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French M1853/67 Infantry rifles “à Tabatière”
(Fusil d’Infanterie Mle1867)
French M1853/67 Infantry rifles “à Tabatière” (Fusil d’Infanterie Mle1867)
French M1853/67 Infantry rifles “à Tabatière” (Fusil d’Infanterie Mle1867)
THE PRESSING NEED FOR A MODERN RIFLE
The idea of "military observers," delegates from foreign militaries who are invited to observe the actions of the host militaries, is nothing new to the 21st century. During the great industrialization of warfare during the 19th century, many military observers, as well as newspaper correspondents, were on hand to witness most of the clashes of arms on the European continent. The latest military developments were followed as closely by the general public then as they are now, and the introduction of each new military rifle generated as much curiosity and interest in the popular press as the adoption of a new fighter jet does today. So both Europe's military planners as well as well-read Europeans of the day were all well aware of the developments during the American Civil War, the decisive Prussian campaigns against the Danes in 1864, and, without a doubt, those against Austria in 1866. The apparent ease with which the Prussians, armed with breech loading rifled muskets (principally the Dreyse M1841 and the improved M1849 and M1862), were able to crush the Danes and overwhelm the Austrians set in something of a panic in the French High Command, shaking it out of its torpor regarding the state of its long arms. The international press unanimously attributed the Prussian victories to its then revolutionary Dreyse. While deeper analysis reveals that the Prussian victory had as much to do with superior organization, logistics and morale as to the efficacy of the soldiers’ rifle system, this is more difficult to assess. A new rifle is an easier quick fix. In addition to the evidence provided by the Prussians, the American Civil War had further established the efficacy of cartridge breechloaders, and a new arms race across Europe was set in motion.
At this time, the British were in the process of adopting the Snider system to convert their existing store of percussion muzzle-loading rifles (the unquestionably effective Pattern 1853). These were becoming the M1853/66 Sniders. Other countries were undertaking similar programs. After their humbling loss the Danes were converting their percussion cap loaders to the Danish Snider while awaiting deliveries and production of the Remington, the Austrians were converting their Lorenz muskets to breech loaders using the Wanzl system, the Americans were converting Springfield M1863s to the Allin "Trapdoor" breechloading system, the Dutch were adopting Sniders, the Spanish converting to Berdans. The Belgians (Terssen and Albini), Swiss (Millbank-Amsler) and even the Russians (Krnka and Baranov) were converting their muzzleloaders while in the search for, or awaiting delivery of, new dedicated breechloaders.
In France, the effects of the stunning Prussian victories of 1864 and 1866 galvanized the French military to press for adoption as France's front line infantry long arm, the new reduced caliber (11mm) Fusil d'Infanterie Modéle 1866, which quickly became dubbed the “Chassepôt.” The Chassepôt was indeed, except for the obsolescence of its delicate needle-fire linen cartridge, a generally thoughtfully designed and effective rifle. While the adoption of a needle gun at a time when everyone else was adopting a metallic cartridge rifle might be second-guessed, the Chassepôt was unquestionably superior to the German's Dreyse by virtually every metric. Additionally, France did not want to adopt someone else's design (with associated royalties due) as the Scandinavians were doing, and their metallic cartridge industry was non-existent. Yet France still felt that she needed a modern breechloader now. On the other hand, the Chassepôt is also a testament to the sclerosis of aged military high-commands in their persistence in fighting the last war; in this case by adopting a rifle designed only to be superior to that of the Prussians, who were then fielding Niklaus Dreyse's 30 year old design!
Thus, having a suitable home-grown design of demonstrably better performance than their recognized arch-rival, the nation underwent a rearmament program. But, to the French, the Chassepôt was an entirely new, built-from-scratch design that required tooling as well as production and lead-times as well as inevitable manufacturing delays strained the various French Imperial arsenals producing the Chassepôt (St. Étienne, Châtellerault, and Tulle).
A further complication became evident: With the Imperial armories fully committed to the production of Chassepôts for the infantry, there was no way for the French government to directly arm the newly organized Garde National Mobile, envisioned as a sort of local army reserve akin to American Minutemen, although neither national, nor effectively mobile. A means had to be found to equip these men with a weapon which was at least the equal of the overly-dreaded Dreyse.
With the inability of the Empire's arsenals to fill the need for breechloaders quickly enough, two stop-gap measures were pursued until the French Army could be fully rearmed with Chassepots: Firstly, the manufacture of Chassepots was sub-contracted out to no fewer than nine (9) non-French arsenals across Europe concurrently with French production. Secondly, like most of the other European powers, the Ministry of War scrambled for interim arms that could at least meet the Dreyse on its own terms. It was imperative that not only the front line troops be rearmed as quickly as possible, but that the reserve and support troops be armed with a rifle which could balance the Dreyse.
