Early Bolt-Actions: The Chassepot And Dreyse At RIA

Today, we tend to take the metallic cartridge and the guns that fire them for granted, but before the invention and perfection of the metallic cartridge case, arms designers faced stiff challenges in realizing the breechloading military rifle. Early attempts, most famously the flintlock Ferguson used in very limited numbers by the British during the American Revolution, were too expensive to produce in large numbers and only saw limited success.

The breechloader would finally come of age just before the dawn of the metallic rifle cartridge, in the 1830s, with the invention of the Dreyse needle gun. While the Dreyse was not the first breechloader to be adopted in large numbers by a military force – the American Hall preceded it by over two decades – it was one the first standard issue breechloading rifle to totally replace the muzzleloading weapons of its home country. The American Hall would be used in specialist roles, and eventually retired and replaced with muzzleloading rifled-muskets, but the Dreyse and the Norwegian Kammerlader both signaled the end of the muzzleloading era, and the beginning of the modern breechloader.

Forgotten Weapons takes a look at the Dreyse, and another important transitional breechloader that fought against it, the French Chassepot rifle, in a pair of videos covering auction items at Rock Island Auction, both embedded below. I have also embedded shooting videos of both weapons, illustrating the massive difference in gas blowback between the two weapons:

Readers who may want to purchase their own Dreyse or Chassepot rifles may also want to shoot them; embedded below is a video of how to make functional Chassepot ammunition (Dreyse ammunition is slightly different and uses a paper sabot):

Both the Dreyse and the Chassepot in the videos are available for auction as part of combined lots in RIA’s Regional Auction for June. Our readers can, if they wish, follow the links to the auction pages.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.


  • joeyskylynx

    Someone seriously needs to make a SHTF Gun which has the ability to switch between a Chassepot paper cartridge, and the ability to fire a lead ball, ala Girandoni Air Rifle style.

    • Southpaw89

      The only problem with using a needle gun like the Chassepot for survival it that the needles were prone to breaking, and though you could carry spares they would you would run out eventually, it may be better to use a flintlock system like on the Ferguson rifle, then all you would need is black powder which you can make yourself, and lead balls. Though a good big bore air rifle like the Girandoni may be enough on its own for survival, it certainly worked for the corps of discovery.

      • joeyskylynx

        It just seems that the Chassepot would be a good system for simply having an easy to reload weapon, but you might be right in the aspect that have a Ferguson with the ability to transfer into a big-bore air rifle might have it’s benefits. Use the Ferguson for hunting big game, Air Rifle for little and medium sized game, but keep it around for a weapon to keep other folks who get a little… Uneasy? Yeah, keeping uneasy folk at bay. I’m trying to think of a system of sorts, and have been thinking of a revolving cylinder air rifle system with detachable cylinders. Possibly a breach or mid-loading system. Ideally this weapon would spin on it’s own, but it could also be manually spinned. Overall it’d give the shooter the ability to quickly change to another air-propelled ball, and therefore keep the shooter safe.

        • Southpaw89

          Sounds like what your looking for is a modern iteration of the Treeby Chain Gun, abandon the barrel that is unscrewed in favor of a conventional bolt action and you would have a decent repeater on your hands.

          • joeyskylynx

            Perhaps! Overall though, the need for a survival gun which can convert from a standard blackpowder to air gun, is just an unstated need in the world!
            Not only would it defeat problems relating to supplies, it’d also ensure that you could also change out the ammo for things like rocks and the like!

  • Fun fact: The Needle Gun famously inspired Paul Mauser. He first saw one in 1858 and remarked “the soldier showed his rifle to me. Up to that time I had never seen a Needle Gun. On that very day, I though already that something better could be designed. That idea has never left me”. The Mauser brothers patented their first bolt action in 1868, and eventually this led to the creation of the greatest rifle ever designed; the Model 1898.
    The Needle Gun’s legacy is truly remarkable, and I envy whomever wins that auction lot!

    • Matt Grizz Gregg

      “Greatest rifle ever designed”

      That’s kinda like when people say the 1911 is the greatest pistol ever.

      It was the greatest, at that time, it has been surpassed now, just like the 1898.

      • Zebra Dun

        Is this the beginning of another Chevy vs Ford thread?

  • iksnilol

    Man, when I see these old crappy guns (a term of endearment by the way) I am happy and gratefull for the modern stuff we have today. Heck, I am gratefull for the “obsolete” stuff when comparing it to this.

