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The rifles of the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 part I--Germany and its allies: Front-line German small arms were actually somewhat inferior to the French, but the training and organization behind them would carry the day.

As the 1860s drew to an end, the Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France was a very nervous monarch. A nephew of the Napoleon, he had spent much of his early life as a military adventurer who dabbled in political intrigue when the opportunity presented itself. After twice failing to overthrow King Louis Phillipe of France, after the February Revolution of 1848 he managed to get himself elected president of the Second Republic. Four years later, he dismantled it, whereupon he declared himself emperor.

He pushed for the rapid industrialization of France, the building of railroads, ports and creation of a modern infrastructure for the French economy. He lent his personal support to the building of the Suez Canal. But these achievements were counterbalanced by growing corruption in business, government and the bureaucracy, which enriched Louis' many sycophants.

In an attempt to emulate his uncle, he engaged France in a number of military adventures. He allied his nation with Britain in the Crimean War (1854-56) in an effort to halt Russian expansion in the Middle East. In the 1850s and 1860s, he intervened in Italy to weaken Austrian influence and served as a French benefactor to the Papal States. While he failed to prevent the unification of Italy, he succeeded in attaching Savoy and Nice to France proper. Then there was Mexico.

Louis also wished to reestablish France's influence in the western hemisphere by establishing a puppet regime in Mexico, which was deeply in debt to a number of European nations. In 1863, with the American government preoccupied with its civil war, French troops "arranged" for an Austrian archduke, Ferdinand Maximilian, to be declared Emperor of Mexico.

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Needless to say, this adventure was doomed from the start and after a series of military defeats, and under increasing diplomatic pressure, Napoleon withdrew his forces in 1867. Shortly afterwards, the erstwhile emperor was captured by Mexican nationalist forces and executed.

But these fiascos paled to insignificance when compared to the real threat to Louis' desire to see French military and political once again reign supreme on the Continent. And that threat was Prussia.

The 17th century saw the northern German kingdom of Prussia (formerly known as Brandenburg) become increasingly influential, while the southern state of Austria was its main adversary for leadership of the German-speaking world. As Prussia and Austria jockeyed for supremacy, other German states such as Baden, Bavaria, Saxony and Wurttemberg changed sides, depending to how the political winds were blowing. France repeatedly intervened in Germany during this period, making and breaking alliances with various factions so as to insure the region remained in a state of turmoil.

Under King Friedrich the Great, Prussia won the Seven Years' War, defeating the allied armies of Austria, Russia and France. But with the rise of Napoleon, most German states allied themselves with the French. Austria was repeatedly defeated by Napoleon's armies, while defeats in 1792 and 1806 forced Prussia to accept the preeminence of French arms on the Continent.

These humiliations motivated the Prussians to reform their society and army. Most significant of these were Gerhard von Scharnhorst's military reforms, which emphasized the importance of moral incentives, personal courage and individual responsibility. He abandoned the privileges traditionally accorded to the nobility within the officer corps, instituting promotion based upon ability and performance.

A revitalized Prussia joined with Austria and Russia to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in late 1813. Prussian forces under Gen. Gebhard von Blucher, allied with the British and Dutch to defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815--something for which the French would never forgive their Teutonic neighbors!

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The post-Napoleonic era saw the rise of Pan-Germanism, a philosophical and political movement which called for the unification of all Germanic/Teutonic peoples into one mighty nation state. Austria--which considered itself the descendent of the Holy Roman Empire--saw the imperial Habsburgs of Vienna as the natural leaders of any such movement, not those crude, Protestant upstarts in Prussia.

In .1862 King Wilhelm of Prussia appointed Otto von Bismarck his chancellor, who set about thwarting Vienna's plans. Bismarck concluded that unless Prussia could harness the new nationalism for its own purposes, it would fail in its attempt to become the preeminent German state.

1864 saw Prussia go to war against Denmark over a territorial dispute. Austria backed Prussia both militarily and diplomatically, in return for promised control over the Danish province of Holstein. But the Prussians had little intention of ceding a province on their northern border to the control of Vienna. This led to a falling out between the former allies, and the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866.

