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French Arms Industry - Early History

The French gun-makers of St. Etienne claim for their town that it is the oldest center of the fire-arms industry. They do not appear to have made more than the barrels of the finest sporting arms, and these even were sometimes made in Paris. The production of fire-arms by the artists of Paris reached its zenith about the middle of the seventeenth century.

The means of converting a military firearm into a pike, and so enable it to be used as either an offensive or defensive weapon, originated first in France. Some peasants of the Basque provinces, whilst on an expedition against a company of bandits, having used all their ammunition, were driven to the desperate necessity of inserting their long knives in the mouths of their arquebuses, by which means they routed their adversaries. This event became well known, and led to the construction, in 1641, of the bayonnette at Bayonne, a village in the south of France, from which place it took its name. In 1649 the pike was replaced by a long narrow blade fixed to a short wooden handle, which was inserted in the muzzle of the musket, but the advantage gained was inconsiderable, owing to the firearm being rendered useless for the time; the wooden handle also, not giving sufficient solidity to the blade, was shortly afterwards dispensed with, and the iron itself made to screw into the muzzle of the gun. It would appear that the socket bayonet was of French origin. It is known that Vauban, the famous general of Louis XIV., caused all the French foot-soldiers to be supplied with socket bayonets, and the pike became an obsolete weapon in France.

The idea of making guns on the interchangeable system by the aid of machinery appears to have originated with the French during the latter part of the eighteenth century. The process of stamping instead of forging the various parts of the gun was the only successful result, and the honour of working out the system to a successful issue is due to the Americans. About 1797, Eli Whitney, the owner of cotton mills in some of the Southern States, moved northwards, and was induced to try his fortunes as a gunsmith. A contract for 10,000 arms was secured for him; these he manufactured almost entirely from stampings

The making of military arms by machinery, however, had its drawbacks. It impaired the value of skilled labor, for by the division of labour and the subdivision of the various branches the workman became a mere machine, going through the monotonous routine without interest or endeavour to render more perfect the article he assists in shaping, although, doubtless, the work itself is better done by means of such subdivision.

At St. Etienne, in France, the testing of fire-arms has been carried on for many years, probably since the date of the introduction of the industry in the fifteenth century, but it has never been compulsory in France. In London, Birmingham, and Liege, before compulsory tests were required to be made, most gun-makers privately proved guns within their own factories, or at a trade proof-house, a system still in vogue in Austria, France, and probably in America.

The value of the breech-loading principle, as applied to the infantry rifle, was proved in the Prussian Wars of 1864 and 1866, in the American Civil War, and unmistakably corroborated by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In France the Tabatiere soon gave place to the Chassepot. From the American Civil War until the adoption of the Lebel repeating rifle by France in 1888, the breech-loading systems in use were not modified so much because of the faults or qualities they possessed, but the changes were wrought by improvements in the barrel and ammunition.

Previous to the Franco-German war of 1870, it was the custom in France to confide all matters relating to cannon to the artillery corps of the army and navy; aid from private sources was neither sought nor offered ; much secrecy was observed in all things relating to the business of ordnance ; admission to the Government foundries was obtained with difficulty, and the experimental ground at Gavre, with rare exceptions, was closed to all applicants. For army purposes, the gun factories at Bourges, Puteaux, and Tarbes supplied all demands, while for the use of the navy the foundries of Ruelle and of Nevers, and the gun factories attached to them, provided the entire armaments.

With the advent of the war came the proof that the system heretofore adopted, could not work to the best advantage of the country ; and, with the return of peace and the necessity of re-armament, came a revolution of ideas which has led the Government to modify its practice. It was recognized that the Government must have under its control some establishments purely governmental; but that, in order to provide for all contingencies as well as to prevent official ideas from running too much in a groove, it was desirable to encourage private industries, so that a spirit of emulation might be excited by competition and a channel afforded through which new ideas and inventions might reach the national works. The adoption of this course was made the more imperative in consequence of the new departure in gunmetal, and this opened the way to the encouragement of the steel industries of the country. The plan thus decided on has been consistently carried out. The Government gave assurances to the private companies, which induced them to expend the funds necessary to erect new and suitable tools, both for the casting of the metal and the fabrication of the guns.

By 1900 the troops were armed with the 8 millimeter, models 1886 and 1893, rifles and carbines. At the normal firing school of the fortified camp of Chalons-sur-Marne experiments were made in the summer of 1902 for the purpose of improving the firearms of the infantry. The object was to do away with the exceedingly sensitive repeating mechanism and to substitute for it a loader which, without impairing the rapidity of fire, would preclude any possibility of the weapons being rendered unserviceable. In the spring of 1902 experiments were made with the Mondragon automatic rifle and carbine on the firing grounds of Hotchkiss & Co., at St. Denis and gave complete satisfaction and proved the superiority of the weapon over all others tested theretofore. However much opinions may differ regarding the military utility of automatic rifles, there was certainly a manifest tendency toward increasing the rapidity of fire of small arms to correspond with the improvements that had been made in rapid-fire cannon. The French field batteries had been armed with the new 75 mm. rapid-fire material since 1897. This was a long recoil field gun with protective shields and was manufactured with great secrecy in the government work shops at Brouges.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:57:55 ZULU