Dreyse needle gun

Dreyse needle gun
Needle gun
Needle Gun.jpg
Type Bolt action
Place of origin  Prussia
Service history
In service 1848–1871
Used by Kingdom of Prussia Prussia
Production history
Designer Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse
Designed 1836
Variants Prussian Model 1848
Weight 4.7 kg (10.4 lb)
Length 142 cm
Barrel length 91 cm

Cartridge Acorn shaped lead bullet in paper cartridge
Action Bolt action/breech-loading
Rate of fire 10–12 round/min
Muzzle velocity 305 m/s (1,000 ft/s)
Effective range 600 m (650 yd)
Feed system Single-shot
Sights V-notch and front post

The Dreyse needle-gun (German Zündnadelgewehr, which translates roughly as "needle ignition rifle"[1]) was a military breechloading rifle, famous as the main infantry weapon of the Prussians, who adopted it for service in 1848 as the Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr, or Prussian Model 1848.[dubious ] 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 at the bullet base. 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. It has a rate of fire of about 10-12 rounds per minute.

The rifle 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. Dreyse was ennobled in 1864.


Usage and history

The first types of needle-gun made by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse were muzzle-loading, the novelty lying in the long needle driven by a coiled conchoidal spring which fired the internal percussion cap on the base of the bullet. It was his adoption of the bolt-action breechloading principle combined with this igniter system which gave the rifle its military potential, allowing a much faster rate of fire.

Dreyse needle gun, model 1865.

From 1848 onwards 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.

The needle-gun first made its appearance in street fighting during the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849. It also played an important role in the Second war of Schleswig in 1864. The rifle 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 allowing the Prussians to sweep the field. One observer proclaimed, "the needle-gun is the king."

The success of the Dreyse needle gun spurred subsequent developments in firearms technology, and prior to the start of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French introduced the Chassepot rifle. Although the Prussians won the war, the Chassepot proved superior in virtually all respects compared to the needle-gun, which was slowly becoming obsolete. With the subsequent unification of Germany, the Dreyse needle-gun was replaced by the Mauser Model 1871 rifle in German service.

Ammunition and Mechanism

A diagram of a needle-gun cartridge, showing the paper cartridge case, the sabot, and acorn-shaped bullet.

The cartridge used with this rifle consisted of the paper case, the bullet, the percussion cap and the black powder charge. The 15.4 mm (0.61 in) bullet was shaped like an acorn, with the broader end forming a point, and the primer attached to its base. The bullet was glued in a paper case known as a sabot. Between this inner lining and the outer case was the powder charge, consisting of 4.8 g (74 grains) of black powder.

Dreyse mechanism, model 1865.

The upper end of the paper case is rolled up and tied. Upon release of the trigger, the point of the needle pierces the rear of the cartridge, passes through the powder and hits the primer fixed to the base of the bullet. Thus the burn-front in the black powder charge passes from the front to the rear. This front to rear burn pattern minimizes the effect seen in rear-igniting cartridges where a proportion of the powder at the front of the charge is forced down and out of the barrel to burn wastefully in the air as muzzle flash. It also ensures that the whole charge burns under the highest possible pressure, theoretically, minimising unburnt residues. Consequently a smaller charge can be used to obtain the same velocity as a rear-ignited charge of the same bullet calibre and weight. It also increases the handling security of the cartridge since it is virtually impossible to set the primer off accidentally.

The Dreyse rifle was an example of a caseless ammunition rifle in the sense that it was designed so that the soldier had to load the rifle, but not expel the fired case. The case was in fact made from paper (as were many of the first cartridges), so it burnt entirely when the round was fired. The second innovation that made the Dreyse effectively a caseless ammunition rifle was that the primer was physically connected to the bullet, so it left the rifle together with it.

There was also a blank cartridge developed for the needle-gun. It was shorter and lighter than the live round, since it lacked the projectile, but was otherwise similar in construction and powder load.


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, and conspicuously so as against the Chassepot. A significant amount of gas escaped at the breech when the rifle was fired with a paper cartridge, neutralising the advantage gained from the novel front-ignited powder charge. An improved model, giving greater muzzle velocity and increased speed in loading, was introduced later, but this was soon replaced by the Mauser rifle.

Due to the lack of an effective obturation seal, after several shots, the breech would fail to close entirely. This caused the gas escaping from the breech to burn the skin of the soldier.[citation needed] 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 meant the firing needle was enclosed in black powder when the gun was fired, causing serious stress to the pin which would often break after as few as 200 rounds had been fired, rendering the rifle useless until the pin could be replaced. Soldiers were provided with two replacement needles for that purpose. Because the rifle used black powder, residue accumulated at the back of the barrel making cleaning necessary after about 60–80 shots. This was not, in practical terms, a large problem, because the individual soldier carried fewer cartridges than that and Dreyse created an "air chamber" by having a protruding needle tube (the Chassepot also had this, but it was more likely to jam after fewer shots because of its smaller-diameter chamber).

Comparison with contemporary rifles

The only contemporary rifle which it can be compared to is the Norwegian Kammerlader—the only other breech loader adopted for service in the 1840s.

Rifle Needle gun Kammerlader M1849/55
Effective range 600 m (650 yards) 1,000 m (1,100 yd)
Rate of fire 10 to 12 rounds/minute 6 to 8 rounds/minute (estimate, see article)
Calibre 15.4 mm (0.61 in) 17.5 mm (0.69 in)
Muzzle velocity 305 m/s (1,000 ft/s) Sources vary between 265 to 350 m/s (870 to 1,150 ft/s)
Barrel length 91 cm (35.8 in) 78 cm (30.7 in)
Total length 142 cm (55.9 in) 126 cm (50.4 in)
Loaded weight 4.7 kg (10.4 lb) 5 kg (11 lb)

Appearances in popular media

The Prussian Needle gun appears in Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires III in the hands of "Needle Gunners", who act as German skirmisher units.

Prominent Austrians frequently betray a subtle and often humorous obsession with the Prussian Needle gun in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

See also


This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Further reading

External links

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