The French Chauchat (pronounced “show-SHA”) holds several distinctions, including one of the most-produced automatic weapons of the First World War, and one of the first relatively light-weight automatic rifles designed to be operated by a single soldier, rather than a crew-served weapon.
It had a number of features that should have made it a revolutionary weapon, including relatively high twenty-round capacity magazines, both a full and semi-automatic fire capability, and a modest weight of around twenty pounds. And compared to the heavy, immobile crew-served machine guns of the era, the Chauchat was superior.
Like the American Browning Automatic Rifle, the Chauchat light machine gun was meant to be used while marching: both French and American soldiers equipped with the Chauchat practiced so-called marching fire drills where the Chauchat was shot from the hip while walking forward to keep an entrenched enemy pinned down. The Chauchat excelled in this capacity thanks to its light weight, though its twenty-round magazine capacity hindered sustained firing.
The Chauchat benefited from high-quality precision machined steel bolt and barrel, but was hampered by other stamped parts that were optimized for mass-production but of poor workmanship. During extended firing, the Chauchat’s barrel sleeve was known to remain locked backwards due to thermal expansion until it cooled down. More positively, the Chauchat had a rather bulbous front grip that aided controllability, as well as a metallic bipod. Still, it was an imperfect weapon, and by far the Chauchat’s biggest shortcoming was its magazines.
The Chauchat used novel half-moon magazines, magazines that were essentially half circles. The magazines could offer a decent amount of available firepower, though they were often of shoddy workmanship and loaded with only eighteen or nineteen rounds to prevent feeding malfunctions.
Almost inexplicably, the Chauchat’s magazines were open on one side, with windows cut into the magazine wall that allowed the shooter to visually check how many rounds were still available. Unfortunately, this was a fatal mistake on the muddy and mucky Great War battlefields. Dirt, dust, and earth could easily enter Chauchat magazines, and often did, leading to an inordinate amount of stoppages. The Chauchat’s open bolt design exacerbated dirt ingress and further contributed to the rifle’s poor reputation for reliability.
The Chauchat was adopted into service by a number of other countries including Serbia, Belgium, and Greece, as well as Poland and among the United States’ American Expeditionary Forces. The American Chauchat’s in particular were terrible.
The American Doughboys were equipped with specially-built Chauchats that were chambered in the more powerful American .30-06 rifle cartridge, making the weapon even more prone to overheating than the original French design. Moreover, the American Chauchat chambers were built to the wrong dimensions, making firing both dangerous and combat-ineffective. As if that weren’t enough, the American-made Chauchats’s sights were incorrectly mated to the receiver, and made the weapon hopelessly inaccurate.
Though the French Chauchat did offer quite a few innovations on paper that should have given French and American soldiers a distinct battlefield advantage, they were hampered by some parts of dubious quality, and abysmally designed magazines that made their overall impact much less than what could have been.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.