Swiss 1851 Federal Carbine

  • Country: Switzerland
  • Ignition System: Percussion
  • Calibre: 10,4 (0.41) Minié/Compression

This remarkable carbine has a special place in the history of Swiss small arms since it was the first standard pattern long arm of the confederation. Following the Sonderbund war of 1847 and the troubles along its borders with Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian empire (1848-1849), the need for homogenising armament within the confederation was recognised. A standard pattern of conversion of flintlock infantry muskets to percussion had already been approved in 1842, but the muskets themselves varied greatly from canton to canton. The rifled guns for elite troops had not had any standardisation. In 1848 the federal council therefore decided to launch a project of providing a new standard carbine for all elite troops within the confederation. After extended testing, the new carbine was ready for general issue at the end of 1850. Switzerland had up to that point had a long tradition of buying its muskets from the Belgian gun trade, and this tradition continued since the federal carbine was produced by the company Beuret Frères in Liège. Assembly of carbines was also outsourced to a select group of gunsmiths within Switzerland.

Any rifleman of the time would have been proud to be issued such a military carbine since in all truth the only military part of it is the bayonet fitting. The carbine itself is more akin to a civilian target rifle and has many features which are normally not associated with military guns, these features being :

• An adjustable double set trigger
• A tangent rear sight graduated from 200 schritt to 1000 schritt (160m – 800m)
• A windage adjustable front sight
• A deeply curved butt plate for stability
• A ramrod having a fixed stop along its length to limit the insertion depth of the rod within the barrel, this to ensure that each load with compressed to the same amount for every shot (using service ammunition)

The last remarkable feature is the calibre, it is only .41” (10,5mmm). The standard European military calibre was still in the region of .69” (17,5mm) at the time but the Swiss obviously realised that an accurate small calibre bullet was just as deadly as a large bullet. The reduction in calibre also brought about other advantages, such as a reduction in recoil resulting in more accurate shooting, and also a reduction in the size and weight of ammunition the soldier had to carry. The barrel is rifled with eight grooves and the nipple is sized for small pistol percussion caps.

The bullet used in this carbine evolved quite a bit during the service of the carbine. The very first bullet was a solid acorn shaped bullet as seen from the original mould pictured. This was subsequently replaced in 1856 with a compression bullet, and lastly, the M1855 bullet was replaced in 1863 by a hollow based Minié type bullet. The M1863 bullet is sometimes referred to as a “Buholzer” bullet. The bullets were all fired using a cross shaped patch.

The set trigger mechanism can be used two ways. Simply pulling the front trigger will fire the shot, with the trigger pull being slightly lighter than a standard military trigger pull. If the rear trigger is pulled first, this “sets” the front trigger under spring tension such that the trigger pull of the front trigger is exceptionally light. A screw between the two triggers allows the degree of spring tension to be adjusted. Interestingly the tumbler on the lock does not have a half-cock safety notch.

The bayonet system is also interesting since it uses an inverse socket arrangement. The socket is mounted on the barrel into which the bayonet shank is inserted. A spring catch on the end of the shank then locks the bayonet in place.

In 1864 a slightly updated version of the federal carbine was issued, featuring a slightly redesigned lock also used on the 1863 infantry rifle, a four grooved barrel, a larger nipple for the use of musket caps, and a bayonet fitting on the muzzle cap for a sword bayonet

This particular carbine looks exactly like a service carbine but it has no ordnance markings or cantonal stamp. The lock signature suggests that it is a civilian gun put together for someone wishing to own a military carbine, perhaps for target shooting or hunting. The metal parts are all stamped BF for “Beuret Frères” which at least confirms that ordnance parts were used. The carbine also has a hidden improvement in the form of a patent breech, this means that there is a reduced diameter chamber in the breech section which is aimed at providing a faster and more reliable ignition. A patent breech should not be confused with a Delvigne breech since the bullet not come into contact with the rim of the reduced diameter chamber.

To this day the rifle is extremely accurate. The shape of the stock and butt plate make the rifle ideal for standing or kneeling offhand shooting, but is a little awkward for prone shooting. Of the three bullets I have, so far the M1856 compression bullet appears to be the most accurate using the service charge of 60 grains (4g) of powder.