The pistol as a military sidearm generally existed as an afterthought in the "Gentlemen Wars" of the 1800s where the sabre and bayonet still reigned supreme. Following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War with Germany, France moved to modernize its fighting forces across all categories including sidearms and this led to the adoption of the MAS Modele 1873 revolver. The weapon was designed by Henri-Gustave Delvigne and J. Camelot and manufactured by the Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Etienne (MAS) arsenal from the period of 1873 to 1887 to which 337,000 examples were ultimately produced in both France and Belgium. Amazingly, the weapon joined a few other 1800s-vintage forms surviving long enough in service to be used in World War 2 (1939-1945).
When adopted, the Modele 1873 became the French Army's first Double-Action (DA) revolver taken into service. This system allowed the trigger pull to also affect the hammer's rearward progress in one fell swoop. This provided a distinct advantage over Single-Action (SA) revolvers of the day in which the operator was required to manage the hammer separately (usually with the thumb) to cock the weapon. The Modele 1873 could still function as a Single-Action revolver.
The revolver's overall configuration was consistent with the period, utilizing a solid metal frame with inlaid revolving cylinder. The handle was covered over in a two-piece checker-patterned grip. The trigger and ring was underslung and set just ahead of the grip handle. The hammer was exposed at the upper rear of the frame in the usual way. An iron sight was provided at the muzzle and over the cylinder area (fixed front blade with rear notch). The revolving cylinder was seen in both fluted and unfluted designs while the barrel could be rounded or octagonal or a combination of both.
The cylinder could contain up to six ready-to-fire cartridges of 11mm Mle 1873 caliber. Effective ranges were out to 50 meters with maximum ranges set to 300 meters - though with degraded accuracy. The listed rate-of-fire for the weapon was up to 30 rounds per minute. The cartridge was never a true success, criticized for its low power leading to reduced velocity - about 550 feet per second being reported.
The Modele 1873 line also encompassed an improved form in the Modele 1874. The barrel was slightly shortened in these models and the guns made slightly heavier. All other functions remained the same save for the fact that the Modele 1874 was of Double-Action Only (DAO) function.
The pistol series was adopted by the French Army in the two stated "Army" models and a specialized "Navy" version also followed. A new, more powerful cartridge was also introduced about this time but never took hold, Navy stocks forced to continue use of the lower-graded ammunition before the end. The revolver made its way throughout the French colonies as a standardized firearm and was in widespread circulation when France went to war in World War 1 (1914-1918). A smokeless cartridge was brought online which modernized the design some. In practice, the pistols proved robust and resilient even under the stresses of wartime use. Following the war, the pistol endured in the French inventory and was still in play come World War 2 where it was used by some police units. The Modele 1873/1874 pistols were phased out of circulation from 1945 onwards.
Operators beyond the French including Belgium, Greece, Italy, Monaco, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.