French Model 1873 and 1874 Ordnance Revolver in 11mm: Historical Lookback – Firearms News


The Mode´le 1873 was a well-made, rugged reliable handgun. Note the half round/half octagonal barrel, ejector rod, hinged loading gate and un-fluted cylinder. Note the manufacture date “1876.” (Rock Island Auction Co.) 

While it continues to irk many English-­speaking members of the firearms fraternity, for most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the French were in the forefront of firearms and ammunition development. And while I may be in danger of repeating myself, I believe a quick review of Gallic accomplishments in these areas will go a long way towards reinforcing my assertion. During the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, French flintlock muskets were considered more reliable and accurate then the highly rated British “Brown Bess.” While the percussion cap was an English invention, the French were quick to adopt percussion muskets (1842). They were also pioneers in rifled military long arms with the Delvigne (1828) and Thouvenin (1844) systems, and perfected the muzzle-­loading, rifled musket with Capt. Claude Etienne Minie’s famous “Minie Ball” projectile. The first successful, self-­contained, metallic cartridge was Casimir Lefaucheaux’s pinfire cartridge (1836) which was followed by Louis Flobert’s rimfire cartridge (1845).

In 1858, the French navy was the first military organization to issue a cartridge firing revolver, the Modéle 1858 Lefaucheux which fired a 12mm pinfire cartridge. It was followed up with the improved Modéle 1858 NT Lefaucheux and, the very first standard issue, centerfire revolver, the 11mm Modéle 1870 Lefaucheaux. It fired the Cartouche d’Marine Modéle 1870 which was based upon a rimmed, centerfire case 18.8mm long topped with a 199-­grain lead bullet that was pushed to 705 fps.

1914. A group of French soldiers armed with Berthier carbines and Mode´le 1873 revolvers.

But the achievement that would have the greatest effect on firearms development occurred in 1884 when a French chemist, Paul Marie-­Eugène Vielle, perfected the first smokeless gunpowder. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here and must backtrack here … .

In 1870, France was ruled by the Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III —­ the nephew of THE Napoleon. Under his benign (if somewhat corrupt) reign, France had attained prosperity, international prestige and an ever-­growing overseas empire. Her army, one of the most highly rated of the Continental forces, was facing the prospect of war with its traditional foe on their eastern frontier —­ Germany.


The Mode´le 1872 Galand was one of the revolvers tested by the French. (Rock Island Auction Co.)

For the past decade, the Kingdom of Prussia had been unifying the hodgepodge of German states into a nation that had recently fought —­ and won —­ wars against Denmark and Austria-­Hungary. It was inevitable that the two biggest kids on the block would go to war and when the smoke had cleared in 1871, Germany had humbled French army, captured the emperor and imposed territorial and financial indemnities upon France.

With the reestablishment of the French Republic, the army began an immediate program to upgrade its weaponry in preparation for the anticipated rematch with Germany. One of their first priorities was the adoption of a modern revolver.

Comparing the French Mode´le1873 revolver to its German contemporary, the Reichrevolver m.1879,

During the Franco-­Prussian War, the French army’s standard handgun was the Pistolet Modéle 1822/56 a single shot, percussion pistol — although many army officers used privately purchased Lefaucheux revolvers. These had been supplemented by Colt, Remington and Starr percussion revolvers bought from America by the desperate French. With the end of the hostilities, the army found itself in possession of a polyglot collection of handguns —­ all of them obsolete.


French Model 1873 and 1874 Ordnance Revolver in 11mm: Historical Lookback

A cutaway view of the Mode´le 1873 from a French army training manual.

As was stated above, in 1870 the French navy had taken into service what was probably the most modern revolver of its time. But the army insisted on new trials and the Small Arms Committee at Vicennes was given the task of finding a suitable weapon. Revolvers submitted included one from the arsenal at Puteaux, the Modéle 1870 Naval Lefaucheux, the Modéle 1872 Galand, and one designed by a French officer by the name of Auguste Henri Delvigne.

The standard French handgun during the Franco-Prussian war was the percussion Pistolet Mode´le 1822/56. (Rock Island Auction Co.)

Inter-­service rivalries doomed the Lefaucheux to quick rejection while the Galand and Puteaux designs were deemed too complex. Thus, Delvigne’s revolver was chosen as the basis for the army’s new sidearm.

The Re´volver d’Officier Modele 1874 was produced for officers who desired a finer quality sidearm. Note the fluted cylinder and blue finish. (Rock Island Auction Co.)

