The Needle Gun Started It All

Dreyse Needle Gun sporting rifle cal. 61. Note the position of the bolt handle. It is located on top of the receiver and rotates less than 1 inch to open.
Dreyse Needle Gun sporting rifle cal. 61. Note the position of the bolt handle. It is located on top of the receiver and rotates less than 1 inch to open.

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.

This view shows the Dreyse action  with the bolt open. The needle can  be seen in the front of the bolt.
This view shows the Dreyse action with the bolt open. The needle can be seen in the front of the bolt.

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.

COMMENT