Cinco de Mayo: The story and guns of the Battle of Puebla

Battle of Puebla Cinco de Mayo

Mexicans re-enact the Battle of Puebla during Cinco de Mayo celebrations. (Photo: Jaime Puebla / AP)

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. That is celebrated on September 16 and involved a Catholic priest, freed prisoners and a lot of bell ringing. It also happened 50 years before the events of Cinco de Mayo.

Today, Cinco de Mayo is mostly observed throughout the United States (and only regionally in Mexico) as a way to celebrate nonspecific Mexican heritage and culture. But in the literal sense, it commemorates the Battle of Puebla, a decisive, unfathomable and ultimately strategically unimportant military victory for Mexico over the French that took place on May 5, 1862.

The story

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, Mexico’s finances were in shambles, which forced Mexican president Benito Juárez to willingly default on loans from France, Spain and Great Britain. In response, all three nations sent out armed envoys to the city of Veracruz to collect on their debts. Spain and Britain were able to negotiate deals with the Mexicans and headed home shortly after arriving and also once they realized the French (or more specifically Napoleon III, nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte) had bigger plans than just getting their money back.

Battle of Puebla

French soldiers executing Mexican nationals. Oil painting by Édouard Manet titled, ‘The Execution of Emperor Maximilian’ (1868–69).

Napoleon III despised the United States. In his mind, his uncle had “given away” most of what France had previously lay claim to in North America during the Louisiana Purchase, and he desired to establish a French empire in Central America, one that would compete with the blossoming (though internally divided) United States. By 1862, the invasion had begun with the French taking Veracruz, then marching towards Mexico City and over everything in their way.

A Mexican surrender seemed to be simply a matter of paperwork.  In fact, some historians believe the French were actually leaving after negotiating a puppet government with Juárez and the news had simply not reached the Puebla region on the day of the battle. Whatever the case, on the 5th of May about 4,000 conscripted Mexican troops mangled a better equipped and professionally trained French Army of 8,000, forcing them to retreat back to the coast. While these numbers are impressive in their own right, it’s also important to remember that the French had not tallied a loss since Waterloo, a half century earlier, so the news of their defeat was heard around the world.

Though of little strategic significance the victory was huge for Mexican morale. After experiencing crushing defeat after crushing defeat in the 1800s by both external and internal forces, beating a reigning superpower and arguably the world’s greatest standing army was the shot in the arm Mexico’s national identity desperately needed.

Though the celebration was short lived (the French returned in 1863 with 30,000 troops and steamrolled the country and Mexico wouldn’t see the Old World out until 1867), today Mexicans around the world continue to find meaning in this story.

The guns

When it comes to the guns used during the Battle of Puebla, we know what the Mexican Army used before the battle of Puebla and we know what they used after, but as to definitive evidence about the day and the hardware, we have very few firsthand sources in French, Spanish or English.

French Army P1851 Minié rifle

French Army P1851 Minié rifle. Image is taken from a military postcard from the 1870s.

We know that cannons, guns and agricultural tools like machetes were the primary weapons used and that the gear was pretty antiquated on the Mexican side (many of these troops were farmers one day and soldiers the next, often bringing their own tools as weapons and guns of various make and purpose). Considering what was available in this time period, we can fairly accurately surmise what each side was packing.

Minié rifle

Minie ball design plans

Minie ball design plans.

The Minié rifle, which fired the revolutionary Minié ball, is without argument one of the most important rifles of the 19th century and it was the standard issue arm for the French military in the middle 1800s. The Minié ball was a conical-cylindrical, hollow based soft lead bullet with three grooves, lathered with gun grease and only slightly smaller than the barrel bore. When gas pushes out the base of the bullet, the grooves catch the rifling and the bullet spins, increasing accuracy and keeping velocity consistent from shot to shot. The gun inspired most Western powers to adopt variations. In the form of the Springfield Model 1861, the design was the most widely used gun by infantrymen in the Civil War.

french soldier minie rifle

French soldier with P1851 Minié rifle, left; With its huge bullet, Minié rifles were famous for inflicting large wounds. This drawing by Edward Stauch depicts Private Milton E. Wallen of Company C, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, wounded by a Minié ball while in prison at Richmond, July 4, 1863.

Canon obusier de 12

Canon obusier de campagne de 12 modèle 1853

Canon obusier de campagne de 12 modèle 1853 on display in Les Invalides in Paris France. (Photo: PHGCOM)

This was also called the “Canon de l’Empereur” after Napoleon III and, back in 1862, it was serious artillery. At the time Europe was well and ahead of America in the arms game. Though they would soon be eclipsed as the Civil War and the years following bred well-known military innovations in the US, this smoothbore cannon represented the aiguille of military hardware and could fire shells, balls, grapeshot or canisters full of all sorts of nasty. Its medium size and superior capabilities prompted the French to replace all of its previous field cannons and two howitzers with this little monster.

Baker rifle

This is a good candidate for what most Mexican forces were using during the Battle of Puebla. After the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had more guns than they knew what to do with and, as tensions between their rival the Spanish and Mexico reached a boiling point, the Mexican Government was all too happy to buy up surplus rifles. This is the gun the Mexicans were carrying at the Alamo and they would be used heavily in the Mexican-American War as well, so it stands to reason this is probably the gun Mexico beat the French with on May 5, 1862.

British Baker flintlock rifle with sword bayonet

British Baker flintlock rifle with sword bayonet. (Photo: Antique Military Rifles)

Brown Bess muskets

The Brown Bess is another good candidate from the British that could have made an appearance at the Battle of Puebla. It wasn’t as widely used as Baker rifles, but they were known to have been carried by Mexicans in the 1840s wars.

Brown Bess

The nickname Brown Bess is of uncertain origin. It refers to a number of British Army muzzleloading smoothbore “Land Pattern Muskets” used from 1722 to 1838 by the British and US. (Photo: Antique Military Rifles)

Walker Colt pistols

If there were any veterans of the Mexican-American War at the battle of Puebla (and most likely there were), then there could have feasibly been Walker Colt Pistols, pulled off dead Americans.

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