Thursday, September 11, 2008

The French Gras Rifle

Full length rifle

French Gras Rifle

The French adopted it in 1874 as their first modern type military cartridge using a metallic cartridge. The 1870-71 Franco Prussian war taught the French the shortcomings of the Chassepot paper cartridges so they modified the Chassepot needle gun to shoot the 11 X 59 cartridge calling it the Model 1874 Gras. The Chassepot was considered superior to the Dreyse Needle Gun used by the Germans but still could be improved by the use of a metallic cartridge as opposed to the linen cartridge used by the Chassepot. In 1867 and 1868 the Chassepot performed well in campaigns in Northern Italy, which was noted by Prussian observers, which without a doubt encouraged work on the early Mausers. The Chassepot employed a special India rubber seal to obdurate or seal the bore. While it worked for a few shots continued firing caused it to wear thus losing its breech sealing capabilities. A General Basil Gras (1836-1901) who was a Polytechnician and shooting instructor of the French army developed the rifle after tests, which began in 1872 with the Beaumont, which also performed well. France being aware of the German experiments with the Mauser wanted a modern rifle of their own. He later became Secretary of War for France.

300 to 385 grain bullets for the Gras

The Greeks adopted the cartridge with the Myloanas system but in 1877 went with the Gras rifle and cartridge as they felt that it was a superior rifle. They used it in various conflicts up to WWll. Greece purchased about 57,000 rifles and 6,000 carbines and they were used in some minor conflicts in the Balkan states until replaced by more modern weaponry.

Bolt handle is only lockup on the Gras

Due to demand for a repeater in 1878 Alfred Kropatschek modified the Gras to hold 9 cartridges including one in the chamber. The system had a tubular system similar to the Henry and a pivoting cartridge carrier under an opening at the bottom at the receiver. They were loaded by pushing a cartridge through the open action. It probably suffered the same shortcomings of other tubular magazines of that period. When the magazine was full the heavy cartridges threw off the balance of the gun making it difficult to shoot offhand. However the battle of Plevna in 1878 had the smaller Turkish forces repulse the Russians while using model 73 Winchester carbines. The Russians were armed with a Berdan bolt action single shot with a 10.67 mm cartridge, which was fairly typical for the period. The fact that a repeating rifle was a major factor in the Turkish victory was not lost on other countries. Pretty soon most countries were converting their single shots to magazine repeaters with some sort of system.

11 mm Mauser top,11 mm Gras and 11 mm Reformado shown for comparison

The 11 mm was in service a long time and in fact it was issued to reserve troops as late as 1939 according to some reports. There were over 1 million made in such factories as Chatelerault, Saint Etienne and Tulle and were produced from 1874 through 1887. There were various models produced including the Fusil d’ Infanterie Mle 1874 and the Carabine de Cavallerie Mle 1874 which was for the Calvary and had a 27.65 “ barrel as opposed to the longer version meant for the infantry. The longer version had sights graduated to 1800 meters (1970 yards) while the Calvary version has sights set at 1100 meters or 1205 yards. Of course like most military arms the sights are optimistic. There were other variations some with different barrel as short as 20” lengths and different bayonets. Some models also had bent bolt handles. Total production of all the variations isn’t precisely known although it’s considerable. They however all shot the same 11 X 59 cartridge. The French Navy also liked and used the Grass for some years. The Gras was popular in the French Colonies and Balkans for quite a few years. The design seemed to influence some other contemporary rifles of the period. Among those influenced by the French design was the Japanese Murata. It was also called the 11 mm Vickers and was used in Hotchkiss anti balloon gun. Later on the Vickers machine gun was modified to shoot this cartridge. Some of the Vickers rounds were made with full metal jackets and heavier bullets to shoot down observation balloons and airplanes. Blanks and armor piercing ammo was also produced in this caliber. The incendiary and tracer rounds gave good results on balloons and dirigibles often better then the more modern full metal jacketed bullets. Ammo for it was made for many years for various countries that used it including the Western Cartridge Co around 1917. According to one reference Yemen ordered ammo from Gevelot as late as 1955. There was a short version of the rifle and cartridge knows as the 11.51R for cadet training. Some Remington rolling blocks were also chambered for this round as well as a few other single shot rifles. It was officially replaced in 1886 by the revolutionary Lebel rifle and 8 mm cartridge which is based on the older 11 mm round. The Lebel rifle is a beefed up version of the Gras since it uses smokeless powder at higher pressures. It employs dual opposed locking lugs however it retained the undesirable tubular magazine. However like many obsolete black powder guns the Gras hung around for a while after the 8mm was introduced.

