Swiss Vetterli 1881 Stutzer

  • Country: Switzerland
  • Ignition System: Rimfire
  • Calibre: 10,4 x 42R

As Switzerland modernised its armament from 1866 to 1867 with the adoption of the Milbank-Amsler conversion and the Peabody rifle a parallel project was running to design a repeating rifle.  The baptism of fire for repeating breech loading rifles had of course been the American civil war, where the advantages of the Henry rifle and Spencer rifle were felt.

The design was the creation of the well-travelled Swiss weapons designer Johann-Friedrich Vetterli and it is often quoted that it is the simple fusion of the Henry rifle with the bolt taken from the British Terry percussion breech-loader.  It is undeniable that the lifter in particular can be said to be directly inspired from the Henry rifle and 1866 Winchester, and that the locking lug design is similar to the Terry bolt, however effort of fusing the two designs together deserves recognition.  The first design in 1867 featured an external hammer, followed by an internal striker fired version in 1868.  The first general issue rifle was introduced for general service as the model 1869, with the final model 1881 version appearing in 1882.  Between the M1869 and M1881 the basic principle of the rifle remained unchanged although the rifle was gradually simplified and lighted.   The intention here is not to detail the detailed differences between the various models but instead to focus on the general principles of the Vetterli system and the particular features of the model 1881 Stutzer.

The receiver is quite simple; it has a rectangular lower portion which principally houses the lifter mechanism and the lifter cradle. In the right wall of the rectangular section is an opening with curved indent which serves as a loading port.  Above the rectangular portion is a tubular upper portion which houses the bolt and includes an ejection window on the top surface. The bolt is retained in the receiver by a removable wedge and the upper arm of the lifter lever arm.

The lifter mechanism comprises (A) an L-shaped lever and (B) a lifter cradle:

(A)  The L-shaped lever is hinged about its corner to a base plate which forms the bottom of the receiver. The screw forms the pivot axis for the lever.  A first long arm of the lever has a bulbous tip that engages the underside of the lifter cradle whilst the second shorter arm projects upwards into a groove the bolt.  The lever is spring biased to snap between a raised lifter cradle position and a lowered lifter cradle position.

(B)  The lifter cradle is generally rectangular, with the lower part having a space for the bulbous head of the long lever arm as detailed above. The upper portion composed of a large U-shaped channel.  When the lifter cradle is in a lowered position the bottom of the channel lines up with the loading port and the magazine. When the cradle is raised, the channel lines up with the bolt and the chamber.  The hemispherical indent in the receiver helps guide the nose of the cartridges into the lifter cradle channel and a cut-out in the wall of the lifter also prevents cartridges getting stuck if pushed in at a sharp angle.  The rear inner surfaces at the top of the lifter cradle have circular depressions; these help the spent cartridge to flip out of the receiver when the lifter cradle rises when the bolt is pulled fully back.

The tubular magazine extends under the barrel within the forearm and can hold 12 cartridges. There is no cartridge stop so the last cartridge loaded remains in the lifter cradle; the base of this last cartridge is partially visible through the loading port.  This also means that the overall length of the cartridges must be exactly right (56mm) for the lifter to work.  If the cartridges are too long or too short, the lifter will jam. The magazine can be topped up at any time by pushing cartridges in through the loading port when the lift cradle is lowered.  Cartridges can also be unloaded one by one by pushing the base of the cartridge visible in the loading port and lifting it slightly, it should then come out of the loading port under pressure from the magazine spring.

The bolt has a long cylindrical section, a front portion of which spans the lifting cradle opening when the bolt is forward.  It houses the striker assembly and has an extractor fitted on the top surface.  The rear of the bolt supports the cocking piece and a bolt mainspring housed within a tubular cowling.  A large knurled end cap screws onto the rear of the cylindrical section to hold all the components in place.  The striker assembly is composed of a long striker and a separate forked floating firing pin.  The rear of the striker has two lugs which rest against the back of the cocking piece under the force of the mainspring.  The cocking piece has two caming surfaces which retract the striker when the handle is turned up to unlock and open the action.  When the bolt is worked closed, the lower lug of the striker is caught by the sear.  When the sear drops, the striker flies forward to strike the forked firing pin which will then strike the rim of the cartridge in two places.  On the front side of the cocking piece are two wedge-shaped locking lugs which turn into corresponding locking recesses in the receiver when the bolt is fully forward and turned down.  On the top surface of the front bolt section is an extractor.  The tail end of the extractor is pushed down by the wedge in the receiver when pushed into battery, this frees the cocking piece to rotate and lock the bolt.  When the bolt open and retracted, the tail end of the extractor prevents rotation of the cocking piece relative to the bolt.  On the underside of the front bolt section is a groove for the tip of the shorter upward projecting arm of the L-shaped lifter lever.  The ends of the groove push or pull the lever arm depending on the position of the bolt, which in turn raises or lowers the lifter cradle.