The Habsburg forces, and their allies Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse-Cassel and Saxony, never had a chance. Thanks to the Scharnhorst reforms, the Prussian army, under the command of Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, shocked the world with a display of superior generalship, training, organization, weaponry, morale, and supply that their foes could not hope to match.

Known as the Seven Weeks' War, the conflict climaxed at the Battle of Koniggratz (3 July 1866).

When the smoke had cleared, the Austrians and their allies had suffered 13,000 dead, 17,000 wounded and 13,000 captured, while German casualties totaled only 9,200. And while the lion's share of the credit goes to Prussian tactics and organization, in the public eye the deciding factor was the Prussian army's rifle.

The years between the 1840 and 1870 were momentous times in the development of military firearms. First, the world's armies switched en masse from smoothbore, flintlock muskets to percussion-fired rifled muskets, which increased the range, accuracy and lethality of the infantryman's primary weapon.

Next came the introduction of breechloading military rifles such as the Chassepot, Dreyse, Hall, Podewils, Sharps and Westley Richards. But while most of these proved serviceable, they all used combustible cartridges, while some of them, relied on percussion caps struck by external hammers for cartridge ignition.

The final, and most important advance, of this period was the self-contained, metallic, rim- and centerfire cartridge. With these developments, the true potential of the breechloading--and repeating--military rifle could finally be realized.

Preuflische-Zundnadel-Gewehr

We have all heard the old expression, "A soldier's best friend is his rifle." At the time of the wars against Denmark and Austria, the Prussian infantryman was equipped with the most advanced rifle of any mid-19th century army, the Preuflische-Zundnadel-Gewehr M.41--better known as the "Dreyse Needle Rifle." (1)

Developed by Johann Nikolaus Dreyse between 1829 and 1841, the perfected version was a breechloading rifle that utilized a turning bolt, or "cylinder lock," containing a long, needle-like firing pin, spring and firing mechanism. To operate it, a thumbpiece at the end of the bolt was pushed down and pulled to the rear, retracting the firing pin.

The bolt handle was then turned up, unlocking the bolt and permitting it to be pulled to the rear, a paper cartridge was inserted into the chamber and the bolt closed and locked. Pressing the thumbpiece down and pushing it slightly forward brought the needle into tension with the firing spring and pulling the trigger released the pin so it thrust forward to fire the cartridge.

And here an explanation for the long, needle-like firing pin becomes mandatory.

Dreyse developed a combustible paper cartridge which contained a .535" (13.6mm) lead bullet encased in a .638" (16.2mm) paper sabot, or "Treibspiegel," which gripped the rifling to impart spin to the projectile and fell away after leaving the muzzle. The sabot had a hollow in its base containing a pellet of priming compound in the (mistaken) belief that locating it thus provided superior ignition of the blackpowder charge.

Upon firing, the long and rather fragile, firing needle was forced through the full length of the powder charge to ignite the priming compound and remained inside the powder as it combusted. Firing needles were constantly exposed to heat and corrosive residue, which required periodic replacement, so each soldier was issued with a small tin cylinder which contained a number of spare needles.
SPECIFICATIONS

Preuflische-Zundnadel-Gewehr M.41

Caliber:         .607

Overall length:  55.7 inches

Barrel length:   34 inches

Weight:          11 pounds

Magazine:        Single-shot

Sights: Front-   Inverted V-blade

        Rear-    V-notch fixed for 300 schritt, fold-up leaves for
                 400, 500 and 600 schritt (2)

Bayonet:         Socket-style with a 19.6-inch blade


The Dreyse was secretly adopted in 1840 but troop issue did not begin until 1848 when sufficient rifles had been produced to equip all front-line units.

Field service revealed several problems with the M.41. The length of the receiver made for an inconveniently long, heavy weapon. In addition, not only did the undersized bullet in its paper sabot provide poor long range accuracy, but gas leakage around the breech was excessive, which led to severe fouling. In an attempt to rectify this problem, the bolt face was recessed so that it could fit over the cone shaped chamber mouth, forming a rudimentary gas seal. Regardless, with wear, gas leakage became so pronounced that soldiers often held the rifle away from their faces when firing--which only exacerbated the accuracy problem.

