Les chasseurs luttent contre la Bête du Gévaudan

Hypotheses explaining gun shooter failures

  in the hunt for the Beast of Gevaudan

Alain Parbeau

Tir avec une arme à silex à l'époque de la Bête du Gévaudan - © PJ Vidal

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This presentation is not intended to judge 18th century hunters. It brings, after shooting experiences with 18th century weapons, and taking into account the loadings of the time, a light on the practices of hunting with firearms of the beast.

It is easy with our current devices and modern science (chronograph, high-speed camera, ballistic tests, etc.) to realize the errors of past practices. Our ancestors did not have in shooting, our rational reasoning, our scientific techniques, nor the financial means to buy a lot of ammunition and train effectively.

They used more or less empirical customs and assertions, for lack of developed scientific experiments. Confusion due to the many different units of measurement, but bearing the same name in each province, was commonplace.

The influence of more or less “religious” beliefs completed the complication.

As for the geographical configuration of Gévaudan, we are well aware of the difficulties (deep gorges, significant elevation changes, lack of communication channels, etc.), not to mention the harsh climate.

Even today (e.g. the first "beast of the Vosges", dog, wolf, or other, which attacked cattle from March to June 1976, has not been captured. Cattle attacks ceased after June 3 without further explanation), it is very difficult to track an animal in mountainous terrain, despite having helicopters, infrared cameras, and other tracking equipment...

On the other hand if the firearms of the time are less precise than nowadays, their quality of realization is generally excellent in France, and seriously controlled since Louis XIV. Firearms are designed to last 50 years, and many will remain in service for 100 years or more, such as Jean Chastel's rifle, probably made around 1760, with a flint ignition system transformed around 1840 into a percussion ignition system.

The quality is so good that rural hunters with modest incomes in France used carabiners from the first empire, transformed into percussion, as hunting rifles until the 1960s. still authentic 18th and 19th century weapons today.

The hunters of the 18th century did what they could with their knowledge, their means, their beliefs, and their realities on the ground.

The lack of training

Eighteenth century hunters did not benefit from advantageous rates on ammunition. For example, a hunting company nowadays can obtain for the purchase of 5000 cartridges (caliber 12 pellets of 7) a unit cost of 12 euro cents.

Training shooting (ball-trap or target for example) therefore costs 48 euros per hunter, for shooting 400 cartridges (i.e. 10 training sessions at 40 cartridges during the hunting season closure). This very reasonable current cost, allows effective and serious training.

In the 18th century, this is not the case. Powder and lead are much more expensive, and a hunting shot costs in comparison to 1/2 penny or about 3 euros, or 1200 euros (10 pounds) for shooting 400 shots against 48 euros nowadays. (The cost of a 1764 rifle load includes 5 grams of good quality gunpowder, a 27 gram lead bullet, and a lead jaw plus a Berry blond flint for 40 rounds).

Without claiming to be absolutely fair, this conversion into euros stems from a comparison with the basic daily minimum wage of 8 cents in 1764 with the daily minimum wage of approximately 50 euros in 2014. It makes it possible to realize the cost in 1764.

As a result, only wealthy hunters can afford serious practice on shooting targets. The others will only “burn their powder” on a target that can pay off (a pest that can be exchanged for a bounty, or consumable game). However, the firearms of the 18th century being less precise than modern weapons, it takes significant training to master them with good shooting accuracy.

In conclusion, only rich hunters can become good shooters after training. (But in general, the rich hunters are noble and prefer hunting with hounds, where the game is finished with a dagger or a hunting sword).

For the others, only those who have a natural predisposition like probably Jean Chastel, will be effective.

The "dragons" (Regiment of Clermont-Prince)

Captain Aide-Major Duhamel, commanding the detachment hunting the beast, could not shoot it, because two of his men put themselves in his line of sight while the animal was within range of his weapon.

During their pursuit on sight of the beast, the dragons on horseback try to saber it, that is to say, to kill it by giving it blows with their saber. They do not use their pistols or their carbines, which however would have been more suitable even if it is not easy to shoot accurately at a gallop… Why?

Probably that day, because of the honor, and the excitement. Indeed, for a horseman (dragon, hussar etc.), the “noble” weapon at this time was the saber, and heroic action was charging the enemy. He who charges and kills with a saber is directly confronted with danger, being able to be a victim of it, therefore he is not a coward.