THE ADOPTION AND CONVERSION OF THE TABATIERES
Watching especially the developments and adoption of the British Snider conversion of their P53 Enfields, the French embarked on a similar transformation of their muzzle-loading arms, and these became the Tabatière series of breechloading transition rifles.
The Imperial French military authorized the conversion of only the newest, most recently built French muzzle-loading rifles into the new breechloader. The Mle1853-54 rifles, the Mle1853-54 Dragoon rifles (slightly shorter but otherwise about identical to the rifled musket, also sometimes referred to at the Voltigeur rifle), and the Mle1859 Carabines de Chasseurs were all converted to a distinctive, swinging block breechloading design essentially borrowed from the British Snider, apparently without ever paying royalties (see sidebar regarding Mr. Schneider). The M1857, a M1853 with a steel barrel, was also converted but is not generally viewed as a distinct variant. Note that these conversions were undertaken after the adoption of the M1866 Chassepôt and after seeing the success of the Snider, as well as being mindful of the Prussian campaigns against the Danes in 1864 and Austria in 1866.
As indicated above, Imperial armories were fully committed to producing the Mle1866 Chassepôts for the French front-line troops and could not undertake the conversion of earlier arms. Therefore all conversions to the Tabatière were undertaken by “the trade,” that is, a variety of smaller commercial gun-making firms across France, which partially accounts for many minor variations among Tabatières. Nevertheless, all Tabatieres converted during the Imperial administration (up until the fall of 1870) were manufactured with steel actions and were inspected and accepted by French military authorities.
It is often surmised that because of its large, obsolescent caliber and relatively weak action, the Tabatière was “relegated” to rear echelon troops. Rather, it was adopted principally in order to arm support and rear echelon troops as well as what was to have been the Garde National Mobile. By and large, the Tabatières of the pre-war ear were well-made arms, converted by excellent French gunsmiths. They were strong and functional, and fully equal to the Dreyse and fully met their intended function.
Tabatières proved to be excellent, reliable rifles but were generally issued to militia and irregulars. Rarely are such troops trained to the extent of the regular army, and some might perhaps be too eager to blame their arms for any military shortcomings. Being a conversion of a clearly outdated musket, and yet put into service after the Chassepôts, the morale of those French troops armed with what they considered inferior weapons was a significant factor in French war reports (notwithstanding that the Tabatière’s performance was every bit as good or better than that of the Dreyse with which the Germans were armed). It suffered in comparison to the Chassepôt, and even more so in comparison to the metallic cartridge arms imported by France during the course of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). The Tabatière was thus undeservedly unpopular with French troops. Nevertheless, over 350,000 M1867 Tabatières were equipping second line troops by the beginning of hostilities in 1870 (the Mle1866 Chassepôt rifles being reserved for use by front line units).
Between 1867 and 1870, the Tabatières were produced under the direct auspices of the French Imperial government including French military inspectors. Also during this time, France had managed to fully re-arm the front line troops of its armies with Chassepôts, of which some1.03 million were ready at the outset of the war. However, during the early days of the Franco-Prussian conflict, the French managed to lose something like 350,000 men captured and nearly all of their Chassepôt rifles, which had been pre-positioned near the French-Prussian borders. Three days after Emperor Napoleon III's surrender at the disastrous Battle of Sedan in early September 1870, the Imperial government was overthrown and the French Third Republic was organized.
The overwhelming losses leading up to and including the Battle of Sedan meant that France was in desperate need of re-arming. French military agents scoured Europe and America in search of arms which could be delivered to France quickly. Massive amounts of recently obsolete US Civil War arms as well as the most modern metallic cartridge arms were dumped on the desperate French at relatively inflated prices (see Chapter __, American Arms of the Franco-Prussian War). At home, the functioning French armories (now “National” armories rather than “Imperial” armories (see Chapter __ The Gras) struggled to continue to produce Chassepot rifles. All these efforts were still not enough.
Across of what remained of unoccupied France, many of the same smaller gunsmiths which had been converting earlier first-class muzzleloaders to M1867s now continued to manufacturing conversions, but drawing upon older and more obsolete rifles. During the war, the French even converted the venerable M1842s and even their M1822T.bis muzzleloading rifled muskets to Tabatière cartridge breech loaders. Additionally, as bronze was easier to cast, machine and to work than iron or steel, a number of Tabatières were manufactured from the bronze of church bells, now re-purposed to rifles. It helped that the large, black-powder Tabatière cartridge operated at relatively low chamber pressures.
But the Tabatière never overcame the stigma of “inferiority” and was withdrawn from service altogether by the mid-1870's and put into store. By the mid-late 1880s France had scrapped or sold off the Tabatières, the great bulk of which converted to cheap shotguns and exported to the United States. Quite a few of these survive as the "Zulu shotguns" often seen as decorators at gun shows. (See the sidebar “The Zulu Shotgun.”)
