Category: rifles

The Gras Rifle Part III — The Greek Gras…

The Gras Rifle Part III — The Greek Gras 

In Case you missed Part I, Part II

In the previous post I detailed the conversion of the Chasspot needlefire rifle into the metallic cartridge Gras rifle. It wasn’t long after adoption of the Gras by the French Army that foreign powers became interested in the design. One nation was Greece, which became interested in the Gras rifle as part of its modernization of the military. 

Greece was a relatively new nation, just becoming independent from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820-1830′s. Many violent clashes with the Ottomans still occurred, mostly to reclaim Greek speaking lands and fend off Turkish incursions. Greece wanted a modern army and the Gras rifle was ideal in that is was sturdy, reliable, and most importantly economical. However, the French were unable to supply the rifles, being barely able to produce enough for themselves. Thus, France granted a contract to the Austrian company Steyr to manufacture export models of the Gras. 

The Gras rifle used by the Greeks was no different the standard French service rifle, the Mle 1874, with the exception of Steyr markings  stamped on the receiver, with a Greek cartouche on the buttstock.  Around 60,000 rifles were purchased by the Greek Army, with models being purchased on the civilian market as well. 

The rifle was commonly used in many of Greece’s conflicts with the Ottoman Empire up to the Balkans War. By World War I it has largely been replaced by the Greek Mannlicher, however it was used as a reserve arm and more popularly used by civilian militia units. France would sent tens of thousands more Gras rifles, both in 11mm Gras and 8mm Lebel, along with more modern weapons such as the Lebel and Berthier. By World War II the Gras rifle had become seriously dated and obsolete but was still used as a reserve arm of the Greek Army, with some being used against the Germans at the battle of Crete.  However, like during World War I, the Gras was more popular with civilian militias and resistance fighters. Seemingly every Greek home had one hanging on the wall, and the rifle even developed a folk status with songs and poems composed in it’s name. Despite using an obsolete cartridge that was no longer manufactured, there seemed to be an endless supply of ammunition that poured out of the Greek hills as the Greeks made their own cartridges from scrap brass, hand casted lead bullets, and home made gunpowder. 

Flintlock Jaeger rifle crafted by P. J. Denise…

Flintlock Jaeger rifle crafted by P. J. Denisell, Germany, late 19th century.

from Czerny’s International Auction House

World War II Japanese Type 38 bolt action carb…

World War II Japanese Type 38 bolt action carbine with carved decorative stock.

from Historica Auto Attractions

William Harvey patent percussion revolving car…

William Harvey patent percussion revolving carbine, mid 19th century.

from Rock Island Auction

German wheel-lock rifle signed “ Hennig Adolp…

German wheel-lock rifle signed “

Hennig Adolph Von Steinberg A Westerburg”, Dated 1668.

from Bonham’s

Haida carved Winchester Model 1894, Alaska cir…

Haida carved Winchester Model 1894, Alaska circa 1908.

from North American Auction Company

World War I production Berthier Mle 1892 caval…

World War I production Berthier Mle 1892 cavalry carbine dated 1917. Later captured by German forces during World War II and issued to the Luftwaffe.

from Deactivated Guns

English Collier flintlock revolving rifle, cir…

English Collier flintlock revolving rifle, circa 1820′s

from Rock Island Auctions

LeMat centerfire revolving rifle/shotgun. Belg…

LeMat centerfire revolving rifle/shotgun. Belgian, circa 1870′s.

from Rock Island Auctions

The Gras Rifle Part II — The Fusil Gras …

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…