Battles of 1866:
Austria’s Breechloader

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
March 2019

When Austrian infantrymen countered the Dreyse Needle Gun during the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the weapon came as no great surprise to Austria’s officer corps. Austrian experts had evaluated the Dreyse in 1851 and rejected it, contending that infantry armed with a breech loader would needlessly waste ammunition. Observation of the Prussian contingent during the joint Austro-Prussian invasion of Denmark in 1864 changed few minds on the subject.

The Lorenz muzzle-loading rifled musket, Austria's standard infantry weapon in 1866.

But some Austrian generals already harbored misgivings about their muzzle-loaders. During the years just before the war, some generals advocated for a new infantry weapon. Ludwig von Gablenz, the Austrian commander in the 1864 war, favored a more modern weapon and Leopold von Edelsheim-Gyulai, commander of the 1st Light Cavalry Division, went so far as to dip into his considerable personal fortune to buy enough Remington breech-loading carbines to re-equip his own men. But for most of the army leadership and for the Empire’s “first soldier,” Kaiser Franz Josef, the Lorenz muzzle-loading rifle and the bayonet would suffice.

The army had reasons to prefer the Lorenz. A simple weapon, it suited the empire’s often-illiterate conscripts (only about 10 percent could pass a literacy exam, thanks to the widespread issuance of draft exemptions). But more importantly, the Vienna Arsenal had acquired modern new machinery and built an impressive assembly line for the Lorenz. The Arsenal could produce a thousand rifles a day, of the improved M1862 version that corrected many of the original M1854 model’s flaws. The Imperial Army emptied its arsenals of the M1854, unloading most of them on unsuspecting straw buyers representing the Confederate States of America. Eager to uphold the Empire’s neutral status, the Army also sold Lorenz rifles to the United States. Business was good; so good that the Army’s ledgers showed a profit at the height of the American Civil War.

By the spring of 1866, confidence in the Lorenz muzzle-loader had begun to waver even at the top. The Austrian Army held trials with a number of foreign- and domestically-made breechloaders. Several rifles performed well, showing the generals that while the poorly-designed Dreyse needle gun should not be taken as representative of all breech-loaders. Two favorites emerged, the Remington Rolling Block and the Werndl-Holub.

The Werndl breechloading rifle, M1867.

The Werndl rifle, designed by Josef Werndl (owner of what would become Steyr Waffenfabrik) and his foreman, Karel Holub, proved easy to use. Austria’s semi-literate conscripts, it appeared, could probably handle the weapon. Both Werndl and Holub had worked at the Colt and Remington factories in the United States and brought home the best design and production practices. But in the spring of 1866, the pair’s new firm was not yet ready to produce the weapon in mass, nor could the Vienna Arsenal be quickly re-tooled to make the new rifle.

Therefore, the Army placed rush orders with Remington’s Belgian licensee for new breech-loading rifles. The emergency funds voted by Parliament to cover the pending war with Prussia would easily cover enough rifles to re-arm all of Austria’s front-line regiments, but by then it was too late. The first shipment of Remingtons, expected in the spring of 1866, instead arrived in August, after the fighting had ended. The Army cancelled the rest of the order and re-opened the competition. This time, Werndl was ready to close the deal. Offering the design for free, he gambled that the Arsenal would not be re-tooled to make the new rifle. His bet paid off with an order for 100,000 pieces, soon increased to 250,000.

The Wänzl modified breech block.

That did not satisfy the Army’s new commander in chief, Archduke Albrecht, the supposed victor of Custoza. Even before the war with Prussia concluded, he demanded the immediate re-arming of the infantry with breech-loaders. The Vienna Arsenal stepped up to supply a stop-gap breechloader, a conversion of the Lorenz to fit a lifting-block breech similar to a trap-door Springfield. Though not as good as a purpose-made breechloader, the converted Lorenz, known as the Wänzl after its designer, turned out to be surprisingly effective. About 70,000 Lorenz rifles and carbines were converted.

The Wänzl fired a massive 14mm bullet powered by a black-powder cartridge; the Werndl used an 11mm round also propelled by black powder. The big charges necessary to fire such huge bullets (a common feature of all early breechloaders) set off massive clouds of smoke. Though a breechloader was in theory more suited to open-order tactics than the older muzzle-loaders, the smoke discharge limited those advantages until Paul Vieille’s introduction of smokeless powder in 1884.

By insisting on a new rifle, Albrecht deflected blame for the army’s massive defeated from its tactics, training and leadership to its technology. Austria certainly could have adopted a modern breechloader in the years before 1866; both the technology and the funding were there. But making effective use of a new rifle would be a completely different story; that would require a total re-thinking of infantry tactics and the thorough re-training of the Army’s 80 regiments and 32 light infantry battalions.

A Werndl M1867 and its unusual breech.

The cavalry attempted such reforms in the years before the war, with mixed success. The light cavalry regiments of Edelsheim’s division took well to their new roles of scouting, screening and dismounted fire combat. Those under less forward-thinking commanders remained mired in the past, ignoring the new regulations to concentrate on the mounted charge.

The artillery, on the other hand, received new rifled guns starting in 1863 and had to adopt new fire tables and doctrine for their use. The Austrian gunners performed brilliantly in 1866 – but the artillery had call on higher-quality, literate conscripts than did the infantry and maintained a proportionately much larger professional cadre.

More than likely, the infantry’s response would be far more like that of the cavalry than the example of the quickly-modernizing Austrian artillery. Some commanders would make good use of the weapon, most likely in the light infantry battalions, while most would simply use the new rifles as a bayonet holder just like the Lorenz. At the higher command levels, bayonet charges in thick columns would no doubt continue to be ordered by most corps commanders.

Austria had generals with the ability to make use of new technology, but they were in the minority in 1866. An Austrian breechloader would have piled up many more Prussian casualties at places like Jicin and in the early hours at Königgrätz, but it’s not likely to have changed the war’s outcome.

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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.