Delvigne had designed his revolver in cooperation with a Belgian gunsmith J. Chamelot. Known, appropriately enough, as the “Chamelot-­Delvigne system,” it featured a simple and robust selective double/single action (DA/SA) trigger mechanism which employed a hooked lifter for self-­cocking and, since the cylinder hand was attached to the trigger, the hook engaged a bent in the hammer breast to permit SA fire. When fired DA, a long sear engaged a notch in the breast of the hammer and rotated it to rear. A rebound spring safety was used to prevent the hammer from moving forward far enough to fire a cartridge unless the trigger was pulled through its complete stroke.

The Mode´le 1873 could be disassembled very easily. (James Walters photo) The left hand sideplate could be removed for cleaning and repair. Note the serial numbers on all parts. (James Walters photo)

Chamelot-­Delvigne revolvers utilized a solid frame with two-­piece walnut grip panels. A pivoting loading gate on the right hand sideplate was rotated 90 degrees to the rear to load or unload the cylinder, while the left hand sideplate could be removed for cleaning or repairs simply my unfastening one screw. A Chamelot-­Delvigne revolver had been adopted by Belgium in 1871 and by the end of the 19th century, variations were adopted by Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, Portugal and Italy. After making a few modifications, in August 1873, the French army approved it as the Révolver d’Ordonnance Modéle 1873.

The loading gate on the right side of the frame was rotated to the rear to load or unload the revolver. (James Walters photo) The cylinder chambers had countersunk mouths to provide support for cartridge heads. (James Walters photo)

The Modéle 1873 was a compact, rugged handgun with an un-­fluted, six-­round cylinder. This particular component was unique for two reasons: first of all, the rear section is of a larger diameter then the front so as to permit the location of the locking recesses without weakening the chamber walls; secondly, the chambers have countersunk mouths to provide complete support for the cartridge heads. The cylinder pin, which is held in place by a large headed, spring-­loaded catch on the right, front of the frame, has a flanged head which was used to remove the sideplate retention screw at the left rear of the frame and a large lanyard ring adorned the bottom of the grip frame.

French revolver cartridges (L to R): 12mm Pinfire, 11mm Cartouche Mode´le 1873 and 8mm Cartouche Mode´le 1892. (Lou Behling photo)

The half round/half octagonal barrel was screwed into an extension of the frame and bore a windage adjustable front sight and a housing on its right side for the ejector rod. To unload the revolver, the loading gate was opened, the head of the ejector rod was pulled forward slightly and swung from under the barrel to the right side and then pushed to the rear to extract a cartridge case. As the rod was not spring loaded, it had to be pulled forward each time.

Markings show this revolver was made at Manufacture d’Armes de Ste. Etienne.

It should be noted that Modéle 1873 revolvers were issued in the “white” with no finish. This was a common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries, although I have not yet been able to ascertain whether it was done for aesthetic reasons, or simply as a means of assuring that enlisted personnel were properly maintaining their weapons.

Period photos of French sailors training with Revolvers Modele 1873M.

The Modéle 1873 was chambered for the 11mm Cartouche Modéle 1873 (a.k.a. 11mm Cartouche d’Ordonnance Modéle 1873). This consisted of a straight walled, rimmed case 17mm long loaded with a 179-­grain lead bullet that 10 grains of black powder propelled to 430 fps (feet per second). In fact, the 11mm cartridge used in the Modéle 1870 naval revolver was ballistically superior but once again inter service rivalries prevented its adoption by the army.

Period photos of French sailors training with Revolvers Modele 1873M.

Manufacture began in 1874 at the state arsenal, Manufacture d’Armes de Ste. Etienne, and was to continue through 1886 with approximately 386,700 units being produced. The revolvers were issued with a lanyard and a hard leather, full flap “clamshell” holster that could be worn on the belt or by means of a shoulder strap. A pouch for twelve spare cartridges was sewn onto the front of the holster, under the flap.

1880. A French officer in Saigon wearing a holstered Mode´le 1873 (or 1874) revolver (left). A poorly armed Madagascan warrior of the type the French fought.

In 1874, Ste. Etienne began manufacture the Révolver d’Officier Modéle 1874 which was intended for officers who wished to purchase a sidearm of finer quality. While it was mechanically identical to the Modéle 1873, the frame was narrower, resulting in some internal parts being different. They can be identified by a fluted cylinder, a slightly shorter barrel and a carefully polished, blued finish. About 35,000 were manufactured.

Shortly after adoption, Modéle 1873 revolvers saw action in France’s colonial campaigns in Africa and Southeast Asia where they lived up to the Chamelot-­Delvigne design’s reputation as rugged, no-­frills handguns capable of taking an inordinate amount of abuse and still keep functioning.

Ste. Etienne also produced the Revolver Modele 1873 for civilian sale.

