The Tabatière was originally developed as a conversion for the various Minie Rifles used in France and large parts of Europe. This conversion added a breechloading mechansim, which consisted of a side-hinged breechblock, a mechanism which closely resembled the design by an American designer named Snider (which would be used on the 1866 Snider-Enfield). However the rear of the breech was hollowed further than the Snider design, in order to allow for an ejector system.
The Tabatière was otherwise identical to the rifle the mechanism was mounted onto. Yet when, in 1866, the Tabatière was released as its own rifle it remained close in design to the converted rifles, such as the Minie Rifle. The lock mechanism was also modified from the prominant percussion lock mechanism (found on the original pre-conversion musket/rifle) to a modified version that allowed the Tabatière to fire centrefire cartridges.
The Tabatière was generally a large calibre rifle, most commonly .69in (17.5mm). The majority of firearms at the time had larger calibres as firefights were generally restricted to a few dozen yards where a shot needed to take the opponent down and not allow them to get back up.
The Tabatière was more commonly known as a conversion than it was as a rifle. The need for breechloading firearms had grown since the Prussian Dreyse Needle gun and the Norwegian Kammerlader had proved extremely effective in the late 1840's. Hence America and Britain immediatly seeked to obtain breechloaders which had significantly higher rates of fire than the muzzle loading stable that formed the basis of the majority of the world's armies at the time.
America decided to adopt a variety of firearms, including the Joslyn Rifle, Gallager Carbine and Triplett & Scott Carbine (among others) alongside the ever prominant line of Springfield rifled muskets. Meanwhile Britain, France's historical rivals, adopted the Snider-Enfield while Prussia and Austria used their own designs (the Dreyse Needle gun and the Werndl-Holub respectively), leaving France as the only major world power without a breechloading firearm. The Tabatière solved this issue, although it was soon replaced by the Chassepot rifle in 1868 and beyond.
In modern times it is difficult to find an original Tabatière largely due to the fact that large numbers were converted to shotguns and sold to African nations. These Tabatières are generally refered to as "Zulu Guns" and have seen widespread use in private hands.