By the mid-19th century many major militaries were beginning the hunt for a reliable and robust breechloading system. France was no exception with a number of systems trialled during the 1850s, following the Prussian adoption of the Dreyse rifle. Today we’re lucky enough to be examining one of France’s early breechloaders , with some interesting features – the Arcelin.
Perhaps properly described as le Mousqueton Arcelin 1856, the carbine has the distinction of being the first French breechloader to have a distinct bolt handle. Designed by Charles Arcelin, a graduate of the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. In the 1820s Arcelin began his ordnance career working in arms factories in Mutzig, Saxony and Starsbourg. In 1839 he became deputy director of the Tulle arsenal and developed a system for the conversion of flintlock muskets to the percussion system in 1842. He subsequently became Director of the Châtellerault arsenal between December 1841 to September 1842 and again from December 1849 to August 1852. It was during this period that Arcelin developed his breechloader.
Following his work on developing a percussion conversion Arcelin set about developing a breechloading system, in June 1853 a prototype cavalry carbine was tested at Vincennes. The prototype fired 130 rounds before its action fouled and seized up – despite this observers were impressed, including Emperor Napoleon III.
A letter from the Cabinet of the Emperor, dated August 4, 1856 states:
“The Emperor wants General Arcelin to be responsible for having the Manufacture de Châtellerault make 300 carabiners with a movable breech of the model which has been tested at Vincennes and which gave satisfactory results and in addition 100 reserve cavalry sabers, 100 line cavalry sabers and 100 light cavalry sabers which will be attached at the end of the carabiners. The sabers as well as the carabiners of a new model which was established on the personal indications of the Emperor. These weapons are intended to be tested in three regiments of the Imperial Guard.”
At the beginning of October, the Emperor ordered that production be reduced to 100 rifles. On the 7th October, it was proposed that Châtellerault would provide 108 carbines and sabers. A manufacturing report dating from 5th April 1857, signed by Arcelin, specified that 111 carbines and sabers had been produced. Despite this sources suggest that by June 1857, carbines was reduced again by the French war ministry, to 96 – a total of 32 per regiment. The carbine we are examining is marked with ‘108’ in a number of places, this would support the total of 108 and would also make it the last of the trials prototypes manufactured.
While some sources refer to the sabres as sabre-lances, this was not their designation or purpose nor were the weapons ever issued to Napoleon’s Squadron des Cent-Gardes as some sources suggest. Instead they were issued to three regiments of cavalry:
The reserve cavalry’s 1st Carabinier Regiment (Cavalerie de Réserve, 1er Régiment de Carabiniers), the line cavalry’s Empress’ Dragoons (Cavalerie de ligne, Dragons de l’Impératrice) and the 1st Hussar Regiment of the light cavalry, (Cavalerie légère, 1er Regiment de Hussards).
Once the contract for 108 trials carbines had been confirmed Arcelin set about refining and producing the guns at Châtellerault. He recruited a promising young gunsmith, Antoine Chassepot, who had been working at the arsenal since 1851, to work on the project. What Chassepot’s input on the project was is largely unknown although his work with Arcelin clearly influenced his own later designs.
The Arcelin carbine used a paper cartridge with a 21g (or 324 grain), 12mm projectile propelled by 3g (or 46gr) of black powder. It was still ignited by a percussion cap and had a back action lock. The breech locked by a pair of opposing threaded screws and by a lug in the base of the action. The carbine weighs 3.2kg (just over 7lbs) and was 1.18m (46.4in) in length, with a 76.5cm (30in) barrel.
To operate the carbine first the action is opened, rotating the bolt handle up 90-degrees. A cartridge would then be slide into the breech and the action pushed forward and closed. The percussion lock would then be brought to half-cock, a cap placed on the nipple and then the lock would be brought to full cock and the weapon fired. As the carbine fired a paper cartridge there was no need for extraction of a spent case.
The trial of the carbine was carried out alongside another new breechloader, a pinfire, falling block action developed by Antoine Treuille de Beaulieu, chambered in a 9mm round. General Treuille de Beaulieu is perhaps best known for his rifling system for artillery.
The carbines and sabres were issued and ready to begin trials at the beginning of April 1857. By the Autumn of 1857, following testing by the various units the Arcelin was rejected. The Artillery Commission found that the lack of obturation at the breech lead not only to gas escaping the action and being unpleasant and somewhat dangerous for the user but also the fouling of the interrupted thread which locked the action led to jamming and in a number of cases the folding bolt handles were broken when troopers attempted to force the actions open.
Now for the rather impressive bayonet. We have examined carbines with significant bayonets, like the Durs Egg-made Crespi breechloader. The French had a penchant for sabre bayonets dating back to 1840s and would continue to use them into the 1870s. The sabre seen with this carbine is not the exact pattern which would have been paired with the Arcelin. The 1856 pattern Arcelin sabre which would have mounted on the carbines have a hilt style which is slightly different and the lug under the barrel doesn’t quite interface with the catch on the sabre.
The sabre itself is based on the Mle 1854 sabre, a double fullered, 1m long, straight sword manufactured, like the carbines, at Châtellerault. The sword with this carbine is marked at ‘Dragon Mle 1854’ suggesting it was issued to a dragoon regiment, who only began receiving the Mle 1854 in the mid-1860s, the blade’s markings support this as it is also marked June 1865.
From the final report on the trials of the Arcelin we gain some insight into how the sabre-bayonet was to be used. In their final report, in October 1857, the Hussars noted that when used as a bayonet the sabre could only practically be used on foot describing use on horseback as impossible. They felt that firing the carbine could only accurately be done at short range as the fixed sabre made the carbine ungainly, heavy and unbalanced.
The units did, however, appreciate the defence the sabre-bayonet offered to a dismounted trooper. A passage from the translated report reads:
“the use of the saber as a bayonet gives man a means of defense which he did not have with the old weapons. This straight saber is light, perfectly in hand and excellent for pointing (…) The firing of the new weapon, saber at the end of the barrel, was carried out with the hussars and did not give place to any important observation. As expected, the shot becomes less fair because the weapon is too heavy and less well maintained by the rider (…) The saber used as a bayonet makes it a powerful weapon.”
It appears that 60 of the sabre-bayonets were later adapted to be mounted on the Saint Etienne-built 1858 Chassepot breechloading carbines which were subsequently trialled. These carbines still used percussion caps but had a fixed bolt handle, a rubber obturating round near the bolt head and the actions was rear-locking. This system would eventually evolve into the Fusil Modèle 1866 – the Chassepot.
Gas obturation was a key issue for many of the early breechloaders and would be for some time. General Arcelin’s carbine can be seen as an important footnote in the development of the Chassepot rifle which would follow it. The general died in 1868, aged 73.
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‘Le Sabre du Mousqueton Arcelin’, Gazette des Armes, #156, Aug. 1986, P. Renoux
‘Le Mousqueton Arcelin 1856-1858’, Gazette des Armes, #77, Dec. 1979, P. Lorain
‘Le Sabres-lances Arcelin Mle 1856 Trois Modeles Particuliers Pt.1’, Gazette des Armes, #397, Apr. 2008, B. Aubry & C. Bera
‘Le Sabres-lances Arcelin Mle 1856 Trois Modeles Particuliers Pt.2’, Gazette des Armes, #398, May. 2008, B. Aubry & C. Bera
‘Le Premier Chassepot – Le System de 1858’, Gazette des Armes, #78, Jan. 1980, P. Lorain
L’Arme a Feu Portative Francaise M. Cottaz (1971)