In 1858 the French Navy became the first military organization to adopt a self-contained metallic cartridge handgun for general issue and use. The gun was the Lefaucheux Model 1858 Revolver, based upon Lefaucheux’s earlier Model 1854. The single action revolver was chambered for the 11mm pinfire cartridge, a self-contained metallic cartridge that was more reliable and robust than any of the paper or skin percussion cartridges of the era. With this major advancement in technology and by taking the lead by embracing a new technology, it would be reasonable to assume that the French military would adopt cartridge revolvers for all of their armed services, but they did not. In fact, at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War in May of 1871, the standard French military handgun remained the Model 1822 T bis, a single shot, muzzleloading pistol altered to percussion from its original flintlock configuration! While this may seem incongruent as the French army had adopted the Model 1866 Chassepot needle-fire, bolt-action rifle five years earlier, their handguns were from an earlier and obsolete era. Much of this was due to the European view of cavalry, the primary military arm to use handguns. It was believed that the lance and saber were the primary arms of the cavalry, with carbine and pistols being quite secondary. The navy, however, realized that the revolver was a worthwhile side arm for their seamen, particularly when boarding an enemy vessel or in on-shore operations and raids.
The French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War resulted in the loss of the Alsace-Lorraine regions of France to Germany, the capture and abdication of the French Emperor Napoleon III and in having to pay a large war indemnity to Germany. These humiliations were crushing to the French people and the military immediately started a process of modernization to bring its small arms technology up to the European standard of the era, and if possible beyond it; all in an attempt to avoid any future massive military defeats. As history would show, only two generations later, German military forces would again massively humiliate the French.
In 1871 a French military committee began to investigate potential handgun designs for adoption and general issue. The committee felt that a self-contained metallic cartridge revolver was the only logical choice and with a strong dose of nationalism directing their search, the committee selected four potential candidates. These guns were the French Model 1870 Lefaucheux centerfire revolver currently in use by the French Navy (the successor to the earlier Model 1858), the Model 1872 Galand, a revolver made by Pirlot Frères of Belgium (co-designed by retired French Army officer Henri-Gustave Delvigne), and a revolver design being promoted by the French arsenal at Puteaux. It appears that some of the decision-making was based not upon the qualities of the guns being evaluated, but by politics and possibly personal gain. The Lefaucheux design appears to have been dismissed out of hand because of the rivalry between the French army and navy, and because Eugene Lefaucheux was an intimate with the now deposed French Emperor Napoleon III. By the same token, there was considerable pressure to look upon the Pirlot Frères submission favorably. This revolver was known as the Chamelot-Delvigne design and had been pioneered by French army officer and arms designer Henri-Gustave Delvigne. Delvigne had also invented the Delvigne breech for muzzleloading rifles and had been instrumental in influencing Claude Minié in the design of the classic expanding base Minié Ball projectile. Delvigne had worked together with Belgian designer J. Chamelot to perfect the revolver, which was finally put into production by Pirlot Frères in 1871. The Swiss adopted the design almost immediately, the Dutch two years later, and the Italians soon after. The combination of the revolver’s French heritage and current military use by other European powers should have been sufficient reasons for the board to look upon the revolver favorably. There was, however, one additional factor that probably swayed the board even more than the previous success of the Chamelot-Delvigne design; Henri-Gustave Delvigne was on the very board to investigate and adopt a revolver design for the French! It appears that the “fix was in” when it came to the trials of these handguns and in 1873 the board recommended the adoption of the Chamelot-Delvigne revolver.
