Prussian M1860 Fusilier Rifle

  • Country: Germany
  • Ignition System: Needlefire
  • Calibre: 15.4mm (0.60

Here is the rifle that hailed the advent of the bolt action rifle. The needle ignition system was the brainchild of Johann Nikolas von Dreyse. He tinkered with the idea from the 1820s onwards before having his design for an infantry rifle adopted by the nascent Prussian state in 1841. At this time the rest of the world was slowly discovering the percussion system so the Prussian ordnance board must have been very forward thinking to make the leap from traditional muzzleloaders to a breechloading system firing self-contained ammunition. It seems that the impact of the system was largely ignored by most foreign military powers until the 1860s when Prussia defeated the Danes and Austrians thus projecting the Dreyse rifle onto the international stage, by which time the system was already 20 years old and nearing the end of its life.

The heart of the system is the bolt which comprises four major parts, an outer bolt sleeve which has the bolt handle, and inner cocking sleeve, a central needle carrier and of course the needle.

The action works like so:

1. From an open position the bolt is pushed forward until the front of the bolt engages and overlaps the chamber rim. The bolt is then locked by pushing the bolt handle down. At this stage the bolt sleeve is locked and the needle carrier is behind the sear, but the coil mainspring is uncompressed at this stage. From this position the bolt can be freely opened again.
2. The cocking sleeve is pushed forward into the rear of the outer bolt sleeve until the large leaf spring on its top surface clicks into position inside the bolt sleeve. This compresses the mainspring between the cocking sleeve and the needle carrier thus cocking the needle. From this position the bolt cannot be rotated to open. The rear of the needle and needle carrier are visible at the back of the bolt at this stage and it is a quick way of seeing is the action is cocked.
3. Pressing the trigger releases the needle carrier and needle which fires of the cartridge. In this position the bolt can also not be rotated to open.
4. To open the bolt, the latch on the rear of the cocking sleeve leaf spring must be pushed down to disengage the cocking sleeve from the outer bolt sleeve. The cocking sleeve is then pulled fully back which allows the bolt handle to be rotated and pulled back to open the action.

As seen above, the opening and closing of the bolt is not self-cocking, just like the Chassepot which followed. The needle comprises a rear head which is threaded, into this a steel needle is soldered, and a brass sleeve covers the rear two thirds of the needle length. The needle is inserted into the needle carrier from the rear and screwed in place. The outer bolt sleeve has a needle guide in the bolt face to support the exposed steel part of the needle.

Similarly to the chassepot, many myths have developed about this rifle. It is often blindly stated that the needle was very fragile and was prone to frequent breakage due to being in the ignition blast. While it is true that the needle is in the blast when firing, numerous tests have been done including my own and so far I have never heard of a needle breaking. Due to the bolt configuration it is actually very easy to change the needle if it ever broke, one simply has to cock the action to expose the needle head, unscrew it from the needle carrier and pull it out.

The next myth is that the seal between the bolt face and the chamber was very bad. The rim of the bolt face has an inner recess in which sits the chamber rim when the action is closed. While it is true that it is only a metal-to- metal fitting, the surfaces are actually pressed together for a very tight fit. This is due to the angled surface at the rear of the receiver locking recess into which the bolt handle turns down, as the bolt handle is turned down it slides along a sloped surface which in turn urges the bolt forward. As the chamber rim is recessed inside the bolt-face it also means that if there is any gas leakage, it is blown forwards toward the muzzle.

The final major myth is that the fouling was so bad that shooting became impossible after just a few shots. Had this been true it certainly would not have been adopted as an infantry weapon. The combustible cartridge does indeed leave a sooty residue in the chamber but it is quite possible to fire at least 10 shots before the cartridges become hard to chamber. Combustion is very good, due in part to the large burning chamber in the bolt face which encourages swirling of the cartridge paper, soot and debris can also accumulate in it without impairing function. When I received the rifle displayed here I had to excavate 5mm of rock hard fouling at the bottom of the burning chamber.

The cartridge for the Dreyse is self-contained combustible ammunition wherein the bullet is held in a compressed paper sabot. The primer was placed on the rear of the sabot such that needle had to punch through the powder to strike the primer. The bullet is sub-calibre so it never engages the rifling, rather the sabot transmits the spin to the bullet as it travels down bore. The sabot also had slits cut into it to help it to separate from the bullet as it exited the muzzle. For modern shooting, the paper sabot is very time consuming to make. Instead shooters use stacked felt wads or sabots turned from wood in combination with a bore fitting round ball.

As stated, the rifle in question is the model 1860 rifle attributed to fusilier regiments. The fusiliers at the time were light infantry and thus this shorter rifle would have been more suited compared to the full length model 1841 and later model 1862 infantry rifle. The bayonet is a very handsome sword bayonet with a brass hilt and a pipe backed blade.

The Dreyse system was also adapted to cavalry carbines, shotguns, wall guns, canon, single shot pistols and revolvers