A number of authorities, for some reason, most of them of French origin, claim the Modéle 1873 was the most advanced combat revolver of its time, far superior to contemporary American and English revolvers and, upon examination, their claims stand up.

The Swedish navy’s 1884 a°rs Revolver fo¨r flottan (left) was identical to the Mode´le 1873 except it had a blued finish. (courtesy of Go¨ta Vapenhistoriska Sa¨llskap. The Mode´le 1874 was also produced in .22 caliber (right) for training purposes. (Rock Island Auction Co.)

The Modéle 1873’s DA/SA (double-­/single-­action) trigger mechanism was far advanced over the Colt’s primitive SA trigger; it was more rugged then the S&W, Adams and Enfield revolvers of the time; and its removable sideplate made it easier to maintain and repair. To my way of thinking its only really negative characteristic was its anemic cartridge.

Comparing the Mode´les 1892 (top) and 1873 (middle) revolvers. (Rock Island Auction Co.). The revolver Vince lent me (bottom) was made in 1879. (James Walters photo)

In the early 1880s, the French navy placed an order with St. Etienne for a number of revolvers to supplement their Modéle 1870s. The so-­called Révolver Modéle 1873M (“M” for “Marine” —­ Navy) and Revolver d’Officier Modéle 1874M were identical to army issue revolvers except they were chambered for the more powerful 11mm Cartouche d’Marine Modéle 1870 but being the chambers were straight walled it could also fire the Cartouche Modéle 1873.

A box of commercial 11mm Cartouches Mode´le 1873. (Lou Behling)

In 1884, the Swedish navy placed an order for Modéle 1873M revolvers, known locally as the 1884 års Revolver för flottan (Year 1884 Revolver for the Fleet), which were chambered for the standard 11mm Modéle 1873 cartridge and had a blued finish.1

The 8mm Re´volver d’Ordonnance Mode´le 1892 was the primary French handgun during WWI. (James Walters photo)

By the mid-­1880s, the French army decided that they needed a replacement for their Modéle 1873s. Engineers at St. Etienne proceeded to develop a new revolver that, while using the same 11mm Modéle 1873 cartridge, had a more robust DA trigger mechanism and frame with a Nagant style ejector rod housed in the cylinder pin. It was tentatively approved as the Révolver d’Ordonnance Modéle 1887.2

1939. A French sailor armed with a Mode´le 1892 revolver searching a ship for contraband.

But by this time, European military doctrine had ceased to place much emphasis on sidearms, considering them more as badges of rank and authority rather than true fighting weapons. In France, revolver issue was generally limited to officers, high ranking NCOs, some mounted units and military gendarmes. It was felt if they were ever used it would be to fire one or two desperate, close range defensive shots and so a light, small caliber handgun would be suitable to the task. At this same time, the new breed of small bore rifle cartridge were under development and soon armies began adopting revolvers in calibers ranging from 7.5mm to 9mm.

11mm Cartouches Mode´le 1873/90 were issued in six and eighteen round packets. (Courtesy of Yan LeFloch)

Before production of the new 11mm revolver could get underway, the French army decided to adapt the design to an 8mm cartridge. Orders for the smaller caliber handgun were placed but because of their commitment to production of the Fusil d’Infanterie Modéle 1886 rifle (the “Lebel”), Ste. Etienne produced less than one thousand revolvers.

The 11mm Cartouche Mode´le 1873/90 used a lighter, pointed, lead bullet at higher velocities.

In the meantime, the first successful swing out cylinder revolver designs had been introduced and the small arms commission quickly became enamored with the Galand‑Schmidt system and the Modéle 1887 quickly became a minor footnote in firearms history.

The design team for the new revolver was headed by the inspector general of the Ste. Etienne arsenal, one Monsieur Richards. A Galand-­Schmidt style swing out cylinder was adapted to the Modéle 1887 frame, the result being the 8mm Révolver d’Ordonnance Modéle 1892, which the small arms commission quickly approved.

A member of the Chinese Black Flag pirates the French fought for control of Indo-China (left). WWI French trench raider armed with Mode´le 1873 revolvers.

In 1890, an improved 11mm Cartouche Modéle 1873/90 was approved. This was loaded with a 164-­grain-­pointed-­lead bullet which achieved a more impressive velocity of 625 fps. I have been told by some collectors that during and after WWI the 1873/90 cartridge was loaded with smokeless propellant, but I have been unable to verify this.3

By 1914, all metropolitan (European-­based) units had been reequipped with the Modéle 1892 revolver but Modéle 1873s were still in use with the reserves and troops based in the colonies. With the outbreak of the WWI, the French army needed vast numbers of handguns and Modéle 1892 production could not possibly meet demand. As a stop-­gap measure arsenals were scoured for handguns and large numbers of elderly Modéle 1873s were reissued.4

While originally intended only for second line and support troops, many eventually found their way to the frontline trenches were they served throughout the war years and there are photos of the French army’s elite trench raiders armed with them.

