By Jean Binck
The prevailing idea during the 17th and 18th century was that the garrison troops at the border of the country should rely on a quick supply of replacement arms in case of conflict. The Napoleonic wars demonstrated that this strategy was too risky, the arms manufacturers close to the borders being too vulnerable.
Therefore, in 1816 the French Artillery Commission decided to create a new Government manufactory, in a safer place, in the centre of France near the city of Poitier: Châtellerault.
Colonel Cotty, Director General of the Weapons Manufactories, started the installation of the "Manufacture de Châtellerault" on the bank of the river Vienne.
In 1819, Commandant Notret, the last inspector of the renowned Manufacture de Versaille, started the production with the help of two of the skilled workers of Klingenthal, Bick and Donat and the local workers. The same year, a Royal Order confirmed the creation of the Government manufactory of Châtellerault. During 1819 only tools (axes and spades) were produced, then the production increased slowly with the fabrication of swords of the pattern 1816.
In 1822, in parallel with swords production, the fabrication of firearms started.
In 1829, the 44 workers of Châtellerault produced 6000 swords. That was obviously far from the maximum production of 60 000 swords/year reached by the 600 Klingenthal workers during the Napoleonic wars!
At the beginning of the 1830ies, the Manufactory of Châtellerault was involved with the fabrication of nearly all the patterns of swords then issued to the French army.
In 1831 new premises were to be built and the Pihet brothers gave their financial support. They became the first "Entrepreneurs" of the "Manufacture de Châtellerault"; the financial management of the manufactory was then the responsibility of private persons, following the system of the "entreprise".
During 1833 social troubles grew in France. There were strikes and rebellion among the workers of the factory. The same year, a flood of the river Vienne damaged the manufactory; it was nearly the end of the Manufacture de Châtellerault.
Fortunately, in 1835, a new entrepreneur Creuzé, Proa & Cny, signed a contract valid until 1851. With the help of a brilliant controller, J. Bisch, the production raised again.
The French government decided in 1836 - 1837 to close the firearms manufactories of Maubeuge and Charleville, close to the northern border of the country, and to transfer their production to Châtellerault and Saint-Etienne. Likewise, the government rid itself of Klingenthal too close to the eastern border. The premises were sold to the Coulaux brothers (see article on Klingenthal). It was rumoured that Marshal Soult, the Minister of War in 1834, did all he could to accelerate the closing of the Manufacture de Klingenthal. He avenged himself on Klingenthal for having refused in the past to buy steel from his personal factories in the French province of Tarn. Anyway, the Manufacture de Châtellerault was assured of the future.
In 1851, Creuzé signed a new contract of entrepreneur valid until 1866.
In 1868, there were 300 machine tools installed by the entrepreneur Chassepot (1866-1878). Nevertheless, it is interesting to notice that the blades will remain hand-forged until 1916!
With the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 came a period of confusion. When it became obvious that the war was lost, the workers of Châtellerault retreated to the South of France, then came back, all this in a great confusion. Finally the manufactory started again mid 1871.
During the second half of the 19th century, the production of firearms increased in the Manufacture de Châtellerault, and, as everywhere in the world, the swords production declined and finally stopped in 1937.
The manufactory continued to produce firearms until 1968.
The financial management was entrusted to a government-appointed "entrepreneur".
The task of the entrepreneur was to buy the source material (steel, charcoal etc.), to pay with his own money the salaries of the workers, and to organise the company in order to comply with the contracts of the government. The government then bought the final products from him, leaving him a profit of 20%.
The plant Director controlled the production for the military contracts. He was an artillery senior officer (Chef d' Escadron / Lt. Colonel), appointed only for a few years and helped by a staff of artillery officers. It was his responsibility to maintain quality control, speed of production etc. to fulfil the government contracts. He was also in charge of the supervision of the accountancy regarding the supply to the regiments and he reported to the ministry of war.
Following the regulation of 1822, there were different kinds of workers:
The workers who enlisted to the Ministry of War and were considered as being part of the military staff, they were really the backbone of the manufacture.
