by Dr. Patrick Marder
The Mitrailleuse was the world's first machine-gun to actually be used in major
combat, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.
Description: 25 barrels of 13mm caliber, bullet weight: 50 grammes, powder
weight 12 grammes, muzzle velocity: an extraordinary (for the time!) 530
metres/second (the result of a high propellant/projectile ratio of nearly 1:4;
higher than the Chassepot's of 1:5 or of the Dreyse's of 1:6), rate of fire 75
to 125 rpm or 200 rpm max; one battery of six guns carried 9 chests loaded with
a total of 43,200 bullets. This ammunition supply allows 7200 rounds (or 1440
25-round 'clips') for each Mitrailleuse, enough ammunition to theoretically
permit one and a half hours of continuous fire.
Power: this, along with its high rate of fire, is a key characteristic of the
Mitrailleuse. The combination of a very high velocity and heavy bullet create a
very powerful projectile with fearsome penetrative and striking force (indeed,
a similar level of power would not be achieved until the advent of smokeless
powder in the 1880s). As a point of comparison, the ballistic analysis of the
Chassepot, Dreyse, and Mitrailleuse yields the following figures:
These numbers, extrapolated from bullet weight and muzzle velocity, indicate
that the Mitrailleuse's striking power was four to five times superior to that
of the Dreyse. At longer ranges, the greater inertia of its heavier bullet
would only accentuate its advantage relative to small arms.
The Mitrailleuse's long range performance in terms of its field of fire and
|Field of Fire Width
|Field of Fire Depth
The origin of the French Mitrailleuse is not completely clear. As with many
inventions—and, for some strange reason, firearms especially--, the 'paternity'
of the lineage is not easy to establish. According to some sources, it was the
invention of a captain Fafchamps from the Belgian army and the original gun was
produced by the Belgian arms maker Montigny, who in turn brought it to the
attention of Napoleon III (who had always fancied himself something of an
artillery expert, having co-authored a multi-volume work on the past and future
of artillery). Since Napoleon III's interest in the Mitrailleuse dates to 1859
or 1860, it is tempting to speculate that the Emperor, having seen his
infantry's large-bore converted muskets outgunned and outranged by the Austrian
infantry's small-caliber high-velocity Lorenz rifles during the fighting in
Lombardy, sought in this weapon a means of bolstering the firepower of the
French army. Another reason may have related to the introduction by the French
army of the Beaulieu 4-pounder rifled field-gun in 1858: the new artillery,
though much more accurate and long-ranged than the smoothbore 'canon-obusier'
it replaced (which, incidentally, was the most prevalent artillery piece of the
US Civil War), was not suited to firing anti-personnel case-shot (which, in
French, is called 'mitraille'). The Mitrailleuse so gained its name, and may
thus have been intended to provide the high-volume dispersed anti-personnel
fire which rifled ordnance—at this early stage in its development—could
Concept and Genesis
"Comparing the fire of the Mitrailleuse to that of the rifle is
misunderstanding the role of the Mitrailleuse. This weapon must begin to fire
with effectiveness only at ranges where the rifle no longer carries. It must,
for the great ranges of 1000 to 2500 metres compensate the insufficiency of
grapeshot." –Auguste Verchère de Reffye, creator of the French
Mitrailleuse; the objectives set by General Leboeuf, president of the Comité de
l'Artillerie on 24 February 1868, are effective anti-personnel fire at 1400,
1800, and 2200 metres.
Montigny's weapon, nor the Gatling (heavier projectile—253 grammes—moving at
significantly lower MV) do not fulfill this role, not being more accurate than
a rifle at ranges at 800 paces, according to Reffye.
