Articles

Take a look at these historic French military weapons

Last year marked the fifth consecutive year I've visited France, but this time, the mood was markedly different. Terrorist attacks had changed both the topics and the nature of civil discourse, and there was a dramatic increase in physical security around all public events. It was noticeable as soon as I stepped off the plane.


In years past, you'd see pairs of uniformed soldiers of various noncombat arms strolling around Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris looking bored, checking out the young women, and trying to feign interest in a largely symbolic duty. In contrast, last summer I saw squads of jocked-up infantry veterans deployed to even second-string airports, where they were actually patrolling and even — horror of horrors — had magazines in their weapons.

Seventeenth century armor from both France and Germany is on display. Much of the museum's Medieval collection is in the open, outside of glass cases. (All photos by Kenda Lenseigne, Recoil Magazine)

The rifle they carried was the FAMAS, the iconic "Bugle" and the last service weapon to be produced in a nation that at one time led the world in firearms innovation. In 2016, France was in the process of selecting a replacement, which would come from either Belgium — on whose soil hundreds of thousands of French servicemen died — or from Germany, whose conscripts faced them across artillery-scarred mud and from behind the sights of K98 Mausers. France wound up choosing the HK version of America's service rifle. But hey, we're all Europeans now.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to visit the city in which France produced the millions of rifles, bayonets, machine guns, and pistols needed to equip their armed forces, who just 100 years ago were locked in a bloody, existential battle for their nation's survival. The factory where thousands of workers toiled in a desperate race to put weapons in the hands of those who were battling the Teutonic hordes had been shuttered and bulldozed in the 2000s, but their remarkable product line had been placed behind glass for visitors to gawk at.

French cuisine is rightly famous worldwide. A couple of meat tenderizers illustrate why.

Saint-Étienne was, during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, one of the most important manufacturing centers in Europe, producing textiles, machine tools, bicycles, and farm equipment, but its history as an arms maker dates to the Middle Ages. Swords and armor were manufactured for French kings and emperors to equip their armies, and as edged weapons transitioned to powder, the musket of 1777 became the most prolific firearm ever produced until the advent of WWI.

Carbide-powered sporting rifle from the 19th century.

Exquisitely engraved sporting rifle from the golden age of French gunsmithing.

Gallic Buntline Special. Revolving carbines were developed around the same time on both sides of the Atlantic.

Over 7 million examples were made (though not all by Saint-Étienne), and troops so equipped faced off against those armed with the Brown Bess in Europe and Asia. French firearms featured prominently in the early days of American history too. Although the famed Charleville musket of the Revolutionary War was named after the eponymous state arsenal in the Ardennes, many were produced in Saint-Étienne and made their way across the Atlantic. Later, in the Civil War, France supplied cannons, Minie rifles, pistols, submarines, and ironclads to both sides.

Pair of presentation pistols from the workshop of maître Nicholas Boutet.

Early breech-loading percussion pistol.

While the history of French firearms development in Saint-Étienne could easily fill its own building, the collection shares space with other notable local trades and is housed almost entirely on the upper floor of the Musee d'Science et Industrie. The building itself is reached by crossing a small town square that's quintessentially French; while we were there, the weekly market was well underway and townsfolk were stocking up on locally grown produce, meat, and cheese.

Climbing a few limestone steps to the entrance, the ballistic pilgrim enters the usual foyer-slash-gift-shop, ponies up their entrance fee, and then climbs the stairs past displays of glass and lace.

Chamelot-Delvigne, 1887.

An 1873 Chamelot-Delvigne cutaway next to its replacement, the Model of 1887.

Examples of medieval armor, swords, and halberds greet the museum's visitors as they enter the third floor space of the Museum of Science and Industry. Inside, displays cover both combat and jousting, with examples of both highly decorated plate armor and mail in evidence, along with the lances and shields every well-equipped nobleman needed in order to win the heart of a fair maiden.

The period where armor was being supplanted due to the ability of commoners to punch big frickin' holes in it with their comparatively cheap matchlocks overlaps the birth of several of the most notable area workshops. Locks from this time are displayed in wall-mounted cases and some are quite stunning in both design and execution. The earliest service firearms on display are a pair of wheel-lock cavalry pistols dating from 1550, while a suit of Maximilian armor dates all the way back to 1415.

Although Alexandre Dumas' characters were fictitious, his father was an honest-to-God general in the French revolutionary wars, and there really were two companies of Musketeers who served as the king's bodyguard. The only remaining example of a Musketeer pistol is on display in the MSI, along with corresponding Mousquetons, or cavalry carbines.

Fusil d'Assaut de la Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Étienne.

At around the same time, an enterprising gunsmith by the name of Nicholas Boutet was hiring the best artisans he could find to produce what could be fairly considered some of the finest guns the world has ever seen. As arquebusier, or gunsmith to the court of Louis XVI, he was given free reign to create extraordinary works of art, such as the pair of cased pistols shown here.