Surviving Tabatière rifles are relatively scarce, with the more accurate and handy M1859/67 being the most common, and the bronze-action Tabatière rifles apparently being rather scarce.
Like the British Snider, of which the Mle1867 is a modified copy, the Tabatière operates by lifting and swinging the breechblock to the right using the integral thumb lever, and drawing the breechblock to the rear in order to extract the spent cartridge case. Because the receiver and breechblock is shorter than the Snider’s, and the 18mm Tabatière cartridge is fatter than the .577 Snider cartridge, the rear of the receiver is deeply cut out to allow the cartridge to be more easily thumb-pressed into the chamber. The breech is closed by flipping the breechblock back to the left and it locks in place with one of two varieties of simple detent. The half-cock is only just barely back far enough to lift the hammer off the end of the transverse firing pin. The breechblock will not open with the hammer at half-cock, meaning the hammer has to be brought back to full-cock in order to unload the rifle.
All of the varieties of Tabatière operate the same way with only minor variations in receiver and breechblock details.
The Tabatière is a very large caliber conversion arm (17.8-18.4mm depending on version) using a system similar to, but distinct from, the Snider conversion of the Enfield muskets (See Chapter Sniders). The area behind the breechblock is deeply scooped out to allow for clearance of the large cartridge. The overall rifle itself is large for this era and distinctly impresses with its muzzleloading heritage. The buttstock tends to be thick and the lower trigger guard tang is long
Except for the M1822/67 version, the locks of all Tabatière’s are back‑action. The M1822/67 is fitted with a conventional forward action lock. The hammer is distinctly French, with a large perpendicular thumb piece, making it all but impossible to miss a Tabatière, notwithstanding any other features. Except for the Carabine de Chasseur, the nosecap on all varieties is elaborate, French, and very similar to the contemporary Belgian Terssens and Albini‑Braendlins or the earlier Swiss Amslers-Millbanks all of which also derive from earlier French.
Most unfortunately, French muzzleloaders of the day were dated and additionally marked on the barrel tang of the rifle, parts that were discarded upon conversion, leaving only lock, stock and barrel markings remaining.
M1853/67 Infantry rifle (fusil d’infanterie Mle1867): This is the principal converted arm and constituted the bulk of Tabatière conversions. The M1853/67 remains a full-length rifled musket with two spring-retained barrel bands and an elaborate, spring-retained nosecap. The front sight is positioned on the barrel, between the rings of the nosecap and a small bayonet stud lies under the barrel about 25mm (1 in) back from the muzzle. Sling swivels are positioned beneath the middle band and directly ahead of the trigger guard but are mounted separately from the trigger guard. Like all Tabatière conversions, the trigger guard tang is fitted with a pair of finger ridges. The rear sight is an “L” shaped leaf with v-notch in the short leg and an opening in the long leg marked “400” (meters) and v-notch at the top of the long leg marked 600 (meters). The previous ramrod is now a flat-topped tulip-end cleaning rod. The original back-action lock is retained with its original single screw escutcheon mounted opposite on the left side of the stock wrist. The lock is marked with the Imperial armory of original manufacture on the outside, although if contract-made it might not be marked.
Mle1822Tbis Infantry rifle (fusil d’infanterie Mle1822T.bis/1867): As stocks of M1853 muzzleloaders were depleted the French went further back in inventory stores for rifles to convert. The M1822Tbis and its close cousins had for decades been the standard of the French Army and many remained in reserve. These full-length rifled muskets are most immediately distinguished by their conventional forward-action locks which have a rounded, almost pointed tail retained by a two-pin wood screw. The locks will be marked by the armory of manufacture as well. In all other significant aspects this rifle is substantially identical to the M1853/67 except that it is likely to retain its pre-conversion ramrod.
The Variety of Tabatière Actions - Type 1, Type 2 & Type 3
While some minor variations among the Tabatières are to be found, there also evolved two distinct and readily apparent action designs over their production run having to do with the breech block latching mechanism.
Type 1: The Type 1 Tabatière is initially distinguished by its thick, squared-off thumb lever. Its firing pin is retained by a screw located in the top of the breechblock, in the raised ridge portion of the block through which the firing pin functions. This type’s breechblock is retained closed by a simple detent in the rear upper corner of the breech block into which fits a corresponding spring loaded ball from the upper left front face of the receiver rear. This is a system which closely parallels the British Snider Marks I and II. It’s problem for the French counterpart is that the Tabatière’s block is heavier than that of the British rifle, and the block has an even greater tendency to flip open inadvertently. This tendency was somewhat ameliorated by the design of the Type 2 receiver.
