The Great French Conversion

Your editor has to admit from the outset that his information on the French Tabatière breech loading conversion system is rather thin on the ground, and any additional information would be appreciated. The lack of information is probably due to French secrecy concerning military weapons, and that includes long obsolete antiques.

In 1867, the French government decided to convert large stocks of 17.8 mm caliber rifled percussion muzzle loaders to breech loaders. The breech mechanism decided on was a swinging block affair that was somewhat like the British Snider system. This system was popularly known as "a Tabatière" (like a small snuff box).

The cartridge adopted was similar in appearance to the British •577 Snider. but fatter and a trifle shorter. The •736" diameter bullet weighed in at 556 grains, the powder charge was something like 70 grains and the case length was 1.94".

The political climate in Europe in the mid-1860s was portending inevitable war between France and Prussia (the warlike and dominant German state in an un­unified Germany). The French government, acting on the advice in 1867 of an advisory committee called the Commission of Vincennes, promptly got the state arsenals to work, and when the Franco-Prussian War began in 1870 a total of more than 340,000 muzzleloaders had been altered. To confuse the issue, the French were also producing the smaller caliber (11 mm) Chassepot needle gun, a vast improvement over the Prussian needle gun as devised by Johann-Niklaus von Dreyse, but still no bargain as its fragile rubber gas sealing system on the bolt tended to disintegrate with use and make the system useless.

Why the French lost and the Prussians won is still a matter of debate and provides an interesting lesson in history, politics, weaponry and tactics. As far as the collector is concerned, the French later converted the Chassepots to use metallic cartridges (the Gras) and the Tabatières were sold off to end up, in the main, converted into cheap shotguns that served to put duck on the menu of more than a few pioneering families in Australia. Seen one lately?

I'S. Even some flintlocks were converted and the system is generally thought to be weaker than the Snider system as the area behind the block is scooped out to facilitate loading and cleaning.