Reffye remained a visionary champion of the Mitrailleuse to the end, and yet he
still viewed the weapon as a form of artillery:
"The use of the Mitrailleuse no longer has anything in common with that of
normal cannon, the employment and task of this piece deeply modify artillery
tactics…Very few officers understand the use of this weapon which, however, is
only dangerous by the manner one uses it…The partisans of the mitrailleuse are
found among the young who crewed them during the war; but there are far fewer
among superior officers." (1875)
A French technical manual dated 1874 and evidently written in close cooperation
with Reffye furnishes additional insights into the Mitrailleuse inventor's
tactical vision of his new weapon's use :
"Depuis le perfectionnement et l'application au service de guerre des fusils se
chargeant par la culasse, les canons, même chargés à l'arrière, on relativement
perdu l'une de leurs supériorités sur l'arme portative : la portée des fusils
est quadruplée, la vitesse de chargement est décuplée, tandis que pour le
canon, la portée extrême peut être considérée comme triplée seulement, pendant
que la vitesse du chargement est restée presque la même.
Il se présente, dans les combats, de nombreuses circonstances où l'infanterie
se trouvant à portée de fusil de l'artillerie, cele-ci ne peut resister à la
rapidité du tir du fusil, et, si l'infanterie ne se laissant pas intimider par
les detonations des pieces et l'éclatement des projectiles creux, marchait
résolûment sur les batteries non défendues elle-mêmes par de l'infanterie, elle
les réduirait bientôt au silence en en détruisant les servants. »
" Since the improvement and introduction in military service of breech-loading
rifles, canon, even if breech-loaded, have relatively lost one of their
advantages over small arms: the range of rifles has quadrupled, rate of fire
has been multiplied by ten, while for canon, extreme range has only been
tripled, and the rate of fire has almost remained the same".
In combat are found many circumstances where infantry, finding itself within
range of artillery, the latter cannot resist the rapid fire of the rifle and,
if the infantry, not letting itself be intimidated by the detonations of the
pieces and the bursting of the shells, marched resolutely towards batteries
themselves undefended by infantry, it would soon reduce them to silence by
eliminating their crews."
"Since the war of secession in America, one has sought to build a weapon which
could imitate the rapidity of fire of the rifle, while surpassing it in range,
reliably striking infantry and cavalry at distances where canister loses its
effectiveness. The bullet-canon has thus been developed to go into action
between 900 and 2500 metres, with more accuracy than the old grape-shot which
seems almost to have fallen into disuse nowadays."
Further along, Reffye's thinking on the mitrailleuse, as exposed by the writer,
remains fixed on the weapon's long-range area effect.
Situated on the Olympian heights of posterity, writers of 'history' are often
wont to be severe judges; a case in point is the Mitrailleuse. Michael Howard,
the leading English historian of the Franco-Prussian War and his epigone Wawro
are cases in point. Aside from factual discrepancies, Howard, though rather
unhelpfully labelling the Mitrailleuse an "excellent" weapon, writes "It was
used at extreme range; sited in the open and in battery; and fired inaccurately
and wastefully" (p.36), while the American Wawro calls it "somewhat
over hyped" (p. 53), and vaguely refers to its "meager accomplishments
as a weapon" (p. 99). But such judgments are fundamentally informed by
a posteriori knowledge—mostly in the light of the fantastic havoc
wrought by machine-guns during the Great War; but based on the sketchy
information available to contemporary actors, based on the technical realities
of the day, the tactical concept of the Mitrailleuse as a long-range
anti-personnel 'stand-off' weapon was reasonable. Nor were the French alone in
viewing early machine guns as a type of artillery, rather than as an infantry
In 1867, as the British (unaware of the Reffye Mitrailleuse being developed
across the Channel) tested and compared the American Gatling gun to their 9
pounder field-gun, the Army and Navy Gazette declared: "as far as
these experiments went they certainly showed a marked superiority of our own
guns and ammunition for field service. The Gatling gun is nevertheless a
formidable weapon and for trenches or a breach, and for street fighting, would
do execution...it has a special mission of its own and is likely to have an
important influenceon future battles... "
At very much the same time the Prussians (who are all too commonly credited by
most of today's writers with unerring wisdom in all matters military) came to
much the same conclusion as the British: the Gatling gun offered little to no
advantage versus field guns and, given its expense there seemed to be no reason
to pursue this untried technology.
