The mitrailleuse was a manually-fired volley gun originally developed in Belgium in the 1850s by Fafschamps and improved during the early 1860s by Christophe and Montigny. The French-designed Reffye mitrailleuse followed soon afterwards and was adopted by the French Army in 1865, with the personal support of Napoleon III. Initially kept under wraps as a secret weapon, it became widely used in battle by French artillery during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Smaller numbers of other designs, including the Gatling gun, were also purchased by the French government during the latter part of that conflict. The Reffye mitrailleuse had initially been built in small numbers and in secrecy: only about 200 were available for field deployment in July 1870 at the beginning of the conflict. Historically, however, it was the first rapid-firing weapon to be deployed as standard equipment by any army in a major conflict. Although innovative, it failed as a tactical weapon because its operational usage and design were flawed. The word mitrailleuse nonetheless became the generic term for a machine gun in the French language, although the mitrailleuse itself was entirely manually-operated.
Several variants of the mitrailleuse concept were developed, with common elements to all of their designs. They were characterized by a number of rifled barrels clustered together and mounted on a conventional artillery chassis or (in the case of one model) a tripod. The ammunition was secured in a single block and placed into the breech, behind the open ends of the barrels. All of the barrels were loaded simultaneously by a manual closing lever or large horizontal screw. A second lever could be worked rapidly (or in some models, a crank could be turned) to fire each barrel in succession. This earned the weapon its French nickname of moulin à café (coffee grinder). (A very similar name was earned by the hand-cranked, mechanically-loaded, continuous-firing, multi-revolving-barreled "coffee mill gun" in America during the American Civil War).
The ammunition plate had to be removed by hand before another loaded plate could be inserted. Unlike in the Gatling gun and later rapid-firing automatic weapons, the entire loading and firing process was manual. The mitrailleuse's major innovation was simply that it sped up these processes over the regular infantry rifles.
The different variants of the mitrailleuse concept were distinguished by their number of barrels and their different calibers, as the following table summarizes.
|Variant name||Barrels||Barrel arrangement||Caliber||Date1||Notes|
|Bollée||30||Two circular rings (18 in the outer ring, 12 in the inner)|| 13 mm |
|1870||Used by the French Army of the Loire during the Franco-Prussian War|
|Chevalier et Grenier||16||Two horizontal rows (2 x 8)|| 11 mm |
|Gabert||04||???|| 11 mm |
|1870||Tripod-mounted, unlike the other carriage-mounted variants|
|Christophe-Montigny||37|| 11 mm |
|1863||Privately developed and used primarily by the Belgian Army|
|Reffye||25||In five rows (5 x 5)|| 13 mm |
|1865||Widely used by the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War|
|Notes:  Date developed|
Most variants of the mitrailleuse were mounted on an artillery-style carriage. This made it heavy and cumbersome to handle on the battlefield, with gun and carriage weighing up to 900 kg (2000 lb). Approximately one third of the Reffye mitrailleuses were fitted with a protective steel armor plate to shield the operator from hostile gunfire. This appeared rather late (1871), presumably in response to conditions on the battlefield in the Franco-Prussian War.
The mitrailleuse's dependence on manual loading meant that its firing rate depended greatly on the skill of its operators. A skillfully-manned Reffye mitrailleuse could sustain 3 volleys (75 rounds) per minute in ordinary operation and reach 5 volleys (125 rounds) per minute during emergencies. The rapidity of discharge of each individual volley (25 rounds) was controlled by the gunner's action on a small manual crank on the right side of the breech. In other words, the weapon's 25 barrels were not discharged all at once but in rapid succession. As a result and because of its heavy weight (1500 lbs) the whole Reffye mitrailleuse did not recoil during firing and thus did not need to be re-sighted on its target after each volley. This absence of recoil while firing the mitrailleuse was promoted by Reffye as a considerable advantage over the conventional field artillery that was in existence at the time. Each regular battery of Reffye mitrailleuses lined up 6 guns firing together, more or less side by side.
