The following information on the Dreyse Needle Gun (Zundnadelgewehr) comes from Chapter 1 of Mauser Rifles and Pistols by W. H. B. Smith. Mauser Rifles and Pistols is also available to purchase in print.
The story of the Mauser rifles and of all military bolt action rifles begins with the development of the Dreyse Needle Gun, the famous Zündnadelgewehr.
The inventor of this first successful bolt action gun was Johann Nikolaus Dreyse, born in 1798 at Sommerda, near Erfurth, Germany. The firm bearing his name continued to manufacture firearms until the time of World War II.
Dreyse in 1809 worked with the already famous French gunsmith, Colonel Pauly, who did considerable experimental work on cartridges. At that time, it must be remembered, practically all rifles were loaded from the muzzle with powder and ball. Breech loading guns were dangerous because of gas leakage at the breech due to lack of a cartridge case which could act as a breech seal.
Dreyse built his first Needle Gun in 1827 and took out a patent on it in 1828. That patent covered both a spring needle and a fulminating cartridge, the gun itself being a muzzle loader. After many modifications, Dreyse produced his first unique bolt action rifle in the year 1838. This was the first production weapon ever developed in which the breech was closed by a sliding bolt operating on the principle of the common door bolt, in which a lever is raised to unlock the arm and the bolt drawn back in channels in the receiver to expose the breech for loading.
All earlier models of this arm had been muzzle loaders, the first experimental breech loading development appearing in the year 1836.
Many attempts had been made by Col. Pauly in Paris, among others, from 1808 to 1812 to develop a cartridge which would carry its own means of ignition within it. Indeed Pauly actually developed an experimental breech loader in which a detonating paper cap was attached to the paper cartridge and was fired by a needle. Dreyse doubtless drew on Pauly’s experiments for his cartridge.
The Dreyse needle cartridge was a very peculiar one. It consisted of a lead bullet weighing 478 grains, having a length of 1.1 inches, and a diameter of .53 inch. Attached to the base of the bullet was a wad of papier maché in which was embedded some detonating powder, while behind this was the propelling charge of black powder varying from 66 to 75 grains retained in a paper bag.
When the bolt handle was lifted and the bolt drawn back, this peculiar cartridge was inserted in the firing chamber, the bolt was pushed forward, and the handle turned down to lock it. In most models a spring catch was provided at the rear of the bolt which had to be depressed and the striker pulled back by hand to cock, before the bolt handle could be turned up to permit the bolt to be withdrawn.
The rifle itself varied in calibre at different times of manufacture, ranging from about .60 to .66 inch. In all cases the bullet was smaller than the bore diameter and did not touch the sides of the barrel during its flight through it. Rotation was effected by the wad (or “sabot”) at the base of the bullet which took the rifling and induced the twist. A typical example of this rifle, the 1860 model, has as 31-inch round barrel, rifled with 4-grooves. The twist is right, one turn in 28.82 inches. The caliber is 15.43 mm (.601).
The sliding breech bolt was hollow and housed a long needle about which was a spiral spring. This needle was the “striker.”
When the trigger was pulled, the striker was released and driven forward by its spring, permitting the long needle point to pass through the paper powder container and through the powder itself until the point reached the detonating powder in the base of the bullet. The explosion of the detonating compound set off the powder, driving the bullet forward at a muzzle velocity of approximately one thousand feet per second. The powder was located behind the primer because Dreyse theorized that more complete powder combustion would result therefrom.
One of the serious defects of this rifle was the fact that the long needle was subjected to the fire and corrosion of the powder gases; hence its life was comparatively short.
Since this type of cartridge case did not seal the breech properly, flame would spit back around the bolt, and after the weapon had been used a number of times and was powder fouled, it was actually dangerous to fire it from the shoulder.
J. Scoffern in his “Projectile Weapons of War” (1859), and other contemporary writers and observers, tells us that in the early Prussian Wars the infantry quite regularly fired from the hip, because of the danger of back blast from the breech.
This rifle was officially adopted by the Prussians in 1840 and 1841 and proved extremely effective at that time because of its rapid fire by comparison with the muzzle loading weapons used by other armies. The initial order from King William IV was for 60,000 Dreyse rifles. This continued as the official Prussian rifle until its replacement by the Mauser single shot metallic cartridge rifle in 1871.
With all its defects, the needle gun proved a most formidable arm. It was first used by the Prussians in their war against Denmark in 1864. When in 1866 it was used against the Austrian army which was armed with muzzle loaders, its success was so great that military authorities throughout the world realized that the day of the muzzle loading rifle was over. Wide experimentation was intensively started in Europe to develop adequate breech loaders.
The needle rifle was used by the Germans in 1870 against the French. The French opposed it with their Chassepot Needle Rifle, which was a decidedly superior arm. Its bolt head entered some distance into the firing chamber and had a steel shield, behind which was a thick wad of India rubber which helped to seal the breech against back flash when the weapon was fired. While this rubber plug or “obturator” was soon made too brittle by the heat to be completely effective, it still was such an advance over the Dreyse that the Germans utilized large numbers of captured Chassepots.
The tremendous value of the bolt principle of locking the breech was not grasped at that time. Indeed it was not until the American, James Paris Lee, developed his famous bolt action rifle in 1879 that the true worth of this system of operation in a military arm was fully appreciated except in Germany.
The defects of the needle gun due to the type of cartridge used was strongly impressed on the Germans by the course of the war of 1870. However, only the development of the metallic cartridge really opened the way to producing truly efficient breech loading arms. From this combination of Dreyse bolt action and the new metallic cartridge, in which the walls of the case expand at the instant of firing and act as a gas seal to prevent any gas from escaping to the rear, logically developed the next step. That was the first successful Mauser rifle, the almost unknown Mauser-Norris of 1867-69.