A Whiff of Grapeshot

Monday, December 1st, 2014

As a young Brigadier General, Napoleon once dispersed a mob of Royalists with “a whiff of grapeshot” — although it’s not quite clear how to translate that very Anglo-Saxon phrase back into French. Une bouffée de mitraille?

The phrase likely sounds so Anglo-Saxon because it was coined by Scottish essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution: A History.

Mitraille is the French word for grapeshot, and it is also the root of the French word for machine gun, mitrailleuse, because the original French proto-machine gun was a multi-barrel affair meant to deliver a volley of rifle rounds, as a new and improved form of grapeshot, and the term stuck, even as true machine guns arrived on the scene.

Mitrailleuse Reffye

To a modern audience, it’s always surprising that the European armies going into the Great War didn’t see the potential of the machine gun, but there’s a reason for that. The English hadn’t faced a civilized army with their Gatling guns, and the French experience with the mitrailleuse had been a failure, when they deployed it — as a kind of artillery — against the Prussians in 1870, where it was no match for actual artillery — Krupp guns.

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