Dreyse M1860 Needle Rifle at RIA (Video)

The Dreyse needle rifle (or zundnadelgewehr, which translates to needle firing rifle) was a major step forward in military rifle technology, although it did not remain at the forefront for very long (much like the Spencer repeating rifle in that regard). It used a paper cartridge with an integrated percussion cap primer, allowing the shooter to carry fully self-contained ammunition. It was a breech-loading bolt action, and the combination of these features gave it a much higher rate of fire than the muzzleloading rifles it replaced. The one at RIA which I used for this video is an 1860 model, although the first ones were adopted in 1847.

19 Comments

  1. An interesting, if flawed, rifle.

    I’ve read that the Prussians preferred to fire them from the hip due to the gas leakage from the breech.

  2. The arm shown has been converted with the “Beck alteration” as evidenced by the flat bolt face and screw ahead of the bolt handle. This conversion was done in the early 1870s along with improvements in the ammo, a lighter smaller diameter bt with a higher velocity.
    The ease of firing pin replacement should be contrasted with that of the French Chassepot which required detail stripping of the bolt with a special tool.

    • There are a number of videos on Youtube showing people firing them from the shoulder.

      I’ve never fired one, but my understanding of the situation is that when new and in good condition, they did not leak an unreasonable amount of gas at the breech. However, after enough shots have been fired (I don’t know how many), gas leakage would start to become significant. When that started to happen the hot gas flow would cut the metal seal in the breech causing rapid deterioration. Once it got bad enough, that’s when soldiers would start firing them held at arm’s length.

      So I think what is being described is for rifles which have seen some (unknown) amount of use and are worn.

    • There are a number of videos on Youtube showing them being fired from the shoulder.

      I haven’t fired one, but my understanding is that when new and in good condition the gas leakage was not unreasonable. However, after enough shots have been fired (I don’t know how many), the breech would wear enough that hot gas leakage would cut the breech seal and cause rapidly increasing deterioration. Once it became bad enough, then soldiers would start to fire them at arm’s length.

    • Neat video.

      The dialog below the video seems to indicate that the first date stamped on the barrel was the production date, the second was the issue date. True or not? Dunno…..

  3. Strange how the bolt only “closes” to about the 1 o’clock position instead of the 3 o’clock position.

    • This is likely because the bolt handle is far forward of the trigger group. I can’t imagine a Prussian soldier lying prone trying to rotate the bolt 90 degrees given the length of the bolt handle itself. To put it in geometry: Multiply the length of the bolt handle by Pi/2 (90 degrees converted to radians) and you have the tangential linear distance that the bolt handle tip must travel if the Dreyse had indeed been designed such that the bolt closed to the 3 o’clock position. By the way, that tangential distance would have been prohibitive on the go. Thus, a 30 degree rotation was deemed sufficient. And remember, cutting too much out of the wooden stock will increase the likeliness that some time the stock will have catastrophic mechanical failure which would mean the receiver would EXPLODE after firing too many rounds!!!! Or am I wrong?

  4. unrelated but VICE (dirty hippies) got invited to tour Kalashnikov (old Izhmash) recently… maybe if Ian was to contact them he could get the same treatment? I would seriously put money towards that plane ticket.

  5. As Pauly, Dreyse’s trainer, had made ‘normal’ cartridge guns by this time I wonder if it was the cost and/or production of cartridges that kept Dreyse from going that route?

  6. The locking shoulder on the Dreyse is not at a right angle but slanted as is the bolt locking lug.. Turning down the bolt with a cuff as shown in the video wedges the male cone on the barrel into the female cone on the bolt effecting a seal.

  7. The peculiar Dreyse cartridge was due to the design evolution of the rifle.

    According to Harold L. Peterson in The Great Guns (1971), the original Prussian Army design was a muzzle-loading “needle gun”. The cartridge (saboted bullet with primer in bullet base, plus powder in lacquered linen cartridge) was rammed down from the muzzle in the usual way. Then the needle was cocked and the trigger pulled.

    The objective was to increase the rate of fire by eliminating the extra step of capping a percussion nipple for an outside hammer. The purpose of putting the primer in the base of the bullet was so it would withstand the blow of the “firing pin”; one at the rear of the linen cartridge might just be “pushed” into the powder charge, causing a possible misfire.

    While the accuracy of the four-groove barrel wasn’t great by modern standards, it was still more accurate than a smoothbore musket, and volley fire “by the numbers” was still the SOP anyway. Keep in mind, this was developed in the 1820s, only a decade or so after Waterloo. The Prussian Army General Staff was perfectly satisfied with the tactics used, they just wanted the edge of a higher rate of fire than their potential opponents.

    These muzzle-loading “needle guns” were issued in small preliminary lots to Prussian units in the mid-1830s. At a time when a lot of their possible opponents were still issuing not just muzzle-loaders, but flintlock smoothbore ones at that.

    The major problem was keeping the workings clean. The wholly-internal firing mechanism did collect powder grime a lot more thoroughly than an outside hammer system could. Dreyse got around this by putting the entire “lockwork” in a cylindrical housing held in by a rising wedge behind it, pushed up by a powerful leaf spring in the stock wrist area. It worked rather like the bolt latch on a later Mauser bolt-action. To remove the mechanism for cleaning, the soldier simply shoved the wedge down against the spring and pulled back on the cylinder, letting it ride over the wedge.