Seen in the light of the contemporary American, English, and Prussian opinions,
the French army was not alone in viewing machine-guns as playing a role
analagous to that of field-guns.
The Mitrailleuse was conceived, produced, and tested in an atmosphere of
secrecy (although, as we will see, how secret it remained is open to question).
The funds necessary derived from the Emperor's privy purse and did not
therefore even figure in the normal army budget. To enhance secrecy, the
Mitrailleuse was not built at a single location: the barrels were produced at
one place, the breech at another, the ammunition at another (Paris), while
final assembly took place at the Reffye's atelier in Meudon, a western suburb
of Paris.Another reason for subcontracting Mitrailleuse components may have
been that some elements—notably the steel gun-barrels which were made by
Petin-Gaudet—could not easily have been made by the government arsenals at this
time 1866-1867. It is known that the Meudon budget in 1864 was 364,000 francs
(about $73,000 US dollars of the time), of which around 90,000 francs were set
aside for infrastructure, and 260,000 francs for the construction of eighty or
ninety Mitrailleuses, to be deliverable by 1 March 1865. But the pace of
Mitrailleuse production evidently missed this target: it seems only 25 guns
were produced in 1866, and another 100 the following year.
The 'Secret' of the Mitrailleuse
Intrigue and secretiveness seem to have been instinctual to Napoleon III
(perhaps a left-over from his Carbonari days). In any event, the decision was
made to maintain the secret of the Mitrailleuse, but rumours eventually
emerged. By 1867 there was speculation in the British press that the Emperor
was tinkering with some sort of very light 'infantry-gun:'
"There are rumours rifle of an extraordinary field-gun having been invented by
no less a personage than the Emperor himself, that several guns have been
manufactured, companies told off to work them, and that drill practice of these
extraordinary weapons is being kept up with vigor. But no indications of the
nature of these guns has yet leaked out, and all connected with them are said
to be sworn to secrecy. The Emperor's gun is probably a very light
field-piece—a two-pounder, or even a smaller gun, intended for such service as
the light cannon exhibited by Mr. Whitworth is designed for."
In a footnote the article goes on to note:
"The Paris correspondent of The London Standard quotes a French letter, which
says: 'The Emperor Napoleon has great confidence in the small portable cannon;
a telescope is fixed to it, which renders it easy to sight at 1,500 metres. If
the improvements in the artillery as to long ranges have their advantages, on
the other hand, in the opinion of some officers they have the disadvantage of
making us lose all superiority with the bayonet. It is evident that in our day
war must be carried on under conditions very different from the past. What,
above all, is necessary, are good generals and a good staff. Do we possess
them? We shall probably very soon see."
"There is," says the correspondnet, "some truth in the above letter, together
with a good many absurdities. For some months past columns of nonsense have
been printed respecting the 'small cannon' alleged to have been manufactured at
Meudon, and which have been represented as likely to revolutionize the art of
war. I have reason to believe that the facts are these: the Emperor, who
believes that artillery is the weapon of the future, conceived the idea last
spring of supplying every battalion of infantry with mountain howitzers, which
could be carried wherever infantry went, and a large number of them were
manufactured; but all military men having condemned the idea; it has been
abandoned. A new notion then arose, suggested by the American revolver cannon
to be seen at the Exhibition. The Emperor was greatly struck by it, and a good
many of them have been made. In the opinion of French military men these
weapons are very good against Indians in the far West, and for operations in
Cochin-China, where they may be useful on board ships' boats and steam canoes;
but they are not fitted to stand the rough usage of a campaign."
The following year an article about the Mitrailleuse was published in an
Austrian military journal. A Swiss military manual of 1869 also makes reference
to the new French weapon.