The Chamelot-Delvigne Model 1873 Ordnance Revolver was what modern firearms enthusiast would call a “conventional double action design”, in that the revolver could be used as either a double-action or single-action revolver. The revolver was 9 ½” in overall length with a 4 ½” octagon-to-round barrel, rifled with 4-grooves with a right-hand twist. The gun had a solid frame and a six-shot cylinder that was loaded through a gate on the right side of the frame. The gate defined current convention by opening to the rear, rather than pivoting to the right of the frame as most loading gates of the era did. In reality, this was a more natural way to operate the gate, allowing the user to do so with the thumb of his right hand, without changing his grip on the revolver. A robust ejector rod was mounted in a housing on the right side of the barrel, and the kidney shaped plunger knob was retained by spring tension until the user released it. The revolver was chambered for the 11mm Chamelot-Delvigne cartridge (11mm x 17.8mmR), which was a center-fire black powder round that fired a 180-grain projectile at about 804 ft/s, generating about 253 ft/lbs. of muzzle energy. As noted historical arms author Garry James points out in his well-written article on the M1873 Ordnance Revolver (see the American Rifleman website), this cartridge was slightly less powerful than the Smith & Wesson .44 Russian cartridge, which was in general use by the Russian and Japanese forces of the era, as well as around the world in Smith & Wesson top-break revolvers. The sights of the revolver were rudimentary, as was common of the period. They consisted of a large, robust front sight blade on a large base near the muzzle and a sighting groove cut into the top strap of the frame to serve as a rear sight. One of the innovations of the revolver was its removable side plate, located on the left side of the frame. Be removing a single screw, the entire lock work of the revolver was exposed for cleaning or repair, a huge improvement over most of the competing designs of the era that required complicated disassembly to access most of the internal parts of the handgun. In addition to the standard M1873 for the army, a “Marine” (Navy) variant of the M1873 was produced. This was due to the fact that the Navy understood the mass production capabilities of St. Etienne allowed the revolvers to be produced more cheaply than the current Naval pattern 1870 revolver. While the Navy accepted the basic design, they specified that the “Marine” variant be chambered for the centerfire 11x19R French Naval handgun cartridge. This was a slightly more powerful cartridge than the army variant and required some minor machining changes to the rear of the M1873 cylinder in order to function in the gun. A training version of the revolver, the M1873X was produced as well. The “X” model was a revolver for training purposes only and was assembled from rejected parts that had failed to pass inspection. An officer’s variant, designated the Model 1874, was produced for both the army and navy, and was essentially identical to the standard Model 1873 with the exception of being slightly smaller and lighter, with a blued finish, a barrel about 1/8" shorter and a fluted cylinder. The family of M1873 revolvers was manufactured at the French National Armory at St. Etienne, with some 386,759 revolvers being produced there between 1873 and 1885; this number includes some 13,188 M1873 “Marine” revolvers, 35,174 M1874 Officer’s revolvers and 1,316 “Marine” Officer’s Revolvers. The guns were left “in the white”, with the exception of the M1874 Officer’s variants which was blued, with no finish and polished bright. However, the triggers and hammers took on a “straw” colored appearance due to the heat-treating. The grips were checkered walnut of the two-piece variety and a lanyard ring was included in the buttcap. In typical French Ordnance tradition, the guns were profusely marked with inspection and proof marks and were serial numbered on every part large enough to accept the number, and with the last two-digits on those parts too small for the number. These two-digit numbers were usually accompanied by a letter, which represented an inspector. The model designation was engraved on the top barrel flat and the date of manufacture stamped on the right flat, preceded by an “S” to indicate St. Etienne. Serial numbers for the Army revolver ran in batches of 100,000, with a letter pre-fix that changed every 100,000 guns. The letter prefixes for the M1873 revolver began with F and ended with J, the letter “I” was not used due to the possibility that it would be confused with “J”, thus only the letters F, G, H & J were used. St. Etienne arsenal records indicate that the first revolver was F1, produced in 1873 and the last was J34695 produced in 1885. Although the M1873 revolver was officially replaced by the short lived Model 1887 in that year, and subsequently by the Model 1892, the M1873 remained in service through World War I as a secondary revolver and some even saw service through World War II as last-ditch arm. Some sources report that Model 1873 Ordnance Revolvers were still in use as late as the early Vietnam War period by French forces in French Indo-China, and if that is the case, there is no doubt that the guns saw use by Viet Minh, Viet Cong and possibly North Vietnamese forces as well. This means that the revolver that only had a 14-year official service life actually served the French military for nearly 90 years, a service life for a military handgun only eclipsed in modern time by the venerable US Model 1911.
