The "Revolutionary" Charleville

George C. Neumann

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"revolutionary" Charleville, The
American Rifleman, May 2002 by Neumann, George C

Used in large numbers by American Colonists and French troops fighting against the British, the "Charleville" muskets are the French arms that saved the American Revolution.

The 18th century was a period of incredible change that reshaped the political map of Europe and the Western world-- and that reshaping included the birth of our own nation. Much of that change began with new arms and military tactics that evolved in the late 1600s when military firearms were improved by the addition of a bayonet that combined both the musket of the musketeer and the traditional long pike of the foot soldier.

The French military was the leader in these major innovations, and it was the most progressive developer of firearms during the 17th and 18th centuries. The French introduced the plug bayonet for military use during the 1640s and the socket bayonet in the 1670s. Other advances included the final practical flintlock mechanism before 1700 and the creation of the first standard military musket in Europe in 1717. The French also added bands-to facilitate removing the barrel for cleaning-in 1728 and designed lighter firearm patterns. A smaller bore size (.69 cal. vs. Britain's .75 cal.) was chosen to reduce weight in the field, and, in 1741, the steel ramrod was adopted. In 1754, a smaller officer's shoulder arm was introduced, and the French military installed the first noncorroding brass flashpan in 1777, which was the same year it produced the important center-ring bayonet pattern. France also perfected the superior flake-type gun flint. Those cumulative steps led to a series of tactical innovations on the battlefields, spawning new wars and world alliances-from which America would not be excluded.

The loss of Canada to Britain during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) motivated France to provide its innovative arms to the rebelling American Colonists and, by supplying as many as 200,000 muskets for Washington's troops, saved our War for Independence. At least 90 percent of the small arms or their components used by the American Colonists came from Europe, and the majority were French. This article is intended to identify the most typical French arms that made our final victory possible.

To understand the basic French firearms available in North America and those used in the Revolutionary War, they have been combined into three chronological periods:

Group 1: The Compagnies Franches de la Marine, circa 1730-1755

The distinctive longarms supplied by the Ministry of the Navy to the special naval infantry units and irregular forces defending New France during this period were the civilian Fusil de Chasse and the military Fusils Ordinaire and Grenadier.

Group II: The Regular French Army in North America (1755-1763)

The primary standard-issue patterns of the regular French army regiments sent to North America to fight the French and Indian War were the Models 1717 and 1728.

Group III: France's Aid to the American Revolution (1777-1783)

Muskets designed after the French and Indian War comprised most of the French arms shipped here during the War for Independence. They were the Models 1763, 1766, 1774 and 1777.

Group I: The Compagnies Franches de la Marine (circa 1730-1755)

While the British settlers created farms and towns in the European tradition (including a preference for heavy muskets and fowlers), settlers in New France focused on exporting furs and fish, which, in turn, required preservation of the existing forests. Thus, their early longarms were usually lighter, of smaller bore and better balanced for traveling in rough terrain.

Captured examples were, in fact, preferred by a number of Britain's new light infantry companies learning to fight in thick woodlands during the French and Indian War.

From 1683 to 1755, the only professional troops defending French Canada were the Compagnies Franches. These units were under the naval ministry and differed from the regular army in uniforms, arms and accouterments. Two basic firearms patterns predominated from 1730 to 1755: the civilian hunting gun, or fusil de chasse, and the military muskets, fusils ordinaire and grenadier. (Most collectors use the term "fusil" in the British manner to identify a lighter and smaller bore musket. In France, the word referred to any smoothbore shoulder arm.) Most were supplied under navy contracts from the independent gunmaker at Tulle, but they were supplemented by others from St. Etienne.

The designs were very similar, having pinned smoothbore barrels on slim, graceful walnut stocks ending in a distinctive Roman-nose butt with a high sloping comb. The locks included a flat/beveled edge plate, a swansneck cock and a faceted flashpan. Their Tulle-style barrels were octagonal at the breech for about 9 1/2 below a 2" section of 16 flats and an incised ring before becoming round for the rest of their length. Iron pipes secured a wooden ramrod. The civilian hunting pattern averaged 60" in length, mounted a 44 1/2", .62-cal. barrel and was stocked to the muzzle. It served as the typical longarm of Canada's trappers, hunters, militia and Indian allies in the Colonial wars. Longer variations, fusil fin de chasse, having finer details and often brass furniture, were available for the more affluent hunters and as presentation pieces to Indian leaders. These civilian arms had no sling swivels but did include raised carvings around the lock, sideplate and barrel tang.

The common military musket was very similar but had the upper stock cut back to accept a socket bayonet, a longer 46 1/2" barrel with a larger .66-cal. bore, and averaged around 7 to 8 lbs. in weight. An alternate form, originally developed for the grenadiers, added a center barrel band to secure a round, shoulder sling swivel on the inboard side (the second ring was attached behind the lower lock screw). Both of these military patterns included swivels after 1729. Most grenadier examples had shorter 44 1/2" barrels. The muskets from St. Etienne followed the Tulle form, but they often included iron furniture that copied the Army Model 1728 sideplate, trigger guard and buttplate. In 1744, three barrel bands were added to create Tulle's "fusil domino" pattern, which saw little service in Canada.

Although not officially part of France's military aid during the Revolutionary War, many captured Tulle arms were already in American hands from earlier encounters, and their parts are often found remounted on Colonial guns.

