The Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 ‘CSRG’ or Chauchat is perhaps the most maligned machine gun ever made. Its reputation is not entirely deserved. The Chauchat was an ambitious weapon both in its design and construction and also its tactical use.
The designation ‘CSRG’ is an acronym formed from the names of the designers and the factory where the Chauchat was produced. Designed by Colonel Louis Chauchat, Charles Sutter, Paul Ribeyrolles and the factory Societe des Cycles Clement et Gladiator. While the Chauchat’s predecessors had been in experimental development before the war they had not been adopted, it wasn’t until 1915 that the idea of a machine rifle gained real interest. Colonel Chauchat had long espoused the idea.
A two man Chauchat team in action with the assistant gunner standing by with a fresh magazine (source)
The weapon was refined for production in 1915, and the first weapons reached French troops in 1916. It was the first mass produced Automatic Rifle to see military service. Assembled at the Gladiator factory, with simple parts like the stock were subcontracted while Manufacture d’Armes de Châtellerault supplied barrels. The first barrels were salvaged from damaged Lebel rifles, production of dedicated new barrels began in 1917. It was the quality of the gun’s manufacture which led to problems. Screws which came loose during firing, some of the materials used were inferior and the weapon’s sights were frequently misaligned. The magazine, the design of which was retained from the earlier CS machine rifle, was also found to have problems with dirt easily entering the action. Gladiator turned out hundreds of thousands of Chauchat magazines. Despite some production problems 250,000 Modele 1915s made and it became one of the most common light machine guns of the war.
The Modele 1915 was select fire, fired from an open bolt and used a long recoil system with a rotating 4-lug bolt. The predominant problems with Modele 1915′s in the field was ingress of mud into the magazine but more importantly overheating. With sustained rapid fire the barrel sleeve heated up and prevented the recoiling barrel from cycling until the gun had cooled
The CSRG was first fielded in April 1916, during the Battle of Verdun, however, its first major deployment came in July during the Battle of the Somme. The Somme saw the first use of marching fire with encouraging reports from the field General Joffre wrote to the Minister of War requesting the initial order for 55,000 Chauchats be doubled.
A three man Chauchat team (source)
The Chauchat had an extremely low rate of fire, firing just 250 rounds per minute and fed from a 20-round magazine (which operated best when loaded with just 18-rounds). The low rate of fire had the positive effect of preventing the weapon from heating up too quickly and also allowed the weapon to be kept on target when firing in fully automatic.
Like the American M1918 BAR which would follow it, the Chauchat was really a Automatic Rifle, not a Light Machine Gun. The concept of walking fire was developed in an effort to counter the Western Front’s stalemate. The gunner, accompanied by ammunition bearers would advance across no man’s land, in theory, firing a round every other step. In practice it was probably used to fire in short bursts from cover while advancing from shellhole to shellhole. In their book Honour Bound – The Chauchat Machine Rifle, Demaison and Buffetaut collect medal citations for Chauchat gunners which detail the gun’s use in attack and defence. Many of the citations describe gunners holding positions against enemy attack or suppressing enemy machine guns while advancing.
A two man Chauchat team (source)
Initially, Chauchats were deployed in two man teams, a gunner and a ‘pourvoyeur’ or ammunition carrier. It was quickly found that the weight of the gun and its ammunition spread between two man was too much – almost 40kg (88lbs), to be moved rapidly over the broken ground of the Western Front. In July 1916, the decision to add a second pourvoyeur and form a three man team. In late 1917, the team was again expanded into a four man squad to include a corporal leading the squad.
When the Chauchat was incorrectly deployed as a standard machine gun it was quickly found to overheat after 300 rounds. The overheating lead to the expansion of the barrel, causing excessive friction between the barrel and barrel sleeve preventing the return of the barrel into battery. The weapon only returned to action once it had cooled.
An American soldier takes aim with a Modele 1915 (source)
The French were not the only nation to put the Chauchat into service. Other users included Belgium, Romania, Russia and Poland. When the American Expeditionary Force began arriving in 1917, they were issued some 15,988 8mm Lebel Chauchats. Later a further 19,241 M1918 Chauchats chambered in the US .30-06 service cartridge were issued. It was the M1918 that contributed much to the Chachat’s infamous reputation.
An American soldier disassembling his Modele 1915 Chauchat (source)
In July 1917, the US Army tested the 8mm Lebel Chauchat at the Springfield Armory and enquireis were made about rechambering it in .30-06. In August a rechambered prototype was tested but it was concluded that the BAR was superior. However, the BAR was not yet available in sufficient numbers and an order for 20,000 .30-06 Chauchats was made. The M1918 CSRG, fed from a box magazine which held just 16 rounds. The M1918′s stock was shorter and the forward grip was moved forward, in front of the distinctive magazine housing.
A section diagram showing a CSRG M1918 (source)
The American Chauchats suffered from a raft of issues with failures to extract being one of the first problems discovered. The guns were poorly made with the chambers not properly sized to the American round. Some sources also suggest that the .30-06, which was more powerful than French 8mm (although only marginally), strained the guns’ receivers compounding problems. American troops quickly came to distrust the M1918. However, the original M1915 in American use was generally regarded as a flawed but capable weapon.
Lieutenant Samuel Meek of the US 5th Marines recalled his opinion of the CSRG 1915 in the 1960s:
“That damned Chauchat, it was a lousy weapon in many ways, but it was another dirt absorber. It was not very accurate, but it usually worked and this is a great asset in the type of combat we were in. You could use it like a hose.”
US troops, two of whom have CSRG M1918s, pose in captured German trench armour along with a T-Gewehr (source)
The Chauchat saw significant post-war service with France, Belgium, Romania and Finland. While the Modele 1915 is not a perfect combat weapon, it was the first of its kind, and is certainly not the worst firearm ever made.
US troops, one armed with a CSRG Modele 1915, chambered in 8mm Lebel (source)
In late 1918 the French Army sent observers to evaluate the new American BAR in action. They were impressed and in October 1918, the French Army decided to field test 1,000 BARs, however, the war ended a month later before the guns could be delivered.
By the end of World War One an impressive 268,139 Chauchats had been produced, making it the most produced automatic weapon of the war. While the Chauchat continued in service with various other countries after the end of the war, France recognised the Chauchat’s shortcomings and it was subsequently replaced.
Manufacture d’Armes de Châtellerault developed a more reliable squad automatic weapon chambered in France’s new 7.5×54mm round. The Fusil-Mitrailleur Modèle 1924/M29 replaced the Chauchat, although the M1915 continued to be used in limited numbers during the interwar period.
Honour Bound – The Chauchat Machine Rifle, G. Demaison & Y. Buffetaut, (1995)