Introduced during the First World War the French-made “Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG” (“Machine Rifle Model 1915 CSRG”) – more commonly known as the Chauchat, named after Colonel Louis Chauchat, the main contributor to its design – has earned the reputation as being among the worst machine guns ever made.
The truth is that this reputation is likely based on the assessment of American soldiers who used the weapon in the later stages of the war. Those were either weapons, chambered in the 8mm Lebel round, and which had seen significant use with the French, or were newly produced models chambered in the .30-06 cartridge. The latter reportedly performed abysmally, and this is likely due to the fact that the round was simply too “hot” and this caused extraction problems.
One other factor that may have contributed to the bad reputation is that in September 1918, the American Expeditionary Force began to replace the Chauchat with the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle, a weapon that is vastly superior in many ways.
However, other combatant nations that used the Chauchat – including Belgium and Poland – reportedly found the weapon to be reliable and effective, provided it was cleaned and maintained, and it remained in use with the Polish cavalry until the 1930s!
The Magazine Issues
The Chauchat was actually the most widely manufactured automatic weapon of the First World War with more than 262,000 being produced. It saw use in the subsequent Russian Civil War, Greco-Turkish War, Polish-Soviet War, and the Spanish Civil War. It saw limited use in the Second World War and even the 1948 Arab-Israeli War – so for a gun deemed so awful it certainly found those willing to utilize it.
Despite the fact that it did need to be kept clean – a true point about most modern firearms – is that it did arguably have what could be considered a major design flaw, namely its curved 20-round magazine.
The Chauchat was originally developed in 1908. Due to the French Army being in a period of reforms, the weapon was never officially adopted until 1915 when the horrific conditions of trench warfare necessitated that a new weapon be introduced. The Chauchat seemed to be the answer that the French military needed.
For its time it could be argued that it was quite innovative – featuring a pistol grip, forward grip, in-line stock, the detachable magazine, and most notably, selective fire capability. It had features that are common in today’s modern military assault rifles. It also weighed just 20 pounds, so it was far lighter than the tripod-mounted machine guns of the era. Thus, it could be used in attacks as well as a defensive weapon. For the record, until the Chauchat, there were really no offensive fully automatic weapons employed on the battlefield. Most soldiers carried bolt action rifles.
However, the weapon’s magazine was both truly innovative and beyond any doubt problematic.
It allowed for quick reloading of the weapon and to accommodate the 8mm Lebel round featured a “half-moon” design. The shape put stress on the spring and the follower could get easily jammed when a full 20 rounds were loaded into the magazine. As a result doctrine called for just 18 or 19 rounds to be loaded instead, with fewer rounds solving the problem and aiding the feeding.
By reducing the number of rounds the soldier carrying had to reload more often and this defeated much of the advantage the automatic fire offered! Additionally, magazines that were even slightly dented or deformed wouldn’t perform well, and because these were made of light metals it was all too easy for these to take damage.
Worst of all, the magazine also featured an opening on the right side to allow the operator to know how many rounds were still available. There are reports that enemy soldiers could spot this, but that is likely hyperbole. The bigger issue with the opening was that it allowed mud, dirt and other particles to enter the magazine. This was compounded by the fact that operators would oil up the inside of the magazines to facilitate the movement of the 8mm rounds. This only resulted in a greater risk of stoppages. Moreover, as with most magazines, keeping them loaded for extended periods only weakened the springs.
It should also be addressed that mud and dirt were also an issue with the various belt-fed weapons including, the British Vickers and German MG08 machine guns. One factor to consider is that again, those weapons were utilized in a stationary and defensive role, compared to the Chauchat’s offensive role. Operators had to advance through the trenches, across the mud-soaked “no-man’s-land” and stay low to the ground. All of this could easily damage and/or allow dirt to enter the magazine.
In the end, the Chauchat was not a perfect design by any means. France’s wartime economy meant that sub-standard materials – including a mix of steel and aluminum – were used in the machine gun’s construction. It was a firearm that had many innovative features but also had performance issues. The biggest cause of these, however, was the magazine — something that could have been resolved had the gun been allowed to be refined.
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