Chamelot-Delvigne vs. Reichs Ordonnanzrevolver
A comparative analysis of the heavy revolvers adopted by the French
and German armies in the late 19th Century

An article by Richard B. Neely

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German cavalry, early
20th century

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French cavalry, early
20th century

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Both revolvers

The Franco-Prussian War in 1870 clearly demonstrated the need for up-to-date equipment in war time. A great military tradition and esprit de corps can be defeated by superior training, small arms, and in the case of that war, artillery. After the war, both Germany and France continued to improve their military technology. However, neither side was convinced of the importance of pistols for field officers. The sword continued to be the symbol of authority for an officer on the battlefield all the way into World War I. European general staffs at that time were extremely conservative and pistols were sometimes grudgingly adopted as personal defense weapons with no practical offensive use. Even as pistols became more of a symbol of the officer, most would prefer to privately purchase a smaller and more comfortable handgun instead of the large revolvers that were standard issue. For this author, these 19th Century revolvers hold a particular fascination for their massive ruggedness and almost indestructible construction. I have two of these revolvers in my collection and would be glad to share with the readers my observations on their respective strengths and weaknesses.

The Chamelot-Delvigne 11mm Modele 1873 was adopted by the French army as a service revolver for noncommissioned officers. The Modele 1874 Revolver d'Officier was the version issued to officers. The differences between the two models included the following: the 1873 was finished in the white, whereas the 1874 had a fluted cylinder and a blued finish. The 1873 and 1874 were the first center-fire cartridge revolvers adopted by the French army. They were solid-frame, side-ejection, double-action mechanisms. The pistols were manufactured by the St. Etienne armoury which still continues to manufacture fine sporting arms to this day. The design of these pistols would prove so popular that versions of this pistol would be adopted by the Belgium, Dutch, Italian, and Swiss armies.

The caliber of these French pistols was 11x17.8 R. The French round was actually 4/10 of a millimeter larger than its German counterpart. The German round could be loaded and used in the French pistol, but French rounds would not chamber in the German pistol. The cartridge had a pointed lead bullet weighing 11 grams. The case length was 17.8 mm which was rather on the short side. Reloading this cartridge could take some patience due to the shortness of the case. Military specifications called for black powder loads which were changed to a mild smokeless powder when the pistols entered the 20th Century. Standard muzzle velocity was around 550 feet per second. I believe the pistol could easily handle much more, but there is no need to push it.

Although heavy, the pistol feels good in the hands and shoots comfortably even today. The cylinder had a side-loading gate which pulled straight to the rear. The sight picture was a ball and v type and is easy to align. It could be difficult to stay on target double-action due to the stiffness of the action. There was certainly no danger of accidentally pulling the trigger double-action; you had to mean it. Cleaning and disassembly were easy due to the fact that the cylinder pin doubled as a screwdriver and all-purpose tool. Internal parts were finely machined and finished. The trigger, hammer, and several of the internal springs were straw finished which was a type of case-hardening hot oil finish.

The French pistols began their service with the French army in the late 19th Century and saw service all over the globe in French colonies. Many saw service in World War I when European armies finally realized how important pistols were in the trenches. The Chamelot-Delvigne finally ended its venerable service as a police sidearm in World War II.

The German military authorities were no less conservative than their French counterparts and also adopted a large center-fire cartridge revolver for their army. A commission was appointed to design the new weapon and their design was rugged and simple. The Reichs Ordonanzrevolver, or as it was commonly known, the Reichsrevolver was a perfect example of what you would expect from a committee design. The Model 1879 was the first model and was followed by the Model 1883. The first models had a picturesque look about them since the barrel was shaped like a canon barrel. Like the French pistols, these revolvers were the first center-fire metallic cartridge weapons adopted by the German army. The Reichsrevolver was a solid-frame, single-action pistol. One superior piece of workmanship on the German pistol was the cylinder chamber which was machined to receive both the cartridge and its rim. Given the sometimes fragile nature of brass cases in the 19th Century, this was a very solid innovation. Neither of the military models were double-action. I have seen double-action Reichsrevolvers in the 1883 style, but all of these were manufactured for the commercial market. Amazingly, there was no ejection system for these German pistols. To eject spent cases, the cylinder would have to be removed completely, or a separate ejection rod would have to be carried. Perhaps this was indicative also of how little importance the Germans attached to pistol sidearms. There was also the consideration that if you were a German N.C.O. or officer, and you needed more than six shots, the situation might already be out of control. Another odd feature of the German pistol was a manual safety on the left side of the frame. I believe it to be the only revolver I have ever handled that had such a device.

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Reichs Ordonnanzrevolver

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The caliber of the Reichsrevolver was 10.55x25 mm R, a round which was virtually identical to the .44 caliber Russian. The round was much easier to load than the French given the longer case length on the German round. It fired a conical lead bullet weighing 16.8 grams at a standard velocity of 615 feet per second. I have read that the wartime load used compressed black powder charges that pushed the bullet at 900 feet per second! I can hardly imagine. With mild loads, the Reichsrevolver was a pleasure to shoot. Shooting strictly single-action, it was extremely smooth and easy in the hand. The sight's inverted v's were easy to align. The biggest drawback to this revolver was that one would have to hope that there was no pressure to quickly reload.

Reichsrevolver pistols were the standard issue for the Imperial German Army up until 1908 when the famous Luger pistol was adopted. Comparing the Chamelot-Delvigne and the Reichs Ordonnanzrevolver with the Luger would be like looking at two completely different centuries in technology. Even so, when World War I came in 1914, the Reichsrevolver took its place in the trenches along with artillery and support units. I would imagine that there were a few still in service with Volksturm units in World War II.

These two old revolvers speak to us of history. They reveal much about the military thinking of the late 19th Century. They are perfect examples of a stage of firearms development that was dominant for 60 years. Their construction indicates great pride in craftsmanship and quality that was meant to last as a testament to the nation. Of the two, the French model was most advanced. The lack of an ejection system was a serious flaw for the Reichsrevolver. Although overly stiff, a double-action mechanism was also a definite advantage for the French revolver. Considered crude by modern standards, these two old troopers were fairly evenly matched at the time and no doubt quite effective sidearms.

About the Author
Dr. Richard B. Neely is an Associate Professor at Judson College in Marion, Alabama. He is a professor of history and has been a lifelong collector of firearms, edged weapons, and militaria.

Edward C. Ezell, Handguns of the World, Stackpole Books, 1983
David Miller, The Illustrated Book of Guns, Advantage Publishing Group, 2000
Harold Peterson, Encyclopedia of Firearms, E.P. Dutton and Co., 1964
Major Frederick Myatt, Pistols and Revolvers, Salamander Books, NY 1987

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