Gun Collecting: Swiss Vetterli Rifles

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Gun collecting: The Swiss Vetterli rifle is worth looking at. Image courtesy of RIA auctions.

Gun collecting: The Swiss Vetterli rifle is worth looking at. Image courtesy of RIA auctions.

FREDERICH VETTERLI was an engineer working for Schweizerische Industrie-Gesellschaft (SIG) in Newhausen, Switzerland. In the late 1860s he worked on a repeating cartridge rifle for the Swiss government. Fixed metallic cartridges had only been perfected a few years previously and several nations were already working on single shot designs but the Swiss realized the limits of single shots and bypassed that stage in rifle design.

The Mauser-designed box magazine, that now seems so simple and should have occurred to designers after about ten minutes of thought, was still almost two decades away. The first generation of rifle-feed systems used magazine tubes, usually located underneath the barrel. The challenge here was how to get the cartridges from the tube to lift up to be loaded into the chamber.

This is where Vetterli got inspiration. He borrowed a design from the United Stated and the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The Model 1866 lever action rifle was already well known in global arms design circles.

Lever action designs were not very attractive to military buyers because of the complexity of the designs and cost of manufacture. However, Vetterli liked what he saw in the Winchester 66’s feed system. It used a lever-actuated elevator to lift the cartridges from the magazine tube. The elevator mechanism and much of the Winchester’s receiver design was incorporated into a bolt-action rifle.

In January 1869, Switzerland became the first nation to adopt a magazine-fed repeating rifle. The Model 1869 had a 33-inch barrel and the magazine held 12 rounds. There were 150,000 Model 1869 Vetterlis made by nine contractors.

The rifles originally were issued with a loading gate cover, that kept dirt out of the action, and a magazine cut off, which allowed the rifle to be used as a single shot. Both of these features were deemed unnecessary and were phased out of later models. There were several models of Vetterlis made: 1869, 1869/71, 1871, 1878 and 1881. All used the same action design and the differences were minor.

Changes included rear sights, magazine capacity, checkering on forearm, and butt plate shape. There were also a limited number of carbines made with barrels of 18-19.5 inches long. Also made in limited numbers is the Stutzer rifle, which has double-set trigger. These were for sharp shooting and target use. The Swiss used the Vetterli until it was replaced by the Schmidt Rubin Model 1889 rifle in 7.5x55mm.