We still find this behavior today on the part of certain hunters, in hunting with hounds, horns and cries, who after having pursued it on horseback, serve the boar (that is to say, complete the animal surrounded by dogs) with a dagger.

They risk a lethal defensive blow, but they show their "bravery and courage". Then the crew honors the game with a hunting horn tune.

Unfortunately, in the case of dragons, this practice will allow the beast to save itself. To saber it effectively (reach the spine for example), you have to be at its height, and lower the saber to 40 cm from the ground, if we consider the animal killed by Jean Chastel which is about 55 cm at the withers and which flattens at a gallop.

From a horse launched at full speed, it is not as obvious as to saber the head of a man 1 meter 60 from the ground.

The versatile hunting weapon: The shotgun

It is a long gun (which is worn leaning against the shoulder to shoot) whose inside of the barrel(s) is smooth.

It is the versatile weapon (still today) because it allows the use of both lead shot (small round balls from 1 to 4 mm in diameter for hunting small game, also called "Dragees", and "Cendrées" for the smallest in the 18th century), than buckshot balls of 5 to 9 mm (called wolf posts when they are intended for them), or round bullets in the caliber of the weapon or of a caliber one slightly lower (called ingots in reference to the one-pound lead ingot used to determine their theoretical weight) for larger game (roe deer, wild boar, deer, bear, wolf, etc.).

The use of wolf posts (buckshot) the most used projectile in the 18th century for wolf hunting in a rifle.

These are lead balls of 5 to 9 mm (8 mm in Paris in 1741 according to the work of Mr. de Saint Rémy) with which guns were heavily loaded at the time.

What does heavily mean? Quite simply that one will not hesitate, to compensate for a lack of precision of the rifle, by increasing the diameter of the sheaf of lead pellets, to put 50 or even 60 grams of buckshot, to have a better chance of at least hurt the animal, where today we would put a maximum of 30 grams.

In the case of an injured animal, it is followed “by blood”. That is to say that we have dogs specially trained to sniff the smell of blood left on the ground, and find the animal which we then finish at close range.

The wolf posts leave the rifles of the time at a speed which varies from 180 to 300 m per second, depending on the caliber, and the fact common at the time that a bullet close to the caliber of the rifle was added. weapon (the “ingot”) or not (like the arquebus holder of the king, François Antoine).

This projectile velocity drops rapidly, and the effective practical range (which kills instantly and provides minimal accuracy with buckshot) for a rifle is no more than 15 yards, or about 20 paces, given the heavy load. .

Beyond that, the speed of the projectiles is no longer high enough to deeply puncture a large animal given the friction against the air which slows the projectiles, and the energy used to knock it down on the ground. This constitutes so much less force, used in the penetration of the flesh.

Sure enough, an 18th century 24 caliber rifle, at 50 meters, for 285 meters per second, with 27 grams of 8mm buckshot, pierced a 5 cm pine plank (it burst at the back).

But this board is fixed on a pole that does not move, so all the energy is concentrated in the force of penetration, and there are only 27 grams of lead, not 50 or 60, and the speed is still 200 meters per second at 50 meters.

This is not the case on a mobile animal, pulled with a heavier load, therefore slower. The beast reached by only 3 or 4 positions out of the fifteen or twenty or even more (35 for François Antoine) which constitute the charge (the others pass by) will be knocked down on the ground, and slightly injured.

The animal bleeds, but if there is no major artery affected, the blood clots quickly, especially if it is cold, especially since the pellets have not penetrated deeply under the skin. (In the “Marin” report, about old wounds healed on the animal killed by J. Chastel, the notary says it well: “We feel 3 grains of lead under the skin”). We then understand that we lose track of the animal quite quickly, especially since we can add fog, rain, or even snow in some cases.

The use of multiple bullets stacked to the caliber of the rifle (married bullets)

It will be common until the end of the 19th century, to stack 2 or 3 bullets in his rifle, claiming that one out of the two or three has a better chance of hitting the target than a single bullet.