But just how much was known did not become obvious until the very eve of the
war's outbreak, when the Prussians distributed a remarkable pamphlet entitled: Zur
Orientierung über die Französische Armee . The document is clearly not
just intended for informative purposes; clearly there is a propagandistic
element present, aiming to reassure, to promote the confidence of the Prussian
"Die Franzosen haben immer danach gestrebt, bei Beginn eines krieges mit irgend
etwas Neuem die Welt und den Gegner zu überraschen. Dies Mal sind es die
Mitrailleusen, welche uns Verwirrung und Niederlage, ihnen aber den Sieg
bringen sollen. Noch niemals hatten die Franzosen Glück mit der Einführung
neuer Waffen. Die gezogenen Geschütze in Italien 1859, afangs gefürchtet und
bewundert, schossen über das Ziel hinweg, weil die eignenen Leute sie nicht
kannten, der Artillerist noch kein Vertrauen zu ihnen haben konnte."
"The French have always tried, at the outbreak of a war to surprise the world
and the enemy with something new. This time it is the Mitrailleuses, which are
to bring us confusion and defeat, and to them victory. Never have the French
had luck with the introduction of new weapons. The rifled canon in Italy in
1859, initially feared and admired, fired over and past their targets, because
their own people didn't know them, their artilleryman still couldn't have any
confidence in them."
The booklet goes on to denigrate the French army, minimize the combat value of
the mitrailleuse, and, in so doing, reveal that the Prussians had surprisingly
accurate information about the French 'secret' weapon:
"Schossen die Franzosen 1859 über ihr Ziel hinweg, so werden sie 1870 am Ziel
vorbei schießen, wenn sie uns mit ihrer Waffe zu überraschen gedenken. Wir
haben dieselbe erprobt und ihren geringen wahren Werth sorgfältig ergründet.
Wenn wir es für nötig gehalten hätten, zur Hebung des moralischen Elementes in
unsere Armee irgend etwas thun zu müssen, so würden auch wir vielleicht diese
Waffe eingeführt haben. Dem aber war nicht so."( 33)
"Der gefährlichste Feind jeder Batterie ist und wird ewig bleiben der gewandte
Schütze, der sich gedeckt zu nähern weiß, Bedienung und Bespannung einzeln
auf's Korn nimmt und gefolgt wird von muthigen, geschlossenen Soutiens, die
vollenden, was er begonnen.
"Hier ist eine umsichtige Führung und eine geschickte Benutzung des Terrains
durchaus erforderlich. Leichter aber ist es, den richtigen Weg an eine
Mitrailleuse heran zu finden, als an eine mit Kartätachen feuernde Batterie und
dies ist uns doch wahrlich schon gelungen. Vor der Letzteren giebt es
eigentlich keinen unbestrichenen Raum. Die Streunngskegel der Geschosse greifen
über einander weg."
"Die Mitrailleuse dagegen entsendet aus einigen zwanzig Läufen einer
gemeinsamen Stahlhülle ebenso viel Gewehrkugeln, die in dichter Garbe dem Ziele
entgegen fliegen. Ueber 1200 Schritt verlieren die Geschosse so an Kraft, daß
sie nur noch matte Treffer geben können."
"Die Ausbreitung der Garbe beträgt auf dieser entfernung nur wenige Fuß."
"As the French fired past the target in 1859, so they will in 1870 fire past
the target, if they hope to surprise us with their weapon. We have tested the
same one and established its true low value. If we had held it necessary, for
the lifting of the moral element in our army, to have to do something, then
perhaps we would also have introduced this weapon. But that was not the case."
"The most dangerous foe of every battery is and will always remain the skilled
marksman, who knows how to approach under cover, takes a bead on artillerymen
and draught horses and is followed by brave, densely formed supports who
complete what he started."
"Here is necessary clear-sighted leadership and a skilled use of terrain. But
it is easier to find the right way to a Mitrailleuse than to a battery firing
canister—even though we truly already succeeded in this. Against the latter
there really no space that uncovered. The cone of dispersion of the projectiles
spreads apart from one an 8other.
