Blast From the Past: 1867 Dreyse Carbine

I recently had a chance to take some photos of a truly ground-breaking assault weapon. The Dreyse “Zündnadelgewehr” or needle-gun was at first derided as a mere novelty. Then, during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Prussian soldiers using Dreyse rifles were able to fire five shots from the prone in the same time it took  Austrian soldiers to fire once and reload, while standing.  The Prussians demolished their enemies and began the march towards a unified Germany. The era of rapid fire, breech-loading guns that could be fired rain or shine had arrived. The era of muzzle-loaders was ending.


The “needle gun” is so named because it’s bolt contains a long firing-pin like needle, which travels forward more than half an inch upon firing. The needle penetrates the rear of the paper cartridge and hits a percussion cap located behind the bullet. Repeated firing would degrade the quality of the needle’s tip quickly, so units armed with the Dreyse were issued with two spare needles per man. This was the very first bolt action rifle, period.


This example is a beautiful 1867 carbine, issued to cavalry troops. Its barrel is rifled nicely and it even has an adjustable rear sight. The barrel is inscribed with “Stahl”, denoting that it is made of steel, as previous versions had iron barrels. The Dreyse would foul itself very quickly to the point where the bolt could not be closed properly, but this was hardly a problem for the cavalry, who were expected to fire just a few shots before drawing their sabers and charging through the broken enemy lines with cold steel in hand.

In terms of pure size and weight I was struck by the similarity between the Dreyse carbine and modern carbines. 150 years later, we are still trying to shoot straighter and faster than the other guy.



  • “Assault weapon”? Are you SERIOUSLY saying that?

    • ZeCatnip

      I’m pretty sure it was meant humorously. Still, that is a fine looking firearm!

    • jt

      At one stage in history the Battle-Axe was an assault weapon. Time, history, and definitions are all relative

      • Yes, I understand. I just don’t want the ignorant gun control “activists” (if you can call them that) to try and go after old bolt actions like this too, just because it was called an “assault weapon”. The situation is bad enough as it is.

  • Drew Wood

    shooting 5 times faster than anything else during that time period would constitute an assault rifle during 1866.

  • 101st

    My .380 is an assault pistol??

  • -V-

    Nice find, and for such an old firearm, its in remarkable shape. I did get a chuckle out of it being called an “assault weapons” which, not entierly incorrect. It was a weapon that was used in assaults, along with sabers and cannon. Interesting the French Chassepot and Gras rifles quickly surpassed the Prussian needle guns in terms of range and durability.

  • ddd

    The current issue of MHQ has an article about this gun:

  • Komrad

    This assault weapon is so advanced that it uses caseless ammunition.

  • If a first-line state of the art (in its day) infantry weapon is not an assault rifle, what is? Us gun folk ought not misuse the term like the media does. Look what troubles that misunderstanding of the term has caused! They still think AR’s are M16’s! The last things we should be doing are perpetuating myths and infighting.

  • floppyscience

    Well…I know what I want for Christmas.

  • Mu

    In regards to these early rifles and susceptibility to dirt, in Fontane’s description of the war of 1870 he quotes a German sergeant as “having fired 80 rounds today, using 3 different rifles that became unusable due to slime fouling one after the other”. And people thought the AR-15 was dirt prone.

  • bbmg

    Makes you wonder what the gun control lobby will be enthusiastic to ban in 2050…

    “No more than 10 capacitors on civillian railguns!”

    • The 12-gauge auto-loader. The .45 long slide, with laser sighting. Phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range. The Uzi nine millimeter.

  • jacob

    I wonder if the needle had to travel so far because of the need to brace the percussion cap against something stable like the bullet or if it was related to something else.

  • Chris B

    I see 2 rifled carbines… Both shoot sub caliber ammunition and both fit a purpose.

    No rifles at all.

    Try shooting the Bavarian Werder 1869 11mm (brass cartridge) pistol some time – that is a cavalry pistol !

    Within 12 months of this carbine being issued it was obsolete, even you Yanks had the trapdoor in 1866

  • Joseph B Campbell

    By the year 2050? If the Anti’s get their way we will be making our own spears and going to jail for that too! No guns, no bows of any kind, just primitive utensils. Heaven forbid when the ‘madmen’ kill with those.

    • Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

  • Ishmael

    Very pretty gun. The USA had the Henry and Spencer metallic cartridge repeaters before 1865 but nobody in Europe paid any attention to that.