Offered here is a NEAR FINE condition example of the French Model 1874M Chamelot-Delvigne Naval Officer’s Revolver. The gun is complete, correct and period in every way, showing the pasty blue-black finish of a gun that was French arsenal reconditioned; likely during or immediately prior to the First World War. Like all of the “marine” designated M1873 and M1874 revolvers produced, the gun revolver’s cylinder differs from the standard Army M1873 to allow it to chamber the Navy’s 11x19R cartridge. The 11x19R cartridge had a larger rim than the 11x17 cartridge and would not fit in the recessed chambers of the M1873 revolver. As a result, the entire rear of the cylinder was recessed, leaving a “rim” around the rear of cylinder to help support the cases and protect the user should one of the cases rupture. The cylinder chambers were also slightly enlarged to accept the 11x19 round. This revolver was produced in 1880 at the St. Etienne Arsenal. Only 286 M1874M revolvers were produced that year. In fact, the M1874M was only produced during three years at St. Etienne. In 1878 the majority of the total of M1874M revolvers was produced, with the output totaling 880 that year. In 1880 a total of 286 were manufactured, and in 1882 an additional 150 were produced. No additional M1874M revolvers were ever manufactured at St. Etienne. The revolver has the matching serial number 922 throughout, including the small internal parts and the interior of the grips. In some cases, the number is only two digits, 22, preceded by the inspection initial J. The gun is very well marked throughout and remains very crisp and sharp, despite the arsenal reconditioning. The top barrel flat is marked in script Mle 1874M, and the lower right side of the frame (below the cylinder) is marked in script in two lines: Mre d’Armes / St. Etienne. The left side plate of the frame is stamped with the serial number 922, and this full serial number appears on the triggerguard, cylinder, ejector rod housing, barrel, trigger, hand, hammer, sear and mainspring tension block. The smaller parts, like the screw heads, all bear the inspector initial J over or before the last two digits of the serial number 22. Both grip panels are also stamped J / 22 on their interiors. The cylinder is marked with the expected (CROWN) / E military acceptance mark, which is over a small raised D in an oval inspection mark. A plethora of controller, inspector’s and viewer’s marks are found on the gun, including a raised Gwithin an rhomboid, a raised B within a shield, a raised (CROWN / P in an oval, a raised L in a shield and a (CROWN) B in a pentagon, among others. The right side of the octagon barrel portion is stamped S. 1880 for St. Etienne 1880, the year of the production at that arsenal. As the M1874M revolvers were simply numbered sequentially, without letter-prefix batch markings, we know that this gun, #922 was the 42nd M1874M revolver produced in 1880, as 880 had been manufactured in 1878 and none were produced in 1879. The only expected mark that is not present is the small naval anchor stamp usually found on the buttcap. I can only surmise that the mark was removed during the arsnela refurbishment process.
As noted the gun remains fairly crisp throughout and all marking remain relatively clear and legible, although some are somewhat weak due to the arsenal reconditioning. The metal of the revolver is mostly smooth and retains about 60%+ of the arsenal reapplied blue, which is thinning, wearing and dulling. The revolver does show a moderate amount of scattered surface oxidation, flecks of brownish discoloration and a few areas of minor pinpricking. These are scattered in tiny patches on the frame, cylinder and barrel and are all the result of carry, firing and real world use and wear. There is also some light pitting present, primarily on the cylinder and this is most visible where the cylinder is serial numbered. This pitting has partially obscured that number. The mechanism of the revolver is mechanically EXCELLENT and the revolver times, indexes and locks up perfectly, exactly as it should. The loading gate functions smoothly, and the ejector rod remains tightly secured until the plunger tip is pulled forward and rotated to the right for use. The ejector rod functions smoothly and correctly as well. The original lanyard ring is in place in the butt cap of the revolver and still moves freely, as it should. The bore of the revolver is in VERY FINE condition and remains quite bright and retains very crisp, four groove rifling. The bore shows only some very lightly scattered pinpricking but no noticeable pitting and would probably improve with a good cleaning. The two-piece checkered walnut grips are in NEAR FINE condition as well. They are solid and free of any breaks, cracks or repairs. The grips show some light handling wear and minor bumps and dings, and only the most minor flattening to the sharp edges of the checkering. Overall the grips remain in very nice condition, commensurate with the balance of the revolver.
Overall this is a very nice, well-marked, extremely rare example of a French Chamelot-Delvigne M1874M Naval Officer’s Revolver. These historic cartridge revolvers had an extremely long service life with the French Navy, and like their Army brethren some probably remained in service on a very limited basis, through both World Wars and all the way to Dien Bien Phu in 1954. These are important revolvers that ushered in a new age of modern handguns to French military service. The officer’s variant of the M1873M “marine” revolver, the M1874M is extremely rare, with only 1,316 produced. By comparison, some 35,174 M1874 Army Officer’s revolvers were produced between 1874 and 1886 (none were made in 1883). That is more than 26 times as many Army officer’s revolvers than Naval officer’s revolvers. To put it in perspective, the M1874M, Naval Officer’s Revolver only represents 3% of the production of all M1874 French Officer’s revolvers! These very scarce guns are rarely encountered on the market for sale, and if the standard 10% +/- survival rate for today’s collector’s market is applied, it is unlikely that there are more than about 150 of these revolvers still in existence today. For any collector of 19th century French military handguns, this is one of those scarce items that is missing from even the most advanced collections. For a collector of late-19th century French Naval items, this is a must have. Despite the arsenal reconditioning, the gun remains in very nice shape, with a fine bore and excellent mechanism and would be a wonderful addition to any advanced collection of French military handguns.