Dreyse needle gun

Needle gun

M/41 Dreyse needle-gun ("leichtes Perkussionsgewehr M/41")
Type Bolt action
Place of origin Prussia
Service history
In service 1841–1873
Used by Prussia
Wars Austro-Prussian War,
Second Schleswig War,
Franco-Prussian war
Romanian War of Independence
Production history
Designer Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse
Designed 1836
Variants Infantry rifle M1841
Pikenbüchse M1854
Jägerbüchse M1856
Karabiner 1857
Fusilier M1860
Infantry rifle M1862
Württemberg Model 1857/67
Pioneer rifle M1869
Grenzaufsehergewehr 1870
Gendarmeriegewehr 1873
Weight 4.7 kg (10.4 lb)
Length 142 cm (56 in)
Barrel length 91 cm (36 in)

Cartridge Acorn-shaped lead bullet in paper cartridge
Action Breech-loading bolt action
Rate of fire 10–12 rounds/min
Muzzle velocity 305 m/s (1,000 ft/s)
Effective firing range 600 m (650 yd)
Feed system Single-shot
Sights V-notch and front post iron sights

The Dreyse needle-gun (German Zündnadelgewehr, which translates roughly as "ignition needle rifle"[1]) was a military breechloading rifle, famous as the main infantry weapon of the Prussians, who accepted it for service in 1841 as the "leichtes Perkussionsgewehr Model 1841" ("light percussion rifle Model 1841"), with the name chosen to hide the revolutionary nature of the new weapon.[2] The name "Zündnadelgewehr"/"needle-gun" comes from its needle-like firing pin, which passed through the paper cartridge case to strike a percussion cap at the bullet base. The Dreyse rifle was also the first breech-loading rifle to use the bolt action to open and close the chamber, executed by turning and pulling a bolt handle. It has a rate of fire of about 10–12 rounds per minute.

The rifle was the invention of the gunsmith Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse (1787–1867) who, beginning in 1824, had conducted multiple experiments and in 1836 produced the complete needle-gun. Dreyse was ennobled in 1864.

Usage and history

The first types of needle-gun made by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse were muzzle-loading, the novelty lying in the long needle driven by a coiled conchoidal spring which fired the internal percussion cap on the base of the sabot. It was his adoption of the bolt-action breechloading principle combined with this igniter system which gave the rifle its military potential, allowing a much faster rate of fire.

Dreyse needle gun, model 1865.

Although being accepted for service in 1841 it wasn't introduced into service in Prussia until 1848, then later into the military forces of many other German states, save for Austria. The employment of the needle-gun radically changed military tactics in the 19th century.

The needle-gun first made its appearance in street fighting during the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849. It also played an important role in the Second war of Schleswig in 1864. The rifle saw its heaviest use in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. Because the breech-loader made it possible for a Prussian soldier to fire five (or more) shots, even while lying on the ground, in the time that it took his Austrian muzzle-loading counterpart to reload while standing, it was seen as allowing the Prussians to sweep the field. One observer proclaimed, "the needle-gun is the king."

The success of the Dreyse needle gun spurred subsequent developments in firearms technology and, before the start of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the French introduced the Chassepot rifle. Although the Prussians won the war the Chassepot proved superior in virtually all respects compared to the needle-gun, which was slowly becoming obsolete. With the subsequent unification of Germany the Dreyse needle-gun was replaced by the Mauser Model 1871 rifle in German service.

In 1877, Romania purchased 20,000 rifles & 11,000 carbines from the Prussian government. Though considered long obsolete, these were used to great effect in the Romanian War of Independence.

Sometime in the late 1860s, Japan acquired an unknown number of Model 1862 rifles and bayonets. These were marked with the imperial chrysanthemum stamp.

Ammunition and Mechanism

A diagram of a needle-gun cartridge, showing the paper cartridge case, the sabot, and acorn-shaped bullet.

The cartridge used with this rifle consisted of the paper case, the bullet, the percussion cap and the black powder charge. The 15.4 mm (0.61 in) bullet was shaped like an acorn, with the broader end forming a point, and the primer attached to its base. The bullet was held in a paper case known as a sabot - which separated from the bullet as it exited the muzzle. Between this inner lining and the outer case was the powder charge, consisting of 4.8 g (74 grains) of black powder.[3]

Dreyse mechanism, model 1865.

