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.
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About the Author: Phillip Peterson is a federally-licensed firearms dealer with more than 20 years' experience in buying, selling and trading antique and collectible military weapons. He is also a popular columnist for Gun Digest the Magazine.
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