Let me preface this article by saying that the 1873 French Service Revolver is my absolute, all-time favorite revolver. As a major wheelgun fan, that’s saying something.
Where You’ve Seen It
If you’re a fan of the film The Mummy as I am, you may already know that the chunky brace of revolvers Brendan Fraser wields akimbo style throughout the first film are venerated 1873 French Service Revolvers, or “Chamelot Delvignes.” It famously makes another appearance in the film Defiance, when Daniel Craig uses one to blow away a family of Nazi soldiers during dinner.
The 1873 French Service Revolvers were issued to the French Foreign Legion, undoubtedly ended up (at least in small numbers) in the holsters of immigrant cowboys in the American Wild West, and was dragged back into service for both World War I and World War II (in the latter war, these were largely used by police and other secondary forces). That’s over 70 years of service!
Chambered to the long extinct 11mm blackpowder cartridge—a bullet of the same approximate weight and diameter as a .45 ACP slug, but delivering about half the foot pounds of energy a .22 LR does—these guns probably knocked more men unconscious than killed them. That said, this French service revolver was still one of the very first double action centerfire cartridge revolvers in the world, and proved to be an overwhelming improvement in simplicity of design and use compared to the still-issued muzzle-loaded, cap-and-ball, or pinfire pistols available at the time of its inception.
The French had this great idea when soliciting designs for their service pistol: They wanted a revolver that could be totally disassembled in the field without the need for special tools. The Chamelot Delvigne’s cylinder axis rod actually has a divergent flat that works in place of a screwdriver to remove the sideplate and access the handful of beautiful straw-colored internal parts. It’s really a gloriously simple design; and if it weren’t for the many safety requirements firearm manufacturers today have to integrate into their revolvers, it would still be a viable one, I think.
The trigger return springs on these guns were a weak spot, and you’ll find many existing examples with those broken. Also, these guns were finished in the white—they left the factory with no finish, only bare steel. That means that, for a gun that saw many years of battlefield use, it had nothing protecting it from the elements. Many existing examples will either be pitted or have a non-original finish applied. Also, because the chamber size is so similar in diameter to a .45 ACP, some brilliant bubbas back in the day—wanting to shoot these military surplus war prizes—decided to bore them out to shoot the more widely available cartridge. In terms of ballistic pressures, that’s on par with shoving a hand grenade in a cardboard toilet paper tube and expecting the blast to be contained. If you plan to shoot one of these old collectibles, always use blackpowder rounds, and make certain that the gun itself is still chambered to the original 11mm.
Heavy, sturdy, and surprisingly accurate (The one above is from my collection and shoots spot on at fifty yards, even if it takes a minute for the bullet to get there), the Chamelot Delvigne French Service Revolver may not amount to much by today’s standards, but still demands the kind of respect you’d pay to your senile grandfather.