Retro Revolver Review

MAS 1873

MAS 1873

French 1873 Ordnance Bureau Revolver

Sharp-eyed readers will recognize this piece as the sidearm used by Brendan Fraser’s character in The Mummy.  The Chamelot Delvigne French 1873 (also called the MAS 1873 revolver) was a double-action 11-millimeter (11.43mm or 11×17.8R) ordnance revolver with a solid frame and side ejection.  The barrel was approximately 4.5″ long (110-115mm), with 4-groove right-hand rifling.  The guns were left unblued.  It was adopted by the French Army as standard issue for NCOs in 1873, as the French military’s first double-action revolver.  It was also the first center-fire cartridge revolver the French used.  The Swiss, Belgian, Dutch, and Italian armies also used them.
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It was a good choice for The Mummy, being of an appropriate vintage and pretty neat looking to boot.  Developed by Belgian gunsmith J. Chamelot and French officer Henri-Gustave Delvigne, it was produced by Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne from 1873 to 1887 in about 337,000 copies.  Like the Nagant, it had a long service life: it was widely used during the First World War, and issued to reserve units in 1940.  The Resistance made widespread use of it during the Occupation.   Model 1873 was issued to the French Army, the French Navy, the National Gendarmerie and the National Police until 1962(!)   It was also in use with Banque de France, the French Forces of the Interior and the National Forests Office.

There was a model 1874 for officers, of which 35,000 were made.  It differs from model 1873 in having a fluted cylinder, a lighter structure and a darker (blued) finish.  Civilians copies were made in France and Belgium.

A well-preserved specimen

A well-preserved specimen

There was also a Navy version which used a more powerful loading of the 11mm cartridge, but production ceased and they went back to using the regular ammunition when the stocks were depleted.

The gun itself was known for its reliability and durability, but like several other notable guns of the period (Webley RIC, S&W Model 3 Schofield), it used a short underpowered round of large caliber.  The 11×17.8R cartridge had a round-nose or pointed lead bullet weighing 10.6 – 11.7 grams (approx 170gr).  The case length was 17.8 mm.  Original military specifications called for black powder loads; that was changed to a mild smokeless powder when the pistols entered the 20th Century.  Standard muzzle velocity was around 500-600 feet per second.  Like the .44 Russian and the .442/.455 Webley rounds (both of which had heavier bullets that traveled faster than the 11×17.8R), not exactly something that will beat you up when shooting it.  Over-penetration was definitely not a problem.

11x17.8R Cartridge

11x17.8R Cartridge

Guns & Ammo’s Garry James is a fan of the model, and I have warmed up to its charms as well.  It has a retro/steampunk look, like a Webley, a Nagant, and a Ruger Bearcat had a drunken orgy and the swap of gun DNA became the M1873.  Although heavy, the pistol feels good in the hands and shoots comfortably even today. Garry James says the DA trigger is very smooth, and one of the best of its era; some claim it is a little heavy.  The cylinder had a side-loading gate which pulled straight to the rear. The sights consisted of a front blade machined from the barrel, and a small fixed rear V notch. 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 had a tan or straw finish which was a type of case-hardening hot oil finish.

The French replaced the M1873 with the M1892 (sometimes called the “Lebel Revolver” in error), which used a bottlenecked/tapered 8mm black-powder cartridge (which resembled the .32-20) and which had a swing-out cylinder for loading.  This round was apparently quite anemic, barely reaching the energy of the .32acp (even when loaded with smokeless powder).  The gun itself looked very similar to a Nagant.

You can find more information on the internet, WikiPedia for example.  Oddly, I cannot find the MAS 1873 in my Blue Book.  If you know what manufacturer it is listed under, drop me a line.

While surplus arms occasionally run into problems with ammo availability (Nambus, Martini-Henrys), there is hope for M1873 owners.  You can buy a reloading kit to make ammo for your M1873!

Another Famous Movie Gun:

The Story of The Terminator’s Long-Slide .45 with Laser Sighting

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