Crippling extraction problems were caused by incorrect chamber measurements and the pathetic manufacturing standards at the Gladiator factory were even more manifest in the .30-cal. version. American ordnance inspectors rejected as much as 40 percent of the .30-cal. Chauchats. The M1918 did provide an improved bipod as well as a proper detachable box magazine design (holding 16 rounds). But the .30-’06 Sprg. cartridge overpowered the flimsy Chauchat, and the rifle was damned from the start. Very few were issued to AEF troops.
Laurence Stallings’ fantastic book The Doughboys (Harper & Row, 1963) provides details that three Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic use of the Chauchat in France during 1918. These men were Pvt. Frank Bart of the 2nd Infantry Division, Pvt. Thomas Neibaur of the 42nd Infantry Division, and Pvt. Nels Wold of the 35th Infantry Division. Although many of the Doughboys made it home, most of the Chauchat Automatic Rifles were left in France as the Army and the Marines had no desire to keep them.
American divisions deployed to France after July 1, 1918 (including the 6th, 7th, 8th, 29th, 36th and 79th) carried the BAR with them. Incredibly, upon their arrival in France, most of these divisions had their BARs replaced with .30-cal. M1918 Chauchats, by order of Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing. The first recorded use of the BAR was with the 79th Infantry Division, and that was not until Sept. 22, 1918, during the beginning of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Just three other divisions would carry the BAR before the end of World War I.
General Pershing determined the best course of action would be to wait until most of the U.S. divisions could be fully equipped with BARs (and with a ready supply of the rifles and spare parts available) to gain the full advantage of deploying the new rifle. General Pershing also feared that if the BAR were deployed too quickly that the Germans would inevitably capture one, and seeing its great capability would reverse-engineer the weapon and make it their own.
Records of the Automatic Arms Section of the AEF present the status of automatic rifles in France as of Sept. 8, 1918: “At the present time 18 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat. No more divisions will receive this weapon in the future. At the present time there are nine U.S. divisions equipped with the caliber .30 Chauchat. However this gun has proved to be not at all satisfactory, the cartridges sticking in the chamber after the gun becomes slightly hot. For this reason the gun has been issued as an emergency weapon and will be withdrawn as soon as the Browning Automatic Rifles are available. At the present time 27 U.S. divisions have been equipped with the Chauchat Auto Rifle, and two divisions with the British are using the British .303 Lewis machine guns. All divisions over and above this number have been equipped with the Browning Automatic Rifle.”
It is easy to dismiss the Chauchat as a useless pile of junk, a gun better off forgotten. But that would be a mistake, at least in the fact that we would not be learning from our military firearm history. That could have cruel consequences for our armed forces in years to come.
By American standards, the Chauchat was close to being a total disaster. However, we had nothing like it during the dark days of our entry into World War I during 1917, and so we truly needed it at that moment. Should we be grateful that the French shared it with us—an arm openly damned by their own troops? It is the first of many contradictions that plague the gun’s legacy. Another is that the Chauchat worked, if just barely, and in the right hands did make the difference on the battlefield.
We bought the Chauchat (the original models as well as those designed to American specifications) and we played the game of “political correctness” with our French allies. The very idea that we needed the French and their awful automatic rifle is galling to most Americans, but it is true. The French lost nearly 1.4 million men in World War I, with another 4.2 million wounded—by comparison, America lost nearly 117,000 killed—paying a high price in blood during the Great War. The contradictions continue to stack up.
By the late summer of 1918, the wonderful BAR was available, and yet the BARs were taken from the Doughboys and replaced with Chauchats—a massively disappointing contradiction! My grandfather fought in France in 1918, and I have wondered if I were just a “damned, jammed Chauchat” away from never being born? But granddad came home, and then he had a son who fought in France, too. Luckily for me, American infantry weapons were in a much better state by the time my father went ashore at Utah Beach in 1944.