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    The Curious Case of the Comblain

    The Mle 1871/83 Comblain (bottom) and .50-70 Sharps carbine (top).
    The Mle 1871/83 Comblain (bottom) and .50-70 Sharps carbine (top).
    Although the thrust of this article has to do with handloading a most unusual cartridge, perhaps a brief description of the misunderstood firearm for which it is intended is in order.

    Invented by Hubert-Joseph Comblain, the Carabine de la Garde Civique Mle 1870 was issued to the Belgian Civil Guard in 1870. Manufactured by a four-company named Petit Syndicat, consisting of Ancion, Dresse-Laloux, Auguste Francotte and Pirlot-Fresart, this rifle had a 31.6-inch barrel and was chambered in 11.4x50R. In 1871, the same company made a carbine version of the Mle 1870 rifle that was issued to Belgian Cavalry regiments. This model was the Mousqueton Mle 1871 with a 17.9-inch barrel that was chambered for the shorter, less powerful 11.4x43R cartridge. Approximately 7,500 were manufactured.

    Action open with rear sight extended.
    Action open with rear sight extended.
    The Mle 1871/83 was followed by the Mle 1871 (It is a converted Mle 1871 per Walter.7) and appears to be the one pictured in this feature. This model was issued to the Belgian Army’s Regiment of Guides (mounted troopers), Engineer and Supply Corps units and possibly other branches as well. It weighs in at 6 pounds, 5 ounces, has a 23.4-inch barrel with a quick 1:15.5 right-hand twist and features .458-inch/.435-inch groove/bore diameters. Rim cut is .695-inch diameter by .100-inch deep, trigger pull is 3.5 pounds and the rear sight is graduated from 100 to 1,070 meters. Among other marks, there is an encircled “GB” signifying Gouvernement Belge (Belgian government) on the top barrel flat immediately in front of the receiver. This mark
    Substantial silver-colored extractor.
    Substantial silver-colored extractor.
    appears on all Belgian government orders manufactured by the National Armory or civilian contractors. Another mark indicating Belgian military issue is a rampant lion over the letter “Q” on the right barrel flat signifying Marque de Inspecteur des Armes de Guerre (Inspector’s Mark for Arms of War).

    Several different models and variants of the Comblain were made for the armies of Chile, Peru, Brazil, Morocco and Greece. Brazilian models have shrouded hammers and no half-cock while the Greek issue (Mylonas Model 1872) is a somewhat different design manufactured by Nagant in Liege. According to Jonathan Kirton8, the Comblain “. . . remains today one of the least known and most misunderstood of the military rifles of its era.” After a fair amount of research, I completely agree with Mr. Kirton, as there is lots of conflicting information on basic design details making identification of specific models difficult. Determining which army (Chilean, Brazilian, Belgian, etc.) is important, because chamber dimensions, and therefore cartridges, vary from country to country.

    In order to generate accurate ammunition for my antique black powder rifle, a chamber cast was poured and then the barrel was slugged. Cartridge manuals were consulted to learn which cartridge fit (or nearly fit) the chamber of my new toy. By comparing the chamber cast to published case dimensions, correct brass can be ordered (if available) or parent brass can be acquired that can be modified into a case that will serve. As bullet diameter for my Comblain is

    The 32-gauge parent brass fireformed case for paper-patched bullet is 1.820 inches long, with mouth inner diameter of .470 inch.
    The 32-gauge parent brass fireformed case for paper-patched bullet is 1.820 inches long, with mouth inner diameter of .470 inch.
    the same as the .45-70, a plethora of cast bullets and moulds exist. If correct naked bullets are not available, an over-groove diameter slug can be sized to the correct diameter. And, a smaller-than-bore diameter bullet could be paper patched to provide a larger diameter.

    At this point it is interesting to note that cartridge collectors and descriptions in cartridge manuals of antique rounds do not necessarily translate into accurate ammunition for antique rifles. The basic problem is caused by several issues: First, there are differences in tolerances between ancient cartridge manufacturers (lack of standardization). Second, the manuals’ failure to state if bullet diameter is based on groove or bore diameter and whether the bullet is paper patched or naked. Third, black powder military chamber dimensions are usually oversized to allow continued firing when fouled. Some comfort is found in published case dimensions that are generally correct as long as one accepts dimensional variances between ninteenth-century manufacturers.

