The Gras Rifle Part II — The Fusil Gras Model 1874
In case you missed Part I
After France’s defeat in the Franco Prussian War, the French Army decided to do a review of it’s weapon systems to correct deficiencies. While the Chassepot rifle was a great weapon for it’s time, it had some problems. First and foremost was it’s needlefire system, which tended to wear out quickly due to the needle needing to pierce the paper cartridge. Second the rubber obturator around the bolt head also tended to wear out very quickly, allowing gas to escape from the chamber. Finally the use of paper cartridges caused the problem of leaving uncombusted paper particles in the action. In 1871, Germany had adopted a bolt action metallic cartridge rifle called the Mauser Model 1871. It was clear that in order to fix the Chassepot, France needed to upgrade to metallic cartridges as well.
France examined a number of designs, narrowing it’s choice down to two designs, and finally adopting a system created by Col. Basile Gras in 1874. Col. Gras redesigned the Chassepot needlefire bolt with a few important improvements for use with metallic cartridges. The first and most obvious was replacement with a modern firing pin rather than a needle. Second, Gras created a cock on opening bolt system. Recall that the earlier Chassepot had to be cocked by hand by pulling a knob at the rear of the bolt back. With the new Gras rifle the user need only open the bolt, insert a cartridge, close the bolt, and fire. Of course the most important improvement was the new ammunition, called the 11mm Gras (11x59R), a blackpowder cartirdge which fired a 386 grain lead bullet and could achieve a muzzle velocity around 1,400-1,500 feet per second.
Since the Chassepot was being adapted for a metallic cartridge, one final major modification was the addition of an extractor on the bolt head to extract fired casings. In order to convert the Chassepot, the old bolt need only be removed and replaced with the new bolt, with a sleeve inserted into the chamber to accomodate the dimensions of the 11mm Gras cartridge. Chassepot rifles that were converted were called the Fusil Modele 1866-74 rifle, while newly produced rifles were simply called the Fusil Modele 1874. Over 1 million Chassepot rifles were converted while another 500,000 were produced on their own. Among those production figures were a number of carbine variants for cavalry and artillery troops. In addition, the Gras would become popular outside of France, becoming the primary arm of Chile and Greece, being used by soldiers in Russia and rebels in Vietnam, and even a variant being produced and adopted by Japan (all of which I will cover in later posts). The Gras would served the French Army from 1874 until production was discontinued in 1886 with the adoption of the Lebel, serving throughout France’s colonial wars in Africa and Asia. It was also used in the War of the Pacific, the Chilean Civil War of 1891, and the First Italo-Ehtiopian War,. With the adoption of the Lebel it seemed that the story of the Gras would end, however the outbreak of World War I would give the Gras one last great hurrah.
To be continued…