"On the contrary,the Mitrailleuse fires from some twenty barrels of a common
steel casing the same number of bullets which fly towards the target in a dense
sheath. Over 1200 paces away the projectiles lose so much power that only weak
hits can be made.
"The dispersion of the sheaf of fire at this range only covers a few feet."
The Mitrailleuse In Action
Deployment and Organization
There are believed to have been 190 Mitrailleuses available when war broke out
in July 1870. The statutory deployment was one 6 Mitrailleuse battery per
division. The Mitrailleuse battery came as a replacement for one 'Canon de 4'
(86.5mm) battery, rather than as a supplement to the divisional artillery. In
this substitution we have an obscure yet potentially significant cause of
French defeat: while the Mitrailleuse doubtless was murderous as an
anti-personnel weapon, it fared less well in counter-battery duels against
opposing canon. So, in sheer weight of metal—'throw weight'--French divisional
artillery would be inferior to Prussian divisional artillery (French divisions
statutory artillery strength was 3 batteries of 4-pounders and 1 battery of
Mitrailleuses=18 canon total; Prussian statutory strength was 2 batteries of
4-pounders and 2 batteries of 6-pounders=24 canon total).
Sarrebourg 2 August 1870
The Mitrailleuse's baptism of fire came on 2 August 1870 during the French
attack on Sarrebourg/Sarrebrück, where the 9th battery of Captain Dupré, taking
the German troops in enfilade fire "…threw complete disorder into the middle of
the infantry columns evacuating the town and which had to suffer this new fire,
whose noise alone seemed to make a great impression on them." Two days
later Reffye is told that the officers of the 9th battery "…are quite pleased
et believe they acted effectively against the enemy. This, moreover, is the
opinion of all the officers who witnessed the action. They are full of
confidence. In all 68 boxes of bullets were fired."
Wissembourg 4 August 1870
However, very soon—4th August 1870—at Wissembourg, the Mitrailleuses, their
sights incorrectly adjusted, seem to have done less well in combating four
German artillery batteries, emplaced east of Gutleithof. Even worse, the
explosion of a mitrailleuse caisson apparently killed the divisional commander.
In this case, the account of Saint-Hilaire, a French officer directly present
among the Mitrailleuses, it was the poor positioning of the battery, with their
left flank directly opposite two batteries of enemy artillery, that invited the
Woerth-Froeschwiller 6 August 1870
Two days later, at the critical battle of Woerth-Froeschwiller, it seems that
incorrect tactical use was a factor in the poor showing of the French
wonder-weapon. The uneven terrain, scattered with hops fields and woods, does
not favorize long-distance fire by the Mitrailleuses. They are moved to a more
dominant position, but here 3000 metres away from the Bavarian batteries
northeast of Langensulzbach, they are in a situation of clear disadvantage and
therefore quickly reduced to silence. Later in the battle they are used at all
sorts of ranges; it seems that neither the crews nor senior commanders have an
understanding of how best to employ the new weapon. Nevertheless, after
Wissembourg and now Woerth it is becoming clear that the Mitrailleuse cannot
with advantage engage enemy artillery: it lack punch and range to do so. Still,
there is no doubt that the Mitrailleuse can do great execution against enemy
infantry; the war diary of Friedrich, the Prussian Crown Prince tells of its
effect on massed columns and notes its fire as "unmistakeably deadly ."
