Europe discovers the cartridge: the American Civil War spurs worldwide firearm development.
When one considers the variety of breechloading weapons introduced during the American Civil War, few would argue there were some surprisingly effective repeating rifles. The forerunner of the Winchester--the Henry--is a stand out as was the Spencer in both rifle and carbine configuration. Based on 20/20 hindsight, one would have thought breechloading, metallic-cartridge-firing repeaters would be immediately adopted, perfected and widely distributed among Europe's great powers. The direction taken instead was based on the same preconceptions preventing the Union Army from adopting breechloaders en masse as early as 1863. Conservative military thinking in the age of horse-drawn transport was dominated by supply and logistic concerns combined with a lack of faith in the "lower class" ranks of common soldiers.
Single Shot Vs. Repeater
The Henry and Spencer were exported to Europe and tested right alongside single shots such as the Sharps, Maynard, Burnside and Ballard. In spite of the reality of the battlefield successes of the repeating rifle, the conservative military thinkers prevailed. Give the common soldier a repeating rifle and he will use up his cartridges in the first 30 minutes of battle. Visions of endless supply trains hauling tons of ammunition only to be "wasted" haunted supply officers and they drowned out any coherent arguments to the contrary. The result was the adoption of a wide array of very interesting yet dead-end designs all disappearing by the latter half of the 19th Century.
With the rapid development of breechloading weapons, the European powers now held huge inventories of obsolete muzzleloaders. Then as now, modern technology comes with a hefty price tag and many armies couldn't afford to simply replace obsolete inventories with brand new systems. The result was a wide array of methods converting muzzleloading rifles to metallic cartridge breechloaders. The most common means of accomplishing this was through the addition of the pivoting breechblock, known in the US as the Allen conversion and readily recognizable as the Springfield-Allen .50-70s. This was the converted forerunner of the more widely known .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield.
The Berdan I, Wanzl and Albini
The Europeans produced variations of the Allen conversion. Two examples of these temporary stopgap weapons being the Austro-Hungarian Wanzl and the Belgian Albini-Braendlin. The Wanzl was a pivoting breechblock conversion performed on a wide variety of Austro-Hungarian muzzleloaders from the 1840s and '50s. All conversions were performed in the same manner and different model designations applied depending on which muzzleloader was used as the basis. The Belgian Albini-Braendlin was developed exactly the same way with the basis of each variation being a different muzzleloading rifle.
All these conversions utilized the existing barrel, stock and furniture of their parent muzzleloader. The rear portion of the barrel was either completely replaced or had a large section machined away to make room for the pivoting breechblock. To load, the hammer was cocked and the breechblock flipped up and forward via a knob or similar protrusion on the right side of the action. A cartridge was thumbed into the chamber, the breechblock swung down into battery and retained in place via a spring-actuated latch. When fired, the hammer struck a firing pin running the length of the breechblock.
Most conversions relied on the firing pin and hammer to lock the breechblock closed at the moment of ignition. Considering the cartridges were low-pressure, black-powder rounds, this simple method worked surprisingly well. The actual structure of the firing pin and hammer design varied considerably among these conversions, however, the purpose and the function was the same. On most conversions the lock mechanism was also replaced by a new design, but this was not always the case.
Conversions such as the Austro-Hungarian Wanzl, the Belgian Albini-Braendlin and Tiersson, the British Snider, the French Tabatiere and the Russian Krnka were all seen as temporary cost-saving, stopgap stand-in firearms until suitable newly designed models could be developed.
Nonetheless, the pivoting breechblock design is found in several purpose-built designs, including the Berdan I, credited to Hiram Berdan, the less than stellar Union officer behind the creation of the 1st and 2nd US Sharpshooter Regiments during the Civil War. Berdan achieved his greatest fame as a firearms designer with the introduction of the centerfire Berdan primer. The Berdan I infantry rifle was adopted by Russia. The actual design was Berdan's concept, but the final version purchased by Russia was more than half the work of Russian officers sent to work at the Colt factory where the rifles were produced. The Berdan I also saw the introduction of the very first modern-style, bottlenecked cartridge.
With large quantities of rifled-muskets being reworked into breechloading Wanzls, the Austro-Hungarian Army held field trials in 1866. Some very notable rifles went on to serve a variety of other armies successfully for the next three decades. When the trials were completed, the two finalists were the "home grown" Werndl prototype vs. the American-designed Model 1866 Remington Rolling Block. While reasonably large quantities of the rolling block were in fact purchased, favoritism for an Austrian national won out and little-known designer Josef Werndl was awarded the contract for arming the Austro-Hungarian Army, the K.u.K., which eventually led to the production of more than 600,000 Model 1867 rifles and carbines and another 700,000 of the refined Model 1873 Werndl rifles and carbines.