Photos Credit: Gazette des armes 364
Type 2: The Type 2 breechblock is actuated via a half-round thumb lever, smoother and less “clunky” looking than that of the Type 1. This breechblock is retained closed by a thin, v-shaped metal strip of spring steel with an “o” at its apex through which a retaining screw passes. This strip is fitted into a corresponding slot machined into the back of the breechblock. When the breechblock is closed, this strip engages a slot cut into the back face of the receiver snapping the block in place. Because the back of the Tabatiere receiver is cut so low, the head of the newly added screw easily clears the receiver back. It will be noticed that some screws have round heads, while others have cylindrical heads. Both seem to be common. An added advantage of the Type 2 latching mechanism is that the other arm of the “V” strip now serves as a firing pin retainer, obviating the need for a separate retaining screw on the top of the breechblock through which the firing pin passes.
Center and Right Photos Credit: Gazette des armes 364
Type 3: The Type 3 has to date only been observed in a post-Imperial, war exigency, bronze receiver Zulu shotgun. In this type, a spring-loaded, flat metal bar is affixed longitudinally through the left side of the breechblock forming a lever with a tab which latches on the left inside of the rear receiver, rather than along the front face of the receiver back. The steel bar substitutes for a dedicated thumb lever, and it is retained via a screw through the top of the breechblock. The firing pin continues to be retained with the right ½ of the v-spring as seen in the Type 2. This Tabatiere is otherwise generally identical to other “Zulu” shotguns.
Firing Pin Shapes: There appear to be several variations of firing pin shapes utilized during the Tabatière production run. The “standard” version is well-sculpted, with distinctive knurling around the top. A second version consists of a head which is totally cylindrical. Other varieties observed appear to have been fabricated post-surplus sale and are not likely to have been original to the conversion.
These rifles were principally manufactured originally during the Second Empire, the reign of Napoleon III, although some, the Mle1822s for example, were made earlier than that. The underlying rifles do not appear to have been marked separately at their conversion, but will most often carry original manufacturing markings on their lock plate, for example “M.re. Imp.ale de Mutzig” (or “S.t Étienne”, Châtellerault or Tulle) being the arsenals where the rifles were originally produced, although a great many were heavily re-polished at their “Zulu” conversions (see below) and may no longer exhibit lockplate markings. Sometimes a rifle will be found that was manufactured prior to 1830 in which the lock plate is inscribed “___ de Roi” indicating the Royal Bodyguard [KD follow up-confirm]. If the rifles have not been excessively refinished at that time, the buttstock roundel cartouche will show the manufacturer, year of original manufacture, and “holy water plug,” for which French rifles are well known, with the plug often stamped “M.I.” for Manufacture Imperiale.
Photos Credit: www.armory48.com
Photos Credit: https://www.ima-usa.com/
Prior to conversion, all of the underlying rifles would have had their model (Mle1822Tbis, Mle1853, Mle1857 etc.) information engraved into their barrel tangs. At conversion, the tangs would have been discarded and these markings lost. With the barrel, stock and locks dismounted, however, you will find that most all rifles, including the “Zulu” rifles, remain profusely marked under their barrels and carry manufacture years on the backs of their lockplates.
The Tabatière’s alteration itself, the receivers and breech blocks, will sometimes be marked by the converter, for example “MR” on the back of a breechblock for the gunsmiths Mignon et Rouhart (Oberkampf St, Paris). Most Tabatiere breech blocks will also carry a serial number on the inside of the block.
SHORT RIFLES, CARBINES & SPECIAL VERSIONS
Mle1853/67 Dragoon Rifle (fusil de dragon Mle1867)
The Dragoon Tabatiere is merely the cartridge converted version of its muzzleloading predecessor; same length, same configuration (see statistics, elsewhere). In structure, it is a slightly shortened three-band infantry rifle with all of the features of the infantry rifle noted above. However, it is most readily distinguished from both the infantry rifles and the Carabines de Chasseur via its brass furniture; three brass barrel bands, brass trigger guard and a brass buttplate. All other Tabatières are mounted with iron furniture. Additionally, the rear sight is positioned slightly further back, closer to the receiver, than that of the infantry rifles and, while the sights are ranged similarly, the range markings are positioned slightly lower on the sights.
Mle1859/67 Skirmisher’s rifle (Mle1867 Carabine de Chasseurs)
"The Carabine de Chasseur" is the most distinctive of the M1867 conversions of French long arms to the "Tabatière" swinging breech block system, differing in almost every particular and making them immediately recognizable without hesitation. Firstly, they are short for a converted muzzleloader, at only 1,262mm (about 52 inches) being some 160mm (over 6 inches) shorter than the infantry rifle. They have a single spring-retained barrel band and a significantly simpler, spring-retained nosecap of only one ring. Sling swivels are mounted below the barrel band and, interestingly, sometimes at the base of the buttstock near the buttplate, and otherwise ahead of the trigger guard but mounted differently from that of the infantry and dragoon rifles.
