FRENCH CHASSEPOT "NEEDLE RIFLE" CARTRIDGE CONSTRUCTION
Unlike their Prussian Zündnadel Gewehr counterparts, French Mle 1866 Chassepot rifles turn up quite regularly for sale, and many of them are in excellent condition -- probably because they've been sitting around -- unshot -- due to the difficulty of making up suitable ammunition for them. If you're looking for a reloading challenge, this is it!
I am aware of several different sets of instuctions in English for making up Chassepot cartridges, and will add them each here in time.
The first is an article by Robert Fisch titled "Brass, Black Powder and Breechloaders" which appeared in the 1983 Shooter's Bible. In this article, Mr. Fisch (at one time, I believe, curator of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point's arms collection) describes his own experience reloading for a number of obsolete black powder military cartridges, including the Chassepot. Here is his section on the Chassepot:
One of the most novel of the bolt-action type rifles commonly available is the French Model 1866 "Needle Rifle." You can forget about finding brass or making loading dies for this rifle and its self-primed consumable paper cartridges. On the negative side when considering shooting one of these rifles is the time necessary to construct the ammunition. Making them in lots of thirty, my best time has been 20 minutes per round. One of the important things in assembling these cartridges is to establish the correct length so that the bullet will be held tightly at the front of the chamber and the rear of the cartridge pressed hard against the bolt face so that the needle willbe able to penetrate the base of the cartridge and strike the percussion cap hard enough to detonate it. The chamber diameter is much larger than the cartridge, which effectively assists the combustion of the cartridge paper without nitrating it. Since there was no brass cartridge case to seal the chamber, a rubber obdurator was fitted to the end of the bolt. These are usually missing, and even those which are still in place are too brittle to be used. A new one can be cast from Silastic rubber or even more simply constructed from several layers of plastic tubing available from any hardware store.
(Note that, in addition to the rifles themselves, the French antique arms establishment Le Hussard also sells replacement needles for the Mle 1866 Chassepot rifle.)
The most versatile bullet for reloading the French M1866 is Lyman 439186 made for .43 Spanish and 11mm Mauser cartridges. The percussion caps used with my needle cartridges were German RWS brand musket caps because the large "wings" provided more gluing surface to the base wads."
Mr. Fisch's comments were accompanied by this diagram for assembling the Chassepot cartridges (note that this image is a reduced thumbnail. Click on it to open a larger version, but be prepared for an extended download):
Updated November 28, 2006