The result was the rotary-drum Model 1867 Werndl. This unusual design was based on a "drum" breech action. The breech drum was round, hence the term, and pivoted on a central axis to open or close the action. The drum's thumb tab was utilized to rotate the breech drum. The external hammer was drawn to half cock to free up the drum, which was then rotated to the left into the open position. A cartridge was thumbed into the chamber and the breech rotated to the right to close the action. A spring-applied tension to the drum to prevent it from flopping back and forth once the hammer was cocked. Once loaded, the hammer was drawn to full cock and the rifle could be fired. The hammer struck a transfer-style firing pin contained within the drum. The external hammer engaged a recess in the drum containing the firing pin and also served as a means of locking the action upon firing. Upon opening the action, the empty cartridge case was ejected clear.
The 2nd pattern Werndl, the Model 1873, incorporated an inline hammer and got away from the traditional muzzle-loading style lock. Persia, better known today as Iran, purchased 23,000 Model 1873 rifles and another 20,000 were sold to Montenegro in the Balkans. A substantial number of Model 1867 and 1873 Werndls still on hand in 1914 eventually saw service with the Landsturm during WWI. This freed up the newer Model 1888 and Model 1895 Mannlichers for frontline service at a time when small arms were in great demand and short supply. The Austro-Hungarian contracts put Werndl in business to stay. The company still survives, having adopted the name of the town in Austria where the manufacturing facilities were built and expanded numerous times--Steyr.
The Rolling Block
One of the most widely produced and issued rifles of this period was an American-designed and produced weapon never adopted in large numbers within the US other than by a handful of state militias--the Model 1866 Remington Rolling Block. This prolific firearm was purchased by a very broad range of countries, including Austria-Hungary, Denmark, Egypt, France, Greece, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the Papal States, as well as a plethora of Latin American countries both as contract or military surplus. The Rolling Block in various guises saw service on five continents and was still in use in both smokeless and black-powder form on the battlefields of WWI.
The rolling block's rather ingenious, simple, robust design served with distinction from the freezing cold of Scandinavia to the blistering heat of the Sudan. To open the action, the hammer is drawn to full cock and unlocks the breechblock. A tab on the right side of the breechblock is flipped back and down pivoting the breechblock rearward, which "rolled" the breechblock open to expose the chamber. Once a cartridge was chambered, the breechblock is flipped up into battery. A leaf spring, supported by the base of the hammer, moves forward ever so slightly when the breechblock is closed to prevent it from popping open and spilling the cartridge.
The hammer served as a locking mechanism for the breechblock upon ignition. The hammer was recocked, "rolled" open and the spent cartridges partially extracted for manual removal. The Remington was fast and proved very reliable, serving with distinction through the end of the 19th Century.
The French purchased an estimated 100,000 Rolling Blocks chambered for the smokeless 8x50mmR Lebel during WWI. The Turks were also still in possession of some quantity of rolling blocks from the original Egyptian contract of 1868. These rifles were in the original chambering and issued to lines of communications troops and other rear echelon types.
The 1869 Belgian field trials were to find a replacement for the Albini and Tiersson conversions, which were to be passed on to the reserves. Many different weapons were submitted by a host of inventors and firms. In the case of Belgium, a very developed arms center already existed in Liege, as it had been a city founded on munitions manufacturing since the early Middle Ages. As with Austria, the eventual winner was not surprisingly Belgian. Few governments then or now like to see their military budgets, generally the largest single area of spending for any government, go to a foreign firm. Only in rare cases such as in Russia and Turkey and some of the smaller countries in Scandinavia, which lacked facilities to develop and produce firearms, was it customary to purchase large quantities of foreign-produced weapons.
The Belgian field trials concluded without a clear winner. The Albini-Braendlin and Tiersson conversions would have to do for the time being while testing and development work would continue until a suitable replacement was found. This was not unusual as budget constraints and lack of a clear winner have delayed countless other military programs. However, eventually a contract was issued to several of the firms in Liege to acquire a new rifle, in this case for the reserves. This was indeed unusual! It is not often a newly adopted weapon system bypasses the regular army and ends up straight in the hands of the reserves.
The delay caused in accepting a new rifle from the original small arms trials allowed the Belgian government to step back and look at the big picture. Firearms development was advancing so rapidly and new designs coming to light so frequently, it was decided to procure a new rifle for the Guarde Civique, the local reserves, while holding out for a more advanced firearm for the regular army. The weapon adopted was designed by Belgian Hubert-Joseph Comblain and an earlier form was present at the 1869 trials.
The rifle was a dropping-block design, yet lacked a traditional lever. Instead, the breech was opened by pivoting the triggerguard downward dropping the hinged breechblock out of battery for loading. Another small anomaly surrounding the Comblain enters. The export version of the Comblain would now be ready to fire. The Belgian Mle 1882 Guarde Civique rifle would not. The export version had an internal hammer cocked automatically upon opening the action. The Mle 1882 Comblain has a manually cocked external hammer.
A period rifle more familiar to the average firearms enthusiast is the dropping block Martini. The strength of this action is such it was one of the few designs of this period, along with the rolling block, to survive into the era of high-velocity, smokeless-powder cartridges. Its final iteration was named after Swiss-born Friedrich Martini, and made its debut in 1871. It gained fame and notoriety in the hands of British Regulars from the Kyber Pass to Isandlwana, from the Sudan to Kandahar serving the crown well through countless Colonial wars and skirmishes. Movies such as Zulu, Zulu Dawn and The Four Feathers have fostered the popularity of the British Martini-Henry among American collectors and shooters.
