26 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The Gun That Changed the World

By Jennifer Linforth

One man changed warfare forever.

Simply ask those who stood at the battle of Königgrätz, where in twenty minutes the Austrians lost 276 officers and 10,000 men. Brilliant military planning or did the opposing side, the Prussians, have something the Austrians did not?

They did. They had Dreyse.

Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse, a German working in a Parisian gun factory, changed the way wars are fought forever. He created the first modern breech loading military rifle. Prior to this, the flintlock musket was the state of the art weapon—accurate, reliable, but not without flaws. Dreyse's weapon standardized ammunition, utilizing a bullet, charge and primer in one. The musket loaders kept all parts separate. Having the cartridges in one unit greatly reduced the time needed to reload and yielded a higher rate of fire. Its interchangeable parts made it battlefield ready for maintenance and it could crank out ten shots per minute rather than three.

It took Dreyse twelve years to perfect his design. It did have its early flaws. Its range was short compared to muzzled loaders. Gas escaped at the breech when the rifle was fired with a paper cartridge often causing the breech to close completely. Soldiers suffered burns as a result causing inaccurate aiming capability. The needle, or firing pin, also had a tendency to become encased in gunpowder causing it to break after 200 rounds. Soldiers had to carry two replacement pins with them as a result. An improved model with greater muzzle velocity and increased loading speed was introduced later, and in 1836 Dreyse made a move that would change warfare.

He sold it to the Prussians.

In 1848 the Dreyse Züdnadelgewehr, or Needle Gun as it was called due to its firing mechanism, revolutionized rifle design. In the Seven Weeks War of 1866 it proved its military might. Able to be fired from horseback and from a prone position it proved its worth in battle. The Austrians, who were offered the Needle Gun for purchase but declined, were still using musket loaders. Since the Austrians had to stand in order to reload—the Prussians were at an advantage. Four years later the Needle Gun met its match in the French Chassepot Rifle which had a greater range and more effective firing. Despite this, the Prussian forces were able to overwhelm the French during Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). At conflict's end, the Prussians retired the Needle Gun in favor of the new Mauser Rifle.