Rifle That Built an Empire
By Mike Bennighof
Almost all military observers believed that
the more experienced Austrian army would utterly
destroy its Prussian opponents when the two
German-speaking Great Powers clashed in the
summer of 1866. But when the massive clouds
of black powder smoke cleared, it was the
Prussians who had scored an overwhelming victory.
Those same experts now pointed to one factor:
the Prussian use of the breechloading Dreyse
“needle gun” as their standard
of 1866: Frontier Battles game covers the openingbattles
of this war. The Austrian player fields
superior artillery and cavalry, while the
Prussian depends on somewhat better leadership
and solid organization, and better infantry
firepower. But that edge isn’t solely
due to this “wonder weapon,” which
by the time of the Austro-Prussian War was
already 40 years old.
Johann Nikolaus Dreyse, a Prussian inventor,
began experiments with breechloading firearms
in 1824. Firearms designers had been after
an efficient breechloading mechanism for some
time — allowing the soldier to load
from the breech end reduces exposure to enemy
fire and greatly increases his own rate of
fire. Various experimental breechloaders appeared
during the Napoleonic Wars, including an Austrian
piece that relied on compressed air instead
of a gunpowder explosion, but all of these
failed due to the problem of keeping the breech
sealed against gas leaks.
Dreyse partially solved this problem by creating
the first bolt action, in which a handle is
turned and pulled to open the breech. The
soldier then inserted a cartridge made of
stiff paper, containing a .61-caliber bullet
and powder charge. He then pushed the handle
back and turned it to lock the breech. When
he pulled the trigger, a firing pin about
half an inch long penetrated the cartridge
and set off a percussion cap inside the cartridge,
just below the bullet. This firing pin, or
needle, gave the weapon its name.
The 49-year-old inventor completed the first
model in 1836. Then came years of test-firings
and marketing, all of which failed miserably
until in 1848 the King of Prussia decided
to adopt the weapon. Prussian troops first
used it the next year in street fighting agaist
student radicals, and then against the Danes
in the First Schleswig War of 1849 and 1850.
Most Prussian soldiers disliked their strange
new weapon, but it had a number of advantages.
It did not require the complicated “evolution
of arms” to reload: A muzzle-loader
must be loaded in a particular sequence that
can become jumbled under fire. If a soldier
overloads his muzzle-loader, it can explode
in his face. The Dreyse could not be loaded
twice (since the soldier could see the round
already in place, and if he grew nervous enough
to try to jam another one in anyway, it wouldn’t
fit). The soldier could easily load and fire
from a kneeling or even prone position, though
Prussia’s conservative officer corps
loathed the prone position as “unmanly”
and it was forbidden to all but light infantry.
And of course it could be fired 10 to 12 times
per minute, against twice for a muzzle-loader.
Other armies studied the weapon, but were
put off by its many flaws. An Austrian commission
led by Feldmarschall Leutnant Vincenz Baron
Augustin tested 20 Dreyse needle guns alongside
a number of muzzle-loaders in 1851 and found
the design wanting. Augustin’s complaints
included its short range, gas leakage, ammunition
wastage, and flimsy construction.
Dreyse’s bolt action, from an
Augustin had a dog in the fight, having designed
the rifled musket the Austrian army adopted
just before the 1848 war. But although the
Austrian general has been ridiculed in the
century and a half since his report, all of
these were valid criticisms. The Dreyse’s
range was only 250 to 300 meters, about half
that of Augustin’s muzzle-loader and
much less than the 1,000 meters for the Lorenz
.57-calber Minié rifle the Austrians
adopted in 1858. The Dreyse’s breech
frequently leaked hot explosive gas when fired,
which would burn or even blind the firer.
Consequently, Prussian soldiers typically
fired it from the hip if they wanted to keep
their eyesight — doing nothing for its
already poor accuracy.
As for ammunition wastage, Augustin’s
commission found two problems. First,
the Austrian officers believed a soldier who
could reload so easily would be less careful
taking aim. Second, in field testing they
noted a tendency of soldiers to grab a handful
of cartridges out of their ammunition pouch,
place them on the ground nearby, and fire
from a kneeling position. When ordered to
move, they almost always left their pile of
cartridges behind. Finally, the slender “needle”
firing pin broke easily and was impossible
to repair in the field.
Yet for a failed weapon, the Dreyse managed
to receive credit for defeating the highly
respected Austrian army. Everything the Austrians
wrote about the rifle’s shortcomings
was true. But it was Austrian rather than
Prussian doctrine that cancelled all these
deficits. The Austrians attacked in massive
storm columns, bringing their infantry into
the Dreyse’s range and allowing the
Prussians to stand and defend. Ammunition
wastage thus became less of an issue, and
the inability of even the best Prussian marksman
to hit the broad side of a barn with the Dreyse
did not matter, as the storm columns were
much larger than a barn. Prussian advances
could be marked by the damaged needle guns
cast aside, but Austrian losses were so enormous
that it did not matter that many Prussians
ended the battles unarmed.
The weapon that created Germany.
Against other German states not using the
suicidal Austrian tactical doctrine, the Prussians
had much less success. The Bavarians, armed
with Podewil rifled muzzle-loaders, fought
the Prussians to a draw in several actions.
The Royal Bavarian Army had more trouble convincing
their own troops to advance without their
daily beer ration (mandated by Bavarian law)
than with the Prussians. The small army of
Hesse-Kassel, the only other state to use
the needle gun, fell apart due to poor leadership.
The Hanoverians fought well with their Podewil
muzzle-loaders but poor planning led them
to march out of their mobilization sites without
their ammunition reserves.
After the war, the Prussian popular press
celebrated the needle gun as the miracle weapon
that won the war. Dreyse had been ennobled
after the 1864 war with Denmark first showed
his weapon’s promise, and died in 1867
aged 80 and a national hero. Austria adopted
the Werndl breech-loader and began madly modifying Lorenz
muzzle-loaders into shotgun-like breechloaders,
in preparation for a war of revenge. Across
the Rhine, the French studied the Dreyse’s
flaws and quickly adopted the far superior
chassepot breechloader. But that’s another
story for a future game.
In our Battles of 1866 games, Prussian infantry
receives enormous firepower advantages against
Austrian infantry or cavalry attacking through
their frontal zones. They are less capable
if they initiate assault combat — simulating
the Austrian range advantage. The Prussian
player will want to identify key terrain,
rush his or her infantry onto it, and force
the Austrians to attack them there. With their
typically better leadership and superior organization,
the Prussians have a good chance of doing
so. The Austrian player will then have to
use his or her superior artillery to set up
attacks and try to gain the Prussians’
Click here to order Battles
of 1866: Frontier Battles!
Sign up for our newsletter right here. Your info will never be sold or transferred; we'll just use it to update you on new games and new offers.
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.