11x59Rmm "French"

France's first brass centerfire cartridge.

Article by Steve N. Jackson (v.1)

The French military's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war turned a generation of French Generals into believers in the doctrine of firepower. Firepower assumes that the key element in any battlefield will be the technology that allows soldiers to fight. Superior technology can turn the battlefield in favor of the side that has it. French colonial experiences, once thought to be the result of the superior fighting and organizational power of the white European race, were recast as tests of the doctrine of firepower. The Germans, during the Franco-Prussian war, did not defeat the French because they were a superior race, but because their steel Krupp cannons were superior to the French, and because they employed other technological innovations like railways to the best advantage.

One area that the French had an advantage over the Germans during the war was in small arms. The French "Chassepot" Mle 1866 was superior to the German Dreyse needleguns, and were directly responsible for most of the German setbacks during the war. The Chassepot's strong bolt action and rapid reloading made it particularly dangerous when it came up against second line German units that did not even have the Prussian Dreyse.

At the same time European weapon makers were still using breach loading paper cartridge weapons, the United States had been experimenting with breach loading weapons that fired metalic cartridges. The earliest of these weapons adopted in large numbers was the Spencer rifle. This weapon fired a .52 or .56 calibre rimfire round from a tubular magazine - round that compared favorably to breech loading rifles like the Hall or Dreyse but not to muzzle loading rifles like the American's own 1861. More than 200,000 of these weapons were employed by the United States during the Civil War where they proved decisive in later stages of the conflict. Immediately after the war all U.S. muzzle loaders were replaced with breach loaders firing metalic cartridges, first the .56 M1865, then the centerfire .50-70 M1866, and finally by the M1873 in .45-70.

The American advances in firearm development were not going unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic. In 1866 the British adopted the .577 Snider-Enfield. This put the British considerably ahead of their continental opposition. The main reason the Americans and British could re-equip their armies with cartridge firing weapons was that their armies were small and designed for colonial or frontier work. Changing their standard rifle meant the purchase and provision of tens of thousands of weapons. For the French a new weapon could mean more than one million arms being procured in a short period of time, with all of the changes in training, spare parts stocks, ammunition stock piles, and logistics that went with it. There was also a further problem of communicating these needs with civilian governments. Civilian governments could look back at the days when the Mle 1717 musket was in service with only small changes for nearly 100 years. Soldiers could be issued with a weapon older than they were and know it was just as good as a new manufacture weapon. A final problem with European weapons was that each month a new crisis or collision of state could result in a continent wide conflaguration that the continental powers did not have the luxury of a water barrier to allow time to rearm. These powers had to have weapons in the hands of soldiers, even if they were not the best weapons available.

The Franco-Prussian war was a defeat for the French army but a vindication of its newly adopted weapon, the Mle 1866 Chassepot. German soldiers, when they faced down Chassepot battalions without artillery preperation, were decimated by the French firepower. The Dreyse was hated by the soldiers who used it - if fired from the shoulder it often caused facial burns, and when fired from the hip it was only marginally accurate when not fired in volley. The German army immediately began casting around for a replacement for the Dreyse, and were drawn to work being done with small (for the time) calibre bullets fired from brass cases as superior to the British .577 Snider, then the current state of the art. In particular, German gun manufacturer Mauser looked at the .45 calibre weapons then being experimented with by the Americans (who would eventually adopt the results as the .45-70) and developed a bolt action weapon based on the Chassepot rifle that could accept the new German round, called the 11x60Rmm (or .43 German).

11x59Rmm French
Bullet Diameter 11.3mm
Rim Diameter 16.9mm
Case Length 59mm
Bullet Weight 24gr
Muzzle Velocity 440m/s
Muzzle Energy 2,300 J

The French were not blind to this progress being made by the Germans but from 1871 to 1873 they were occupied by the German army and could not make any progress. When the Germans left they set about immediately designing their own cartridge, based itself on American and German designs, the 11x59R. The French in 1873 had more than half a million Chassepot rifles in inventory, and unlike the Germans, whose Dreyse was unsuitable for conversion, they intended to save money on their rearmament by salvaging these weapons. The changes needed by the Chassepot were minimal: a simple to produce change to the bore and a modification to the bolt. The resulting design was manufactured as a new weapon (the Mle 1874) and converted from older weapons (the Mle 1866/74).

The Gras 11x59Rmm was also manufactured in a reduced loading for use in cadet rifles. Cadet rifles were weapons created for cadet training at secondary and post-secondary schools. The Gras Cadet rifle was a 2/3 scaled down version of the regular Mle 1874 chambered for a 11x51Rmm or 11x49Rmm round. Cadet ammunition can be dangerous since it looks similar to full size ammunition, and some can chamber in the larger weapons.

The 11x59Rmm was rapidly replaced after the adoption of the 8x50Rmm in 1886, but remained in limited production to feed second line and colonial weapons. During the Great War this round was adopted for use in a Vickers anti-balloon gun and was manufactured in France and the United States between 1917 and 1918.

Currently the round is rare but is commercially available in the United States.