The upper end of the paper case is rolled up and tied. Upon release of the trigger, the point of the needle pierces the rear of the cartridge, passes through the powder and hits the primer fixed to the base of the sabot. Thus the burn-front in the black powder charge passes from the front to the rear. This front-to-rear burn pattern minimizes the effect seen in rear-igniting cartridges where a portion of the powder at the front of the charge is forced down and out of the barrel to burn wastefully in the air as muzzle flash. It also ensures that the whole charge burns under the highest possible pressure, theoretically, minimising unburnt residues. Consequently, a smaller charge can be used to obtain the same velocity as a rear-ignited charge of the same bullet calibre and weight. It also increases the handling security of the cartridge, since it is virtually impossible to set the primer off accidentally.

There was also a blank cartridge developed for the needle-gun. It was shorter and lighter than the live round, since it lacked the projectile, but was otherwise similar in construction and powder load.


The needle-gun proved to have a few limitations, most however didn't prove a factor until the end of its service life some 30 years later during the Franco-Prussian war. One of these was its effective range, which although comparable to that of the muzzle-loading rifles it was initially fielded against, wasn't as long as that of the Chassepot when fielded against it during the Franco-Prussian War. The main reason for this was that a sizable amount of gas escaped at the breech when the rifle was fired with a paper cartridge, somewhat neutralizing the advantage gained from the novel front-ignited powder charge. An improved model, giving greater muzzle velocity and increased speed in loading, was introduced later but soon replaced by the Mauser rifle.

The breech would, on rare occasion, fail to close entirely due to the lack of an effective obturation seal; however, due to the conical shape of both the breech and bolt face, escaping gas would be directed towards the muzzle of the rifle as to not burn the soldier's skin unless his support arm was inappropriately placed. The placement of the primer directly behind the bullet meant the firing needle was enclosed in black powder when the gun was fired, causing stress to the pin, which could break over time and render the rifle useless until it could be replaced. Soldiers were provided with two replacement needles for that purpose. The needle could be replaced quite easily, even in the field, in under 30 seconds. Because the rifle used black powder, residue accumulated at the back of the barrel, making cleaning necessary after about 60–80 shots. This was not a large problem because the individual soldier carried fewer cartridges than that and Dreyse created an "air chamber" by having a protruding needle tube (the Chassepot also had this, but it was more likely to jam after fewer shots because of its smaller-diameter chamber).

Comparison with contemporary rifles

The only contemporary rifle which it can be compared to is the Norwegian Kammerlader—the only other breech loader adopted for service in the 1840s.

Rifle Needle gun Kammerlader M1849/55
Effective range 600 m (650 yards) 1,000 m (1,100 yd)
Rate of fire 10 to 12 rounds/minute 6 to 8 rounds/minute (estimate, see article)
Calibre 15.4 mm (0.61 in) 17.5 mm (0.69 in)
Muzzle velocity 305 m/s (1,000 ft/s) Sources vary between 265 and 350 m/s (870 to 1,150 ft/s)
Barrel length 91 cm (35.8 in) 78 cm (30.7 in)
Total length 142 cm (55.9 in) 126 cm (50.4 in)
Loaded weight 4.7 kg (10.4 lb) 5 kg (11 lb)

The Prussian Needle gun appears in Ensemble Studio's Age of Empires III in the hands of "Needle Gunners", who act as German skirmisher units.

Prominent Austrians frequently betray a subtle and often humorous obsession with the Prussian Needle gun in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities.

See also


  1. "Google Translate"., using phrase "Zünd Nadel Gewehr"
  2. " Nach konsequenter Weiterentwicklung seit 1827 wurde es 1839 der preußischen Armee zur Erprobung gegeben und zur Tarnung als „leichtes Perkussionsgewehr M/41“ eingeführt" - de:Zündnadelgewehr
  3. Flatnes, Oyvind. From Musket to Metallic Cartridge: A Practical History of Black Powder Firearms. Crowood Press, 2013, pp. 125–130. ISBN 978-1847975935
This article incorporates text from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica.

Further reading

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