    • Old Fart

      The oldest rifle I’d go to war with would be the SMLE MKIII* Solid bolt action rifle utilizing a hard hitting round in a magazine that holds 10, and it’s goof proof. What’s not to like? The SMLE is hands down the best Gen1 rifle ever made. Someone should set up a plant and resurrect these guns, chambered in 308. They’d sell like hot cakes. Some rifles just never vanish from history and there’s definitely a market for factory fresh builds out there.

      • iksnilol

        Eh, it’s a milsurp bolt action. They are pretty much all the same. Only difference are the “fast” and “slow” ones. Krags and SMLE in the former, Mauser and Mosin derivatives in the latter category.

        They all have at least 5 round magazines, a trigger and sights. I can work with that.

        • Old Fart

          Take a closer look. From a technicality point of view, the SMLE is superior because it does hold 10 rounds. And if you are familiar with Commonwealth military history, the rifle and the troops trained with it were the best piece of kit and rifle men of their era respectively. 20/25 accurate shots per minute was the rule, not the exception. The Germans were outmatched by Commonwealth marksmanship in both world wars. so if you look at the big picture (which war is all about), the SMLE system (the rifle, training program and deployment) was clearly superior.

          • iksnilol

            It’s not like I can reload other rifles quickly or something.

            Sure, 10 round mags are nice but that’s mainly because I like having spare ammo. Besides, Krags and Mausers are wuick to load.

            Also, i can almost bet if you took any competent/well trained rifleman he could shoot 20-25 aimed shots a minute even with a Mauser or Mosin.

            Zee Germans focused more on the MG than the rifle. So logically they received less training on rifles. Please note I am not dismissing the Brits. But they are people too.

          • Martin Grønsdal

            the both of you are comparing bananas to apples to pears, and neither comparison is very accurate, nor hard hitting.

            You would go to war with what they gave you, or they would shoot you with a painfully similar rifle that was intended for you in the first place.

          • iksnilol

            True, I don’t know why you responded to me though. I never mentioned going to war. And while I do have preferences I don’t mind using other stuff even if I find it suboptimal.

          • As an unabashed Lee-Enfield fanboy (I have a shrine to JPL and everything), the Mauser is the better weapon of war until the No. 4 gets invented.

          • petru sova

            Well that’s debatable too. What good is an Enfield when you try and hit something at long range as in WWI and even in many WWII settings. Lets face facts although the Enfield had firepower over the Mauser the Mauser had the accuracy advantage and you can throw all the shots at the enemy you wish but it only takes one good shot to take you out. The accuracy was poor on WWI Enfield’s and even the WWII Enfield’s although inherently very accurate could not be shot very accurately because all had a horrendously heavy 8 lb trigger pull as opposed to many Mausers that often had 5 and 6 lb triggers. That doesn’t sound like much of a difference until you actually try and shoot these guns at long range. My choice would have been the 98 Mauser hands down.

          • By modern standards, the accuracy was poor on all the rifles used in WWI. For one thing, their ammo sucked.

      • Gen 1 rifle? Lol.

        • Old Fart

          Gen1, Gen2 etc relates to the stages of modern warfare. There is a slight overlap between various stages.
          Gen1=Second Boer War, Russo-Japanese War, Great War etc; Gen2=WW2/Korea/Early Arab-Israeli Wars, early stage Vietnam etc;
          Gen3A=Vietnam, Dirty Wars etc;
          Gen3B=Falklands, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, TFR/Gothic Serpent etc.
          There is scholarly debate about the definition of Gen4 but concensus is the ‘drone and JOE generation’=OEF, ISAF etc.

          Gen1 rifles are the first modern bolt (or semi) action rifle with smokeless powder cartridges. Advent around 1900.

          Gen1; Mauser 98, SMLE ‘1 – 3’, Mosin Nagant etc
          Gen2: M1 Garand, G/K41/43, BAR, Johnson etc
          Gen3A: M14, FAL, G3, AK, Galil etc
          Gen3B: M-16/AR, FAMAS etc
          Gen4: high end piston AR, ARX, ACR, Tavor, SCAR etc

          • Don Ward

            Arbitrary definitions are arbitrary.

          • Old Fart

            Well, this is the consensus in academic circles.

          • Not any academic circles I’ve participated in. Why would they need to delineate generations in the same way we categorize Glocks, anyway?

          • Old Fart

            To get a clear understanding of the development of modern rifle technology. The gen1 rifle is the first modern rifle aka bolt action rifle (magazine fed, smokeless powder and all that).

          • No.

          • Old Fart

            Yes. The smokeless cartridge round, magazine fed bolt action rifle was the first truly workable rifle in the history of modern warfare. Everything before it was ‘not all that’ and infancy in terms of fire arms technology. Hence the gen1, gen2 etc nomenclature.