The operating cycle from a closed bolt position can be broken down as follows:

1. Raise the cocking handle – This retracts the striker and turns the bolt locking lugs out of the locking recesses in the receiver.

2. Pull the bolt back – This extracts a spent cartridge case from the chamber such that it overlays the lifter cradle opening.  Just before the bolt is fully retracted, the front end of the groove on the underside of the bolt hits the lifter lever arm and causes it to tilt back, which raises the lifter cradle.  The top of the lifter cradle flips the spent cartridge out of the receiver ejection window and a new cartridge in the bottom of the cradle channel is aligned with the bolt and chamber.

3. The bolt is pushed forward to push the cartridge fully into the chamber.  Just before the bolt is fully forward, the rear end of the groove on the underside of the bolt hits the lever arm and causes it to tilt forward, which lowers the lifter cradle.  When the cradle reaches its lowered position, a fresh cartridge is fed into it from the magazine tube.

4. The bolt handle is turned down to lock the bolt in place.

In the cocked position, the rear of the striker protrudes a few millimetres out of the centre of the bolt end cap and acts as a handy cocking indicator.

The blade spring which forms the extractor is configured to allow rotation of the cocking piece relative to the rest of the bolt only when the bolt is fully forward for the purpose of locking or unlocking the bolt in the receiver.

The trigger mechanism of this rifle is an adjustable double set trigger designed by the famous Rudolf Schmidt.  The trigger is particular to 1878 and 1881 stutzers.  It is built as an integral unit which can be removed easily from the rifle for cleaning.  The system basically accelerates the drop of the sear.

In summary, the trigger works like this:

1. The rear trigger or striker is pulled down against the force of a large V-spring, a beak on the front of the striker hooks under a catch on the trigger.

2. When the trigger is pulled, the sear bar starts to drop.  At a certain point, the catch on the trigger releases the beak of the striker which in turn flips up.  As it does so, an abutment on it catches the tail of the trigger, accelerating the rotation of the front trigger and therefore the drop of the sear bar.

The small screw between the triggers controls the amount of overlap between the catch on the front trigger and the beak of the rear trigger.  This affects the pressure needed on the front trigger to lose the shot.  A shot can also be fired simply by pressing the front trigger.  A detailed video on Vetterli set triggers can be seen here

The bayonet for the 1881 stutzers and standard rifles is a majestic straight sawbacked sword bayonet with two rows of opposing teeth.  It feels unwieldy as a bayonet but probably perfect for foraging and as a camp tool.

The rear sight is also the brainchild of Rudolph Schmidt and is a typical Swiss quadrant sight having markings for 200m to 1200m.  The sight leaf has a concealed extendable slider for shooting up to 1600m.

The cartridge fired by the Vetterli is the 10.4x38R or 10.4x42R like its predecessors.  This rimfire cartridge is no longer made but there are several options available to bring these great rifles back to shooting condition.

1. Use the rimfire conversion cartridge.  This will require the removal of one of the striker forks and will not work when loading from the magazine since the eccentric primer on each cartridge needs to be aligned with the striker.

2. Convert the bolt to centrefire.  A quick search on internet will show the many ways to do this.  The bolt will be permanently modified however, so it is not an option for the purist.

3. Find a spare bolt and convert it to centrefire.  Note that a M1871 Vetterli bolt will not fit a M1878 or M1881 rifle!

This particular rifle was produced for a private individual and is simply numbered 8, along with its bayonet.  The receiver is marked with the mark of Waffenfabrik Bern but it is highly possible that the rifle was finished by a civilian gun maker.  The wood, fit, and finish are above average and a silver name plaque is embedded in the stock.  I have not been able to trace the gentleman yet.

The Vetterli system was employed by Switzerland in the form of rifles, stutzers, short rifles, and cavalry carbines.  The Italians also used the system in centrefire, firstly for single short firearms and later in repeater form.