IWriting a year after the end of WWI, prewar Olympic gold and silver pistol shooting medalist Walter Winans began Chapter I of his treatise The Modern Pistol and How to Shoot It with a bold pronouncement: “There is now no use learning revolver shooting. That form of pistol is obsolete except in the few instances where it survives for target shooting, or is carried for defense; just as flintlock muskets even now survive in out-of-the-way parts of the world. If a man tries to defend himself with a revolver against another armed with the automatic pistol he is at a great disadvantage. […] The automatic is more accurate than a revolver [and has] a much longer range than the revolver.” This article is concerned with technical features of the most conspicuous exception to Winans’ pronouncement, the Manurhin MR73, the last revolver developed and fielded forty years ago as an offensive sidearm, a capacity in which it continues to excel to this very day.
But first, a few words about its precursors. ( Collapse )
IIIWe come to consider a toolmaker founded on 8 March 1919 in Mulhouse under the name Manufacture de machines du Haut-Rhin, later on abbreviated as Manurhin. Its founder Jules Spengler was born Julius Spengler on 7 July 1873 in Mulhouse, Alsace, annexed by Otto von Bismarck to the new German Empire in 1871. However, at the time of founding his enterprise, Spengler was a French national as a matter of international law and personal conviction, having Frenchified his given name the year prior, following the transfer of sovereignty over Alsace to France under the Treaty of Versailles.
Manufacture de machines du Haut-Rhin originally specialized in making machines for food processing and jewellery. Starting in 1922, its product line was branded as Manurhin, and extended to military production of small caliber ammunition and ammunition manufacturing machines. In 1936 Manurhin launched a new plant for production of medium caliber ammunition in Cusset near Vichy. In 1940 Germany occupied and annexed the two Alsatian departments of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. Following the return of Alsace to France in May 1945, Manurhin started making small arms, beginning with licensed copies of Walther pistols. Initially, the Walther plant was located in Zella-Mehlis in Thuringia, Germany. As a result of Russian occupation of East Germany, Walther relocated to Ulm in Baden-Württemberg. While firearm manufacture was forbidden by the Allied powers, starting in 1952 Walther licensed the production of its rimfire Olympia target pistols to Hämmerli in Switzerland, that of its Model 2 bolt action and semiautomatic carbine to Beretta in Italy, and that of its PP, PPK, and P38 series pistols to Manurhin in France. In 1955 the ban on firearm manufacture expired and handgun production resumed at the Walther plant in Ulm, though early models utilised many parts manufactured by Manurhin. Manurhin produced the Walther designs from 1952 until 1986, when full manufacture and production of the PP and the PPK resumed in Ulm, to continue until 1999. Between 1978 and 1988, Manurhin also manufactured under license by the Swiss company Schweizerische Industrie Gesellschaft the assault rifles SIG 540/542/543. After 1989, the corporate mission of Manurhin gradually shifted away from small arms manufacture to focus on the design and manufacture of machinery for production of military munitions in small and medium calibers. Its swan song, the MR93 revolver, invented by Alain Lechelle and protected by U.S. Patent number 4897950 and U.S. Patent number D316442, and known to the general public mainly through a guest appearance in a Dan Brown potboiler, along with its restyled and updated descendant, the MR96, were distinguished by automated manufacturing techniques that assembled them within four hours of the arrival of an order, out of part stock machined to extremely tight tolerances maintained within 1⁄100 of a millimeter, and with minimal manual adjustment. Regrettably, these remarkable sixguns failed commercially as a result of constabulary sidearm fashions worldwide shifting to autopistols. This failure caused Manurhin to withdraw entirely from small arms manufacture in 1998. Their designs and tooling were acquired by artisanal gunmaker, Manufacture d’armes de tir Chapuis, located in Saint-Bonnet-le-Château of the Loire department of France, where it continues to this day, albeit currently limited to the subject of this study, the legendary MR73.