Cut down dies used for reloading various 11mm's

Of course ammo is not available however cases can be made from 348 Winchester brass though it takes some work. Buffalo Arms makes perfectly good brass for this round though it’s not cheap. To my knowledge no one presently makes ammo or headstamped brass for it. I purchased 100 pieces of finished brass so I was in business. The bullet diameter is .446, which is the same as the 11 mm Mauser rifle which makes obtaining bullets easier. I loaded up some with 75 X Clean Shot and a 370 grain lead bullet. The load appeared to be stout and at 50 yards it shot a bit high with the rear sight down all the way. Using the 6 o clock hold resulted in consistent hits on the bottle. Accuracy at 50 yards can be expected to be around 2” to 3” with the top loads. Careful shooting and good eyes could produce those groups at 100 yards with a good load and rifle. There was no case swelling or any other problems with the rifle or ammo. My shooting buddy always says that one of these days I am going to blow up one of those old rifles that I shoot. However I learned a long time ago if the rifle is sound and you feed it the correct ammo nothing bad will happen to the gun or shooter. Needless to say shooting glasses should always be worn when shooting these relics. A prudent shooter should also employ ear protection though these type of weapons make a boom rather then a crack as a modern small bore weapon would produce. Some uninformed shooters feel that most military surplus guns are junk and should be avoided. That is of course nonsense, as the military of these countries aren’t going to arm their troops with unsafe weapons. Most countries want to win the war they are engaged in so they don’t generally give their front line troops inferior or unsafe weapons. The home guard or second line troops may have obsolete or hand me downs but even they work ok in most instances. It’s true that at the end of WWll the Japs and Germans made some junkers but they are easy to spot and shooting them should be avoided. If in doubt have a gunsmith check it out which is never a bad idea with any older gun. I have shot many of them some made in the 1870’s with no consequences of any kind nor do I expect any as long as I follow safety procedures. The case is large and has a larger body diameter then the 11 mm Mauser. Loading dies cost around $200.00 or so which I found excessive so I ground down an extra set of 11 mm Mauser dies to size the neck and seat the bullet. It took some work and imagination but the end result was worth it. I have fired and sized some of the cases several times and had no problem with chambering. I have made up a few loads that should be safe in any solid rifle. By the way the 8mm Lebel case is derived from the 11mm however it’s quite a bit shorter and necked down. I suppose in an emergency you could neck up and load the 8mm however it wouldn’t be particularly satisfactory. The 8mm however makes good blanks for the older weapon, as the case is much more common then the older 11mm. If a group uses the Gras in reenactments they would be well served by using the 8mm case as it is being made by Graff and sons and is usually available. As always approach these loads with caution as these guns are well over 100 years old. Since I have no control as to how this data is use I can assume no responsibility for any consequences that may result in its use.

Cleanshot gives good results in the Gras

15 X Trail Boss 140 grain round ball 1193 light load
43 X 4197 340 grain cast 1665 good load
75 X FFG Clean Shot 370 grain lead 1543 consistent
89 X FFG black powder 370 grain lead 1465 accurate
33 X 5744 370 grain lead 1446 ok
40 X 4197 370 grain lead 1844 max
38 X 4197 385 grain lead 1419 ok
73 X FFG Clean Shot 385 grain lead 1534 potent
86 X FFG black powder 385 grain lead. 1405 good load

348 cases can be made into 11 mm Gras

As you can see some of these loads are stout for such an old rifle. As any publisher or myself cannot control how this data is used we can’t be held responsible for any mishaps as a result of using this table. I can’t repeat it too often have these old guns checked out by someone who is qualified to do so before shooting it. If you wanted to carry such a heavy weapon around it could be used for hunting almost anything at moderate ranges. I suppose that I might take it into a blind to shoot wild boar but I wouldn’t want to carry it any serious distance. Heavy large caliber bullets always give good killing power given proper shot placement. All the military 10 and 11 mm rifles give similar killing power to the larger American rifles of the same period. For the most part you won’t get much expansion but with such big bullets you won’t need it. Even if they were available I wouldn’t use any jacketed bullets in such an old gun. The metals are not as hard as newer guns so they would probably accelerate wear and contribute nothing to the guns overall performance. That’s true with any of the older black powder guns made before the smokeless era. If you don’t cast your own good bullets can be bought from several sources including Buffalo Arms and Huntington Die They are both inexpensive and of good quality. Since we are dealing with a black powder weapon here approach these loads cautiously. My gun is in excellent shape with a virtually perfect bore so I feel confident with these loads. The sights are adjustable though not particularly easy to use for target shooting. I don’t imagine that they did a lot of precision shooting in those days with the standard military guns. I have found on many occasions that you can put more black powder in a case then Clean Shot. However the coarser Clean Shot gives more velocity per grain then either black powder or Pyrodex which I found to be true in other weapons also.