The cartridge standard at the time of the Franco-Prussian conflict, the Scharfe-Patrone M.57, propelled its 482-grain lead bullet to a velocity of approximately 970 fps.

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Despite these shortcomings, Prussian officers were so enthusiastic about the Dreyse that in 1838 a Maj. Priem bragged to the Crown Prince Friedrich that with". ... 60,000 men armed with these weapons and under the command of a good general, His Majesty the King can order where he wants to see the Prussian border."

During its 14-year service life, there were a number of variations of the Dreyse. The Zundnadel-Buchse M.54, designed for use by Jaeger battalions and the Navy, introduced the use of steel, rather than iron, barrels. The Zundnadel-Carabiner M.57, was designed for use by Dragoons and Hussars which had a significantly attenuated receiver and barrel and a large ring under the wrist of the stock for attaching a shoulder strap which allowed the trooper to drop the carbine after it had been fired.

For light infantry, the Fusilier-Gewehr M.60 had a shorter barrel and mounted a sword bayonet on a bar on the right side of the barrel.

Two years later, the Zundnadel-Gewehr M.62 was adopted as the standard infantry rifle. It featured a 31.4-inch barrel, slightly shorter bolt and receiver, an improved rear sight and different muzzle band. Requests from Jager units for a better rifle led to the adoption of the Zundnadel-Buchse M.65 with double set triggers, octagonal barrel and a special sword bayonet.

Insufficient Gewehre M.62 had been produced in time for the Seven Weeks War and many Prussian units, especially reservists, were still armed with Gewehre M.41. (3)

It should be pointed out that Prussian troops armed with the Zundnadel-Gewehr could not only fire up to six shots a minute, but could maintain this rate of fire from the standing, kneeling or prone positions. This meant that, unlike their Austrian adversaries--who were armed with the Infanterie-Gewehr M/49 "Lorenz," a .54 cal. (15.4mm) muzzleloading, rifled musket--Prussian soldiers did not have to stand in shoulder to shoulder ranks exposed to the enemy's fire. As can been seen from the vastly differing casualty rates at Koniggratz, this provided a definite advantage.
SPECIFICATIONS

Preuflische-Zundnadel-Carabiner M.57

Caliber:         .607

Overall length:  31.7 inches

Barrel length:   14.4 inches

Weight:          6.1 pounds

Magazine:        Single-shot

Sights: Front-   Inverted V-blade

        Rear-    V-notch fixed for 200 schritt, fold-up leaf for
                 350 schritt

Bayonet:         None

SPECIFICATIONS

Bayerisches-Infanterie-Gewehr M/58/67

Caliber:         .54

Overall length:  51.25 inches

Barrel length:   36 inches

Weight:          10.2 pounds

Magazine:        Single-shot

Sights: Front-   Blade

        Rear-    V-notch fixed for 300 schritt, leaf adjustable from
                 400 to 600 schritt

Bayonet:         Socket Style


While the Dreyse was first used by Prussian troops who suppressed a civil rebellion in Dresden and Baden in 1849, its first actual combat service occurred during the aforementioned Danish-Prussian War of 1864.

In the aftermath of the Austro-Prussian War, Bismarck imposed a lenient peace upon the Habsburgs because they served a useful purpose as a buffer between Germany and the troublesome Slavs of the Balkans. The German Confederation became the North German Confederation, firmly under the control of Prussia. While those German states outside the confederation--Baden, Bavaria and Wurttemberg, retained a large degree of autonomy, they were tied to Prussia by military alliances.

Bayerisches-lnfantierie-Gewehr M/58/67.

As Prussian tactics and organization were imposed upon the armies of the various German states, all but one of them opted to adopt the Zundnadel-Gewehr M.62. In keeping with its strongly held traditions of independence from Prussia, the Bavarian army instead developed its own breechloading rifle, the Bayerisches-Infanterie-Gewehr M/58/67.

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Better known as the Podewils Hinter-laden-Gewehr after Col. Phillip Baron von Podewils, the director of the Koniglicher Bayer Gewehrfabrik (Bavarian Royal Rifle Factory) in Amberg. The rifle was based upon the inventions of an American, Edward Lindner, and consisted of a standard M/58 Lorenz rifled musket which had the rear end of the barrel cut off and threaded to accept a tube-like breech which contained a turning bolt that was locked by means of a 12-lug, interrupted thread system. The entire lock mechanism, including the external hammer and percussion cap nipple, were retained.