Their rear sight leaf is especially long (__mm, __in.) and very finely graduated ,with large markings from 100 to 1,000 meters. The front of the barrel is fitted with a bayonet lug and full __mm (__in) tenon with which to mount its heavy M1842 yatagan bayonet. To accommodate the bayonet, the front end of the forestock is set back __mm (__in) from the muzzle, considerably further back than those of the other major Tabatières. Not surprisingly, the Carabine is also fitted with a distinctive, oversized, bell-shaped ramrod (now cleaning rod). And if you have the opportunity to pick one up, you will discover that they are heavy, about 4.5kg (nearly 10 pounds) as compared to 4.2 to 4.4kg (9.2-9.7 pounds) for the full-size infantry rifles and 4kg (8.8 pounds) for the dragoon rifle. Unexpectedly, and owing to its more specialized purpose, caliber of the Mle1859/67 Carabine de Chasseur is 18.2mm with a cartridge case length of 38mm, its cartridge being denominated 18x38R. The infantry and the dragoon rifle rounds, by contrast, are a 17.8x35R cartridge.
The rare Mle1867 Mousqueton de Gendarmerie
While an official issue rifle, the Mousqueton de Gendarmerie Mle1867 (National Police Carbine M1867) was manufactured in such limited numbers that little is known about it. Puaud & Mery indicate that they are aware of only 5 examples extant.
This short rifle was laid out similarly to that of the Carabine de Chasseur with nosecap and one barrel band, but with the forestock brought back several inches even further from the muzzle and with its cleaning rod apparently shortened to the point of being questionably effective. Sling swivels lay under the single barrel band and beneath the buttstock but immediately below the trigger tang rather than at the base of the buttstock as is sometimes seen on the Carabines. All known Mousqueton de Gendarmerie have Type 2 receivers in steel or “a bronze transformation with a little bit of steel.” I don’t understand this last bit but one receiver that fits this would be what I have denominated a Type 3 receiver described above.
Photos Credit: Gazette des armes 364, Gendarmerie carbine mle 1857 converted on a trial basis in England to the Cornish system
SPECIFICATIONS, STATISTICS & DATA
M1853/67 Infantry rifle:
Overall Length: 1422mm (56 in)
Weight, empty: 4.45kg (9.7 lbs)
Barrel Length: 958mm (37.7 in)
Rifling: 4-groove, concentric
Rear sight: graduated to 600M (655 yards)
Bayonet: Modèle 1822 and Modèle1822 M.47
M1853/67 Dragoon rifle:
Overall Length: 1319mm (52 in)
Weight, empty: 4kg (8.8 lbs)
Barrel Length: 849 (33.4 in)
Rifling: 4-groove, concentric [KD confirm]
Rear Sight: Rear sight, graduated to 600M (655 yards)
Bayonet: Modèle 1822 and Modèle1822 M.47
M1859/67 Carabine de Chasseur:
Overall Length: 1262 (49.7 in)
Weight, empty: 4.5kg (9.9 lbs)
Barrel Length: 795mm (31.3 in)
Rifling: 4-groove, concentric [KD confirm]
Rear Sight: The rear sight of this model is significantly different from that of the rifle and dragoon. It is more carefully graduated from 100-1,000 meters (1,095 yards), and interestingly, because of the combination of its sights and slightly more powerful cartridge, this short rifle was more accurate than the infantry or dragoon rifles at longer ranges.
Bayonet: Sabre bayonet Modèle 1842 for short rifle
Mle1867 Mousqueton de Gendarmerie:
Overall Length: 1,150mm (45.3 in)
Weight, empty: 3.400kg (7.5 lbs)
Barrel Length: 685mm (26.9 in)
Rifling: Unknown, but presumed to be 4-groove, concentric
Rear Sight: The original muzzleloading rifle’s rear sight is maintained
Bayonet: Modèle 1822 and Modèle1822 M.47
M.1847 socket bayonet for the infantry and dragoon rifles and Gendamerie carbine; the Carabine de Cchasseur Tabatière utilized the Mle1842 M.59 yatagan saber bayonet.
M.1847 Socket Bayonet
Mle1842 M.59 Yatagan Saber Bayonet
Not at all surprisingly, the Tabatière was adopted to chamber a cartridge which was eerily similar to the Boxer cartridge then being fielded by the British for use in their own Snider conversions. It consisted of a coiled brass case surrounded by paper affixed to a brass base and fitted with a modified Boxer primer.
