In my business of dealing in collectible firearms I have been fortunate enough to be able to handle some really interesting collector pieces. That was why I named this column Collector’s Corner when I started it in 2004. Recently I briefly owned another rifle that most who have interest in firearms development will have heard about. The Dreyse Needle Gun.
This rifle is considered to be the first breech loading system that utilized a completely self-contained cartridge. That is the bullet, powder and ignition (percussion cap) is one item. In this case it was in the form of a paper wrapped “cartridge”. The Dreyse cartridge propelled a .61 caliber bullet at a velocity of almost 1000 feet per second. Up to this point most firearms had been muzzle loading and they used separate percussion caps. There had been several breech loading designs but they still relied on separate ignition.
The Dreyse needle-gun was a military breechloading rifle, famous as the main infantry weapon of the Prussians, who adopted it for service in 1841 as the Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr, or Prussian Model 1841. Its name comes from its 0.5-inch (13 mm) needle-like firing pin, which passed through the paper cartridge case to impact a percussion cap seated in the base of the bullet. The Dreyse rifle was also the first breech-loading rifle to use the bolt action to open and close the chamber, executed by turning and pulling a bolt handle.
The gun was the invention of the gunsmith Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse (1787-1867), who, beginning in 1824, had conducted multiple experiments, and in 1836 produced the complete needle-gun.
The first types of needle-gun made by Dreyse were muzzle-loading, the novelty lying in the long needle driven by a coiled spring which fired the internal percussion cap on the base of the bullet. It was his adoption of the bolt action breech loading principle combined with this igniter system which gave the gun its military potential, allowing the firer to reload in a prone position, and using a one-piece cartridge without a separate cap to be handled under stress.
From 1848 onward the new weapon was gradually introduced into the Prussian service, then later into the military forces of many other German states, save for Austria. The employment of the needle gun radically changed military tactics in the 19th Century. It saw battle in a few internal German conflicts throughout the 1850s and saw its heaviest use in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Because the breech-loader made it possible for a Prussian soldier to fire five (or more) shots, even while lying on the ground, in the time that it took his Austrian muzzle-loading counterpart to reload while standing, it was seen as all giving the Prussians a significant advantage on the field.
In practice the needle-gun proved to have numerous defects; its effective range was very short compared to that of the muzzle-loading rifles of the day. A significant amount of gas escaped at the breech when the rifle was fired with a paper cartridge. After several shots, the breech area would become fouled with black powder residue and fail to close entirely.
This caused the gas escaping from the breech to burn the skin of the soldier. As a result, soldiers could not aim accurately without burning themselves and were forced to fire from the hip. The placement of the primer directly behind the bullet would force the firing pin, or needle, to be enclosed in gunpowder when the gun was fired, this causing serious stress to the firing pin which would often break after only a couple of hundred rounds had been fired, rendering the gun useless until the pin could be replaced. Soldiers were provided with two replacement needles for that purpose.
In the 1860s the French copied the needle-fire feature in the Model 1866 Chasspot rifle. This rifle had a better designed bolt and sealing system that cut down on the gas leakage. During the Franco-Prussian war 1870-71 the Chassepot proved superior to the Dreyse. By this time fixed metallic cartridges were being made from brass and the Germans turned their interest to the bolt action design by Paul Mauser and adopted the Model 1871 as the replacement for the Dreyse.
Original Dreyse Needle guns are rare. After years of use and the subsequent eras of German history most have been lost or destroyed. The rifle shown in this column is a sporterized military rifle. It was probably built by a German gunsmith guild in the 1880’s. There are no markings on it to indicate who made it. Just a couple old German military proof marks.
I usually like to fire unique old guns that pass through my hands but this was one I did not consider making cartridges for. I did find a web site that featured information on making cartridges for and shooting a Dreyse Needle Gun but I’m just not that ambitious.
This article appeared in the October 11, 2010 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.