Technically, this isn’t exactly a US machine gun. Although it’s true that this French-made light machine gun, commonly called the Chauchat, was issued to the American Expeditionary Force when it arrived in France. It was probably the first machine gun ever designed to be manufactured cheaply and rapidly using stampings, sheet metal and steel tube, and simple screw machines with the barest minimum of time, and set-ups, executed on traditional lathes, shapers and milling machines. Many of the automotive industry techniques that were applied to the Sten and the M3 grease gun were not yet available in 1915, so the manufacturing technology that went into this gun is even more remarkable.
The evolving conventional wisdom is that the 8mm version was not all that bad; the true disaster was the American attempt to Bubba it to fire the .30-06. But the bad reputation of the Chauchat ensures one thing: you can get an example for quite short money for a transferable machine gun. This excellent-condition example is the best we have seen, and it’s on GunBroker right now with a buy-it-now of $7,500!
That is a bargain for a transferable, historically significant machine gun, and right in time for the centennial of the Great War. Here’s the other side, just to prove we’re not showing you the star’s best side:
Now, the beauty of the Chauchat is kind of an acquired taste. It’s pretty rudely functional, in a way that few polished, blued, walnut-stocked service weapons of the day were. That’s one way in which this old poilu is a harbinger of modern times. But it was an early example of a shoulder-fired, bipod-equipped, single-gunner (with one a/gunner making a crew of 2) light machine gun.
The Chauchat, called by its reluctant doughboy operators the “Sho-Sho Gun,” was formally the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 C.S.R.G. from the initials of the members of the committee that brought it forth. Mechanical engineer Col. Louis Chauchat and hands-on machinist Charles Sutter were the designers; Paul Ribeyrolles wasthe production engineer who prepared it for industrial mass production, and Gladiator, Ribeyrolles’s velocipede and motorcar factory in suburban Paris, was where the bulk of them were manufactured (a second factory came on line late in the war).
The Mle. 1915 was a revision of a 1907 Chauchat-Sutter design that was manufactured by more traditional methods. While France only built 100 of the Modele 1907 C-S, zero of which survive, they were able to produce hundreds of thousands of the 1915 CSRGs in two converted automotive plants, enough that they had them to spare for their Allies like Belgium and the USA, and a Chauchat diaspora carried the guns as far as Russia and Greece after the war.
It is a long-recoil design, which means that the bolt and barrel remain locked until the assembly has recoiled the entire length of the cartridge – for the 8 x 50 Lebel, 70mm or about 3 inches — and then the barrel returns forward when the bolt is held back. The empty is ejected from this rear position, the feed system (here, a 20-round, half-moon curved box magazine) pops up a fresh round, and the arrival of the barrel forward trips the release of the bolt, chambering and firing (if the trigger remains depressed) the next round. This is the system of the Browning Auto-5 shotgun and the Remington Model 8 rifle (essentially Browning’s rifle version of the same action), but the Chauchat is the only successful application to automatic weapons that we’re aware of. (This is the point in the article where Daniel E. Watters is invited to correct us if we’re wrong!). Recoil is boosted by the conical booster that many have mistaken for a flash hider; it’s actually there for the same reason the MG42 has a similarly conceived muzzle attachment. The long recoil action yields long movements of heavy parts, and therefore, potentially more dispersion than comparable weapons, at least partly offset by a lower rate of fire.
This brief video, from our friends at Forgotten Weapons, shows you the cyclic rate of an 8mm Chauchat.
The bizarre half-moon magazines, unique to the Chauchat, were required by the rimmed 8mm Lebel cartridge, which is dramatically tapered: 16mm at the rim and 8.3mm at the case mouth. Some people have concluded there is a solid type of magazine (see the one in the gun on the left side picture), and another version with large cut-outs, but in fact, all mags we’ve seen have one smooth side and one cut-out side. We don’t know whether the cut-outs were meant to lighten the mags or to allow round counting; We do know it was a rotten idea for a gun used in the gooey muck of trench warfare. But at least one intended employment of the CSRG was as a lightweight gun for aerial observers, where your fate was more likely to be a long fall, or burning to death, than mud, trench foot and typhus.
This example is also extremely well accessorized, with AA sights (visible on the gun and a spare set in the accessory shot below), and spare mags and carriers. It hasn’t been fired in years, but the seller says it worked when it last was put to the test.
The starting price of the auction is $5,750, but there’s a reserve. As mentioned above, the Buy-it-now is $7,500. Here’s the seller’s blurb:
This is a splendid condition Chauchat with numerous accessories. 8 m/m Lebel, C & R and fully transferable. Model of 1915 by C.S.R.G. 5 Magazines, Anti-Aircraft sight installed, spare set of anti-aircraft sights, very rare musette magazine bag, even more rare wooden magazine case, bipod, original sling. Can supply about 1000 rounds of ammo with gun, extra price. This is a high quality Chauchat that when last fired about 8 years ago, ran like a top. Even with English manual.
It’s really a rare chance to add a museum-worthy, historically significant firearm — the wellspring of all light machine guns and squad automatic weapons! — to your collection.
Of course, if you’re inspired with desire for one of these unusual French ticklers, but shrink from spending quite so much, there’s a less minty Chauchat that Ohio Ordnance is offering for a starting bid of $4,500 and no reserve. Certainly the minty one is the better investment-grade gun.
The seller of the minty Chauchat, WDHaskins, has quite a few other enticing rarities, including a 1909 Hotchkiss Portative (English Army version of what the US called the Benet-Mercié Machine rifle, a Japanese Lewis aerial observer’s gun, and a really nice collection of English double guns — shotguns and rifles. This link goes to all his current auctions.