In the final chaos of Mac-Mahon's botched battle, six mitrailleuses are
Spicheren 6 August 1870
Simultaneous with Woerth came the battle of Spicheren, just across the river
from Sarrebourg, the site of the Mitrailleuse's baptism of fire. Just four days
later, it is the Germans on the attack. The French commander, the engineer
Frossard, has dug in his corps on a formidable position—a position magnifique—he
has previously reconnoitered. The same guns that four days earlier scattered
death in the ranks of the Germans at Sarrebrück are ready: two batteries of
Mitrailleuse are available to the French, some of them sited to enfilade the
road leading across the Sarre river. Despite their numerical inferiority to
massed German guns, they do significant damage to the attacking forces,
particularly the 39th and 74th regiments which, surprised at the Folster
heights by the Mitrailleuses emplaced at the farm of Vielle-Brême, lose entire
files of infantrymen at a range of 1800 metres. In the culminating struggle for
the defensive lynchpin of the Rotherberg, the Prussian general with
the unlikely French surname von François is killed by four
Mitrailleuse bullets fired at a range of 600 metres and the Leutnant von
Pölnitz is likewise killed by five bullets (this clustering of impacts,
incidentally, illustrates one of the Mitrailleuse's technical handicaps: its
carriage did not allow significant lateral movement and the cone of fire (as
the Prussians had shrewdly noted in their pamphlet) was quite narrow,
especially at shorter ranges).
Borny 14 August 1870
As the French corps begin their retreat toward Metz a meeting engagement takes
place at Borny-Colombey, where nine batteries of Mitrailleuses are engaged.
Particularly notable is the action of the 5th battery, 11th regiment, 2nd
Corps, where the fire of Capitaines Mignot and Bernadac (4th regiment,
3rd corps) does heavy damage in the Colombey ravine and the farm of Sebastopol.
Firing successively from 1800 to 2200 metres, the action of the Mitrailleuses
is praised by General Metman, commander of the 3rd corps, as 'formidable.'
Bernadac's battery, sited on the heights overlooking the roads to Sarrelouis
and Sarrebourg, is especially deadly, hacking to pieces a Prussian column that
was imprudent enough to 'skyline' itself at a range of 1900 metres. The
Prussian regiment of Major Hoffbauer is dispersed at a range of 1500 metres.
But the ammunition consumption of the battery is of equal magnitude: 244 boxes.
The 12th battery of Capitaine Bottard (15th regiment) also shares in
the slaughter: "The spectacle is terrifying; entire ranks were falling, the
squads, one after another were literally mowed down. The distance could have
been around 600 to 700 metres." Another witness, Joseph Edouard Marin,
presents a similarly positive view of the Mitrailleuses at Borny: "The
Mitrailleuses were marvelous; when the enemy showed himself, entire colums were
knocked down; when their artillery wanted to put themselves in battery it was
impossible for them to go into position, for as soon as they showed themselves,
they were completely destroyed." A soldier from the 2nd regiment
provides further detail: "The Prussian armies arrived in dense masses and
placed themselves on the heights in front of us, their artillery ravaged our
ranks, but our batteries of Mitrailleuses were beginning to play a big role,
causing terrible carnage in the ranks of the Prussians, for eight times they
were forced to renew their battle lines while for us it was still the first
line that was decimating their batallion flanks."  In this action
the Mitrailleuses seem to have employed ideally, with batteries of 4-pounders
deployed at their sides to counteract any enemy artillery seeking to take the
machine-guns in the flank.
Mars-La-Tour and Rezonville 16 August 1870
In this memorable meeting encounter between two massive armies on the move, the
action of individual arms is difficult to distinguish. This time, the
Mitrailleuses, alternating from offense to defense, are not operating in a
ideal role. In the disorder reigning on both sides, the canons à balles are
sometimes fired at extreme range: 2300, even 2800 metres. Of his experience of
the Mitrailleuse at Rezonville, Captain Sermet writes: "We only struck a hard
blow at one point, on the infantry at a range of 1900 metres, because we were
made to fire at large caliber batteries, behind epaulments. Progressive fire is
certainly hard to carry out; it would require officers having under their
battery well in hand and that the Mitrailleuses not have as neighbours
batteries which deafen them with their fire. It would also require men better
trained to their use. To sum up, as one who has seen all the actions up to now,
I can affirm that the canons à balles play a great role in modern war,
vigourously supporting the army…" Despite the confusion, the
Mitrailleuses did frightful harm in a few sectors of the widely strung
battlefield along the line of retreat of the French army from Metz to Verdun:.