WWI French trench raiders armed with Mode´le 1873 revolvers (left). Berber fighters in Morocco (top right). 1914. French officers and Vietnamese tirailleurs with the heads of river pirates they “captured.” (bottom right)

Limited numbers of Modéle 1873s remained in service between the wars, especially in France’s African and Asian colonies and, if training manuals are any indication, some were even recalled to duty during the early days of WWII.5

Modéle 1873 revolvers were used by the French resistance during the German occupation. As Modéle 1873-­90 ammunition became scarce, reportedly some were modified by boring out the chambers to use .45 ACP cartridges supplied to the resistance by the Allies. Needless to say, considering the age of the revolvers, their rather thin chamber walls and the fact that they were designed for an extremely unimpressive black powder round, the firing of .45 ACP ammo in revolvers thus modified cannot be discouraged too strongly!

Because of its seventy-­two years of faithful service to the Republic, Modéle 1873 revolvers remain quite popular with Gallic collectors, and I understand that several French firms still produce custom reloaded ammo for owners who enjoy taking them out and seeing what they are capable of on the range.6

Test Firing the Modéle 1873 Revolver

1944. Members of the French Maquis armed with a Mode´le 1873 revolver, Berthier carbine and a Ruby pistol.

Most of the readers of my articles in Firearms News are already familiar with my friend Vince DiNardi.

Vince has been an invaluable source of many of the military firearms I have written about over the years.

A few months ago, we were discussing plans for future articles when he inquired if I had ever test fired a French Modéle 1873 revolver. When I answered in the negative, he said “Well, would you like to?” (I love it when he talks like that!) He then told me that he had one in very nice condition that he would ship it at his earliest convenience.

In the 1999 hit film The Mummy, the star, Brandon Fraser, carried a pair of Mode´le 1873 revolvers in shoulder holsters. (

The Modéle 1873 I received from Vince was in beautiful condition, with no corrosion or pitting evident on its bright “white” finish while the bore and chambers were all mirror bright. On the right side of the frame was marked “Mre d’Armes de St. Etienne,” the date of manufacture, 1879, was stamped on the right side of the barrel while the top barrel flat bore the legend “Modéle 1873.”

All major parts bore matching numbers while every minor parts were stamped with the last two digits of the serial number. I found the Modéle 1873’s grips a bit on the narrow side, but I have to admit it was well balanced and pointed very naturally. The DA trigger pull was one of the best I’ve ever felt on a revolver of that era, and the sighting arrangements, while a bit course, appeared suitable for close range defensive purposes.

Test ammo was supplied by custom reloader John Betka. His 11mm French Revolver cartridges are made from trimmed and resized .44 Magnum cases and loaded with .427 caliber, flat nosed, lead bullets weighing 200 grains in front of a modest charge of Bullseye powder.

1895. French Troupes de la Marine invading the island kingdom of Madagascar where thousands died from tropical diseases.

As I had only a limited supply of ammunition, the Modéle 1873 was test fired for accuracy at fifteen yards. The sights provided a decent enough sight picture, the SA trigger pull was quite good, and recoil was very moderate. I fired a number of six-­shot groups all of which measured around four inches.

Then to judge its offhand shooting characteristics, a D-­1 target was placed out at seven yards and I proceeded to send my last twelve rounds of ammunition downrange in its direction, firing the Modéle 1873 both one handed and supported. As can be seen in the photos, it performed very nicely with most of the rounds impacting in the higher scoring regions of the target.

As I mentioned before, the DA trigger pull was very nice which no doubt accounts for this above average performance. In the past, I have fired a number of French handguns and despite their odd looks, most of them proved to be rather decent shooters.

Accuracy testing was performed from a rest at 15 yards… …producing as series of groups in the four-inch range. Offhand drills were performed at seven yards… …with quite pleasing results.

I found the Modéle 1873 a fitting symbol of that period of Gallic history when gaily uniformed troops fought around the world for the glory of “La Belle France.” Over a period of seventy-­two years, it saw service against Berber tribesmen, Madagascan warriors, Chinese Black Flag river pirates and both the Imperial German army and the Wehrmacht. And when all is said and done, perhaps that is not too shoddy an epitaph?

I would like to thank Vince DiNardi, John Betka, Eugene Medlin, John Wallace, Jean Huon, Joel Kolander, Danielle Smith, Yan LeFloch, Lou Behling, Pat Hernandez, Lou Behling and the Rock Island Auction Co. for supplying materials used to prepare this article. 

If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at [email protected].

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