In use, the bolt handle was turned upward almost 90[degrees] and the bolt withdrawn to the rear. A paper cartridge was inserted into the loading port on the top of the breech and pushed into the chamber end of the barrel. The bolt was then pushed forward and turned down, locking it in place, the hammer was cocked, a percussion cap placed on the nipple, and the rifle was ready to fire.

As with the Dreyse, the Podewils permitted a high rate of fire from the standing, kneeling and prone positions. Unlike the Dreyse, its "small caliber" projectile provided a higher velocity while direct bullet/rifling contact supplied much greater accuracy and breech sealing was far superior.

Not only was the bolt face concave to fit over the end of the barrel--a la Dreyse--but the paper cartridge had a greased felt wad at its base which, upon firing, was pushed back against the bolt face by gas pressure, forming a gas seal. The wad remained in the chamber where it was pushed forward when the next cartridge was inserted and blown out of the barrel when the next shot was fired. This had the added advantage of cleaning some of the fouling out of the bore each time the rifle was fired. (4)

The Schutzen-Gewehr M/58/67 was adopted to equip special marksmen and non-coms. It was identical to the infantry rifle except the rear sight was adjustable to 1200 schritt. Jager battalions were armed with the Jager-Buchse M/58/67 which featured double set triggers, long-range sights and a 32.9-inch barrel
SPECIFICATIONS

Bayerisches-Rucklandungs-Gewehr M/69

Caliber:         11 mm scharfe Patrone M/69 (lang)

Overall length:  51.6 inches

Barrel length:   33.9 inches

Weight:          9.7 pounds

Action:          Single-shot, dropping breech

Sights: Front-   Inverted V-blade

        Rear-    V-notch adjustable from 300 to 1200 schritt by
                 ramp and leaf.

Bayonet:         Yataghan style with a 19-inch blade

SPECIFICATIONS

Bayerisches-Carabiner M/69

Caliber:         11 mm scharfe Patrone M/69 (kurz)

Overall length:  31.5 inches

Barrel length:   14.4 inches

Weight:          7.7 pounds

Action:          Single-shot, dropping breech

Sights: Front-   Inverted V-blade

        Rear-    V-notch fixed for 300 schritt, fold-up leaf for 500
                 schritt.

Bayonet:         None


While superior to the Dreyse, the Podewils suffered from the usual faults of all combustible cartridge breechloaders, specifically fouling and the use of fragile paper cartridges. Also, because so much wood had to be cut away to fit the breech tube onto the barrel, stocks tended to break at the wrist with alarming frequency. Thus it was that the Bavarian army began trials to find a rifle capable of firing the newly perfected metallic cartridges.

Bayerisches-Ruckladungs-Gewehr M/69

Realizing the M/1858/67 was at best a stopgap measure, in 1867 the Koniglich Bayerischen Handfeuerwaffen Versuchskommission began testing a number of European and American rifles, among them the Austrian Werndl Colt Berdan No. 1, Mauser-Norris, and a design submitted by a Bavarian engineer by the name of Werder.

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Johann Ludwig Werder (1805-1885) was the director of the Nurnberg based Cramer-Klett Maschinenfabrik. He was a prolific designer, who invented a number of tool and material testing machines, orthopedic devices, and was a pioneer in the manufacture of steel frame bridges and buildings.

Werder's rifle was a variation of the dropping block design invented in 1862 in the United States by Henry Pea-body. It consisted of a massive breechblock that moved vertically by pivoting on a shaft at its rear. A finger lever behind the trigger guard was used to lower and raise the breechblock.

While the Peabody used a manually cocked, outside hammer, the design was improved by Friedrich Martini of Switzerland with a striker/firing pin that passed through the breechblock and which was automatically cocked as the breech was closed.

