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.