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Franco-Prussian War: Dreyse Needle Gun

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Development & Design:

Creation of the famed Prussian Needle Gun began in 1824, when gunsmith Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse first began experimenting with rifle designs. The son of a locksmith in Sömmerda, Dreyse spent 1809-1814 working in the Parisian gun factory of Jean-Samuel Pauly. A Swiss, Pauly tinkered with various experimental designs for breech-loading military rifles. In 1824, Dreyse returned home to Sömmerda and opened a business producing percussion caps. Utilizing the knowledge he gained in Paris, Dreyse began by designing a muzzle-loading rifle that fired a self-contained cartridge.

These cartridges consisted of a black powder charge, a percussion cap, and a bullet wrapped in paper. This single unit approach greatly reduced the time needed to reload and permitted a higher rate of fire. When the weapon was fired a long firing pin was driven by a coiled, conchoidal spring through the powder in the cartridge to strike and ignite the percussion cap. It was this needle-like firing pin which gave the weapon its name. Over the next twelve years Dreyse changed and improved the design. As the rifle evolved, it became a breech-loader which possessed a bolt action.

By 1836, Dreyse's design was essentially complete. Presenting it to the Prussian Army, it was adopted in 1841 as the Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr (Prussian Model 1841). The first practical breech-loading, bolt action military rifle, the Needle Gun, as it became known, revolutionized rifle design and led to the standardization of cartridged ammunition.

Specifications:

Dreyse Needle Gun

  • Cartridge: .61 acorn-shaped round, paper cartridge w/ black powder and percussion cap
  • Capacity: 1 round
  • Muzzle Velocity: 1,000 ft./sec.
  • Effective Range: 650 yds.
  • Weight: approx. 10.4 lbs.
  • Length: 55.9 in.
  • Barrel Length: 35.8 in.
  • Sights: Notch and front post
  • Action: Bolt-action

Operational Use:

Entering service in 1841, the Needle Gun gradually became the standard service rifle of the Prussian Army and many other German states. Dreyse also offered the Needle Gun to the French, who after testing the weapon declined to purchase it in large quantities citing the weakness of the firing pin and a loss of breech-pressure after repeated firing. This latter issue led to a loss in muzzle velocity and range. First used by the Prussians during the 1849 May Uprising in Dresden, the weapon received its first true baptism by fire during the Second Schleswig War in 1864.

In 1866, the Needle Gun showed its superiority to muzzle-loading rifles during the Austro-Prussian War. In battle, Prussian troops were able to achieve a 5-to-1 superiority in rate of fire to their Austrian enemies due to the Needle Gun's loading mechanism. The Needle Gun also allowed Prussian soldiers to easily reload from a concealed, prone position while the Austrians were forced to stand to reload their muzzle-loaders. This technological superiority greatly contributed to the swift Prussian victory in the conflict.

Four years later the Needle Gun was back in action during the Franco-Prussian War. In the years since Dreyse had offered his rifle to the French, they had been working on a new weapon which corrected the issues they saw with the Needle Gun. Despite its success during the Austro-Prussian War, the French criticisms of the weapon had proven true. Though easily replaced, the rifle's firing pin had proven fragile often lasting only a few hundred rounds. Also, after several rounds, the breech would fail to close completely forcing Prussian soldiers to fire from the hip or risk being burned in face by escaping gases.

In response, the French designed a rifle known as the Chassepot after its inventor, Antoine Alphonse Chassepot. Though firing a smaller bullet (.433 cal.), the Chassepot's breech did not leak which gave the weapon a higher muzzle velocity and greater range than the Needle Gun. As French and Prussian forces clashed, the Chassepot inflicted significant casualties on the invaders. Despite the effectiveness of their rifles, French military leadeship and organization proved vastly inferior to the Needle Gun-equipped Prussians and led to their swift defeat.

Recognizing that the Needle Gun had been eclipsed, the Prussian military retired the weapon after their victory in 1871. In its place they adopted the Mauser Model 1871 (Gewehr 71) which was the first in a long line of Mauser Rifles used by the German military. These culminated with the Karabiner 98k that saw service during World War II.

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