Austrian 1873/77 Werndl Jäger Rifle

  • Country: Austria
  • Ignition System: Centrefire
  • Calibre: 11 x 58R Werndl

The Werndl rifle was the successor to the transitional Wänzl system. It is known under the name “Werndl”, but in fact the system was developed by Karl Holub, then chief foreman af the famous Österreichische Waffenfabrik AG or “ OEWG” owned by Josef Werndl. It is generally accepted that Karl Holub was the legitimate inventer of the system whilst Josef Werndl encouraged and support Holub in his endeavour. However, Werndl obtained exclusive manufacturing and distribution rights, and as such the rifle was henceforth known as the “Werndl” rifle.

The first version appeared in 1867, followed by an improved version 1873 featuring an mechanism improved by Antonin Spitalsky to counter problems which had emerged from use of the M1867 in the field. In 1877 Austria adopts a new 11x58R cartridge, longer and more powerful than the original 11x42R cartridge. This change in ammunition requires the rechambering of older rifles. The rear sight was extended from 200 – 1400 paces to 200 – 2100 paces by using a telescopic sight ladder. The rifle presented here is a model 1873/77, dated 1884. It is thus a rifle built new to the M1873 specification and originally chambered for the 11x58R cartridge. The barrel was 6 groove rifling.

Despite a few mechanical differences, the M1867 and M1873 rifles work on the same principle. The mechanism is quite unique and ingenious. The receiver comprises a large cylindrical recess which houses a drum shaped breech block; the breech block rotates about an axis pin which spans the receiver recess from front to back. A short section of the axis pin near its proximal end has a polygonal shape. The axis pin is fixed to the receiver by a screw and cannot rotate. The drum is pushed foward under an overhang of the receiver above the chamber mouth, and is prevented from any axial movement by a wedge inserted behind the drum. The breech drum comprises a feed ramp machined into its outer surface which aligns with the chamber when the breech drum is in the open position, when in a closed position; a firing pin is aligned with the centre of the chamber. The axis pin passes through a passage through the centre of the breech drum and protruding from the wall of the passage is a spring biased peg positioned to line up with the polygonal section of the axis pin. This peg pushes against the flats of the polygonal section of the axis pin such that the drum breech automatically snaps open or shut when the peg rides over a crest between flats. The end result is that the user only needs to apply gentle pressure to snap the action open and closed.

The extractor is recessed in the front wall of the receiver and has a lever arm extending around the right side of the receiver. On the tip of the extractor lever arm is lug which rides in a camming groove on the outer surface of the breech drum. When the breech drum snaps open, it briefly over-rotates past its neutral open position. The camming groove is shaped such that, during that short period of over-rotation, the extractor is made to tilt backwards to extract a case from the chamber. When the breech drum returns to its neutral position, the extractor returns to its recess. With a well-adjusted system, the over-rotation happens automatically when the action is snapped open and the extractor kicks back with enough force to eject a case completely. If the system is slowed due to weak springs or dirt, the over-rotation can be forced manually to work the extractor.

Like many of its contemporary rifles, the firing pin is mounted diagonally through the breech drum and it is biased in a retracted position by a coil spring. It is interesting to note that the rear of the firing pin does not protrude from the back of the drum. When the hammer falls, the hammer tip ends up deep in the firing pin channel.

The action does not really have a locking system to keep the breech drum closed. Despite this, the system is actually very safe, and here is why:
1. In the case of a case rupture, the drum is pushed straight back against the rear wall of the receiver and it is prevented from flipping out by the solidly clamped axis pin and the overhang of the receiver above the chamber mouth.
2. If the breech drum should rotate towards open as the hammer is falling, the firing pin will no longer be aligned with the cartridge primer so the action will not fire,
3. If the breech drum should try to rotate towards open as the cartridge fires, the drum is prevented from rotating because the hammer tip protrudes into the firing pin channel of the breech drum

The lock resembles a classic back action percussion lock but the lockwork has been greatly simplified down to four major parts by integrating the hammer with the tumbler. The M1867 rifle had a standard back action lock with an external hammer.

The action of the M1867 is slightly different:
1. The axis pin is rotationally fixed with the breech drum and the polygonal section is on the very proximal tip of the axis pin
2. The drum spring is a long leaf spring which extends along a breech tang,
3. The indexing is done by the leaf spring pressing on the flats of the polygonal section of the axis pin which protrudes out the back of the receiver.

The improvements brought with the M1873 system allowed the same basic indexing mechanism to be retained, but with a more protected drum mechanism, and a more streamlined outline less likely to snag.

The rifle pictured here is a Jäger model intended for riflemen. It differs from the infantry rifle only in the shape of the trigger guard which has a pistol grip. The bayonet is a sword bayonet with a fashionable yataghan blade. The action was also scaled down for use on carbines, these being chambered for a smaller 11x36R cartridge. The rifle was briefly succeeded by the M1886 Mannlicher, Austria’s very last black powder rifle and world’s first straight-pull military rifle.

The action is very easy to work just by using the right thumb to cock the hammer; snap the drum open; push a cartridge in the chamber; and snap the action closed. The trigger guard also makes for a very comfortable shooting position.