In the early Seventies, the French constabulary faced an extraordinary criminal threat. The country remained awash in weapons left over from its occupation in WWII. Le milieu, the thoroughly updated twentieth century successor of the swell criminal mob (la haute pègre) originally mythologized by Balzac in La Comedie humaine, did not hesitate to employ military grade firearms in bank robberies. The gang of the Lyonnais employed an enviable array of handguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles to great effect in over 35 daring robberies that netted up to twelve million francs apiece between 1967 and 1977. As a result, French police agencies gradually accepted the idea of arming their personnel, traditionally equipped with blowback autopistols chambered in .32 ACP, with locked breech autopistols and heavy duty revolvers chambered in 9mm Para and .357 Magnum. American-style handgun shooting reached Europe in the 1962, with Raymond Sasia, a judo instructor employed as a bodyguard by Charles de Gaulle, who was sent to study the shooting techniques of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He returned to France with an FBI certification and founded CNT, the National Center for Shooting Instruction of the National Police (le Centre National de Perfectionnement du Tir de la Police Nationale), a shooting school in Paris that taught range officers, French nationals at first, then foreigners. The latter, upon returning home, taught new range officers. Thus the method “Sasia” promulgated FBI’s revolver shooting techniques throughout the Western world. Meanwhile, CNT sought to develop and adopt a standard issue police sidearm. Sasia’s experience of training with the FBI dictated chambering the revolver in .357 Magnum. At first, Smith and Wesson developed at his behest and on his behalf, a special production run of its .357 Magnum Model 19 revolver, designated M19-3RS, equipped with a 3" barrel and fitted with fixed sights.
2½" Manurhin MR73 Police/Defense, serial number A14070, in .357 Magnum and 9mm Para
5¼" Manurhin MR73 Sport, serial number A14070, in .357 Magnum, fitted with smooth wraparound Nill stocks
IVCaptain Christian Prouteau was the founder and first commander (1973-1982) of the elite French unit GIGN, one of the best counter-terrorist units in the world. Formed on 1 March 1973 in response to the Munich massacre, GIGN rescued over 1300 hostages under his command and personal leadership of 64 out of its 67 operations. These actions included several overseas strikes, such as the 1976 operation in Djibouti, with 30 child hostages freed, and the 1979 operation in San Salvador, with French embassy personnel freed and terrorists surrendered before a planned assault. In October 1980 Prouteau took 54 buckshot pellets in the head, throat, and shoulders, fired by deranged person armed with a shotgun. A month later he played his guitar and sang at the 7th anniversary of GIGN. In 1981, Prouteau was asked to create Groupe de sécurité de la présidence de la République (GSPR), a unit charged with presidential protection. His request for a support unit for foreign operations led to the formation of the airborne Escadron parachutiste d’intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale (EPIGN) in 1984. To this day, GIGN, GSPR, and EPIGN function as the three special units of French gendarmerie. Appointed as a prefect in 1985, and successively promoted to gendarmerie lieutenant colonel and full colonel, Prouteau assumed the command of security during the 1992 Albertville Olympic games. He retired at the age of 65, on 9 February 2009.
On Prouteau’s request, Manurhin developed the MR73 in response to the failures of S&W .357 revolvers at the hands of the French counter-terrorist forces. Each GIGN trooper fired over 40,000 rounds every year with his service weapons. The S&W M19, with its K-frame dimensioned to the .38 Special round, and stressed to accommodate very occasional use of .357 Magnum ammo, was unable to withstand this regimen. By contrast, the MR73 was designed at the outset to be chambered in .357 Magnum. A special cylinder was supplied to use 9mm Parabellum without clips, using the Pilorget system that employed an ejector bordered by elastic piano wire that engaged its extractor groove. The 9mm rimless extraction system was protected by U.S. Patent 3982346.