The 17.8mm Tabatière rifle cartridge (aka 17.8x32R):
As the rifles were nominally .69 caliber and the amount of chamber space limited, the cartridge developed for this arm was necessarily fat and stubby, with a flat-nosed, 48 gram (555 grain) 17.5mm (.740) two-groove lead Minié ball projectile atop a 4.5 gram (~69 grains) charge of black musket powder. The bullet is hollow but fitted with a cardboard plug.
The cartridge case was of two wraps of thin, coiled brass foil, paper-wrapped and affixed to a separate, rimmed, drawn copper base like that of the Snider. The paper covering may be found with blue, green or brown paper. The primer, again much like the Snider, was secured in center of a cardboard washer in the case head.
The bullet developed a muzzle velocity of about _____ mps (___ fps), for a muzzle energy of about ___ (__ ft. pounds), although that dropped off rather quickly.
Bullet diameter: 18.6mm (.73 in)
Bullet weight: 36 gr
Neck diameter: 19.13 mm (.753 in)
Base diameter: 20.19 mm (.795 in)
Rim diameter: 22.89 mm (.901 in)
Case length: 35.56 mm (1.4 in)
Total length: 49.28 mm (1.94 in)
Total cartridge weight: 36gm (1.27 oz)
Photos Credit: https://old.municion.org/tabatiere/18x35.htm
Because the Tabatière was adopted by France after the introduction of the Chassepôt, and because Chassepot production was not just straining but overwhelming the state arsenals at St. Étienne, Chatellerault, Tulle and Munzig, conversion of the muzzle loaders to the Tabatière system was farmed out to commercial firms all across France.
While the production of Tabatière conversions while under military supervision, that is, before the Prussian conflict, may be found, no exact production numbers have been confirmed, nor could there be, accounting for all of the war-time exigency conversions produced for the post-Napoleonic effort. But sound estimates put the total production of all French types at in excess of 350,000.
UTILIZATION BY OTHER COUNTRIES
The Tabatière conversion system was adopted and utilized only by France, with the possible exception of Siam. See the page on the Siamese Tabatiere.
Abridged Genealogy of the Tabatiere rifles
The Tabatière rifles were all conversions of earlier percussion rifles, some of which (the Mle 1822Tbis particularly) had been converted from even earlier smooth-bore flintlock muskets. Further, while specific model years and alteration markings (see "T" and "bis" below) were usually marked on the barrel tangs, these tangs were removed when the rifles were altered to Tabatière. This makes both nomenclature and identification a bit cumbersome and not always easy to follow. Hence the following genealogy of French muskets to help along.
Modèle 1777: This model refines a series of earlier French smooth-bore, flint-lock muskets beginning with the 1717, which was the first musket to be standardized and issued to all troops. While these muskets were built at several French arsenals, they nevertheless became popularly known as "Charleville muskets" due to large numbers being fuilt at the Charleville-Mézières armory in Ardennes, France. The 1777 differed from earlier muskets by the addition of a cheek rest cut into the left side of the buttstock and the modification of the trigger guard to include two finger ridges along the trigger guard tang.
Modèle 1777 AN IX: This was an improved model 1777. Its official designation, Modèle 1777 corrigé en l'an IX, translates to "Model 1777 corrected in the year 1800" (as the year IX in the French Revolutionary Calendar of the time corresponds to the year 1800AD). The Model 1777 (including its AN IX variant) and its innumerable, widely imitated copies became the most widespread form of firearm on the European continent, the AK-47 of its era.
Modèle 1822: Still flintlock, the flashpan was adjusted (again) and selected steel parts (in lieu of iron) were first introduced.
Modèle 1822T: The "T" indicates transformé, a significant alteration. In this case, of the rifles from flintlock to percussion, which took place in the early 1840s.
In 1839 the French started converting their 1816 and 1822 muskets to percussion by putting a steel insert in the lock plate and welding a nipple bolster on the barrel. A rear sight was added to the tang, the front sights were removed from the bands and are now installed on the barrel. All furniture and lock parts are the same as the 1777 and AN IX.
In 1840 the "classic" French back-action lock was introduced and these were carried forward until the end of French muzzleloading rifles (the Mle.1853s being the last muzzle-loaders and the most common rifles converted to the Mle1867 (à Tabatière) breechloaders
Modèle 1822T.bis: When the M1822T muskets were later altered to rifled muskets the designation "Tbis" was added, "T" being "transformé" and "bis" being the French term for "second" or "again," denoting transformed a second time. The 1833T.bis was also fitted with an altered rod, with its head reshaped to reflect the new Miniè ball (actually, the first skirted, conical bullet).
Modèle 1840 and 1842: These were France's first widely-adopted percussion arms and differed only as to the attachment of the bolster mounting the percussion cap. The 1842 series was later transformed by the addition of rifling and became the Mle 1842T. (as with the Mle.1822s, the "T" indicates transformé, this time from smooth-bore to rifling).
