Swiss M1842/59 Infantry Rifled Musket (Prélaz-Burnand)

  • Country: Switzerland
  • Ignition System: Percussion
  • Calibre: 18mm (.69

As in many countries, in the late 1830s and early 1840s, Switzerland transitioned from the flintlock to percussion lock and in 1842 approved a new smoothbore musket for infantry together with a standard conversion to be applied to serviceable flintlock muskets (involving a new breech portion with a fixed rear sight on the tang). Rifled arms were known but, with the notable exception of the British with the P51 and P53 rifled muskets, tended to be reserved for elite troops and line infantry were not generally considered worthy, or indeed capable, of wielding such prestigious guns. However, the experience gained during the Crimean War helped accelerate the acceptance of rifled guns for line infantry and their adoption was widespread by the late 1850s and early 1860s (although Prussia had of course jumped the gun in the 1830s). Switzerland’s path to the rifled musket, which in itself has no particularly remarkable features, does involve a remarkable path pursued by Colonel Edouard Burnand and Joseph Prélaz, a gunsmith in Vevey.

In 1855, Burnand had been working for months on a way to upgrade the 1842 rifle when the shooting exploits of Mr. Prélaz were mentioned to him on his travels by a coachman. Upon meeting Mr. Prélaz, it turned out that he was quietly working away on a method of improving target rifles, and Burnand had an inkling that his method could perhaps be applied to infantry rifles. It was recorded that Prélaz’s target rifle was perfectly effective out to 1200m, which greatly interested not only the then Russian ambassador to Switzerland, but also officers from France and Great Britain, let’s not forget that the Crimean war was raging at the time and all parties involved were looking for an edge! The Russians even went as far as hinting at a contract.

The secret of Prélaz’s rifle was a combination of a flat-based bullet and a barrel with two-groove gain-twist rifling. However, in order to be truly effective, the rifle needed to be loaded carefully with the powder, greased wad, and bullet loaded sequentially. The calibre was stated as being 12mm or 0.47”. The rifle excited a number of European militaries and both Prélaz and Burnand embarked on numerous trips to promote the system. An amusing anecdote from Burnand’s personal diary recalls a demonstration before French officers and Mr. Minié himself, who was most upset by the accuracy of this rifle by two Swiss upstarts and openly berated observing soldiers for cheering whenever a hit was scored. Sadly, despite intense lobbying and the potential offered by the rifle, ultimately it was not adopted by anyone. The small calibre (for the time) and complex loading procedure were, quite rightly, perceived as being incompatible with a line-infantry firearm.

Exhausted and disappointed by their foreign adventures, Prélaz and Burnand returned to the drawing board in order to adapt Prélaz’s basic idea to a standard 18mm musket. They experimented at length, using the buttresses of Carrouge castle in Moudon as a handy backstop, and finally arrived at a satisfactory compromise. The original two-groove gain-twist rifling, with a rounded transition between groove and bore, which had worked so well for smaller calibres, proved troublesome and was replaced by four-groove rifling with a stepped profile and 1-in-160cm (63”) twist. The original flat-based bullet was also replaced with a 36g hollow-base bullet of their own design. Extensive ballistic testing was also undertaken to design an easily adjustable rear sight. Finally, after much testingand the usual political meddlingthe conversion was approved by the federal council on 20th January 1859. One of the major political hurdles was whether to bother with a conversion at all and just switch to a new 10,5mm calibre rifle for the infantry, this calibre having already been in use since 1851 with the sharpshooter corps (this eventually happened in 1863).Muskets with a bore measuring between 17,7mm and 18,15mm were deemed suitable for rifle conversion, including those flintlock muskets which had previously been upgraded to the 1842 standard.

The sight on these converted muskets is unusual in that it simply comprises a central post about which a single leaf pivots. The leaf can be set at any angle with respect to the post, although graduations are marked for 400, 600, and 800 paces. With the leaf at its lowest setting, a 200-pace battle sight is visible, cut into the central post. Note that the original 1842 fixed rear sight on the breech tang was retained.

A military journal from October 1857 clearly lists the following evaluation criteria for the converted rifled muskets:

1.Accuracy. Tested at 200 paces (~150m), 400 paces (~300m), 600 paces (~450m) and 800 paces (~600m), for tests at 200 and 400 paces the target was 12,1’x 9’ and 19’x10,6’ at 600 and 800 paces.

2.Penetration. Tested at 600 paces using stacked 1” thick pine boards. On average, the bullet was found to pierce through three boards and penetrate into a fourth.

3.Recoil. Tested using a dynamometer, on average 39 lbs. (17,7kg).

4.Ease and speed of loading.

5.Influence of fouling on accuracy. Tested by firing 60 shots at 600 paces, leaving the rifle uncleaned overnight, followed by another 60 shots the next day.

6.Ease of ammunition production. It is noted that the cartridges can easily be produced in situ.

7.General handling and ease of cleaning of the rifled musket.

8.Ability to use older types of ammunition.

9.Ease of conversion and cost.

Point 8 is interesting as they considered the situation of needing to mobilise troops before all muskets were converted, or the possibility of ammunition production or logistics being compromised. These circumstances would result in infantry being armed with a mix of smoothbore and rifled muskets, or potentially only having smoothbore ammunition available. The converted muskets were therefore also tested using 1842 musket cartridges loaded with round ball to see if they would still be sufficiently accurate if such a situation occurred. The tests indicated a drop in accuracy but it was nonetheless still far superior to the accuracy of a smoothbore 1842 musket.

A lack of commercial success eventually soured the good working relationship between Prélaz and Burnand and they ultimately went their separate ways. Prélaz continued on with his gunsmithing business whilst Burnand was appointed director of SIG Neuhausen (then under federal administration) in 1860. SIG Neuhausen oversaw the musket conversions, together with the privately owned Erlach factory in Thun. A certain Johann-Friedrich Vetterli was recalled to Switzerland from London and started working at SIG during Burnand’s 10-year tenure as director, and it is fitting that when Burnand left the post in 1870, the next generation of Swiss infantry firearms had been perfected in the form of the Vetterli repeating rifle.

The vast majority of these rifled muskets were subsequently converted to cartridge loading using the Milbank-Amsler breech conversion.

This musket is luckily in a good enough condition to still have all its original markings. It was produced by Beuret Frères, a Belgian arms manufacturer who was to enjoy a healthy trading relationship with Switzerland from the early 1840s until the 1870s. The breech also shows that the rifle was allotted to Canton Glarus. One additional minor change made to the muskets when converted was to recess the head of the ramrod so as not to damage the tips of the new conical bullets when loading.