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The Chauchat: Worst Machine Gun of WWI?

The Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 is best know as the Chauchat and is one of the first squad-issued machine guns of World War I.

The Chauchat: Worst Machine Gun of WWI?

The French Fusil Mitrailleur Mode´le 1915 was the most widely used, and most controversial, machine gun of WWI. Note open sided, curved magazine. (Peter Kokalis photo) 

WWI saw the first wide use machine guns by all of the combatants. Most of these were air- or water-cooled weapons mounted via tripods, and very heavy and cumbersome. The trench style warfare common to the war showed a need for lighter, more maneuverable guns capable of being operated by a crew of two or three soldiers.

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A French machine gun squad armed with Chauchats.

The Germans developed the MG08/15, a lightened version of the Maxim, while the British adopted the Mark I Lewis Gun. The French Poilu was “cursed” with what many consider the worse machine gun of WWI, the Fusil Mitrailleur Modéle 1915, better known as the “Chauchat.” Designed in the dark days of early WWI, it was designed to give the French infantry squad a light weight, easily transportable, fully automatic weapon that could be operated by a two-man crew. It used a long recoil operating system designed by Colonel Jacques Louis Chauchat, and Charles Sutter of the Puteaux arsenal.

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1917. French machine gunners. Note the ammo carrier on the right with a box full of loaded magazines.

The Modéle 1915 was constructed primarily from sheet metal stampings. The recoiling barrel sleeve, barrel, bolt, and moving parts were precision milled from solid steel and fully interchangeable. It was produced at the Gladiator Usine de Motocyclette et Bicyclette factory in Paris, with many parts supplied by subcontractors. The names of the designers, plant manager, and factory were combined to produce the weapon’s synonym, the C.S.R.G.2 Overall quality was poor, resulting in less-than-optimal reliability but they could be produced quickly and in large numbers — which was all the French army asked for.

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A Chauchat’s crew. Note the assistant loader is holding a loaded magazine, ready to insert it into the gun.

The Modéle 1915 fired from an open bolt and was fed via a twenty round, curved, bottom-mounted magazine whose open sides permitted the gunner to know how many rounds were available but this also allowed dirt and debris to enter the action, to the further detriment of reliability. It was also capable of full or semiauto fire, had a permanently mounted bipod, and could be fired by one man while walking or from the hip.3 It was lighter than either the German MG08/15 or British Lewis guns, and was operated by a three-man crew: the gunner, the loader and the ammo carrier.4

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WWI Russian soldiers with Chauchat and Colt machine guns.

The Chauchat was first fielded in 1916 at the battles of Verdun and the Somme where its effectiveness in “marching fire” impressed General Joffre so much he wrote to the Minister of War requesting the initial order for 55,000 guns be doubled. Beginning in 1917, additional Modéle 1915s were produced by Forges et Acieries de la Marine a Homecourt, but the design’s endemic weaknesses were never corrected. Because of its long recoil operating system, the Chauchat’s functioning was violent which resulted in poor accuracy. Another problem was that the primers of fired cases often backed out, jamming up the mechanism. To prevent this, a special cartridge was developed for the Modèle 1917, the 8mm balle D (a m) (amorcage modifié — modified primer) which used a heavy crimp to secure the primer in place.

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1918. An American “Doughboy” training with a Chauchat.

French tactics called for Chauchat gunners to suppress enemy machine gun nests, that would be approached by fire on the move, and destroyed by the combined action of Chauchat automatic fire coming from the sides and VB rifle grenades fired from the front, within less than 200 yards. During and after WWI the French supplied Chauchats to their allies Belgium, Tsarist Russia, Italy, Greece, Romania, Serbia, Finland and Poland. During WWI the Germans issued some captured guns to their assault troops (Sturmtruppen) numbers of which were converted to fire their standard Patrone 7,9mm S.

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American soldiers practicing “Marching Fire” with Chauchats. Note the loader following each gunner.

Lacking machine guns, when the U.S. entered the conflict, they purchased large numbers of Chauchats…much to the disgust of the American Doughboys. While the French Poilu generally had a good opinion of the Chauchat, the Americans, who dubbed it the “sho-sho” — hated it. They complained about it because it was awkward to carry compared to their Springfield M1903 bolt action rifle. The bigger issue is that the original Chauchats issued to the Americans weren’t fresh from the factory but were weapons that had been used hard for a year or two in the hell that was the trenches of the Western Front and were badly worn.

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WWII German soldiers training with captured Chauchats.

In addition, the Americans weren’t issued cleaning kits for the weapons and few of them were given limited or no formal training in its maintenance.  The Americans were issued 5,988 8mm Chauchats. Later, a further 19,241 Model 1918 Chauchats chambered in the US .30-06 service cartridge were issued. It was the M1918 that contributed much to the Chachat’s poor reputation. The American Chauchats suffered from a raft of issues with failures to extract being one of the first problems discovered.

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WWII German soldiers training with captured Chauchats.

The guns were poorly made with the chambers not properly sized for the American round. It has also been suggested that the .30-06, which was more powerful than French 8mm (although only marginally), strained the guns’ receivers compounding problems. American troops quickly came to distrust the M1918 more than the original and were known to discard malfunctioning guns.

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An American issue M1918 Chauchat. Note the curved, sixteen-round magazine. (Rock Island Auction Co.)

To sum up, the American soldiers were provided a foreign-made weapon that had been used and likely even abused and had little training with it. There were no English-language manuals and the French instructors seemed indifferent at best about helping their new Allies.5 By the end of WWI, in excess of 268,000 Chauchats had been produced, making it the most produced automatic weapon of the war. During WWII, some Chauchats were issued to French reserve units, the Belgian, Polish, Greek and Yugoslavian armies while some captured guns were used by German Waffen SS units.


If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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