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Book Reviews: V22N8

By Dean Roxby

The French Needle-Ignition Rifle
Well Researched and Illustrated Book Lacking Some Details

The French Chassepot (pronounced “Shawss-poe”) rifle is an interesting step in the evolution of small arms development. It is a needle-fire system, similar to the earlier German Dreyse needle-fire, but with several improvements.

Both the Dreyse and the Chassepot systems were from the transitional period when armies were moving away from using muzzle-loaders and going to breech-loading arms. Both used a one-piece, self-contained cartridge made from paper and contained an internal primer cap. Rather than a modern day firing pin to ignite the primer, these systems used a long, thin, sharpened needle-like pin to pierce into the round to reach the primer, hence the name.

In 1870, the two needle-fire rifles, Dreyse and Chassepot, faced off in battle during the Franco-Prussian war. The general consensus was that the French rifle was superior to the German/Prussian design, but superior battle tactics and longer range artillery helped the Prussian army to overwhelm French forces.

The Chassepot rifle was better in several ways. As both breech-loaders used paper cartridges, not brass cases, sealing the breech against gas leakage was a serious issue. The Chassepot used a rubber gasket in the bolt to deform under pressure to effectively seal the breech. This prevented the shooter from getting a face full of hot gasses. The needle was also less prone to breakage and easier to replace if it did break. Finally, the Chassepot had far better ballistics.

The A-R-West brothers (Alston-Roberts-West) are well known as antique arms collectors in Great Britain and beyond. They are also active on gun forums such as GunBoards.com. This book features many of their own firearms, as well as samples from other collections.

Beginning with a brief look at several other trials of rifles tested by France during the mid- to late 1850s, as well as earlier versions of the Chassepot system, the book then studies the 1866 model, the version adopted for military service. The role the rifle played in the Franco-Prussian war is also examined.

This book does a fine job...

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V22N8 (October 2018)
and was posted online on August 24, 2018

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