The consequence of this loading will be a drop in speed (therefore in power) of 60m per second with 2 bullets and of 130 meters per second with 3 bullets and a greater dispersion of the projectiles (the 3 bullets are distributed in a circle of 3 meters in diameter to 50 meters)

In conclusion, only a shot at 15 meters maximum would be of interest with this practice. Beyond that, it's a ballistic error. (In addition, this practice is very dangerous because a slow bullet ricochets very easily off a tree trunk, and can return to the shooter.)

The use of a single bullet at the caliber of the rifle or a little less

It is often called an “ingot” in reference to the fraction of the one pound lead ingot of 489.5 grams from which it is derived. The ingot also designates by extrapolation a large buckshot mixed with small ones.

For example, a 24 caliber rifle means that the theoretical 24 caliber bullet weighs 1/24th of a pound or 20.39 grams and corresponds to a lead sphere 15.1 mm in diameter.

A 24-caliber rifle (15.1 mm in the 18th century, 14.7 mm today because of the 1911 reform) sends its well-planned bullet at 360 meters per second for a powder charge of 3.5 grams (4.5 grams in the 18th century). She pierces an 18cm pine beam at 50 meters (The back of the beam bursts). If the beam is 30 cm long, the penetration does not cause splitting, and is only 8 cm.

This is the best formula, because the most powerful. Only, in order for the bullet to fit easily into the barrel, it is actually 13.1 to 14.5 mm, which leaves a clearance of 0.6 to 2 mm (the wind) between the barrel and the projectile, that one fills more or less well by wrapping the ball in a small cloth greased with tallow called a notebook.

This play, if it exceeds 0.8 mm, is very detrimental to precision (and to power because part of the propulsion gases burns the pad and passes between the bullet and the barrel). Under the pressure of the combustion gases of the powder, the bullet rebounds while advancing on the walls of the barrel, and it is the last rebound before the exit of this one which determines the direction of the projectile.

Basically, the precision does not generally exceed 25 meters, and provided that the weapon is properly wedged on a branch for example. (The same goes for war rifles, but as we shoot at each other "in the heap" lined up in close ranks at 50 meters or less, precision is secondary and, it is effective. It is not the case when it is necessary to target a single and mobile animal)

On the other hand, with a wind of 0.8mm, the bullet, well "calepined" and greased, is powerful and of acceptable precision (the projectile is placed in a circle 40 cm in diameter) at 25 meters provided it does not move. This is what makes it possible to understand that Jean Chastel's rifle, loaded with a caliber bullet, pierced the neck, cut the trachea artery, and broke the shoulder of the canid he killed (according to the report by Maître Marin ).

If we consider a height of 1.55m to 1.60m for J.Chastel and a height of 0.55m at the withers for the animal, taking into account the slope of the "Sogne d'Auvers" and that the bullet did this damage, it penetrated the base of the neck on the animal's right side. Chastel was between 16 and 20 meters and the beast appeared in profile on his left.

(Nowadays in the shooting range, with our modern ballistics knowledge, we reduce the wind to 0.3 mm (X 2) and use a ramrod forced bullet with a 0.4 mm thick oiled pad This allows honorable precision to hit a target of 0.50m X 0.50m at 50 meters)

In summary for the rifle

Why does the 18th century rifle lack precision?

Furthermore, the pressure required at the start of the shot on the trigger tail, commonly reaches or even exceeds 3 kg, which favors the "finger shot" deflecting the weapon by a few millimeters at the time of firing, which quickly represents a few decimeters to 30 meters.

Why does it lack power if it is incorrectly charged?

But black powder is sensitive to moisture. The drier it is, the more regular and rapid it will burn. Gévaudan is a country where it is sometimes difficult to fight against humidity.

The ideal weapon for big game hunting: The rifle

We can say that it is a kind of rifle, but which instead of having a smooth barrel, has a rifled barrel (grooved) internally (4 to 12 helical grooves according to the manufactures), which gives a gyroscopic movement to the ball , considerably increasing its precision (at 50 meters, we hit a plate without any problem), and its penetrating power. You can therefore only fire one bullet at a time in this weapon. Unlike the rifle, it is equipped with sighting instruments (rise and front sight).