These workers worked only for the production of military weapons and could not resign without permission of the Ministry of War; trespassers would have been prosecuted as deserters and court-martialled. As a counterpart, they had the benefit of a pension after 25 working years.
The best workers could be promoted to reviser, controller and first class controller. They were highly skilled and experienced workers and had to be able to read and write. Furthermore, they were requested to have a natural authority upon the other workers.
Controllers and revisers were in charge of the training of the other workers and the quality control of blades and swords for the military contracts. They have their personal stamp that can be found on military blades and hilts.
Referring to information dated 1822, they were paid a similar amount of money as the artillery officers:
Controller first class = 2 400 francs/year
Controller second class = 1 800 francs/year
Reviser = 1500 francs/year
This was the income of the ranks Second Lieutenant to Captain in the artillery.
There were also soldiers (military armourers, carpenters etc.) detached from their regiment to serve in the manufactory.
Other workers were civilians who had the opportunity to leave the manufactory after a prior notification of a few months; of course, they could be kicked out by the entrepreneur even more quickly!
The ricasso of the blade should bear at least the stamps of the Director and the Controller. Often, the Reviser stamp is also present.
The hilt should bear the stamps of the Director and the Controller on the knuckle bow. Usually, the stamp of the reviser is stamped under the quillon.
Remark: regarding officers swords, even if there were regulation patterns for the officers, it was a custom of long standing that they were allowed to purchase their swords wherever they want. Eventually many officers' swords were found not serviceable on the battlefield! Some officers spent their money for an attractive hilt or etched blade very decorative...but of a poor quality.
Therefore, the officers were requested to use a service sword with a blade issued and controlled in the government manufactory. The blade could be hilted by a civil sword maker or by the manufactory itself.
For this reason, it is not unusual to find officers swords with a Châtellerault blade, but without markings on the hilt.
Basically the common marking was the name of the manufacture + month + date of production.
This chapter gives a quick view of the style of marking of the Manufacture de Châtellerault through different period. These are the most common markings, it is probably not an exhaustive list.
The manufactory's name marking is usually found on the back of the blade when the type of blade allows it, written in a cursive script.
The following abbreviations are commonly found on French swords:
For the months (referring to the Latin sound of the figures):
7 bre = Septembre
8 bre = Octobre
9 bre = Novembre
X bre = Décembre
The other months being written in full: Janvier, Février, Mars, Avril, Mai, Juin, Juillet, Août.
Manuf e = Manufacture = Manufactory
Chat t = Châtellerault
R le = Royale = of the King
Natl e = Nationale = National
Impal e = Impériale = of the Emperor
Mle = Modèle = Model
Off er = Officier = Officer
S s Officier = Sous Officier = NCO
Cav rie = Cavalerie = cavalry
Cav rie L re = Cavalerie légère = Light Cavalry
Art rie = Artillerie = Artillery
Inf rie = Infanterie = Infantry
Markings during different period
1820 - 1836
Châtellerault + year of production
1836 - 1848
All the government production is transferred to Châtellerault
Manuf re R le de Châtellerault 8 bre 1836
1848 - 1852
After the abdication of the King Louis-Philippe, the word "Royale" dissapeared and was replaced by "Nationale".
Manuf Nl e de Châtellerault avril 1850
M re d' Armes de Châtellerault avril 1851
1853 - 1870
Napoleon III became Emperor
Manuf re Imp le de Châtellerault Fevrier 1853
In 1856 a new regulation required that the model of the sword should be mentioned.
M re Imp ale de Chat t 9 bre 1858 Dragon M le 1854
1870 to 1937
After the abdication of Napoleon III, the words "nationale" and "armes" (weapons) appeared.
Manufacture nationale d' armes de Châtellerault 8 bre 1903 Off er d' Art rie M le 1822-99
Swords after the end of the 19th century can bear the size of the sword:
1 e taille, 2 e taille or 3 e taille.
Dictionnaire de l'Artillerie by Colonel Cotty, Paris 1822
Armes Blanches Françaises by Lhoste & Buigne, France 1994
Magazine « Gazette des armes » , France
Other source :
Markings on swords from author’s collection