Lesser known is out homegrown version and its original designer--the Peabody. When a breechloader was needed to equip the Turkish Army, the British Martini was considered a standout performer. The Turks approached manufacturers in England to produce Martinis for the Turkish Army, however pressure from the British Crown and lack of available production capacity among British manufacturers left the Turkish Army with no alternative but to look elsewhere. The Turks took the British-produced Martini to a little known company in America, the Providence Tool & Die Co. of Providence Rhode Island. The 1874 contract eventually led to the production of 600,000 rifles and 50,000 carbines with the last order completed in 1879. The Model 1874 Turkish Peabody-Martini rifle is nearly identical in appearance with its British cousin, was used in large numbers during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and saw service right until the end of WWI in the hands of Turkish reserves.
The slab-sided Martini action's dropping breechblock pivots downward to expose the chamber for loading via a lever underneath and to the rear of the trigger-guard. Unlike many of the other rifles of this period, which required manual cocking, the Martini's striker cocked automatically upon closing the action. Due to its "newness" to soldiers more familiar with an external hammer, the Martini was provided with a cocking indicator. The Martini had a rate of fire higher than almost every other rifle of this period except one--the Bavarian Werder.
The Lightning Rifle
Introduced in 1868, Johann-Ludwig Werder's unique design was one of the most unusual rifles of this or any other period. The Bavarian Werder was perhaps the fastest single-shot, breechloading system ever devised. Adopted by the independent German state of Bavaria prior to the unification of Germany, the Werder saw service in the hands of at least half of the "Jager-Bataillione" of elite Bavarian Jaegers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as well as with several companies each of three different Bavarian line regiments.
The Jaeger regiments, or "hunters" as the word translates into English, were drawn in wartime from the ranks of trained professional huntsmen who maintained and managed the private hunting reserves of the European nobility. They were excellent marksmen who served on the battlefield in the role of skirmishers in advance of the ranks of the regular infantry. The Werder rifle earned its sobriquet, "Blitzgewehr" or "lightning rifle" due to the withering rate of fire laid down by the Bavarian Jaegers during the Franco-Prussian War.
This unusual rifle has a pivoting dropping-block design similar to the Martini, however, unlike the Martini, the Werder has a manually cocked external hammer. It would seem the internal, automatically cocked striker of the Martini would give it the edge in terms of rate of fire, but after the Martini was fired, the right hand was moved rearward to grasp the lever (1), which was pushed downward (2), opening the action and ejecting the spent cartridge case. A new cartridge was thumbed into the breech (3) and the right hand shifted back to the lever to close the action (4) after which the right hand was moved back to the stock to engage the trigger (5). This seems pretty straightforward and very fast for a single-shot rifle.
Once the Werder rifle has been fired, without moving the right hand, the action is cycled by pushing forward a second rearward-facing "trigger" in the forward portion of the triggerguard with the trigger finger. The forward "trigger" (1) pops open the action and ejects the spent cartridge. A fresh round is chambered (2) and the external hammer manually cocked (3). The hand movement required to cock the hammer and close the action puts the right hand back in the firing position with the index finger in easy reach of the trigger. The cocking of the hammer snaps the breechblock shut and the rifle is ready to fire. Three basic movements required to reload the Werder compared to five movements for the Martini. This design eliminates much of the hand movement required to operate all of the other successful single shot designs of the period, including the bolt action of today's modern rifles. What made the Werder action obsolete was the inability of the design to eventually be converted into a successful repeater.
Werder's are quite rare today. The Bavarian Army prior to the unification of the independent German states was small. Approximately 150,000 Werder rifles and 8,600 Werder carbines were produced before Bavarian arms procurement became subject to the decisions of the Prussian high command. The standardization of weapons and ammunition in the unified army resulted in all Werders being rechambered for the 11x60mmR Mauser cartridge. This round was substantially more powerful than the original llx50mmR cartridge and led to problems with the reworked rifles. Eventually, they were issued to the field artillery, then the reserves, after which they were sold out of military service, the majority of them scrapped. Very few examples have survived the past 137 years. Werders are very unusual prizes among today's discerning collectors of transitional black-powder cartridge rifles.
All of these rifles were state of the art when adopted for military service during the later half of the 19th Century. They have varied histories based on a variety of different factors relative to the nation of origin. The firearms discussed served with distinction in a wide variety of circumstances including many colonial actions as well as in major battles. All saw service during WWI as emergency reserve weapons. All have in common an action hot readily adapted to function with a magazine. Eventually, the advantages of repeating rifles were so obvious even those conservative voices in logistics who fought their adoption were silenced. It's hard to imagine this mindset today's age of automatic weapons, but it was well documented in surviving documents of the period. They are an interesting slice of history for today's collector.
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2006|
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