The Chassepot Rifle, named for its designer Antonie Alphonse Chassepot, was a French bolt action rifle, developed in response to the growing use of breechloading firearms with box magazines and tubular magazines across the world. The Chassepot served the French Army from 1867 to 1874 and saw heavy use in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 (which resulted in a French defeat).
The most significant feature of the Chassepot was the bolt action mechanism. The Chassepot design was founded upon the design of the Dreyse system (found on the Dreyse Needle gun) developed in the 1840s. However the Chassepot mechanism, however, was vastly improved, largely due to the fact it was simple. A perfect seal around the breech (which meant that all the pressure from the expanding gas produced when a cartridge is fired would escape by pushing the bullet down the chamber, rather than escaping by going through the joint of breech and mechanism) was difficult to acheive (the Dreyse was known to suffer from this issue). The Chassepot solved the issue with a rubber seal at the rear of the breech which expanded when the cartridge was fired to seal it, preventing gas escaping.
Otherwise the Chassepot was much like the Minie Rifles it replaced. The barrel was made from iron and contained a basic rifling pattern. A bayonet lug was added to allow the use of a bayonet (although the Chassepot was considered accurate at ranges of over 1,000 yds) and a ladder sight was mounted with various gradients marked upon it.
Yet the Chassepot did suffer from flaws. The most significant of these was the rubber seal that sealed the breech, which after heavy use would wear out, no longer producing a perfect seal. The seal would need to be replaced frequently to prevent the issue arising, although the concept itself held with other designers using different materials for their seals (for example Charles Ragon de Bange used greased aspestos to form a seal on the de Bange 90mm Cannon). Other issues that could arise concerned the firing pin (which would suffer from frequent use) as well as fouling of the barrel (a result of the continued use of blackpowder).
The Chassepot fired, rather surprisingly given the rate of development of metallic cartridges, a paper cartridge which contained a .43in (11mm) calibre lead bullet. The cartridge itself contained the bullet, blackpowder and an inverted percussion cap which could be ignited by a firing pin (rather than a hammer strike as percussion lock firearms used).
The Chassepot, with its specifically developed cartridge, was capable of acheiving muzzle velocities in excess of 1,300ft/s (396m/s), a 33% improvement over the older Dreyse Needle gun. The Chassepot also had a greater effective range, almost exactly double that of the Dreyse.
The Chassepot was first introduced in 1866, becoming officially known as the Fusil Modele 1866. It replaced the infamous group of rifled muskets collectively known as the Minie Rifles, a large number of which had been converted to Tabatiere rifles (a conversion which involved the addition of a breechloading mechanism). Once introduced more than 1,000,000 Chassepot rifles would be produced, the majority of which were used in the Franco-Prussian War.
Antonie Alphonse Chassepot's design was the key firearm of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), although its superiority over the Dreyse Needle gun (wielded by the Prussian forces alongside the various Vereinsgewehr and Werndl-Holub rifles of Prussia's allies) was not enough to prevent a French defeat. The conflict itself would result in the creation of Germany as a single nation, as well as breeding an ill-ease between the two nations which would help to cause both the First and Second World Wars.
The Chassepot, on the otherhand, demonstrated the direction that firearms were being developed in. The use of a rubber seal prompted further development of seals across the globe, both for infantry arms and artillery. From 1867 until 1874 the Chassepot served as France's main firearm, before being replaced by the Gras rifle in 1874. The Chassepot would continue in production through until 1875 and with production figures in excess of 1,000,000 units, the Chassepot was one of the most mass produced firearms of the 19th century.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chassepot-diag.jpg - Chassepot image origin
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chassepot_IMG_3574.JPG - Cartridge image origin
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Fusil_Gras_M80_1874.jpg - Gras rifle image origin
- The World's Greatest Rifles - Roger Ford - ISBN: 1-897884-33-8
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Firearms - Ian V. Hogg - ISBN: 0-906286-41-7