The Reffye mitrailleuse used a 13 mm centerfire cartridge, designed by Gaupillat, which represented the state of the art in ammunition design at the time (Huon,1986). It was rather similar to an elongated modern shotgun shell: centerfire with a rimmed brass head and a dark blue hardened cardboard body. The , 13 mm (0.512 inch) patched bullet was propelled by a compressed black powder charge at a muzzle velocity of , three and a half times more powerful than Chassepot or Dreyse rifle ammunition. This was, by far, the most potent rifle caliber ammunition in existence at the time. Often encountered assertions that the Reffye mitrailleuse fired the 11mm Chassepot combustible paper cartridge have no basis in facts whatsoever.
The 13 mm centerfire mitrailleuse cartridges were pre-loaded in interchangeable steel breech blocks (not "plates" as often stated incorrectly). When firing the mitrailleuse, three breech blocks were kept in continuous use: one being fired, one being pressed down on the extractor and one being loaded from a single pre-packaged 25 rounds box.
The weapon's barrel could be moved sideways, back and forth, with a rotating handle for sweeping fire. The angle was narrow, however, and the barrel could not swing far enough from side to side to produce effective sweeping fire at short distances. The weapon's field of fire was so narrow that Prussian soldiers were often hit by several bullets at once. During an early engagement of the Franco-Prussian War, at Forbach in Alsace on August 6, 1870, a Prussian general officer (Gen. von Francois) was brought down by a very closely spaced volley of 4 bullets. According to the Prussian regimental record, those four mitrailleuse bullets had been fired from 600 meters away. French artillery attempted to rectify this problem by developing special ammunition capable of firing three bullets from the same cartridge for short-range point defense.
A total of 215 mitrailleuses and five million rounds of ammunition had been manufactured by July 1870, but only 190 were operational and available for field service when war with Prussia broke out.
The French Army saw the mitrailleuse as a form of artillery weapon, rather than an infantry support weapon – a role later to be filled by the machine gun. As a matter of fact, the official name of the Reffye mitrailleuse in the French Army was "le Canon á Balles", a designation that translates literally as: "the cannon which fires bullets". Having been developed by the artillery they were, naturally, manned by artillerymen and attached to artillery groups equipped with regular four-pounder field guns. Each mitrailleuse battery comprised six guns, each with a crew of six. One man on the front right fired the gun while another man on the front left swiveled the gun sideways for sweeping fire. The four other men attended to aiming, loading, and unloading.
The battlefield use of the mitrailleuse as artillery was a fatally flawed concept. In order to avoid being hit by Dreyse rifle fire, the mitrailleuse batteries were systematically deployed beyond about 1,400 m (1,500 yards) from the enemy lines. Although the maximum range of the mitrailleuses was 3,400 m (3,700 yards), the distances at which they were typically engaged in action rarely exceeded 2,000 m (2100 yards). This was much less than that of conventional French field artillery with which the mitrailleuses were deployed. However it was still too far, given the facts that range-finding and target acquisition, with the two open sights on the mitrailleuse, were extremely difficult at such long distances. For instance, mitrailleuse bullet impacts on the ground were impossible to observe in the far distance unless enemy ranks had been disrupted by hits from them. It may be noted that modern machine guns are typically used at ranges far shorter than their maximum range – the M60 machine gun, for instance, is normally used at an effective range of 1,100 m (1,200 yards), compared to its maximum range of 3,725 m (4,074 yards). The mitrailleuse, by contrast, was often used at the outer edges of its range. These deficiencies in the operational usage of the Reffye mitrailleuse proved disastrous in the Franco-Prussian War.
The outbreak of war with Prussia on 15 July 1870 led to a somewhat chaotic mobilization of the French Army. The mitrailleuse batteries faced particularly acute problems. Although they had been organized, on paper, into proper batteries, on the outbreak of war the guns were still in storage at Meudon and in the forts of Montrouge, Issy, and Mont-Valerien around Paris. The crews had been designated but had not yet been assembled. Many had little or no training in the use of the weapons and so were unaware of its sighting and ranging characteristics. Detailed instruction manuals had been printed in January 1870, but had only been distributed at the very beginning of the hostilities. Such was the secrecy surrounding the weapon that not only did few artillery commanders know how to deploy it effectively, many did not even know that it existed. Marshal MacMahon, commander of the Army of Châlons, claimed that he had never even seen a mitrailleuse until one was wheeled past him at the Battle of Sedan on 2 September 1870, nearly two months after war had been declared.
