The Chauchat: Innovation Or Abomination?

The reputation of the Chauchat, which was used during World War I, is abysmal. However, we’re going to take a look at whether that reputation is accurate and even deserved. Let’s take a look at this (in)famous light machinegun of The Great War.

Before the Great War

Leading up to World War I, the French military was woefully unprepared. They were using uniforms that dated back to the 1870s. Because of their form of government, which mired things down in bureaucracy, they still had not modernized as WWI approached.

Not only did government red tape slow down uniform development, but it also hampered weapons development.

French military arms designer, Colonel Louis Chauchat, had a vision in 1903 of a machinegun that could be carried by a single person. Thus began the development of the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSRG (also known as the Chauchat). That’s quite a mouthful—don’t ask me to try to pronounce it!

Pronunciation of the actual weapon, the Cheachat, is also controversial. Soldiers during WWI pronounced it “Show-Show.” The French pronounce it “Show-Sha.” So there you have it. Take your pick.

When you really think about it, Colonel Chauchat’s vision to have a single-man-portable machinegun was rather innovative for the day. Consider that machine guns at that time were crew-served affairs that were mostly water-cooled, belt-fed, and weighed over a hundred pounds between the gun and tripod.

The good colonel borrowed some of the mechanical principles of the long barrel recoil semi-automatic rifle that John Browning had designed. The result was the Chauchat machine gun.

More than a half-dozen prototypes had been contrived by 1908 at the French Army’s weapons research facility near Paris. The project seemed to have simmered down to a lukewarm status. Until, that is, World War I exploded onto the scene.

Full Speed Ahead

At the outset of the war in August of 1914, both sides anticipated a short conflict. It wasn’t very long before both sides settled into a stalemate that came to be known as trench warfare.

Germany had the advantage of being equipped with a large number of machine guns, which translated into many times more than their foes. Obviously, this gave “The Hun” a decided advantage on the battlefield.

Suddenly, France realized the need for a machine gun! They decided to rush Colonel Chauchat’s gun into production. This was a foreshadowing of the Chauchat’s problems—the part where they rushed it into production.

An Innovator

In 1915, the Chauchat was ahead of its time. It fired the 8mm Lebel cartridge. The rate of fire was 250 rounds per minute, which is considered to be quite slow compared to current designs. However, the slower firing rate quite probably contributed to better accuracy. At the very least, it conserved ammunition by not having a high cyclic rate.

Several views of the Chauchat.
Several various angles of the Chauchat. The straight-line stock and pistol grip were ahead of their time. The crescent-shaped magazine holds 20 rounds. (Photo: Historical Firearms)

The light weight was also considered to be a boon—just 20 pounds. Other designs, such as the Lewis Gun, were heavier.

Aside from the light weight, the Chauchat could also fire in semi or full automatic modes. The design included a pistol grip, along with a straight-line stock, which helped to reduce muzzle rise. These features really pushed this gun ahead of others in its time and helped with its performance. The Chauchat could actually be fired from the hip while troops were assaulting positions.

French soldier demonstrating assault position with the Chauchat.
A French soldier demonstrates holding the Chauchat in the Assault Position. It was lighter than other machine guns in WWI. (Photo: Giant Bomb)

A lightweight bipod was attached to aid gunners in the prone position. At the end of the barrel was a cone-shaped flash suppressor, which was intended to protect the vision of the gunner in low light.


The Chauchat was produced by factories that were not involved in the arms industry and were not used to producing parts for weapons. This was but one issue in a line of issues.

Next, the parts produced were a mix of steel and aluminum parts. The gun’s construction was simplified so that it could be mass-produced, and the quality was spotty. In other words, it was rushed with mediocre parts.

The open bolt of the Chauchat.
An interesting view of the Chauchat’s bolt and sights. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Chauchat’s barrel was made from standard Lebel rifle barrels, which were shortened. The quality was good and they were plentiful, so both aspects of that were positive.

A total of 262,000 Chauchats were produced from 1915 to 1918. It was the most widely manufactured automatic weapon of WWI.

Enter the Americans

Some American units were issued the Chauchat, and it quickly received a bad reputation. When we consider that the guns issued to Americans had already seen heavy use by the French for the past two to three years, we can understand that they were very worn. Many were also not well maintained, to begin with. These factors contributed to a lot of reliability and durability problems.

All told, approximately 16,000 Chauchats were given to the US Army for use during World War I. In addition, the Army also was given the French Hotchkiss 1914 to use.


One flaw in the Chauchat’s design was the open magazine. It was made that way to allow the shooter to be able to see the ammunition supply and to tell when it was getting low. For the record, the magazine capacity was 20 rounds and the shape of the magazine was that of a half moon.

Right side of the Chauchat.
Several features are evident here in the Chauchat’s design: The pistol grip, straight-line stock, and crescent-shaped, open magazine. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

It was difficult to keep the magazine free of debris in good conditions, not to mention the filthy, muddy conditions of trench warfare. As a result, the dirt in the magazine led to many stoppages. While that’s likely at least somewhat true, let’s consider, for a moment, the belts from belt-fed machine guns. They were in the same trenches, exposed to the very same mud and debris, yet we hear very little about the heavy machine guns suffering from belts of ammunition that were caked with mud. Just something to think about.

Despite its bad reputation for reliability, there is also some knowledge that says if the weapon was maintained, it was not really that unreliable.

It makes me wonder if this is a case similar to that of our early M-16 rifles in Vietnam. Yes, they did have issues in the beginning due to a lack of cleaning equipment and knowledge, coupled with a bad powder selection. However, over the decades, that bad reputation grew and took on a life of its own, often being exaggerated. Many of the people who regurgitate these tales of woeful unreliability were not actually there and really have no firsthand knowledge at all about the weapons’ performance except what they’ve read.

Certainly, none of us reading this has any hands-on experience with the Chauchat, so we’ll have to take written accounts’ word for it. This all makes me wonder if the Chauchat is possibly suffering from the same publicity phenomenon that the M-16 did in Vietnam days.

WWI American soldiers with French civilians.
American troops being greeted by French citizens. The Americans did not have as much time or training with the Chauchat as their French counterparts. This could have been a factor in their success using this machine gun. (Photo: Lt. Adrian C. Duff – Dept. of Defense Archives)

Another point to consider is that the French trained for a longer period of time with the Chauchat and they were well-trained in its use and maintenance. The Americans did not have as much time nor training to become proficient with the operation and care of the machine gun. These factors could have led to many of the reliability issues that are so often talked about.

Post Script

After helping to win World War I, the Chauchat went on to serve not only in the French military but also with several other countries for a number of years. Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Greece, and Finland all used the Chauchat, and it also fought in the Russian Civil War.

If it was so abysmal, why was it so widely used? Would someone not have disposed of the design and introduced something more effective? We could imagine the French clinging doggedly to it since it was their baby, but for so many other countries to also adopt it would strongly hint that it had something going for it.

In Conclusion

Although there were some issues with production and reliability, it’s quite possible that the Chauchat was not the stoppage-ridden failure that it has been painted to be. Evidently, it was at least reliable enough to soldier on through WWI and beyond.

We know that it was used by several countries both during the Great War and afterward. At the very least, it introduced several forward-thinking, innovative features that had, up until that point, never been seen on a machine gun.

Regardless of how you view it, the Chauchat has cemented its place in history.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.

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