(A 1760 caliber 14mm hunting rifle shoots its bullet at 450 to 530 yards per second depending on the powder load, and pierces a 24cm pine beam at 50 yards. The beam bursts at the rear)

The ball will be:

Lead round and rifle-like

  • Or of a diameter slightly greater than that of the barrel (in this case, after having added the powder, the greased bullet is forced to enter with a mallet and a rod into the barrel of the weapon. This is the so-called loading to "forced ball")

  • Either of a diameter very slightly smaller than that of the barrel, and wrapped in a small piece of greased cloth called a notebook. The gripping of the scratches is done thanks to the notebook which hugs them in force, and which sticks to the ball, as well as the slight deformation of the latter under the pressure of the gases forcing it to turn.

It was the rifle of the game warden "Rinchard" that killed the wolf of "François Antoine", the arquebus holder of King Louis XV, with a single bullet. (The charge of the canardière of the "arquebuse carrier" of the king, too heavy and slow, only penetrated under the skin of the wolf when knocking him down, but no projectile was immediately fatal. The wounded wolf got up and loaded it).

So why were there not many rifles?

  • The rifle can only fire one bullet, much more accurate than the shotgun, but on condition of being trained, and remaining particularly stable when firing. Training is expensive.
  • The rifle is longer and more difficult to load than a shotgun. But this disadvantage is especially evident at this time for military use. Moreover, the military rifle is maintained of great length to serve with its bayonet, of peak against the cavalry.
  • The smooth-bore shotgun can shoot small pellets, for birds or small game, as well as buckshot or bullets. Its versatility makes it generally preferred to the rifle.
  • The cost of manufacturing the rifle is higher, because of the grooves (3 to 12 depending on the model) and the barrel which is generally thicker to withstand higher gas pressures.
  • The rifle is only suitable for big game, because it would be overpowered on small animals whose flesh it would pulverize (duck, rabbit, etc.), preventing them from being eaten.
  • The nobles who would have the means to afford a rifle, rather hunt with hounds, with dogs, a dagger, or a sword, or even a hunting spear.

Performance of 18th century firearms with correct loading (shooting at 50 meters)

The results obtained above are very good, and stem from careful loading, and a "wind" between the barrel and the "calepined" bullet of 0.8mm for the shotgun and 0.3mm for the rifle (the notebook is 0.4 mm thick, and is greased with tallow as at the time). As for the buckshot, a 2cm greased cork wad is inserted between the projectiles and the powder.

The 3.5mm sheet metal plate is fixed to a post, and therefore does not recoil on impact. Thus all the energy of the projectile is available to perforate it. However, we note that the buckshot have less power than the bullets, and cannot pierce the sheet.


18th century firearms perform well if they are loaded correctly, with projectiles suitable for the game being hunted, and if the shooter is trained. But, if we consider the lack of training, the poor choice of load for the type of game that the animal constitutes, and the generally excessive distance of the shot, we understand that the animal was often only wounded , and that he was able to get back on his feet and flee.

This does not exclude that the animal touched by hunters like the "Marlet" brothers of La Chaumette, or Mr. de Védrine could have gone to die in an isolated corner, and was devoured in turn by wolves, or other occasional scavengers. In this case there would have been several beasts.

As for the animal shot at 10 paces (about 8 meters), and with a forced bullet, there is only one explanation for the fact that it fled: Because of a last movement of the animal ( surprised) or of the shooter (finger strike for example), the projectile grazed the animal at an angle (for example the top or bottom of the trunk, or a leg) which caused it to fall, but the bullet did not just tearing the skin without penetrating the body deeply, and came out. The beast straightened up and fled. Otherwise at this distance, a caliber bullet in the body or head would have killed her for sure.

Regarding the hypothesis of a cuirass to protect the beast, without being absolutely impossible, it seems very unlikely to me for the following reasons:

  • A tanned boar skin alone (3mm thick), is easily penetrated at 50 meters by bullets or buckshot. It must be doubled with tanned beef (5mm thick) to obtain a “small” result against projectiles. On the other hand, this cuirass deflects a blade easily, if it is not sharp and if it does not strike perpendicularly. (It is likely that the blades are not always sharp and sharp. In fact, the "shepherd children", like all children, will try their "bayonet" and throw it against a tree, or even stick it in the ground to "seeing and playing", which blunts it). The breastplate's resistance to projectiles is low.
  • After a shooting test on this one (“boar + ox” leathers mounted on a 50 kg sandbag itself on a roulette table, to represent the mobility of the animal), a bullet ricochets at 50 meters if it hits at an angle of 2 to 10 degrees maximum. Above (from 15° to 90°), the bullet pierces the cuirass without any problem. As for 8 mm buckshot, some ricochet up to 45°. From 50° to 90°, they pierce the cuirass. (The tests were done at 50 meters for safety reasons, because of the risk of ricochet. Indeed, ricochets can very well send the projectiles back. It is obvious that at a lower distance, the projectiles are still more powerful.)
  • The weight: It reaches 8 kg (7.3 kg of leather + 0 5 of buckles and straps), with 0.95 grams per cm2 of dry leather (wild boar + ox); (11.55 kg wet, if the animal crosses a river), and this for a surface of 0.77 square meter necessary to effectively cover the trunk of the animal (70cm long x 110cm waist circumference) we reach this weight. It is a heavy load to be carried for a whole day by an animal. Breastplates existed on war dogs, but were only worn for an assault, not all day.

To hold it on an animal that will run all day, you need straps and a harness, which necessarily with the movements of the animal will at some point move, and let its attachments be seen, and perhaps injure it by the continuous and rapid rubbing of the straps. Not to mention that leather wet by crossing a river, for example, becomes hard as it dries, which increases its abrasion power on the animal's skin.

The current rifle is today unanimously recognized for hunting big game, and its power is far superior to the shotgun. The speed of modern projectiles such as the "300 winchester magnum" reaches twice that of 18th century rifles, i.e. approximately 1000 meters per second, which gives them precision, as well as a considerable penetrating and stopping force of up to 150 meters or more.

The most powerful rifles (460 Waterby magnum, 577 T.rex, 500 or 600 "Nitro express", etc.) stop an elephant in its tracks (provided it hits a vital organ) as if it were hitting a wall. In addition, this weapon tends thanks to the speed of its projectile, to cause less ricochets (at short distance) than the current hunting rifle whose slower bullets rarely exceed 500 meters per second out of the barrel. On the other hand, the range of the rifle exceeds in a stray bullet, 3500 meters against approximately 2000 meters for the rifle (parabolic shot).

Important Safety Notes
(For those tempted to test)

With regard to the "practical ranges" of the ammunition mentioned, this is the range where the projectile is theoretically effective, i.e. still has acceptable accuracy, immediately stops the animal and kills it.

The projectile of an 18th century rifle has a much greater real range

A sheaf of wolf posts has a practical range of 15 meters, but at a 45° angle to the ground the sheaf carries up to 5 to 600 meters (depending on the diameter of the buckshot; the bigger they are, the more they go far). A bullet has an effective practical range of 25 to 30 meters, but a real range under a firing angle of 45° relative to the ground which can reach 1000 meters.

As for the 18th century rifle

Its practical range reaches 100 meters for the best models, but at an angle of 45° to the ground, its real range often exceeds 2000 meters.

So let's never shoot outside a specially equipped shooting range, or outside a supervised hunt.

Ancient weapons remain powerful, and human beings fragile.

The black powder spread on the ground to make a wick "like in the movies", is nonsense. Indeed, uncompressed, black powder burns at a speed of up to 2.20 meters per second.

So you should never use it to make a fuse; unless it is 150 meters long, the explosion would be almost immediate.

The special effects of the films are obtained with special powders, by specialist pyrotechnicians who must be C4T2 trained in France.

In addition, the majority of explosives see their combustion rate increase with the ambient temperature. The hotter it is, the faster the powder burns. (Never use a cartridge left in direct sunlight, in a car in summer for example. It can cause the weapon to burst)

Never reload a black powder gun directly with a powder flask, as was done in the 18th century.

Indeed, on the second loading, there may remain a small ember in the barrel, and the powder then ignites instantly causing the bulb to explode like a grenade. We pour the dose of the pear into a small tube, and it is this that we empty into the barrel. In case of inflammation, there is no great consequence, if we do not have the head above.

The flint is held between the jaws of the dog with a small sheet of lead, never in leather, as was sometimes done in the 18th century, because it can burn in very small embers and cause the ignition of the powder while filling the pan.

We never use other powders than black powder in an old weapon. Indeed, modern powders burn more completely and give off for the same solid volume, about 3 times more gas. Even if the load is reduced to a third, there are still problems with the rate of pressure build-up.

Alain Parbeau
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