17.48 mm to 18 mm in 1842
Modèle 1853: This model is substantially identical to earlier models but altered the bolster yet again and slightly modified the hammer. Following the French experience in the Crimean War (1853-1856) in which the French were armed principally with smooth-bore muskets, the M1853s were altered by the addition of 4-groove rifling and subsequently the nomenclature became Modèle 1853T. A shorter 1854 version was also fielded with differing ramrod and stocked with high quality walnut. At alteration, the 1853Ts were shortened to this new standard.
Modèle 1857: This was France's first purpose-built rifles rather than smooth-bore muskets, adopted to make more effective use of the earlier-developed self-expanding Minnie ball. It was fitted with a steel barrel (rather than iron) and ultimately became France's last muzzle-loading rifle. Apart from rifling and markings, the M1857 is virtually identical to the M1853.
Modèle 1853T and Modèle 1859 Carabine: This shortened rifle (by some 20 mm) was designed specifically to provide skirmisher units with a longer effective range than was offered by the arms then in use by line infantry. The rear sight was improved, the barrels were rifled and the bore diameter was reduced from 18.1mm to 17.8mm (obviously complicating logistics, but a modern analogy might be to think of these as "designated marksman" rifles, with their infantrymen being issued “sniper” ammunition).
The mysterious Mr. Schneider
There is a good deal of confusion, much of it actually reasonable, regarding the “inventor” of the action used to the French Mle 1867 rifles. There is no doubt that the action is a close copy of that which was covered by Jacob Snider's US Patent No. 69,941 (granted Oct 15, 1867, after Snider’s death). I have not yet been able to locate a copy of Snider’s British patent.
The question is “To whom should the invention be attributed?” The British government substantially resisted Snider’s claims against it during his lifetime (a not uncommon practice). Claims were also made, although it does not appear that they were ever made in court, by the unfortunately near-eponymously named François Eugène Schneider, who was a French gunsmith who submitted patents for an improved breechloader and center-fire metallic cartridge in both France (1858) and subsequently in England (1861). I have not yet been able to find patent drawings, but both Snider-Schneiders were the subject of intense society gossip regarding who should get the “credit” for the British rifle bearing Mr. Snider’s name. In one non-too-generous account of uncertain veracity but strong nationalist pride, it is averred that Mr. Schneider transferred the rights to his patent to George Daw (a well-known British gun and ammunition maker), that transaction having been procured by Jacob Snider acting as François Eugène Schneider’s agent in the deal, with Snider purportedly buying out Schneider several years later! To add addition spice to the stew, a claim to the invention of what is now commonly called the Snider action was also made by one John Poad Drake, who said that he presented his idea for a similar breechblock to Ordinance Select Committee in 1855 (London Standard, Nov 26, 1868). Never mind how such an idea would have even functioned without an effective cartridge, which had been part of Snider’s submission (and, presumably, part of Schneider’s earlier patent). Ideas for similar muzzleloading conversions had bee floating around at least since Mont Storm, and it’s no wonder that governments were loath to pay patent royalties on ideas that were not unequivocally clearly held via patent.
The French apparently felt the same way, and they seem to have had at least a prima facie case that there was a French patent in place (a second patent was granted to Schneider in France July 8, 1867 “pour un fusil se chargeant par la culasse, a double system pour cartouche centrale, cartouche a broche et autres” (for a breechloading rifle and central primer cartridge and others)) that they could point to in deflecting any claims which might be brought by Snider, although none appear to have ever been brought.
The bronze receiver and breech block, with the forward lock, are the notable distinguishing characteristics of this model of Tabatiere.
Photos of the French M1822TBis transforme a Bronze action tabatiere courtesy of Jos van Helden
Another "Carabine de Chasseur"
For the average collector, encountering an unmodified Tabatière is an unusual privilege (although rather a non-sequitur, as every Tabatière is somewhat modified, and some, like the M1822Tbis/67 underwent no fewer than three major modifications during a 45+ year military service life). However, the Tabatière still abounds in the cut-down form of the unrecognized, and certainly under-appreciated, guise of the “Zulu” shotgun.
Like any human undertaking featuring a poor result, the French, following the debacle that was the Franco-Prussian War, set about finding blame, and its firearms were convenient and offered little resistence. No matter that the Chassepôt were better rifles than any Prussian rifle of the day, or that the Tabatière was easily the equal of any then current enemy rifle. Immediately following the war France set about re-arming with a completely modern rifle, the fusil d’infanterie Modèle 1874 “Gras,” named for its lead developer, then Colonel Basil Gras, superintendent of the Armory at Saint-Étienne (see Chapter: Gras). France manufactured several hundred thousand new Gras rifles and subsequently converted an additional several hundred thousand Modèle 1866 Chassepôt rifles to the new Gras standard. In this era there was no room for an antiquated rifle like the Tabatière, which, deservedly or not, still carried a poor reputation. Thus the rifles were sold off, at little more than scrap metal prices, almost entirely to Belgian gunsmiths who found a ready outlet for them as low-cost shotguns for the wide-open American market.
