Chassepot Needle Rifle at RIA (Video)

The Chassepot was the French answer to the Dreyse needle rifle, and also the only other needlefire rifle to see major military service. It was adopted in 1866 and served as a primary French infantry rifle until being replaced by the 1874 Gras rifle, which was basically a conversion of the Chassepot to use self-contained brass cartridges. The concept of a need rifle is that of a breech loading rifle using paper cartridges. A primer was set in the base of the cartridge (inside the paper), and upon firing the needle-like firing pin would pierce the paper cartridge and detonate the primer and powder charge. The system always had trouble with sealing the breech, but was still a significant improvement over muzzleloading rifles. This example at RIA is heavily used, but appears to be complete and fully functional.


  1. I have wanted one of these for a while, know where I can find a good one, and can not justify spending the money right now. Ian, you are not helping!

    All joking aside, thank you for doing this and the Dreyse video. More european black powder rifles please. A Kropatschek would be awesome.

  2. Think of all the steels, carbides, and Titanium pins that one can easily buy today from a machine shop tool supplier.
    I believe a needle rifle could be made as reliable as an old Mauser.

  3. I have one of these and shoot it regularly.. it is remarkably reliable and, for it’s time, pretty accurate. I have shot it at 900yds and hit the target most of the time!

    The ammunition is not that difficult to make – I use gummed brown paper, top hat percussion caps and Lee .45 cast lead bullets. The obturators can be made from European tap (faucet) washers and the needles from Tig welding rod. Using modern butyl rubber and stainless steel needles cures many of the original problems..

    Iain’s description of the bolt head is a little confusing! The purpose of the “probe” thing on the end of the bolt is not to penetrate the cartridge. The cartridge is designed to sit on the tip of the bolt extension which creates a void behind the cartridge in the chamber. When the round fires, this space fills with high pressure gas which is then used to blow the cartridge debris, including the percussion cap, out of the bore behind the bullet. The paper cartridge is not consumed in the chamber! This works surprisingly well – you do get fouling building up at the front of the chamber, which needs brushing out occasionally but I never found caps or debris in the bore.

  4. “The system always had trouble with sealing the breech, but was still a significant improvement over muzzleloading rifles.”
    Russian Army briefly used Karle rifle (винтовка Карле) converted from muzzle-loader, however it was soon found to be too expensive and replaced by Krnka Model 1867 converted from muzzleloader rifle firing metallic cartridge (known outside Russia as “Russian Krnka rifle”)

  5. The only thing keeping the bolt in the gun is one bolt?

    Obviously, the rifle worked, as the French used them for years, but that would worry me a touch.

    • This is quite a common feature of several cheap, bolt-action shotguns and the like from the pre and post-WWII era. I have a very fine JC Higgins 20 gauge bolt action shotgun (1946 produciton, in excellent/like-new shape, paid $60 for it) which has a screw which holds in the bolt. They do have a reputation for being “dangerous” for this reason, and a recall was issued (where the screws were loctited in place), but I simply ensure that screw is tight whenever I use it, and it has been safe and reliable.

    • The screw prevents the bolt from being pulled out the back of the receiver. When you close the bolt, it has a big locking lug that engages, which is what holds against the pressure of firing.

  6. the principal problem is the risk of eyes injuries is you forgot the rubber seal of the bolt….

    in france they are not rare (but relatively expensive now) but i would prefer shoot a replica for preservation of originals.

    maybe one day a modern replica (ardesa / artax / pedersoli) 🙂

  7. It appears that both Prussia and France had stuff to learn. By 1874, both the Dreyse and the Chassepot were outclassed by the Vetterli due to the Vetterli chambering metallic cartridges with no need to worry about getting wet and since it fed from a tubular magazine. Just don’t invade Switzerland. In contrast, the Bavarian units stuck with the Podewils conversion rifles likely had the worst time. Those with Werder rifles did better.

  8. The life of modern synthetic rubber seals is significantly greater than the original natural rubber which were badly affected by gun oil. It is quite easy to monitor the deterioration of the seal and replace it long before it presents a serious problem. Only the edge of the seal is subject to damage, the front face is protected by a metal nose piece.

    That said, always wear eye protection when shooting, particularly when shooting any form of black powder..

    I always add a small rubber disk punched from cycle inner tube behind the nose piece to catch any gas leakage coming down the side of the needle and getting into the depths of the bolt.

    The one accessory you need to buy or make is the thin spanner that unscrews the bolt body from the needle carrier. You need to do this to clean the bolt, and trying to do this without the proper tool is almost impossible..

  9. The reason for the French sticking with the paper cartridge was apparently down to the Emperor of the time (One of the Napolions..) insisting that troops be able to make up ammunition in the field (as they had always done in the past..). This makes sense for France with its colonial empire and low level of industrialisation..

    Metal cartridges ties you to factory production capabilities and a potentially vulnerable supply chain (don’t I know it!)

    • The American Maynard .52 caliber Civil War issue might have been a good alternative for colonial duty. Its separately-primed metallic cartridge could easily be reloaded in the field if you had powder, a bullet mould, lead for slugs, and some paper to make a “disc” to put in the bottom of the cartridge case to keep powder from leaking out the open flash-hole. It was primed by a regular percussion cap on a nipple like the standard muzzle-loading rifle-musket.

      The cartridge case was basically a piece of brass or copper tubing soldered to a disc of the same material, so it was very sturdy, and could be reloaded several times without cracking, splitting, or needing resizing.