Mitrailleuses were used in many of the major engagements of the war, but their small numbers – only 190 of the Reffye variant in the entire French army – greatly restricted their effectiveness in the field. Their flawed operational usage was a serious problem on the battlefield. While the mitrailleuses were inherently accurate, in a ballistic sense, they were often unable to zero in on targets quickly enough in the far distance. Furthermore, individual 25 round salvos were also too tightly grouped and lacked lateral dispersion even at long distances. To make matters worse, the complex firing mechanism was vulnerable to damage at the hands of inexperienced crews. Fouling of the mechanism by black powder combustion residues and thus difficulties in closing the breech were reported as a problem after prolonged firings.
In a few instances where the Reffye mitrailleuses were put to good use, they showed that they could have a significant impact. Captain Barbe's mitrailleuse battery at the Battle of Gravelotte devastated massed Prussian infantry when they had quickly found the range on their targets, contributing to the exceptionally high Prussian death toll in that battle. For the most part, however, mitrailleuses proved ineffective. It was concluded after the war that Chassepot rifle fire had caused a far greater number of Prussian casualties than the Reffye mitrailleuses. However, about 100,000 Chassepot rifles were engaged in combat in contrast with the less than 200 Reffye mitrailleuses used in battle at any given time.
The Prussians and foreign observers were not impressed by the performance of the mitrailleuse. In the case of the Prussians, their views were undoubtedly colored by propaganda. They had very few machine guns or volley guns of their own and, not least for reasons of maintaining morale in the face of a new weapon technology, they scorned the effectiveness of the mitrailleuse. They nonetheless saw the weapon as a threat and Prussian artillery always made it a priority to engage and destroy the mitrailleuse batteries. The weapon's characteristic "snarling rasp" does appear to have made some impression – the Prussian troops called the mitrailleuse the "Höllenmaschine" ("Hell Machine")
Its failure to have much effect in the field led to a belief that rapid-fire weapons were useless. United States Army General William Babcock Hazen, who observed the war, commented that "The French mitrailleuse had failed to live up to expectations. The Germans hold it in great contempt, and it will hardly become a permanent military arm." Strictly speaking, manually-operated volley guns such as the Reffye mitrailleuse were a technological dead-end – they would be soon be replaced by fully automatic machine guns.
After Napoleon III's abdication following the disastrous French defeat in the Battle of Sedan, French war powers fell into the hand of a republican government led by Leon Gambetta. He vigorously organized national defense and the continued manufacture of war equipment. Most of the conventional weapon manufacturing was located in provincial France, but some mitrailleuse repair and even construction continued inside Paris during the city's four-month siege.
The manufacture of the mitrailleuse and its ammunition was resumed under the direction of De Reffye in the coastal city of Nantes in western France. An additional 122 mitrailleuses were manufactured in Nantes to replace the nearly 200 mitrailleuses that had already been destroyed and/or captured.
The mitrailleuse is also reported to have been used by the Mexican Federal Forces against the Yaqui Indians under the command of Cajemé (José Maria Leyva), a prominent leader of his people from 1874-1887.
After the armistice with Prussia in May 1871, one of the last recorded uses of Reffye mitrailleuses was by troops under the command of Adolphe Thiers, when a battery executed captured Communards in the Bois de Boulogne, following the suppression of the Paris Commune. Similar incidents involving the Reffye mitrailleuse are reported to have taken place at the Caserne Lobau, a barracks in the center of Paris.
A fairly large number of the French Army's Reffye mitrailleuses (268 altogether) survived the Franco-Prussian War. An additional 122 Reffye mitrailleuses, which had been captured during the 1870-71 campaign, were sold back to France by Germany through a London military surplus dealer in 1875. By 1885, many of the mitrailleuses in the overall remaining French inventory were designated to static point-defence duties, for the purpose of providing flanking fire in the moats of fortresses. The last surviving Reffye mitrailleuses were removed from forts in eastern France as late as 1908. The Reffye mitailleuses were never offered for sale by the French government, either before or after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). They are often confused with other types of manually operated volley guns, such as the Belgian-made Montigny mitrailleuse, or even with the Gatling gun.