Group II: The Regular French Army in North America (1755-1763)

At the outbreak of the French and Indian War, France sent regular army regiments (troupes de terre) to defend New France beginning in 1755. They brought the heavier, standard muskets designed for open-field fighting in Europe. Most were produced under the supervision of artillery officers at the three royal manufactories: Charleville, St. Etienne and Maubeuge. Tulle became the fourth in 1777-primarily for naval arms. This period is best typified by two patterns, each identified by its original date of issue: the Model 1717 and the Model 1728.

Both were approximately 62" in length and mounted a 46 3/4" barrel having a .69-cal. bore. The military walnut stocks omitted raised border carvings, but kept the Roman-nose butt with a high sloping comb. The flat/beveled lock held a swansneck cock plus a faceted flashpan and outside bridle. Total weight was 8 to 9 lbs.

The iron furniture included a long, thin, worm-like pinned butt tang, a double-pointed trigger guard (with two screws), a flat "L" form sideplate and two round sling swivels on the inboard side. The round barrel's breech was octagonal. The original wooden rammers were replaced by steel rods beginning in 1741.

The Model 1717 was the first European standard-issue military arm. It had a pinned barrel, plus a center band to secure the forward side sling swivel. The distinctive lock is identified by a vertical exterior bridle between the frizzen and frizzen spring screws. Some 48,000 were manufactured.

Although resembling the Model 1717, the Model 1728 had a horizontal exterior bridle and added three barrel bands. In 1754, the round sling swivels moved underneath the stock, but few of that pattern reached Canada. The Model 1728 was used in North America by the 1730s, and it became France's workhorse musket until 1763. A total of 375,000 were produced.

Group III: France's Aid to the American Revolution (1777-1783)

Following the momentous loss of New France to Britain in the French and Indian War, a new musket design, the Model 1763, eliminated the familiar Roman-nose profile and established a basic form that would endure through the Napoleonic years. To provide the embattled American rebels with aid before openly declaring war on Great Britain, the French first set up a dummy trading company, Rodrique Hortalez & Cie, operated by Caron de Beaumarchais.Working with American agents, primarily Franklin, Deane and Lee, they then condemned most of the muskets in their arsenals that had been produced prior to the new Model 1777 to make them available for shipment. The first of many Beaumarchais deliveries began in the spring of 1777 when three of his ships arrived in Portsmouth, N.H., carrying 37,000 stands of arms. At the same time, another vessel was sent to Philadelphia bearing 11,000 arms and parts. The New Hampshire shipments equipped much of the Patriot army at Saratoga in October 1777, and, by 1778, the majority of Washington's regiments had replaced their earlier disparate mix of arms with French ones.

After France officially entered the war early in 1778, it continued to send vast amounts of war materials. In addition to the early patterns already described, four models developed after the French and Indian War comprised most of the French arms supplied for use in American during the Revolution-the Model 1763, Model 1766, Model 1774 and Model 1777.

The Model 1763 retained the three-- band design and eliminated the traditional Roman-nose buttstock for a straight lower profile. The barrel was shortened to 44 3/4"; but it still kept a .69-cal. bore. The old octagonal breech was replaced with a round form with flat sides. A flat/beveled lock remained, but a new ring-supported cock was added. Moreover, an unusual, tunnel-like ramrod spring covered the channel between the two upper barrel bands. Its iron furniture, in turn, adopted a simple lobed butt tang (with a top screw), as well as bell-shaped sling swivels underneath the stock. Total production reached 88,000.

The army quickly found the Model 1763 too heavy, which led to the lighter Model 1766 pattern. The 1766 reduced weight by shortening the lock, replacing the long, iron rammer cover with a spring under the breech and thinning the barrel walls. The steel ramrod also changed from a trumpet shape to a buttonhead. Today's collectors commonly refer to these 1760s-period muskets as "Charlevilles," although they were produced at all three royal manufacturers. Production reached 140,000 muskets.

From 1768 to 1773, numerous earlier models were renovated in France. This included adding a third retaining spring behind the lowest barrel band on the Model 1766. Beginning in 1770, a rounded lock was introduced, as well as a lower, less-defined stock comb. The Model 1774 then shortened the trigger guard's forward end and added a clip projecting out under the muzzle to snap over the bayonet's new rear socket ring. The 1774 was the latest model supplied to the American rebels, and 70,000 were produced.

The innovative Model 1777 became the standard issue for the French army through the Napoleonic Wars, and it was not included in shipments to the rebels. The model did, however, equip General Rochambeau's regiments landing in Newport, R.I., in 1780 and others among the 16,000 French troops that served on American soil during the war. The new musket retained the three barrel bands and a 44 3/4" barrel, yet introduced a new sloping brass flashpan, cut a cheek rest out of the stock's comb, installed two finger ridges on a shortened trigger guard and adopted a new, center-ring bayonet. Few of the early versions of this Model 1777 used here in America survived. They had a unique visible retaining screw on the outboard side of the top barrel band and lacked a rear spring for the center band.

The avalanche of arms and their components, ammunition, accouterments, naval vessels, clothing, loans, technical advisors, volunteer officers and regular army regiments that France poured into America from 1777 until 1783 played a key role in the success of the Revolution. Our incredible victory resulted from the dreams, courage and brutal suffering of the colonists and their leaders; but without the aid from France, supplemented by efforts of Spain and the Low Countries, they could not have prevailed.

As historical collectors, these surviving French arms speak to us of the significant price paid to win our freedom and the help that finally made it possible.

Copyright National Rifle Association of America May 2002
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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