    Hoyem was consulted first, and I zeroed in on three Comblain cartridges, all with necked cases (see accompanying table).

    The dimensions shown in the table raised at least two issues. My chamber cast shows a tapered case with no neck, and

    Wildcat case, shortened and fireformed from .43 Beaumont for naked bullet, is 1.90 inches long, with mouth inner diameter of .460 inch.
    Wildcat case, shortened and fireformed from .43 Beaumont for naked bullet, is 1.90 inches long, with mouth inner diameter of .460 inch.
    according to Kirton, “All Comblain military rifles and carbines made prior to 1881, so far examined and bore-slugged, invariably have . . . a bore land diameter of 11mm (.433”), . . . and a bore groove diameter of 11.6mm (.457”). These dimensions apply equally to infantry rifles and carbines of various sorts supplied to Belgium, Peru, Brazil and Morocco, etc.” My bore/groove diameters of .434 inch/.458 inch are within one thousandth of Kirton’s measurements.

    Based on the chamber cast, it became obvious that I would have to generate a Comblain wildcat cartridge, as published neck diameters were far too small. Another way of putting it is that original necks for my carbine were unsupported in the chamber and would lead to lots of split brass. What was needed was a longer case that would place the neck farther into the tapered chamber where it would be supported when fired. The other advantage of a longer cartridge is that the bullet would be better aligned with the bore for enhanced accuracy and minimum leading. Four potential parent cases were ordered from Buffalo Arms (see accompanying table below).

    When making a new case from parent brass, ease of conversion is of

    The .50-90 parent with a shortened, partly formed case.
    The .50-90 parent with a shortened, partly formed case.
    paramount importance. This is particularly relevant when no forming die is available for the finished case. Notes on forming parent cases follow, and all cases were annealed after being cut to approximate length. After initial forming with the dies listed below, a .45-70 Government expander die was used to increase neck diameters before fireforming.

    1) The .43 Beaumont will chamber and requires only shortening, neck expanding and fireforming. Shellholder: RCBS .50-90.
    2) The 32 Gauge rim diameter is small and may not extract in some rifles. Trim the case to 1.95 inches, size in .50-70 seating die until the mouth will enter a .50-70 full-length die. After sizing in the .50-70 FL die, insert the case .780 inch into the .45-70 seating die and it will chamber. Neck expand and fireform. Shellholder: .50-70 Government.
    3) The 11.4x50R Brazilian Comblain has a thicker Mauser-type rim. After cutting to length, the case is inserted into  a .45-70 FL die until it will chamber (about .5 inch), then expanded and fireformed. Shellholder: RCBS .50-90.
    4) Forming from .50-90 Sharps cases is presently being developed.

    I did initial case forming, reloading and firing of this carbine several years ago, but then laid the project to the side before it was done. At that time I had not considered the .50-90 Sharps as parent brass, so future load development will include this case as well. If I can get this Comblain to behave at 100 yards, you may be hearing from me again on how it was done.

    I would like to thank Michael Carrick for a packet of invaluable information on the development of both military and civilian Comblains. This packet contained a scholarly series of articles by writer Jonathan Kirton appearing in a British publication, Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association, Vol. 3, No. 7, December 2005 edition, as well as The Gun Report, October, November and December 2004 issues. Mr. Carrick specializes in research and identification of pre-1900 firearms and swords. He may be reached at Mike@MikeCarrick.com or via fax at 1-503-364-3375.

    Observations: After years of reloading a multitude of black powder military cartridges ranging from several different 11mms to the .58 Berdan, I have never seen such large differences between case and chamber cast dimensions. At first I thought someone had rechambered the weapon. This idea was partly dispelled after reading Kirton, who shares my opinion that split necks must have been a frequent occurrence. In other words, the chamber doesn’t conform to the cartridge. Weird.


    1. The History and Development of Small Arms Ammunition, Revised Vol. 2. Author, Hoyem.
    2. Cartridges of the World, 10th edition. Author, Barnes.
    3. DMW Cartridges 1896-1956. Author, Datig.
    4. Buffalo Arms Co. Catalog No. 35
    5. Arms of the World-1911, ALFA Catalogue. Author, Adolf Frank. Export Gesellschaft. Reprinted by Digest Books, Inc.
    6. Single Shot Rifles and Actions. Author, de Haas.
    7. Rifles of the World, 2nd edition. Author, Walter.
    8. Articles noted above. Author, Kirton.

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