Early Bolt-Actions: The Chassepot And Dreyse At RIA

Nathaniel F
by Nathaniel F

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 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. He can be reached via email at nathaniel.f@staff.thefirearmblog.com.

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  • Don Ward Don Ward on May 31, 2015

    The Franco-Prussian War is one of those interesting scenarios that prove that having a technologically superior small arm 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 Hyok Kim on Jun 05, 2015

      @Don Ward 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.

  • Sam Sam on May 31, 2015

    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 Hyok Kim on Jun 05, 2015

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