Good powders for loading old rifles

The rifle’s trigger is light for a military weapon but is consistent. The case extracts but doesn’t eject from the rifle. The bolt has a single extractor located at the top which gave me perfect service. It doesn’t have an ejector but that’s no problem except in the heat of battle since the cases are tipped from the bolt by the head of the screw that also is used to remove the bolt. I don’t expect to confront any enemies in the near future that I would have to deal with so the lack of an ejector isn’t a problem. The gun also doesn’t have a safety again not a problem if safe gun handling is employed which should be done at all times regardless. The prototypes did have a safety similar to the Chassepot but it wasn’t deemed satisfactory hence wasn’t used. In fact many of the Chassepots were rechambered or rebarreled to accept the 11 mm Gras cartridge. The single locking lug is the massive bolt handle, which is plenty adequate for the cartridges of the day. It locks up against the receiver bridge giving the bolt a tight fit. I would not employ loads that use heavy loads of smokeless powder, as the gun is 130 years old. There is a channel at the bottom of the receiver that is supposed to vent gas in case of a case splitting. With the quality of brass during that period that was an important consideration especially with ammo made before 1879. There is an M80 marking on the left side of the receiver indicating the modification. There are two vent holes at the front of the bolt to let the gas escape in the event of a rupture. It appears that the excess gas would go straight up rather then toward the shooters face. To remove the bolt there is a screw on the side of the receiver that needs to be removed. Then pull bolt back while depressing the trigger. There is a large screw slot on the back of the bolt. Turning it slightly to the left will enable you to take the front of the bolt off for cleaning. The bolt appears to be well made and finished for its period giving the impression of good quality workmanship through out. If I was a soldier during the 1870’s and understood arms design I would feel confident in taking this weapon in to combat. An important morale booster for the soldier is to have a weapon that he trusts and isn’t afraid to shoot it. In my opinion the Grass would be such a weapon. I did quite a bit of research about the Grass and I never saw any comments stating that it was weak or unreliable. Probably the only real problem with it was case rupturing which was more a function of poor quality ammo rather then the rifle. The fact that they cut a gas escape channel in the receiver shows that they understood the problem and fixed it.

Another view of the Gras

If you shoot black powder or Pyrodex loads I recommend that you thoroughly take it apart and clean it to avoid pitting the old gun on the inside. One thing that I do is if I have black powder and smokeless loads I always fire the black powder first. That way the smokeless will help clean out some of the black powder residue. However that is not a substitute for proper cleaning. My sample is in good shape for its age with almost perfect rifling with a date of 1876. The receiver shows Manufacture D Arms Chatelleraut Mle 1874. The one-piece stock is solid but has the expected dings common with storage over a period of time. The barrel and metal look as would be expected for a gun of this age with some external pitting. There are numbers on various parts of the gun as well as the stock. The stock also has a small cartouche with what appears to me the letter M in a circle that is light in color with a larger circle outside of it. My gun is 51” long with a 32” barrel. It weighs in at 9 lbs about average for that type of gun. The long barrel would contribute to some of the high velocities recorded. The 20” version would produce about 150 to 200 feet per second less velocity depending on the load. I have read that you can shoot an 11 mm Mauser round in it, which is probably true. However the Mauser round is slightly smaller in diameter, which may cause a rupture. I cannot recommend shooting the wrong round in any rifle especially if the body diameter is smaller.
Bob Shell

Stock showing cartouche


Anonymous said...

hi, i have a gras rifle and i was wondering if you knew where to get any ammo or how to make some for it? also i had the gun checked out and it is deemed able to be shot. my email is

Unknown said...

Hello Bob. I have a Gras rifle and was using Bertram cases which worked fine. Recently I bought some more from Buffalo Arms which arrived headstamped 348WIN. The problem with these is that the extractor won't extract them after firing. 348WIN rim diameter is .610inch but Gras is .661 - so it figures. Any suggestions? Thanks
Steve Barrett

Angela said...

Cool story you public here.
It would be great to find anything more concerning this article.
Thnx for give that information.
With best regards Angy!!

Bob Shell said...

Quite a rifle glad you enjoyed

JonBinMN said...

I am considering reload for my Gras rifle. your article was helpful. I slugged my bore...groove dia. was .455" which seems larger than your's and others I've read about. do you think that it's possible my bore is that large ? The gun is in excellent shape, no rust inside or out. Rifliing looks crisp.

Guns said...

My father have used this rifle, and at that time it was his favorite Gun.

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