Scarce Franco-Prussian War Era French Military Tabatière Alteration of a Model 1853 Musket
- Product Code: FLA-3722
- Availability: In Stock
The American Civil War is often considered a major turning point in the technology of warfare. From the significant use of repeating, metallic cartridge small arms to the Petersburg trenches that foreshadowed the No Man’s Land of the Western Front, it was in truth the first truly “modern war”. With its conclusion, it was clearly obvious the that days of the muzzleloading percussion infantry rifle musket were over, and that the battlefield belonged to the breechloading rifle firing a self-contained cartridge.
In Europe, this was not new knowledge, and the fearsome firepower of the Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse’s Zündnadelgewehr (needle gun) gave the Prussian army a weapon that had no equals on the European battlefield of the early 1860s. The period of 1865-1867 represented a time of significant change for the military forces of the world as new infantry firearms systems were tested and adopted. In the United States, numerous patent arms systems were tried from a number of inventors and makers, but the ever-cautious Board of Ordnance decided to modernize by modifying the huge stocks of existing muzzleloading arms to breechloading cartridge arms via the Allin conversion system, better known as the “Trapdoor” system. Over the next few years this system would be improved upon nearly every year until the 1873 series of arms were adopted; along with a newer, smaller, .45 caliber cartridge.
In Great Britain, a similar desire to use the huge stocks of existing arms resulted in the adoption of the Snider alteration system. Like Allin’s system this turned muzzleloading rifle muskets into breechloading, cartridge arms, and like Allin’s system it was an American design; that of Jacob Snider. In France, the ever-present specter of militaristic Prussia and their desire for French territory, combined with the fact that they were armed with the very modern Dreyse needle rifle, motivated the French to adopt a bolt action firearm; the Model 1866 Chassepot. The Chassepot was a more modern and improved version of the Dreyse concept, the primary improvements being in the adoption of a smaller caliber and ballistically superior cartridge, and improvements in obturation; sealing the breech to prevent gas leaks. This decision by the French came not a moment too soon, as the Prussians demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of their Needle Rifles during the 1866 Austro-Prussian War, where Prussian infantrymen could exceed the rate of Austrian muzzleloading infantry fire by a factor of five to one. Even with the Prussians firing from the prone position, while the Austrians usually had to stand to load their guns, the Prussian rate of fire was simply stunning.
The French, however, knew that their ability to produce Chassepots rifles was not in keeping with their needs. As a result, they also adopted an alteration system to adapt their huge stocks of muzzleloading arms to cartridge breechloaders. The system they adopted, the Tabatière (“snuff box”), was similar to the British Snider system. It was applied to muskets as old as Model 1822 flintlocks that had been altered to percussion, as well as to more modern muzzleloading muskets like the Models 1842, 1853 and 1857 and rifles like the Models 1853, 1857 and 1859 series of “Chasseur’s” rifles. Original military configuration Tabatière rifles and muskets are rather scarce today, with many of them having been sporterized to civilian arms after the war. These former military breechloaders live on today as the ubiquitous “Zulu Shotguns” that appear from time to time at gun shows and in internet auctions. The Tabatière fired a very large, nominally 18mm cartridge (about .70 caliber), that is known to be the largest breechloading infantry rifle cartridge to see military service. The 18x35R cartridge was hardly the ballistic equivalent of the German Dreyse cartridge, and tremendously inferior to the French Chassepot cartridge. In fact, it was not even as powerful as the traditional muzzleloading rifle or musket load. However, from an operational and rate of fire standpoint, it was a huge improvement over a percussion muzzleloader.
Offered here is a rare, original military configuration of a French Model 1842/53 Tabatière Altered Rifle Musket. The Model 1842 Musket had been adopted by the French in that year for their standard percussion infantry long arm and incorporated a back action lock that they had started to experiment with circa during the late 1830s and which would typify French military long arms until the end of the percussion era. The Model 1842 was produced in three barrel lengths, with 41 ¾” being the standard “heavy infantry” musket, 40 ½” being the “light infantry” musket and 36 ½” being the “dragoon” musket variant. In all cases the guns were originally .69 caliber and the barrels were secured by three flat, spring-retained bands with the upper band being double strapped. In 1853, a minor change was made to the shape and design of the bolster and the barrel flats at the beech were slightly lengthened. To casual observers there was practically no difference between the French Model 1842 and Model 1853 muskets, and the primary variants remained the same. Both guns were smoothbore muskets and were eventually superseded by a rifled variant of the M1853 in 1857 which was cosmetically almost identical to its immediate predecessor. After the adoption of the M1857, which began the general issue of rifled arms to all troops, older patterns of muskets underwent alteration to rifled arms. These included the truly obsolete Model 1822 flintlocks that had been altered to percussion and Model 1842s and 1853s. Much of the upgrading and rifling took place during the first two to three years of the 1860s. It was these obsolete rifled percussion muzzleloaders that were among the first to be further upgraded by alteration to the Tabatière system as the Franco-Prussian War erupted.
The gun remains in VERY GOOD+ condition and would rate closer to “fine” were it not for the fact that the stock is cut under the middle barrel band. On a WWII era rifle we would call this a “duffle cut”, which shortened the gun’s stock enough that when disassembled it would fit in the GI’s duffle bag. However, it was a common practice for military surplus dealers like Francis Bannerman & Company to dismantle guns and ship them in a box no longer than the barrel. This often meant cutting the stock. The shorter box cost less to ship and saved Bannerman’s money. However, it does have an effect on collector arms today that are found with this flaw. Thankfully it is invisible unless the middle band is moved to reveal the cut. The upper portion of the forend and the furniture are all original to the gun, the wood is simply cut.