The French tactical intervention units answer to a very specific ethos: their mission is to save innocent lives and capture the suspects to make them appear in court. They do not administer justice by convicting a suspect to death, although his death may seem the easiest outcome to the ongoing crisis. Thus Christian Prouteau explained in 1984: “From the beginning, I set a goal, that whenever a man had to be shot, he would get hit with one, or perhaps two bullets. Three is a waste, or bad aim, in which case, you are ill-suited for the job. […] So we replaced the volume of fire by its quality.” (« Dès le départ, j’ai pris comme but que, s’il fallait toucher un homme, on le toucherait avec une, deux balles peut-être. Trois, c’est du gaspillage ou alors c’est de la maladresse et, dans ce cas-là, il faut changer de métier. […] On suppléait donc la quantité de feu par la qualité. ») In using deadly force, shooting to kill was not an end in itself. Whenever circumstances allowed to neutralize the opponent without killing him, his death was to be avoided. Thus Prouteau continued: “If I had to order killing people at will whenever the opportunity presented itself, I could not sleep at night!” (« Si j’avais fait tuer des gens par facilité chaque fois que l’occasion s’en est présentée, je ne pourrais plus dormir la nuit ! »)
The MR73 allowed for nonlethal interdiction outcomes on many occasions. Thus Christian Prouteau neutralized a suspect who was standing behind a hostage. As the negotiations that he conducted deadlocked, the commander of the GIGN raised his MR73 and fired once at 20 meters away from the suspect and his hostage. The bullet lodged in the shoulder of the suspect. The force of the side impact spun the man away from his hostage. He fell on the ground, stunned but alive. This action exemplified the principle of GIGN use of arms: fire only once, incapacitate with certainty, kill only if there is no alternative. In the same spirit, a GIGN trooper incapacitated with his MR73 an armed prisoner that took hostage the warden of the prison where he was incarcerated. A bullet struck the hand of the suspect holding his weapon. As the man tried to switch his weapon to his weak hand, a second bullet struck the other hand. Again, blood was spilled, but no life was taken, because it was not necessary.
The French constabulary counts the MR73 among the essential tools that enable them to resist the temptation of hazardous ease. Although now it seems clear that an autopistol provides the volume of firepower that may be necessary on occasion, the GIGN prefers to reserve them for backup sidearms carried by its operators on their missions, and employ the MR73 as its main offensive handgun.
No revolver designed and manufactured in the U.S. after 1911, was intended or suited for combat, as that destination was interpreted by the makers of Webleys and Nagants. Owing to America’s late entry into WWI, none of them were widely and successfully used in trench warfare, in the manner of the LP08 Artillery Luger. Like the S&W M19, its delicate precursor, the MR73 was designed and built for fighting by the constabulary personnel, not for combat by the military. Its typical application took place on the day after Christmas of 1994, when Captain Thierry Prungnaud of GIGN entered the hijacked Air France Flight 8969 plane, grounded at the Marseille airport. He served as the point shooter, armed with a 5¼" .357 Magnum Manurhin MR73 and backed by his partner Eric carrying a 9mm HK05 submachine gun. Prungnaud killed two Islamist terrorists and wounded a third with his revolver, before taking seven bullets from an AK47 fired by the fourth hijacker. In spite of then absorbing a full complement of grenade shrapnel in his lower body, Prungnaud survived the assault, as also did 171 hostages. Not so the four terrorists, who had been planning to deploy the plane as an incendiary missile against the Eiffel Tower.
Thierry Prungnaud holds in his hands a miniature replica of the outfit he wore on the day of the assault on the Airbus.
Captain Prungnaud could have armed himself with any firearm. He chose an MR73. His fellow GIGN intervention troopers still choose to carry their vintage Manurhin MR73 revolvers alongside a modern automatic pistol such as a Glock G17 or G19, or a SIG P228 or P2022. Such anecdotes add up to all the data at our disposal, attesting to operator preferences. N.B.: The plural of “anecdote” is “data”.
The Manurhin MR73 revolver used by Thierry Prungnaud on 26 December 1994.
No tool should be evaluated without considering its intended purpose. Like the SIG P210, the Manurhin MR73 was designed and built for an administrative market that formally required extreme precision and durability orders of magnitude greater than that expected from and built into contemporaneous U.S. police sidearms. The aesthetic sensibility of most American shooters derives from an appreciation of fancy sporting goods and service sidearms meant by their makers to be surplused after firing several thousand rounds. Although that is no longer the case owing to the worldwide decline of revolvers in constabulary use, throughout their history Smith & Wesson and Colt never had an economic incentive to forge their gun parts out of tool steel. It was far more cost effective to sinter and machine softer materials, replacing the products under warranty in the rare instances of their being put to hard use. That was not an option for Manurhin in making deliveries to GIGN and SIG, to KTA. Hence the unexcelled durability and precision of their military and constabulary service handguns, combined with a more or less utilitarian finish in most of their variants.
GIGN troopers training with Manurhin MR73 revolvers.
Squadron leader Prouteau is on the right.