Here, an expert British observer, Captain Brackenbury of the Royal Artillery
noted that "…Marshal Bazaine, who was there on this spot himself (near a ravine
close to the Bois des Oignons) had plenty of guns under his hand, but had only
two batteries of Mitrailleuses. To defend the head of this ravine (and this was
after having seen previous battles) he brought up his Mitrailleuses. Any one
who has seen that battle-field, who has seen the way in which the graves are at
this point piled almost one upon another, will see how awful the slaughter must
have been; and it was due, practically, entirely to these Mitrailleuses."
Saint-Privat 18 August 1870
US General Philip Sheridan, sent as official observer to the Franco-Prussian
War, was a witness to the power of the Mitrailleuse on one of the few occasions
it was used to extremely deadly effect. Here, on the southern flank of the
French position was Frossard's 2nd Corps, defending the crest of Rozerieulles.
Well emplaced and dug-in, the Mitrailleuses did not repeat the mistakes of
Spicheren and Froeschwiller in engaging the enemy cannon in a long-range duel,
instead, they reserved their fire and so escaped detection by the German
artillery. Then, when the German infantry assault columns came close and masked
their own artillery support, the Mitrailleuses—supplemented by small arms and
field-guns—opened fire. The result was slaughter and the Germans were routed in
absolute panic. In other sectors of the battlefield, notably in the struggle
against the artillery of the Prussian IX corps to the north-east of Vernéville,
the Mitrailleuse engagement is less one-sided. Initially, the Mitrailleuses are
successful in stopping the attack of the 36th infantry regiment on Chantrenne,
killing its commander Colonel Brandestein at a range of between 1400 and 1800
metres. But, eventually, as was to be the pattern of the war of 1870, the
Germans, undaunted by repeated repulses, bring up more and more artillery,
building a concentric 'wall of fire' that compels the withdrawal, with heavy
loss, of the French machine-guns.
Sedan 1 September 1870
In the final debacle of the Second Empire there is little scope for the
Mitrailleuse; the operational situation the army finds itself in is almost
hopeless, literally led into a dead-end, the abbatoire of the Sedan basin, by
the military and moral incompetence of Marshal Mac-Mahon. At Sedan, Captain
Brackenbury of the Royal Artillery, who had seen the deadly handiwork of the
Mitrailleuse at Rezonville, saw only one isolated, but impressive instance of
the weapon's power: "On the heights, close to Floeing, there was placed a
battery of Mitrailleuses. There is, opposite to that, a round hill with wood on
the top; and out of this wood and from behind this hill came the Prussian
columns. As they came out they were swept down by these Mitrailleuses, and they
did not succeed. They could not make any progress, but were obliged to go back
again, and go round on the reverse slope of the hill, checked by the
Mitrailleuse."  Apart from this particular coup, it is interesting
to distinguish that here, as at Saint-Privat, we have glimmerings of an
emerging practical modification in the tactical employment of the Mitrailleuse.
In view of the Prussian tactic of concentrating fire on the canons à balles,
more care is now taken to emplace the machine-guns in well-prepared, fortified
positions, and the guns themselves are spaced apart with greater
After the Franco-Prussian War, the Mitrailleuse or machine-gun would fade from
history for the next generation, relegated to the role of a weapon for fighting
'savages' on the colonial frontiers of America, Africa, and Asia. In France,
the efforts of Reffye as an 'evangelist' for the potential of this weapon
ultimately went nowhere, and the canon à balles that bore his name went out of
production and was consigned to fortress duty. It would not be until the
Russo-Japanese War of 1905, that a new breed of lighter and even deadlier
machine-gun would re-emerge as a potent new destructive force on the modern
Was the Mitrailleuse a mistake for Napoleon III and the French? This is the
summary judgment normally made, but the critical evaluation of the historical
record seems to suggest a more ambiguous answer. True, the introduction of
Reffye's 'canon à balles' did displace a corresponding number (190) of
4-pounder field guns from France's artillery. Could these two hundred cannon
have achieved more than the Mitrailleuse did? As we have seen, the Mitrailleuse
did inflict considerable loss on the Germans. In addition to this actual
damage, we must also consider the psychological impact of the weapon on the
enemy soldier which—judging from how often the name of the Mitrailleuse is
evoked in German accounts—must have been substantial. Finally, we must also
consider the fact that the mere existence of the Mitrailleuse caused German
artillery to concentrate its fire on the French machine-gun, thus necessarily
requiring these German guns to neglect other targets—at least temporarily.