Werder replaced the manually operated finger lever with a heavy-duty leaf spring that was compressed as the breech was closed. The Werder had two "triggers" inside the trigger guard and when the front trigger was pushed forward, it released a breechblock prop, whereupon the aforementioned leaf spring pulled the breechblock down, activating the ejector which pulled the spent case out of the chamber and threw it clear.

A new round was inserted into the chamber and then the breech was closed by pulling back the large, knurled hammer spur that projects from a slot on the right of the receiver. This cocked the hammer, repositioned the prop under the breechblock, locking it in place, and compressed the breech lowering spring.

The action assembly was contained in a box-like receiver and was held in place by dual opposing screws passing through the stock and by the front trigger guard screw. The action assembly consisted of only 13 parts, and the removal of three screws permitted it to be removed as a self-contained package for cleaning and/or repairs. In addition, further field-stripping of the assembly did not require any tools.

Trial production of 950 Werders was undertaken at Amberg and they were issued to the Infantry Guard Regiment and several provincial garrisons for field testing. Werder's system provided the infantryman with an extremely high rate of fire. On the recommendation of the commission, on 25 January 1869 King Ludwig II approved the Werder as new rifle of Bayerische Konigliche Armee.

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The 11mm scharfe Patrone M/69 (lang) used a rimmed, bottlenecked, brass case 50mm in length with a 377-grain lead bullet and 67 grains of blackpowder. Muzzle velocity was approximately 1463 fps (446m/s).

The Bayerisches-Carabiner M/69 was adopted for mounted troops. Like the Dreyse carbine, it was a dramatically attenuated version of the infantry rifle--more of a long pistol then a short rifle. It was stocked to the muzzle and a large saddle ring adorned the bottom of the stock wrist.

To keep recoil and muzzle blast within reason, the 11mm scharfe Patrone M/69 (kurz) cartridge's 35mm case contained a 340-grain lead bullet backed by 39 grains of blackpowder.

Production delays meant that by 1870, only the 2nd Burghausen, 5th Zweibrucken, 9th Passau, and 10th Aschaffenburg Jager battalions had been equipped with the new rifle. When the Franco-Prussian War erupted that year, these four units were part of the Bavarian contingent of the united (but Prussian led) German army. Reports from the field stated that the Werder "... performed splendidly." It had such a high rate of fire that the troops christened it the "Blitzgewehr" Lightning Rifle).

With Prussia's southern flank secure, Bismarck turned his attention to France.

The pretext for war presented itself when the vacant throne of Spain was offered to a prince of the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, a branch of the ruling house of Prussia. The offer, at first accepted on Bismarck's advice, was later rejected after a strong French protest.

But the aggressive French foreign minister, the duc de Gramont, insisted on further Prussian assurances, which King Wilhelm refused. The French ambassador Comte Benedetti, in an interview with the king, requested Wilhelm's guarantee that the candidacy to the Spanish throne would never be renewed. Wilhelm rejected the request.

Bismarck, intent on provoking war with France, made the king's report of the conversation public in his celebrated Ems Dispatch, which he edited in a manner certain to provoke the French. He succeeded, and an enraged Louis Napoleon declared war on 19 July 1870.

To the German public, France was seen as the "aggressor," while Bismarck's declaration of Prussia's intention of "reclaiming" the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine--which been part of the old Holy Roman Empire--from Gallic control appealed to pan-Germanic aspirations. This created popular support for the war, making it much easier for Bismarck to convince the still "independent" southern German states of Baden, Bavaria and Wuurttemberg to ally themselves with Prussia.

Next month (8/20 issue): French arms.

I would like to thank the following for providing materials, photos and information used to prepare this article: Russ Pastena, Kris Gasior "www.collectiblefirearms.com), John McAulay, Dennis Ottobre "www.ebayonet.com) Craig Brown, Peter Schlehner, Lou Behling and Stuart Mowbray

(1) In Gothic script the "fl" is pronounced like a double "s" as in "Prussian."

(2) Schritt is an old German term for "pace" and equals .82 yards or .75 meters

(3) Translation: gewehr--rifle; gewehre--rifles.

(4) A similar system was used in the better-known British Westley-Richards "Monkey Tail" rifles and carbines.

By Paul Scarlata | Photos by: James Walters (unless otherwise noted)
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 20, 2010
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