1. M1915 CSRG “Chauchat”
The M1915 CSRG, better known as the Chauchat, is credited with being among the first light machine guns, pioneering such design features as a pistol grip, inline stock, and detachable magazine, as well as being the first LMG to be truly mass-produced. So why, with all these mitigating circumstances, does the Chauchat so often end up at the top of any list of the world’s worst weapons?
First, its standard of manufacture was poor. The French, desperate for automatic weapons, made the specifications fairly loose with respect to dimensions, tolerances, materials, and manufacturing techniques that should have been tighter. The result was a mass-produced weapon made mostly of sheet steel and tubing that was often of low quality. The vast majority were made by Gladiator, a bicycle manufacturer. Parts wore out quickly, and in some cases were not interchangeable.
Not only was the magazine poorly designed, with a cutout (yes, again) that attracted clods of mud, splinters, rat feces, and every other bit of debris on the battlefield, but it was also flimsily built. A strong squeeze was enough to deform the magazine sides and jam the magazine’s follower spring. Reportedly upwards of 75 percent of the Chauchat’s stoppages were caused by magazine problems.
Second, its ergonomics stank. The pistol grip was uncomfortable; the fore grip was a glorified broom handle mounted too close to the pistol grip; the bipod was so tall that it seemed calculated to get the firer’s head blown off by the enemy; and the recoil tube was located above the butt stock in the most effective spot to break a cheekbone or bash in an eye socket. The sights were actually offset to the left to account for the impossibility of a cheek weld against the stock.
As for effectiveness, the long recoil system meant that the barrel and bolt – more than half of the weapon’s entire weight – moved all the way to the rear of each cartridge before the barrel sprang back into place, followed by the bolt as it chambered another round. Imagine trying to keep it on target. It also had a terrible overheating problem. After four or five magazines were fired (that’s only 80-100 rounds, kids) the hot barrel often expanded and stuck against the barrel shroud, jamming the gun solid until it cooled or, in some cases, was bashed repeatedly against something like a tree until the jam was freed. Unfortunately, there was often a shortage of trees on the Western Front.
The Chauchat’s most dominant feature was the odd, crescent-shaped magazine, necessary because the 8mm Lebel round’s rimmed cartridge case had a strong taper. Not only was the magazine poorly designed, with a cutout (yes, again) that attracted clods of mud, splinters, rat feces, and every other bit of debris on the battlefield, but it was also flimsily built. A strong squeeze was enough to deform the magazine sides and jam the magazine’s follower spring. Reportedly upwards of 75 percent of the Chauchat’s stoppages were caused by magazine problems.
The American Expeditionary Force’s request for Chauchats in .30-06 provided an opportunity to solve the magazine problems, because a straight box magazine holding 16 .30-06 rounds would be used. Unfortunately, the M1918 Chauchat in .30-06 was a disaster. The magazine feed lips were too short for cartridges to move easily up the feed ramp, and rounds constantly failed to feed. Worse, the chamber dimensions for the new caliber were machined incorrectly, causing extraction failures, including torn cartridge cases stuck in the chamber. Few if any made it to the battlefield, and Americans were forced to trade them in for the original 8mm Chauchat.
It’s for all of those reasons that the Chauchat makes it to number one, but the most important reason comes from a quote in Henry Berry’s Make the Kaiser Dance from U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Lemuel Shepherd, who served as a young lieutenant and was wounded several times during World War I: “I spent the last few weeks [of World War I] back in the hospital, but I’ll tell you one thing the boys later told me: The day after the Armistice they got the word to turn in their Chauchats and draw Browning Automatic Rifles. That BAR was so much better than that damned Chauchat. If we’d only had the BAR six months before, it would have saved so many lives.”
M1915 CSRG “Chauchat”
Type: Light machine gun
Operating System: Long recoil
Weight: 20 pounds with bipod
Length: 42.5 inches
Barrel length: 18.5 inches
Cartridge: 8mm Lebel, .30-06 Springfield
Muzzle velocity: 2300 fps
Cyclic rate: 240 rpm
Feed system: 20-round, detachable, inline crescent shaped magazine (8mm); 16-round box magazine (.30-06)