the Chauchat may have just been too far ahead of its time and too rushed for refinement.

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 *Featured Image Photo credit to “IMA-USA.com.”

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