The back action lock of the gun is clearly marked in two script lines: Mre Impale / de St. Etienne, indicating the rifle was produced the National Manufactory (armory) at St. Etienne. The designation of the armory as “imperial”, rather than “national” or “royal” indicates that the rifle was produced during the period of the 2nd French Empire, under the rule of an Emperor Napoleon III from 1852-1870. For a very brief time immediately before the 2nd Empire, 1848-1852, France was also ruled by Napoleon III, but as an elected ruler during a period known at the 2nd Republic. As the gun has undergone the transformation to the Tabatière system, the original breech plug and tang have been removed and a new breech added. Thus, the tang marking with the model designation is no longer present. Additionally, the percussion bolster is no longer present, so the primary identifying factors in determining whether this was a M1842 or M1853 are no longer present. However, the French storekeeper’s roundel that surrounds the boxwood plug government ownership mark is dated DECEMBER 1855, indicating the gun was likely a Model 1853 musket originally. The center of the boxwood plug is stamped with a large MI for “manufacture imperial” and as would be expected a plethora of small French inspector and controller marks around found throughout the gun. The toe of the stock is stamped J. JACQUEMOND. This could be the name of the worker or gunsmith who performed the cartridge alteration for the French military. I could find no reference to the name, even in the best resource on European arms makers, Heer Der Neue Stockel. A small circular cartouche is also present on the reverse butt that reads R.F. G.A.D. the meaning of which I do not know. The serial number 3585 is stamped vertically in the obverse butt along the line of the buttplate and this same number is found under the front lip of the upper barrel band, concealed by the ramrod. The underside of the breech block is numbered 1545.
The gun was originally one of the 42 ¾” barreled “heavy infantry” muskets, but now the barrel measures 39 ¾” to the face of the Tabatière breech and 42 5/16” to the rear of the breech. The overall length of the musket is nominally 57 ½”. The bore is rifled with four wide, very shallow grooves that appear to be about the same width as the lands. The bore measures about .705”, slightly under the nominal 18mm most of these guns were bored to, but well within tolerances as the cartridge really used a 17.5mm bullet. The altered rifle musket appears to remain in its 100% complete, correct and original configuration in from the time of alteration in all respects. The barrel of the gun was cleaned at some point, removing some of the thinly oxidized brown patina that appears on most of the iron furniture. The buttplate retains the thickest, most heavily oxidized patina, while it is thinner on bands. The result is a pewter gray appearance for most of the barrel with streaky areas of brown. The metal is mostly smooth with some flecks of oxidized roughness and very lightly scattered pinpricking here and there on the barrel and some more moderate surface oxidation, light roughness and pinpricking on some of the hardware. The Tabatière breech block has a rich, uncleaned bronze patina that is very attractive. Both steel and bronze (technically “gun metal”) were used for the breech material and the bronze breeches are much less common. The bronze is also significantly more attractive. The bore of the gun remains in FINE condition and is mostly bright with very clear and distinct, if shallow rifling throughout. There is some scattered frosting in the bore and some lightly scattered oxidation and very minor scattered pitting, but overall it is a really very nice bore. The action of the gun is in fine mechanical condition and operates as it should, but the body of the firing pin is broken off. Were a particularly adventurous collector want to do some “experimental archeology” by making up some Tabatière cartridges and try to fire the gun, they would first have to have the firing pin restored to full length. Right now, only the top portion of the firing pin and its shoulder inside the breech block remain intact. The original and correct Tabatière alteration L-shaped leaf rear sight is in place on the breech, as is the accompanying front sight blade on a block base. The original socket bayonet is in place on the barrel under the muzzle, ready to accept a French Model 1822 or Model 1847 socket bayonet.
Both original sling swivels are in place on the gun as well; one on the bow of the triggerguard and one on the middle barrel band. The original heavy cupped ramrod is in place in the channel under the barrel. The rod is full-length for the gun in this configuration having been shortened to 40 ½”, the appropriate length to be a Tabatière cleaning and clearing rod, and still retains fine threads at the end. The stock of the rifle remains in VERY GOOD condition and were it not for the “duffle cut” under the middle barrel band would rate about “fine”. The stock has not been sanded as the storekeeper’s cartouche and all accompanying stock marks are still nice and crisp. As noted, even the often missing boxwood plug is in place and intact. The stock is full-length and solid and remains free of any breaks or repairs. As would expected, the stock shows numerous scattered bumps, dings, scuffs, mars and surface scrapes that are typical of a 150+ year old military rifle musket that served in both percussion and cartridge and probably had a service life in France of nearly two decades.
Overall this is a very attractive, complete and correct example of a scarce French Franco-Prussian War Era Tabatière Alteration Rifle Musket. The gun remains in very nice condition with crisp wood and metal and with only two small condition issues, the broken firing pin with is only relevant if you want to shoot the gun (not recommended) and the duffle cut stock. What is nice is that neither condition issue is visible as both are concealed by the gun itself. Original and correct Tabatière Rifle Muskets are becoming extremely hard to find on the market and are an important firearm for any serious 19th century military long arms collection. They belong in a grouping with the early standardized metallic cartridge military alterations like the US Trapdoor and the British Snider. They also represent the first of the French metallic cartridge military rifles. Finally, they are an essential part of any Franco-Prussian War collection. This is a very attractive gun that displays wonderfully and will be a fine addition to 19th century military long arms collection.