      During the American Civil War, the Maynard was a popular carbine with Union cavalry units because it didn’t require a steady supply of fixed ammunition. This put it in the same category as the Sharps or first model Starr carbines in the ammunition-resupply department, as opposed to the Spencer, Sharps & Hankins, Burnside, Gallagher, etc., all of which required metallic cartridges that were “one use only”. It just had better breech obturation than the average linen-cartridge arm.



      • I think that the Burnside could be loaded and fired with loose powder and bullet. I don’t have the book about them handy right now.

        • There is an alternative bolt tip that allows you do do this with a Chassepot as well. Essentially the tip of the bolt is modified to allow a percussion cap to be attached.
          You could muzzle load if you wanted to, but that would be a bit risky, ramming powder and bullet on top of a primed percussion cap..
          The safer solution is to drop a bullet into the chamber, load with loose powder and then carefully close the bolt..
          I have one of these – I will try to remember to photo it..

  10. The length of the breech seems very small compared to my souvenirs.
    Is it a reduced school rifle or an original military model ? Maybe is it the video viewer that deform the image on my screen.

    The Chassepot is a wanderful rifle. It is very pleasant to shoot and very accurate, even if they all are old and already shot thousand of rounds.
    I used to shoot with one my father owned during my childhood and it is surely one of my best souvenir from this time.

    We never had problems with sealing, even though the rifle shot thousands of rounds in our arms (the real problem is not the number of shots, but the rate of fire : you can shoot one hundred rounds without problems, provided you do not shoot too fast and appply grease on the sealing rubber), but it is well known that plumbing rubber suits well in case of need.

    This rifle is higly capable of touching a target as far as 800 – 900 meters and, even if its long and heavy, does not produce a harsh recoil to such an extent that a child can heasily use it.
    It is really a wonderful rifle, jump on it 😉

    The Gras is the same gun and even better, but there is not the magic of making your own cartridges from papper.

  11. Am I correct that a needle rifle could be made to combust the entire cartridge, and send the primer down range with the bullet? Then who needs extractors and ejectors.

    • It is true, at least for the chassepot. The entire cartridge is consummed.
      But extractor and ejector may be useful for maintenance and safety reasons, even if the shot consume the entire cartridge : possibility of unloading a weapon is always a good thing.

      • The major problem is coming up with an extractor design that works on what is basically a cylinder of paper or stiffened linen or similar “soft” materials.

        This extraction issue was the bugaboo of caseless-weapon design right through the 20th Century. H&K tried a combination of a cast propellant that was stiff enough that it was basically a medium-tensile strength plastic, with a “groove” cast in, to be hoked by a conventional extractor. About half the time, the extractor pulled right through the “rim”, especially if the barrel/chamber was hot from sustained firing.

        Other attempts at extractors have included a “ring” in the front of the chamber that is thrust backward by the operating rod of the gas assembly (just yank the bolt retraction handle back as you would on a cased-cartridge weapon to remove a dud), chambers that are split lengthwise (reach in and pluck it out with your fingers- a design trick that dates back to the .50 Ball lever-action carbine of the American Civil War era), and even a separate gas system that squirts gas under pressure into the chamber with every firing cycle whether the round goes off or not. (Usually nitrogen, which requires a tank of compressed gas as part of the weapon, or compressed air, which requires an air compressor on the mount. Both are more common on automatic cannon designs.)

        The whole Plastic Cased Telescoped Ammunition (PCTA) business is meant to obviate this rather glaring shortcoming of caseless ammunition. Which really dates back to the days of linen or other non-metallic cartridge materials in arms like the Chassepot.

        Ultimately, the only sure way to remove a dud from any such design is the simplest and most direct. Use a ramrod or cleaning rod from the muzzle end to knock it out by popping the actual bullet one in the schnozzola.

        Not that conventional cased-round weapons are immune to this problem, or inadequate extraction of fired cases. Some also require the scientific application of a cleaning rod from the business end on occasion. See the original M-16 for an example.



  12. The main advantage of the Chassepot compering to the other shelf-combustable cartridge rifles was that because of the room that the needle piston leaves behind the cartridge in the chamber, this help to extract all the remains of the paper cartridge by the expanding gases.
    This patent made the Chassepot the cleanest rifle of its time.
    The majority of these rifles were easily converted worldwide to the Gras rifle by changing the bolt and reaming the chamber.
    In many countries as was in Greece,in which was the official rifle for the army between 1868-77,stayed in action still WWII as secondary equipment

  13. IAn,
    thank you for very instructive video – and still more instructive comment. none of the books (I do not claim to have read many of them, though) when discussing the needle rifles outlined the main problem the designers were facing – to make transition from the paper cartridge muskets to modern repeater rifles.

  14. Here in France you can pick up the unbarreled actions often with the bolt for as little as 5 euroes They make great paper weights souvenir de la guerre de 70

  15. On the RIA video you mentioned that replacement firing needles and rubber gas seals can still be purchased. Do you have a link to a company that carries such items? Google brought up nothing.


  16. If anyone wants to see Dreyse, Chassepot, Vetterlis, Beaumonts Wanzls and many more. Have a look on YouTube by Keying in Guy and Leonard A-R-West and then Dreyse.

    G and L A-R-West

  17. On the RIA video you mentioned that replacement firing needles and rubber gas seals can still be purchased. Do you have a link to a company that carries such items? Google brought up nothing.

  18. Odd that the firing…’thing’ is still called a needle when it doesn’t have to penetrate the propellant charge. I’m looking at images of Chassepot cartridges to figure how the primer was held firmly enough to be struck while sitting at the back of a cushion of powder.

    A French language site has instructions for cartridge fabrication.

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