    This worked so well that Dreyse thought of making a breechloader out of it, something the original proposal didn’t include. Then he apparently had one of those ideas that is a “paradigm shift”. He thought of the simple door bolt.

    The door bolt as we understand it, a cylinder with a handle that can drop down into a slot to secure it, has been around since the Roman empire or maybe even longer than that. But up to that point, it apparently had never occurred to anyone that it could be used as the breechlock of a breech-loading gun.

    Dreyse’s bolt copies a door bolt exactly. The bolt handle is the only “locking lug” it has. With the relatively low pressure of the blackpowder he was dealing with, that was also about all the locking lug it needed.

    As for the gas seal, I’ve often thought that a Dreyse (or a Chassepot, for that matter) could have easily been adapted to the instantaneously-expanding “seal ring” of the linen-cartridge Sharps breech. Most obviously, because their breechfaces were round, and moved in line with the bore, which would have been just about optimum for such a seal ring system, unlike the semi-rectangular Sharps rising-block breech.

    BTW, after getting curb-stomped by the Prussians in their short war of 1866, the Austrian Army (now a Prussian “vassal”) adopted a breechloading rifle based on the Lindner patent. It, too, was a bolt action, linen-cartridge arm, but it still used an external hammer and percussion nipple that had to be capped by hand.

    The Austrian army felt that it was less maintenance-intensive than the Dreyse, but would get about the same results at the receiving end, as well as being an easy way to convert muzzle-loading muskets to breech-loaders.

    To judge by the performance of Austrian formations in 1870-71, they were probably right on all counts.

    (A version of this design shows up in the SF novel March To The Sea by John Ringo and David Weber.)

    cheers

    eon

    • “BTW, after getting curb-stomped by the Prussians in their short war of 1866, the Austrian Army (now a Prussian “vassal”) adopted a breechloading rifle based on the Lindner patent. It, too, was a bolt action, linen-cartridge arm, but it still used an external hammer and percussion nipple that had to be capped by hand.

      The Austrian army felt that it was less maintenance-intensive than the Dreyse, but would get about the same results at the receiving end, as well as being an easy way to convert muzzle-loading muskets to breech-loaders.”
      You mixed two different rifles:
      – Podeweils-Lindner rifle (also called Podeweils rifle) used by Bavarian Army as a “Infanteriegewehr M/1858” – bolt-action percussion rifle, used in combat during Seven Weeks’ War Of 1866 and Franco-Prussian War Of 1870
      – Wanzl rifle used by Austrian Army – conversion of Lorenz muzzle-loader, rotary-block breech firing rim-fire cartridge (14x33mm Wanzl)

    • I wonder if the seal ring could be made out of copper to accommodate the heat better. Or, as you say, made it into instanteniously expendable design. This would be a minor issue with today’s materials and mfg. techniques. At the end – first working case-less.

      Separate question might be how well would fare this rifle if used in American Civil War….. instead slow loading muskets.

      My recollection of power of rifles of the period harkens back to time when as a kid have seen parts of tree trunks with deeply lodged projectiles; well preserved for hundred years before loggers uncovered them. Samples were on display in museum.

  8. “was a major step forward in military rifle technology, although it did not remain at the forefront for very long (much like the Spencer repeating rifle in that regard)”
    This is true for most designs beginning new era, for example:
    -rim-fire cartridges (which marks start of metallic cartridge era) were commonly used in rifles during American Civil War, but soon were phased out in favor of center-fire design
    -Mauser C/96 (which marks start of military automatic pistol era) “magazine in front of trigger” was soon phased out by “magazine in grip”
    -FN 1900 also called Browning 1900 “spring over barrel” was soon phased out by “spring under barrel”

  9. We have ballistically evaluated all of the military issue Dreyse system, also with their respective bayonets fixed for over 20 years and are surprised by what is perpetuated regarding needle breakage and poor breech obturation, it is sheer factoid. We have had excellent accuracy with all the cartridges used by the system: M/41, M/47/ Experimental cartridge for the M/49 trials Jager rifle, M/55 and M/55 karabiner and finally the M/72 Patrone. The cone breech was ingeniously designed to harmlessly flow gases upwards and away from the soldier’s face. The cone arrangement required little maintenance unlike the Chassepot obturator, which suffered from any oil pollution degradation and was inefficient in very cold weather. Furthermore, have evaluated rifles with worn cones and have never experienced problems with breech obturation. Worn cones were repaired by grinding-off and grafting replacements by armourers. Regarding accuracy, we have entered classic competitions at Bisley and have placed second against more modern black powder breech loaders. The Fusilier M/60 Beck system as featured on this video, which chambered the M/72 Patrone, has complete obturation, that is, no breech leakage and an increase in velocity and range, hence the more advanced rear sight. The Beck system was expediency until issue of the Mauser was issued. Technically speaking, anterior ignition of the cartridge is more efficient for combustion of powder. The Dreyse system does not foul as quickly as the Chassepot, which we have also evaluated. For the Dreyse enthusiasts who are lucky enough posses an example, you possess the first practical military bolt action with a linear to all bolt actions today.
    G and L A-R-West

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