The Chauchat Light Machine Gun

The Chauchat light machine gun bears the reputation as being quite possibly the worst weapon fielded during the First World War.

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Chauchat light machine gun, on display at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City

When World War One broke out in August 1914, the automatic machine gun quickly established itself as the deadliest infantry weapon on the battlefield. The German Spandau and British Vickers belt-fed heavy machine guns spit out a lethal rain of bullets which mowed down entire units.

But these weapons took a crew of up to ten men to operate, and their sheer weight made them difficult to move and limited them to fixed locations, often inside concrete “machine gun nests” where they could be protected from enemy fire. The heavy machine gun was especially well-suited for the Germans, since their strategy was essentially defensive and they were relatively immobile inside their extensive trench networks. Even the German “light machine gun”, the MG08/15, intended to be moved quickly along the trenches to provide fire support where needed, weighed 40 pounds.

The Entente troops, however, had to attack these fixed German defenses across an open and unprotected No Man’s Land, and they quickly realized the advantages that could come with a lightweight weapon that would give the firepower of a machine gun but which could be carried and operated by just one soldier (accompanied by a teammate who carried ammunition). The British adopted the Lewis light machine gun, which was fed by circular drum magazines of the same .303-caliber round used by the standard Enfield infantry rifle. The Lewis became one of the most widely-used weapons of the war. The French, meanwhile, began working on a light machine gun design of their own.

The French weapon would bear the name of Colonel Louis Chauchat, who headed the design bureau, although its official designation was “Le Fusil Mitrailleur (Machine Rifle) M1915 CSRG”. It was a pre-war design that had been prototyped and tested but never adopted, and it was selected at the urging of French General Joseph Joffre largely because it could be quickly put into production.

Based loosely on a modified American 1906 Remington automatic-rifle design, the gun was a recoil-operated selective-fire weapon which operated from an open bolt. Fins on the barrel shroud acted as radiators to air-cool the barrel. The stock and pistol grips were made from rough unfinished wood, the bolt was milled from steel, and the receiver was made from crudely-stamped sheet metal that was mostly unpolished. There was a bipod attached underneath the barrel.

The most distinctive trait of the Chauchat was the semicircular magazine, which held 20 rounds of the standard French 8mm Lebel rifle cartridge and sported an open cutaway on the right side to allow the gunner to see at a glance how much ammunition he had left. The 8mm cartridge had a sharp taper from base to tip, so the magazine had to be tightly curved to hold it. The Chauchat had a rate of fire of about 250 rounds per minute. The magazine was intended to be disposable and single-use, designed to be quickly stamped from cheap thin aluminum sheet. The entire Chauchat weighed around 20 pounds. Everything about the gun was intended to make it light, easily portable, and above all, simple to manufacture in civilian factories using unskilled labor. The intent was to pour out thousands of weapons which would overwhelm the Germans with their portable firepower.

When the Chauchat began reaching French troops in the front lines in 1915, however, several issues immediately appeared. Like all machine guns of the time, the barrel overheated quickly if it was continously fired, and this sometimes caused it to swell and become stuck, forcing the gunner to wait for it to cool sufficiently to be able to exchange the barrel. (French gunners were instructed to use full-auto fire only as a last resort, and then only in short bursts.) The gun was not well-designed ergonomically; it required an awkward firing position when prone on the ground and often recoiled back into the shooter’s face.

But the most crippling difficulties were with the detachable curved magazines. The French were never able to manufacture these in sufficient quantities, so although they were originally intended to be single-use and disposable, the French poilus were forced to re-fill and re-use them, and the flimsy pre-war design proved to be completely unsuitable for the harsh conditions of WW1 trench warfare. The thin aluminum often became dented, causing the cartridges to become stuck inside, while the magazine lips often bent, preventing it from being loaded into the gun. The opening on the side allowed mud and sand to get inside, clogging the mechanism and producing frequent jams. And the spring which fed cartridges from the magazine was too weak, causing trouble in loading rounds into the gun. Troops found themselves covering the magazines with cloth to keep the mud out and short-loading them to avoid jamming the spring.

The inherent design troubles with the Chauchat were then exacerbated by substandard manufacturing. The primary French contractor for the M1915 was the Clement-Gladiator Company, which manufactured bicycles. They were overwhelmed and unable to handle the task. There was little in the way of quality control, and guns left the factory with incorrect measurements or with parts that did not meet specifications. The French military’s hope that they could stamp out a flood of finished weapons, cheaply and easily, turned out to be impossible.

Despite the flaws, however, the Chauchat was still fairly effective in combat–and more importantly, it was the only light automatic weapon that was available for the French to use. They churned out almost 240,000 of them, making the Chauchat the most widely-produced light machine gun of the war.

In April 1917, the United States entered the war on the side of France and Britain, and the immense American productive capacity and its virtually unlimited manpower would prove to be decisive. But despite its economic power, the US had been isolationist in its views for many decades, and it lacked any sort of serious military ability. The tiny American military had none of the modern equipment–machine guns, artillery pieces, airplanes–that had become vital for trench warfare, and as it began the long process of raising and training a suitable Army, the US was forced to turn to its new allies for the basics it needed to equip them.

The United States had already been working on a design for its own light infantry machine gun–which would become the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)–but it would be many months yet before this could be put into production. In the meantime, the American doughboys who began arriving in France in the summer and autumn of 1917 needed light machine guns, and they needed them now. The British Lewis gun was by far the best available, but the BEF had only enough for itself and could not spare any for the Yanks.

And that left only the Chauchat. The newly-arrived doughboys were supplied with French-made M1915s in the French 8mm caliber. This caused logistical headaches, and the Americans soon asked the French to produce a new version that was chambered for the standard American 30.06 Springfield rifle round, which became the Chauchat M1918. It was a disaster. The crude design simply could not handle the power of the much larger 30.06 cartridge, and the flimsy gun was often pounded to pieces: screws often worked their way out from the concussion, allowing side plates to fall off. The bigger cartridge also led to faster overheating of the barrel. Most of the barrels, moreover, were incorrectly made with a chamber that was too short, causing the cartridge case to become jammed inside. The curved 20-round magazine was replaced with a straight detachable steel box holding 16 rounds, but it too had a spring that was too weak, forcing the doughboys to shortload it. Troops in the field soon took to calling it “the damned jammed shoo-shoo” or the “shit-shit”. Only about 20,000 30.06 M1918s were made: American inspectors rejected about 40% of these. It became one of the most reviled weapons ever issued to American soldiers. Most units tried their best to “lose” their Chauchats for scrounged-up British Lewis guns. Even the Germans, who had no man-portable light machine guns, were eager to use captured Lewis guns, but tossed away captured Chauchats.

In the summer of 1918, the Browning Automatic Rifle entered production. But rather than deploying them immediately, the US Army, afraid that the Germans would be able to copy a captured BAR and begin manufacturing them, held off on distributing the weapon to troops in the trenches until it was clear that the Germans would lose the war. Most doughboys therefore continued to use Chauchats right up to the end of the war. A new and presumably more reliable version was in the works when the war ended in November 1918.

Today, the Chauchat, especially the 30.06 version, is a highly desired collector’s item, fueled largely by its abysmal reputation.

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