The Chauchat was the standard light machine gun of the French army throughout WW1, and it was one of the first weapons designed to be carried and fired by a single soldier. Over 250,000 of the Chauchat were made, making it the most produced automatic weapon of WW1. Its popular name comes from the lead designer of the weapon, Colonel Louis Chauchat. The Chauchat has often been called "The Worst Gun Ever", which is an undeserved reputation.
The origins of the Chauchat go back to 1903, when Louis Chauchat and Charles Sutter at the Puteaux Arsenal began work on a weapon intended to be very light, operable by one man and firing the standard 8mm Lebel cartridge. Over the following years they developed several prototypes of their C.S Machine Rifle. It was quite similar to the later Chauchat, but with the curved magazine on top of the receiver. After successful trials of the C.S Machine Rifle in January 1913 the French army ordered 100 copies, which barely got delivered before war broke out. Since the C.S was one of the lightest automatic weapons around they were mounted on French aircraft early in WW1. None of these weapons remain today.
Soon General Jaffre demanded a very light automatic support weapon for the infantry. It was decided to base this new weapon on the C.S Machine Rifle, since the design already existed and it had been tested, and it fired the standard Lebel rounds, which would simplify logistics. It was also projected that the C.S could be inexpensively mass produced in converted civilian plants, and the bulk of Chauchats were built by the former bicycle factory Gladiator. Chauchat and Sutter quickly updated their previous design, which was adopted by the French army in 1915 and issued to the front line from 1916.
In many ways the Chauchat was a precursor to the modern assault rifle, weighing only 9kg and featuring semi- or full automatic fire, a pistol grip, in-line stock and a 20 round detachable magazine. The main difference to a modern assault rifle is the Chauchat's use of a full power cartridge, rather than an intermediate one. The Chauchat is the only fully automatic weapon to use the "long recoil" operating mechanism, inspired by the Model 8 Autoloading rifle.
When the Americans arrived on the front in 1918 they were supplied with the Chauchat, called "Sho-Sho" by the US troops. It is believed their experience with the weapon is a big part of its poor reputation today. Almost 20,000 Chauchats had been produced in US .30-06 caliber for issuing to the Americans, but the .30-06 was more powerful than the original Lebel round, and the production had been plagued by many defects. Because of this the .30-06 version of the Chauchat performed horribly and was only used for training, but the bad impression stuck with the American soldiers.
During the war it was found that 75% of stoppages of the Chauchat were due to problems with the magazines. They were made of thin metal and easily got deformed, but the main problems were the large witness holes on the sides, which easily let it dirt and dust. The Chauchat was certainly not a perfect weapon, but was highly effective in its day, providing essential fire support for the French troops during attacks. French medal records show that Chauchat gunners were instrumental to the success of modern assault tactics, including its use in neutralising machine gun nests.