The conversion was relatively simple and straightforward. Most of the Tabatière rifles were already bored to 17.8mm (.70 caliber). A 12-gauge shotgun bore is nominally 18.5 mm (0.73 in) and can range from slightly tighter (18.3 mm or .72 caliber) to an overbore exceeding 20mm. All that was necessary to make a shotgun was to remove the rifling, smooth the barrel to remove half a millimeter, and conform the chamber to the then prevalent, though now obsolete 2" black powder 12ga shotgun shell. From there, remove the rear sight, add a front bead, sporterize the stock, stamp a catchy name on the barrel and send it off to market. Sporterizing the stock meant cutting it down considerably, removing the cleaning rod spring, plugging the cleaning rod hole, welding a small tenon with hole in it to the bottom of the barrel and pinning the barrel through the stock through the tenon so that all of the bands could be discarded. Zulu shotguns never retained their original barrel bands. Unfortunately, at least I consider it so, at conversion virtually all Tabatière trigger guard tangs were re-ground to remove the finger spurs. While a “Zulu” can still sometimes be found with tang finger spurs, by far and away most all of them are gone.
During the 1880s and into the 1890s converted Tabatière were sold via mail order all across America for prices usually ranging from $3.00 to $4.00, considerably less than other shotguns at the time. They were re-branded and sold under the names of “ZULU,” “CHAMPION,” “HUNTER,” “Kaffir,” and “Greenback” among others. The clever “Zulu” name seems to have been the one that stuck. One imagines that the marketing might have been intended to conjure up images of British colonial expansion in Africa, big game, and perhaps a hoped-for to tie in to the far more successful and well-regarded British Snider. In addition to the American market, these converted shotguns were also sold in Europe as the “Tabatière” shotgun, perhaps because the Europeans, already familiar with the underlying rifle, would have found other names simply too disingenuous. Nonetheless, it would astonish me to learn that any “Zulu” shotguns had ever been anywhere south of the Mediterranean.
The conversions to shotgun after the rifles were surplused out of French inventory were almost entirely carried out in Belgium, especially in Liege. Since Belgian-converted guns were all required to be re-proofed, Liege proof-marks are found on virtually all “Zulu” shotguns. Notably, as the initial Tabatière conversions to Mle1867 were all undertaken in France, Belgian proof marks are never found on non-“Zulu,” that is, original rifles.
The shotguns sold briskly in America for well over a decade, but by the late1890s inexpensive, effective and considerably superior single-shot top-break shotguns had entered the market and the “Zulus” were no longer competitive even at their rock-bottom prices. But old stores of Tabatières continued to be converted and sold elsewhere in the world right until the German invasion of Belgium in the early days of World War I, although it continued to be used in much of rural America into the 1930s.
This is an astonishing story for at least some of these French’s rifles. One of which I have personally examined and is photographed here originally started life as a Mle1822, was converted to M1822T, then converted again to M1822T.bis, then converted a third time in emergency to M1822Tbis/67, was sold off and then converted yet a fourth time into a Zulu shotgun. For an arms and history buff, it doesn’t get much better than this!
How to tell (maybe) which Tabatière model rifle your Zulu was converted from: Unfortunately, it is surprisingly difficult. At conversion the Tabatière’s barrels were most all cut down to a new, shorter length when they were reamed, so measuring barrel length would be ineffective unless it was over 36 inches. The altered barrels were not only proofed in Liege with appropriate black-powder proof markings but the previous barrel caliber markings were expunged and most all now are marked “18.6” (.73 caliber, which is 12 gauge) although I’ve seen one marked “19.2” (.775 or 10 gauge!), thus not much hope of spotting a 17.8 or an 18.4 marking. The rear sights, which could be dispositive, have all vanished. About the only version identifiable would be if, notwithstanding any other feature, it has a conventional, forward lock. It this case such a Zulu was almost certainly a Mle1822T.bis earlier in its life.
All else considered, if a surviving Tabatière rifle is still in good, serviceable condition, it could still be fired with a black powder cartridge. And even the conversions to shotgun, the “Zulus,” if in serviceable condition with a solid, tight action, are still able to be fired with light loads of shot over light black powder charges using cut-down brass 2 inch 12 gauge shot shells. But absolutely be sure to have it checked carefully by someone competent before taking it to the range. And if you do, be sure to put the experience on Youtube!
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