The long-term effects of the mitrailleuse's poor performance have been the subject of some dispute among historians. In Machine guns: An Illustrated History, J. Willbanks argues that the weapon's ineffectiveness in the Franco-Prussian War resulted in long-standing opposition among European armies to adopting machine gun weapons, particularly in Continental Europe. It is true that the French army did not adopt an automatic machine-gun until 1897, when they chose the Hotchkiss machine gun, later to be followed by the Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun. The French armed forces also adopted another automatic machine gun, the St. Etienne Mle 1907. It has been suggested that the relative slowness displayed by the French services to adopt machine guns was the result of wariness occasioned by the failure of the mitrailleuse. There is some justification to that, for the Maxim gun had repeatedly been tested by the French armed services ever since its inception.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, the French put a much greater emphasis on improving their conventional artillery. The failure of French artillery during the 1870-71 campaign served as a strong motivation to develop the De Bange field artillery piece (1877) and eventually the well-known Canon de 75 modèle 1897 field gun. At a normal 15 shells per minute rate of fire, one single 75 mm gun could deliver 4,350 lethal shrapnel balls within one minute, up to 6 km away, versus the 75 bullets per minute that were delivered at up to 2 km distance by one Reffye mitrailleuse. Weapon system efficiency had increased by 2 orders of magnitude in 30 years !
Despite such improvements in longer-range artillery, there still remained a need to develop better short- and medium-range infantry support weapons. During the period from 1871 to the 1890s, a variety of new European- and American-designed manual machine guns were adopted by many European armies. Large numbers of Gatling guns were purchased from the United States and were used by Western European powers in colonial wars in Africa, India, and Asia. Twenty-five Gatling guns also saw active service in French hands during the Franco-Prussian war, in early 1871. They performed particularly well at an engagement at Le Mans in western France. Furthermore the French armed services purchased, for their Navy and eastern fortifications, a large number of manual, rapid fire 37 mm multi-barrel guns (so-called Hotchkiss "canon-revolvers") made in France after 1879 by the firm of American expatriate Benjamin B. Hotchkiss. By the 1890s however, European armies begun to retire their Gatling guns and other manual machine-guns in favor of fully automatic machine guns, such as the Maxim gun, the Colt-Browning M1895, and, in 1897, the Hotchkiss machine gun. Such weapons became universal – and notorious – with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.
The machine gun is still called mitrailleuse in French, following the pattern set by the adoption of the Mitrailleuse Hotchkiss in 1897. The FN 5.56 mm NATO machine gun, the Minimi, derives its name from the term Mini-Mitrailleuse - literally "little machine gun".
The term is also used in Norwegian. Although spelled slightly differently as mitraljøse, the pronunciation is similar. In Norway, the term nowadays is used to refer to a machine gun (the MG3, labeled as mitr-3, to be specific) mounted on a tripod. This is similar to the German term Schwere Maschinengewehr, which refers to a regular machine gun mounted on a tripod.
A related word, metralhadora, is used in Portuguese. Although it is derived from the French mitrailleuse, its pronunciation is different. It describes any automatic firearm. Similarly, in Spanish ametralladora is the word for a machine gun, metralleta, connected to French mitraillette for a sub-machine gun.
An original Reffye mitrailleuse can be seen in Paris at the Musée de l'Armée in the Hotel Des Invalides. It is located in the internal main courtyard, exposed to the air in one of the outside covered galleries on the first floor, and could benefit from restoration work. Another better preserved mitrailleuse can be found in the Musée royal de l’Armée et d'Histoire Militaire in Brussels. Additionally, a very well preserved Reffye mitrailleuse is also displayed in the collections of the Dreiecklandmuseum, 79423, Heitersheim (near Freiburg im Breisgau), Germany.