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19th Century Articles
The French vs. German Strategy of Warfare 1871
Invention of Counterinsurgency
Alfred Thayer Mahan: Advocate for Seapower
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Recommended Reading

The Franco-Prussian War : The German Conquest of France in 1870-1871

The Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871

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The Mitrailleuse 
The Mitrailleuse
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:

Penetration Momentum Energy
Dreyse 125 .95 141
Chassepot 237 1.07 225
Mitrailleuse 540 2.71 718

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 danger space:

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 not.[1] 

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 weapon.

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 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 soldiers:

"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 devastating counter-fire.[2]

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 captured. 

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."[3] 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." [4] 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." [5]

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.[6] 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." [7] 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 intervals. 


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 battlefield.

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.[8] 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 actually good.

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 parts.

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…


[1]. 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.

[2]. Été 1870: La Guerre Racontée par les Soldats , Jean-François LeCaillon, Paris 2002, Saint-Hilaire, p.47.

[3]. Été 1870: La Guerre Racontée par les Soldats , Jean-François LeCaillon, Paris 2002, Marin, p.100.

[4]. Ibid., Perquise, "Carnet de Route d'un Soldat du 2eme Régiment " , SHAT 1KT1238

[5]. Cited by Owen, Captain J. F., Royal Artillery, in Compound Guns, Many-Barrelled Rifle Batteries, Machine Guns, or Mitrailleurs , London, 1874, p. 9-10.

[6]. Sheridan, General Philip H., From Gravelotte to Sedan, in Scribner's Magazine , Volume IV, N.5, November 1888, pp. 514-535.

[7]. Ibid, p. 10.

[8]. 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.

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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 shapes events.

Published online: 01/29/2006.
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