Remembering that the entrance in battle of the Mitrailleuse was attended with
many problems over and beyond the overall chaos that characterized the French
mobilization in 1870, and that, in conjunction with these practical
difficulties, the very newness of the weapon and the combat concept that was
immanent to it (and which conflicted in certain respects to its prescribed
official use) represented a bold step into the future, its performance was
Did Napoleon III intend the Mitrailleuse as his 'ace in the hole', an attempt
to redress France's numerical inferiority vis à vis the Germans via technology?
If so, he was following a distinguished example: Gustavus Adolphus and his
'leather guns', the Maréchal de Saxe's concept of the 'Amusette', and, of
course, his own uncle's efforts to buttress the sagging infantry strength of
the Premier Empire via reinforced and concentrated artillery support.
Ultimately it appears highly unlikely that a single weapon could have won the
war for France in 1870; after all, the pathology of French defeat was complex.
And, in the constellation of factors leading to defeat, the eventual use or
misuse of the Mitrailleuse played a minor role; the operational blunders of
French corps commanders, Bazaine of course, but also Mac-Mahon, played the lead
Even so, one is tempted to speculate what might have happened if the
Mitrailleuses had been fielded in addition to the 4-pounder field-guns
and not as a substitute. The war and its issue might have then worn an
altogether different complexion…
. The limitations of early rifled artillery and shell fuses with regard to
firing grape shot and case-shot (as well as cost) similarly led the Austrians
until 1866 to retain a great proportion of smoothbores precisely for this
duty—as was the case in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.
. Été 1870: La Guerre Racontée par les Soldats , Jean-François
LeCaillon, Paris 2002, Saint-Hilaire, p.47.
. Été 1870: La Guerre Racontée par les Soldats , Jean-François
LeCaillon, Paris 2002, Marin, p.100.
. Ibid., Perquise, "Carnet de Route d'un Soldat du 2eme Régiment " , SHAT
. Cited by Owen, Captain J. F., Royal Artillery, in Compound Guns,
Many-Barrelled Rifle Batteries, Machine Guns, or Mitrailleurs , London,
1874, p. 9-10.
. Sheridan, General Philip H., From Gravelotte to Sedan, in Scribner's
Magazine , Volume IV, N.5, November 1888, pp. 514-535.
. Ibid, p. 10.
. I will treat this critical inferiority in artillery elsewhere with the
detail it merits; suffice it so say for the purposes of our particular
discussion of the Mitrailleuse here that the disparity between French and
German artillery (exclusive of the Mitrailleuse) is of 12 guns versus 24 guns
and 48 kg versus 130 kg salvo throw-weight at the divisional level. This
numerical disparity, NOT the much-cited technological disparity
between French Beaulieu bronze muzzle-loading cannon and Krupp steel
breech-loading cannon, is the key to understanding the artillery situation of
the Franco-Prussian War.
- - -
Copyright © 2006 Dr. Patrick Marder
Written by Dr. Patrick Marder. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Dr. Patrick Marder at:
About the Author:
Patrick Marder was born in London. After undergraduate study at the University
of California at Berkeley and at Cambridge, he received degrees from the
Sorbonne in Paris, and from the University of Poitiers prior to receiving his
doctorate from the University of Strasburg. Marder's field of work is 19th and
20th century history and his research interests include the interaction of
"intersecting forces and spheres'': how the interaction of economic forces,
social groups, government, technology, and mentalities affects policy and
Published online: 01/29/2006.