MLE 1874 GRAS Bolt-Action Rifle: From Black Powder to Smokeless
The French MLE 1874 Gras is a historic rifle that marks a milestone in firearms development as powerful industrialized nations moved from black-powder rifles to cased smokeless-powder firearms at the end of the 19th century. The French were often at the forefront of military rifle technology, and the Gras represents their transition from paper cartridges into more modern brass-cased ammunition. This particular rifle holds a unique place in French firearms development and features various upgrades that occurred over decades of service.
Firearms development is a competitive and iterative process, and the French Fusil Modèle 1874 rifle, or MLE 1874 Gras after its designer Col. Basile Gras, is a classic example. This gun swims in history, particularly that of European nation states elbowing each other for power at the end of the 19th century.
This was a single-shot, bolt-action rifle that used black powder, but it did so with a metallic cartridge. Innovative as that might sound, the rifle is actually built around the older Chassepot, which used a paper cartridge. Interestingly, even though this gun dates to the 1870s, it featured a straight trigger that is just recently appearing on many modern firearms.
More significantly, it was France’s answer to the need for a more modern metallic-cartridge-fed rifle in the face of a generous and humiliating flogging during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). During the war, the Chassepot actually proved quite effective despite the French defeat, but the writing was on the wall for paper cartridges none the less as other militaries began to adopt metallic cartridges. We’ll dig into this specific Gras in a moment, but first a bit history.
Victory on the battlefield is often defined not just by strategy and numbers, but the weapons that can be used by soldiers in the field. Hence, it’s no surprise that the world’s military powers have been in a near-constant arms race throughout history. But what seems common to us today in the age of nuclear power, drones, and stealth jets was once a thing of science fiction.
Before the advent of smokeless powder, itself a massive leap in technology that paved the way for basically all modern firearms, the world’s great militaries were racing toward something else we now take for granted – metallic cartridges.
At first, the French were caught with their pants a bit around their ankles in the race toward metallic cartridges, having been beaten to the punch by Britain’s single-shot Snider-Enfield (1866) and Martini-Henry (1871) and Germany’s Mauser 1871 (1872), which also boasted an eight-shot tubular magazine.
Even the post-Civil War U.S. had already adopted a metallic cartridge in 1873 with the Model 1873 “Trapdoor,” which was itself an offshoot of the 1865 Allin-pattern trapdoor conversion of Springfield muzzle-loaders from the Civil War. But in 1874, the French entered the metallic-cartridge age with the adoption of the Gras.
Enter the Gras
Built around the older, paper-cartridge-fed Chassepot, the Gras gave French soldiers their first standard issue metallic-cartridge rifle. But it hosted no internal magazine and required manual reloading after each shot. Despite this, it represented an important step forward for French firearms, one that was quickly eclipsed by yet another technological development.
The Gras was replaced as the standard-issue French rifle by the Lebel Model 1886 in 1887, which was also the first standard-issue military firearm to use smokeless powder. Though, as militaries often do, the Gras was kept in storage and later modified to support smokeless powder.
This example shows the tell-tale signs of this transitional period. Incurring heavy losses of both men and Lebel rifles during World War I, the French modified the Gras for continued services. The guns were refitted with Lebel barrels – this one was refitted in 1914 – and rechambered for the smokeless 8mm Lebel cartridge. They remained single-shot bolt-action guns and served mostly as secondary firearms to augment French forces in World War I.
While the original Gras was now long obsolete, it continued to serve post-WWI as the French pursued a semi-automatic replacement for their bolt guns and was still in soldiers’ hands until the fall of the French Third Republic in World War II.
It’s not often that a firearm carries forward through so many historical events and technological advances, making this Gras a fascinating witness to the past.