          • That is simply idiocy, and demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of the history of military hardware.

            To further claim that it is an “academic consensus” proves you haven’t the slightest idea what “academic” even means, either.

          • Don Ward

            Which circles? Is there a body of men who sit around at private clubs in leather backed chairs, drinking cognac and adjusting their monocles while determining what weapon falls under what category with precise WASP efficiency? And if so, where can I apply to join this league of extraordinary gentlemen?

          • I have never heard anyone use these terms before. Did you get them from an internet forum?

            Setting “Gen 1” at the turn of the 20th Century doesn’t make any sense. Bolt-action weapons had been around for much longer than that, and rifles even longer. The middle generations likewise make no sense. What makes an M4 or other modern AR-15 fundamentally different from a “high-end piston AR”?

            These aren’t definitions used by academics, these are definitions made up by someone who wants to put everything in a neat box, regardless of whether it makes sense or reflects actual history.

          • So then there is a gen 0, gen -1, gen -2, etc.?
            That is the most ludicrous metric for tracing rifle development I have ever seen.

        • Don Ward

          In a world where arbitrary definitions of military technology reigns supreme, two sides struggled to define what was a Gen 1 rifle. Until one man rose up from the ashes to say. “Lol”.

          • You have to laugh at the absurdity of the term especially when it ignores, you know, a century of rifle development.

          • Don Ward

            Alex, old chum. I have a capital idea! I propose we a TFB video on the Top 5 Modern Generation 3B military rifles.

            *Leans back in leather chair, adjusts monocle, swirls cognac*

          • Y-man

            Would that be Gen-3BB, dear Sir? That is the unique category for the African Bush wars of the 1970s and 1980s…

            A SPECIAL vintage, I must say, old chum!

        • mosinman

          wouldn’t gen 1 be the first handcannons? or at least an arquebus?

      • Tassiebush

        Sadly Australian International Arms made that rifle within the last decade but seems to be no more. It was a newly made Lee Enfield in .308 that used m14 magazines, had a number of models including one like a no4 and all had a chrome lined bore. Reviews seemed to all be good. It came with two mags as standard. It was priced only a small amount above guns like a tikka T3 or ruger m77. I sincerely regret not getting one at the time! Like yourself I honestly thought the market would be huge! 🙁

        • iksnilol

          Didn’t they also make a version in 7.62×39 using AK mags?

          That would have been such a good project gun.

          • Tassiebush

            Yes they did. I think it was made initially but they seemed to drop it. It would have been cool!

        • petru sova

          Actually the gun had very poor workmanship and functioning problems as well as being made with junk cast parts. Some parts were sub-contracted out to other countries like Viet-Nam which made it illegal to import into the U.S. were its biggest market would have been. Like most firearms made today they are not made of quality workmanship or quality parts.

          • Tassiebush

            I never saw one first hand but the reviews were all pretty good about the build quality from what I recall. The only problem I recall reading about was a mount out of alignment. But yes they did contract out a lot of parts although they assembled/built them here in Australia but that type of trade restriction on Vietnamese made parts would definitely account for failing to enter US market. I didn’t realize there were trade restrictions on Vietnam in US! What’s that about? Is it an overlooked relic from the war?

          • petru sova

            Even most Americans are not aware that the U.S. has had import bans on weapons from many countries it does not like for example Russia and China.

  • marathag

    too bad no high speed camera on the breech to see how much leakage there was

  • Don Ward

    The Franco-Prussian War is one of those interesting scenarios that prove that having a technologically superior small arms does not guarantee success in a conflict. While it’s nice to have the latest and greatest battle rifle and we in the United States have built up a cult surrounding the individual rifleman, battlefield factors like quick firing artillery (in the case of the Prussians) a sophisticated logistics and transport system and a coordinated command and control system like the Prussian General Staff more than offsets the advantage of a slightly better bullet shooter.

    • Hyok Kim

      Well, needle gun played a decisive role in winning the German Unification War. The last time a battle rifle played a decisive role in winning a war.

      As for superior small arms, Germans had MG42, the best LMG, didn’t do much in winning the war.

  • KestrelBike

    I’m glad I watched all that , thanks for posting it! The bullet making was strangely relaxing….

  • sam

    Its funny how caseless ammo (self consuming anyway, you know what I mean) was the main event for a little while, but couldn’t be made viable since.

    • Hyok Kim

      Smart grenade is the future. I see most small arms (other than a sniper rifle) becoming obsolete for the infantrymen of the future.