The Dreyse Needle Gun
Daniel Sager examines this weapon’s limitations
Introduced by the Prussian Army in the mid-19th century, the Dreyse Needle Gun was a revolutionary breach-loading rifle which proved decisive in its victory over the Austrians in 1866. However, when the Prussians marched into France four years later, they faced soldiers equipped with the Chassepot rifle and the limitations of the Dreyse gun became clear.
Invented by the German gunsmith Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse in 1836, the needle gun was innovative in several respects. Until then rifles were muzzle-loaded – a procedure that involved ramming a cartridge down the barrel with a metal ram-rod, a procedure that had to be performed while standing.
Although there had been various experiments with breech-loading muskets since the 18th century, von Dreyse developed a bolt action for opening and closing the rear of the barrel. Into the breech was placed a paper cartridge. When the trigger was pulled a needle-like firing pin penetrated the paper cartridge and struck a percussion cap, firing the bullet. Hence the the gun’s name.
The Prussian military recognised that this would give their infantry two major advantages: the Dreyse gun could be re-loaded while kneeling or even lying down, making the firer less of a target than an opponent with a traditional muzzle-loader. Better still, using a bolt action to open and close the chamber significantly increased the rate of fire, in some instances by a ratio of five to one.
In the hands of well-trained and highly disciplined troops such as the Prussians, the Dreyse gun proved devastating. At the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866 the Prussian rate of fire overwhelmed the numerically superior Austrians at a crucial point in the engagement.
However, the benefits of the Dreyse gun came at a price. Its effective range was just 600m (at best), compared to 1,000 metres for the muzzle-loaded Austrian Lorenz rifle. The lack of an effective seal around the breech meant that hot gas escaped after several shots had been fired, burning the rifleman’s face while aiming from the shoulder and forcing him to shoot from the hip, greatly reducing accuracy.
While the Prussians were fighting their Austrian neighbours, the French had been busily re-arming with the Chassepot rifle. Like the Dreyse gun, it was loaded with bolt action. But its breech was sealed by a rubber obduration ring, preventing hot gas from escaping. This, combined with a smaller calibre (11mm compared to 15mm), increased the Chassepot’s velocity, giving an effective range of more than 1,000 metres.
When the Prussians faced the French infantry at the Battle of Gravelotte in 1870, they found themselves completely out-gunned, suffering more that 20,000 killed or wounded compared to fewer than 8,000 on the French side (most of them to artillery fire). Unfortunately for the French, the Chassepot did not give them a decisive advantage in the face of Prussian organisation, tactics, and artillery – but it signalled the end of the line for the Dreyse gun.
Following the French surrender in 1871, the Prussians and their German allies (with the exception of Bavaria) were re-equipped with the Mauser Model 71, a bolt action rifle that fired 11mm cartridges and had a maximum range of 2,000 metres. Like so many game-changing innovations, the Dreyse Needle Gun quickly became outmoded as competitors ironed out the creases in its design.