Eighty years of French service rifles: MAS-36, MAS-49/56, and FAMAS.

As the industrial age progressed, cartridge arms replaced flintlocks in a process familiar to amateur historians on both sides of the pond. Production became both codified and centralized, with Saint-Étienne's place as a strategic asset to the French Empire cemented in place with every one of the bricks laid to enclose the new factory. Revolvers from the 1870s are showcased and demonstrate just how advanced their designs were in comparison to contemporaries on the world stage.

While we were taming the west with Colt single-actions, the French were fielding their first sophisticated D/A revolver, which for a military pistol was exquisitely made (in the officer's variant anyway — rank has its privileges). The 11mm 1873 Chamelot-Delvigne was made until 1886 and continued in service until well into the Second World War. Civilian versions were widely distributed, with Belgian copies hitting the market soon after the military adopted the pistol; we encountered examples of both at a local flea market, where, due to being over 100 years old with no currently manufactured ammunition, they're freely traded.

Case showing the progressive development of the French service revolver. They were replaced in general service in 1935 by the forerunner to the SIG P210.

The MSI has numerous, well-preserved samples of drop-dead gorgeous French sporting arms from the golden age of gun making, but it's the oddballs and one-offs that are particularly eye-catching. Such as the carbide-powered rifles and the high-powered airguns, along with early semi-auto shotguns that show a level of development that surpass their American counterparts. This is, after all, the country that was the first to field a self-loading service rifle, over 20 years before the Garand stepped onto the stage.

As visitors make their way past case after case of well-preserved and displayed products of the gunmakers' craft, they eventually fetch up at the usual Euro-bullshit display of modern art, the message being, of course, that guns are bad m'kay? It's ironic then that the last exhibit before having to suffer the artists' smug self-righteousness is of the final products of the Saint-Étienne factory, which is, of course, where our story started. We can only hope that the gamble of neglecting and then destroying the remnants of their domestic arms industry doesn't come back to bite them. History's a bitch, ain't it?

Mattis may see himself as the president's 'babysitter'

Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly views himself as President Donald Trump's "babysitter," and his efforts to restrain the bombastic leader apparently created tensions with former White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

McMaster sought to provide Trump with an array of military options against North Korea, but the defense secretary allegedly refused to put all the options on the table in front of Trump, McMaster aides told The New Yorker. Meanwhile, the president reportedly did not pick up on Mattis's alleged attempts at stonewalling, and McMaster declined to expose his colleague.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
Humor

6 ways to make the most of your urinalysis

One of the most uncomfortable things for everyone involved is a urinalysis. Unfortunately, it's an integral part of how the military tracks the health and welfare of its troops and ensures that no illicit substances damage unit integrity.

Take it from us, the only way to make peeing in a cup while your NCO watches less uncomfortable for you is to actively make them more uncomfortable. Now, this shouldn't be too hard because nobody wants to be there in the first place, but we've got some pro-tips for you.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump's rhetoric on Kim Jong Un does a complete 180

President Donald Trump on April 24, 2018, again praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, saying Kim was "very honorable" and "very open" ahead of a planned meeting between the two leaders that could come as soon as May 2018.

"Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we're seeing," Trump told reporters amid a White House visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, adding that the North Koreans wanted such a meeting "as soon as possible."

Keep reading... Show less

Syria claims it captured a US missile from the latest strike

Russian state media said on April 25, 2018, that Syria had "captured" a US Tomahawk cruise missile from the strike on suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites on April 14, 2018 — and they will study it to advance their own missiles.

The Russian claim comes after Syria said it knocked down 71 out of 105 US, UK, and French missiles fired in the strike — a claim that no solid evidence has backed up yet.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

The Coast Guard could have the Navy's new frigates

For a long time, the Coast Guard has used Navy hand-me-downs. After World War II, many old Navy ships were pressed into Coast Guard service when they were no longer needed for defeating the Axis. Even today, the Coast Guard operates a U.S. Navy castoff in USCGC Alex Haley, a former Navy salvage tug. But now, the tides have turned, and the Coast Guard may actually be bailing the Navy out.

Keep reading... Show less
GEAR & TECH

The Marines want man-portable kamikaze drones

As the Marine Corps continues its quest to get more capability from long-range precision fires, it's asking industry for proposals on a portable system that can fire high-tech attack and reconnaissance drones on the go.

The service released a request for proposals April 23, 2018, describing a futuristic system unlike any of its existing precision-fires programs.

Keep reading... Show less
Humor

These old Navy training videos on how to flirt are hilariously bad

The National Archives hosts countless educational films that have come from the military throughout the ages. If you want to learn about declassified nuclear testing, they've got it. If you want to learn how to properly resist communist propaganda, they've got that, too. If you want to learn the 1960's way of wooing women, you better believe the U.S. Military has wasted money on making those videos, too.

Keep reading... Show less