In 1914, French Airmen Desperately Needed an Aerial Machine Gun
They made do with Chauchat-Sutter machine rifles
by MATTHEW MOSS
In 1914 and 1915 French airmen, desperate for an effective weapon against enemy planes, began equipping their aircraft with a forebearer of the famous CSRG M1915 “Chauchat” automatic rifle.
Between 1903 and 1909, Louis Chauchat and Charles Sutter developed seven auto-loading machine-gun prototypes at the Puteaux Arsenal, or APX. Chauchat and Sutter focused their efforts on on the long-recoil principle, using the system in both self-loading rifles and fusils mitrailleurs, a.k.a. “machine rifles.”
Chauchat and Sutter’s machine rifle went through six iterations between 1903 and 1909, culminating in the Chauchat-Sutter Model 1911. Some of their earlier designs were chambered for a 7-by-59-millimeter cartridge designed by Chauchat himself.
The Model of 1911, however, chambered France’s standard 8x50-millimeter Lebel round. The C.S. M1911 featured a curved magazine that remained standard for Chauchat and Sutter’s future designs including the CSRG M1915 Chauchat.
The M1911’s 20-round magazine was top-mounted, unlike the later Chauchat M1915, which moved the magazine beneath the receiver. On the M1911, the charging handle was below the center of the magazine, rather than on the right as in the CSRG.
During official trials of the M1911 in November 1911, the French military officially designated the weapon the Fusil-Mitrailleurs C7 de Puteaux Systeme C.S. The prototype’s locking lugs broke during the first trial. During the second trial in April 1912, testers fired a further 1,500 rounds, which damaged several more parts and led to an out-of-battery detonation.
The trials showed that the M1911 wasn’t ready for service. Chauchat and Sutter continued refining the design.
In June 1912, Chauchat transferred to the MAS arsenal as assistant general manager. While at MAS, he reinforced the machine rifle’s bolt and readied it for more trials. The result was the Model 1913. Two prototype M1913s underwent testing in January 1913, both firing 2,500 rounds at a strenuous pace with no major failures.
Sutter corrected some problems with the angle of the feed ramp on the spot — and the designers considered the testing a great success. The Chauchat-Sutter machine rifle could fire 50 rounds per minute in semi-automatic and a steady 100 rounds per minute in fully automatic. Single-shot and burst-fire accuracy out to 600 meters was acceptable and the only real complaint was about deformation to the thin sheet-metal magazines, which caused feed failures.
This would be a long-term problem with the CSRG M1915.
The trial report suggested that magazine deformation wouldn’t be a serious problem for the machine rifle, as its main role would be static defense. A year before the outbreak of World War I, the French army saw the C.S. machine rifle not as an infantry light support weapon, but as a light machine gun to be deployed within fixed fortifications.
Following the successful January 1913 trials, Paris ordered expanded troop trials — and ordered 100 C.S. machine rifles.
The trials had not yet begun when war broke out in August 1914. It quickly became obvious that the machine gun and rapid-fire artillery had ended the war of movement and the French army needed new weapons to break the stalemate.
Following a demonstration of Chauchat and Sutter’s machine rifle, in April 1915 Gen. Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, requested 50,000 machine rifles. A production contract was signed in October 1915 for what would become the CSRG M1915.
In late 1914 and early 1915, the French Armée de l’Air was in desperate need of weapons for it aircraft. Pilots and observers had little success firing standard service rifles and pistols at their airborne adversaries.
Machine guns were clearly the answer. In their search for suitable lightweight aerial machine guns, the French took the small run of pre-war C.S. Model 1913 machine rifles and fitted them to aircraft.
Of the 188 M1913s, 65 equipped two Armée de l’Air squadrons. They armed Morane-Saulnier and Maurice Farman biplanes and remained in service until late 1916, when Lewis Guns finally replaced them.