A few days ago I finally received my copy of Chassepot to FAMAS: French military rifle, 1866 – 2016 by Ian McCollum. I have been a devoted fan of Ian’s YouTube channel – Forgotten Weapons – for many years. For those unfamiliar with his channel. Ian provides information on infantry weapons whose historical significance is lost. Frequently he comes across such weapons at several of the large auction houses that deal with firearms.
However, weapons that are in common use are also considered if little of their provenance is known or if their history is mired with misconceptions. One such topic are modern French rifles from the 1866 Chassepot to the FAMAS. Production took place in state-run factories. Out of the necessity for secrecy little information is available about their development. With Chassepot to FAMAS Ian tries to fill this dearth of information in a style similar to his YouTube videos.
The intended audience of the book is varied. Chassepot to FAMAS is written for the numerous owners of French firearms in the United States. Many will not know much about the rifles they own. French firearms receive scant coverage outside of the French language. Yet, the way surplus stocks found their way to the US meant there are disproportionately more owners there then anywhere else.
However, this book in actuality reaches a much wider audience than just firearms owners. Anybody who is interested in the backstory of some of these ‘forgotten weapons‘ will find this an essential resource. Viewers of Ian’s channel will enjoy this also book. The text is easy to read and understand. It is a coffee table book for casual reading. Ian ensured the books format is easy to hold and placed in the lap.
10 rifles of Chassepot to FAMAS
Chassepot to FAMAS has 10 chapters. Corresponding with the ten modern rifles France has fielded since 1866. These rifles are the Chassepot, Gras, Kropatschek, Lebel, Berthier, RSC, MAS 36, MAS semi-automatic rifles, FR series and the FAMAS. I took special interest in two French rifles of this period. The first is the ubiquitous Lebel. It was the first to use smokeless powder cartridge’s. The second is the RSC semi-automatic rifle from the Great War. Sadly, that chapter is also one of the shortest. According to Ian a lot of the records regarding its development have been lost or are still considered a state secret. Nonetheless, the information Ian presents gives insight into the considerations made by its designers: Rineyrolles, Sutter and Chauchat. That the French managed to produce this rifle in the midst of a world conflict is an impressive feet.
War of 1870, WW1 and WW2
Chassepot to FAMAS starts with the rifle that gives the book its title – the Chassepot needlefire rifle from 1866. Ian juxtaposes the development of this rifle with the arms race that existed between the French Empire (and Republic) and the German Empire. Despite its undoubted qualities the French would go on to lose the war of 1870 when German tactics proved superior. The revanchist feelings towards the Germans ensured there was impetus to develop ever more advanced rifles. I am amazed how the Chassepot’s successor – the Gras – is derived from the former and how this cycle continued with the Kropatschek and Lebel.
I am also amazed to learn how quickly each rifle got replaced by another. The 1874 Gras was supplemented with the Kropatschek in 1878. Both replaced by the Lebel in 1886 and the Berthier in 1890. Yet, the Gras still exists in Somalia and Ethiopia with ammunition dating from 1960s. Each new rifle introduced something new, but was constrained to use as many existing parts as possible. Sometimes to their detriment such as the obsolete tube magazine of the Lebel. Even the Berthier used parts and concepts from the Lebel. Granted, a lot of this information exists online, but I made the effort to not look. It is exactly this kind of information that made me a fan of Ian’s YouTube channel.
The modern age
With the MAS 36 this book enters the modern age of rifles. Despite using a bolt action the rifle is no less interesting than the semi-automatic MAS 44 and 49. The FR series of rifles were not general purpose infantry rifles – instead served as precision rifles. The final chapter is on the last French service rifle to enter production – the FAMAS – a rather unique bullpup design. Chassepot to FAMAS ends with a number of appendices. These include descriptions of French ammunition such as the paper patched 11mm Chassepot but also includes a list of the state-run factory directors, unit markings and disassembly instructions for each rifle. The latter will no doubt aid those lucky enough to own one of these fantastic rifles.
As mentioned, this is not a technical reference work. There are no detailed schematics of each rifle’s action nor in-depth descriptions of how they work. Ian gives a general description of their workings. Enough to understand why they are advancements on previous designs. He also describes their limitations. Each chapter has a set of subsections. These are ‘Overview’ which describe the rifles origin and introduction, ‘Production & Serial numbers’, ‘Models & Variants’, ‘Mechanics’ which describe their workings, ‘Accessories’, ‘Bayonets’ and ‘Service Use’. Two of the rifles, the Lebel and the Berthier, have sections entirely devoted to variants that also include their own subsections on the above mentioned topics. To complete the chapters Ian has also included pages describing the state-run arms factories such as St. Etienne, Chatellerault and Tulle.
And so we have come to the end of my review for Chassepot to FAMAS. The book is even more amazing than I could have imagined. In fact, I imaged a rather short book consolidating information already known. Author Ian McCollum has instead spent a lot of time fully fleshing out the history of each rifle. His work on this book is as diligent as it is with his videos. I will also mention the gorgeous photography by James Rupley. Their consistent quality makes Ian’s descriptions of rifle markings easy to understand. That will aid prospective buyers with understanding the many variants and possible fakes that exist.
For me this book culminates 7 years of being a devoted fan to his YouTube channel. Those readers familiar with Ian’s publishing company, Headstamp Publishing, will know that more books on rare rifle are being written by other authors. These include Thorneycroft to SA80 by Jonathan Ferguson, The Emir’s New Rifles by Jenzen-Jones & Easley and The Story of the Russian Avtomat by Maxim Popenker. Fans of Forgotten Weapons will no doubt know why these books are significant. Yet, there is no publishing date. A recent video hints an announcements regarding their release is to follow soon. I for one cannot wait.
I hope you enjoyed this review. My copy of Chassepot to FAMAS is part of the Kickstarter project, hence the blue cover, but the book can also be ordered at Headstamp Publishing starting at $95.00. If you liked this review, please subscribe by filling in your email in the widget on the right. For those interested in history can also read my review of Kursk 1943 by Dr. Roman Toeppel.