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The first bolt action rifles

By Sakhal

From the mid to the late 19th century the methods for attack and defense suffered a deep change. Warlike development ran parallel with industrial development, and this one suffered such acceleration that it would represent almost a vertical line in a coordinates graph. One of the landmarks in the history of weaponry, one that marked a turn in the history of warfare, was the bolt action rifle; specifically the first of them, the Dreyse rifle. This rifle, adopted officially by the Prussian Army in 1848, had a spectacular effect across the entire Europe. Its manufacturers had such high concept of it that the production process was kept in absolute secret. The new rifle was provided with all the characteristics necessary to build the wondrous weapon that every general in that time would have dreamed about: rifled bore, breech load and fulminant incorporated in the ammunition. But the true innovation brought by its creator, Johann Nikolaus Von Dreyse, was the breech closure system, which was based in a manually operated sliding bolt. Inside the bolt there was a firing pin having a steel needle, whose purpose was to hit the detonator of the cartridge. The bolt had a handle that allowed to slide and also rotate it; the combination of these movements, backwards or forward, turn up or turn down, allowed a complete firing cycle. The illustration below shows the mechanisms of the Dreyse rifle, whose first exemplar had been completed in 1836. In the upper picture the bolt is shown unlocked and moved backwards, which would arm the firing pin, clearly visible in the illustration, and allow to insert a cartridge before it. After the cartridge is in place, the bolt is moved forward, pushing so the cartridge inside the breech, and finally the handle is turned down to a horizontal position, which leaves the bolt locked and the rifle ready to fire.

The first bolt action rifles

The Dreyse rifle was so revolutionary that caused shock to the military authorities of foreign nations, who would refuse to acknowledge the superiority of the new rifle. However, the Prussian infantry equipped with the Dreyse would leave no place to doubts or excuses, when the firepower of the new rifle was deployed in the battlefield. In 1864 they won the Second Schleswig War and in 1866 defeated the Austrians in several weeks; in London, where the population had become affined to any kind of bets, these had been in proportion of seven to one in favor of the Austrians. The enemy claimed that due to the firepower of the Prussians it was impossible to reach the close fighting, charging with bayonets. Besides, the Prussians created a new tactic, which consisted in retreating as the enemy advanced, extracting the maximum effectiveness from the quick load and fire of their new rifle. The biggest inconvenience of the Dreyse was that the long and narrow needle had a tendency to rust because of being in the center of the combustion of the powder, causing the needle to break or bend. It can be seen in the drawing how the cartridge had the fulminant placed not in the base, but between the powder, which was wrapped by combustible paper, and the bullet. Hence, this was a problem caused by a defective conception of the cartridges, in a period in which the modern configuration of a cartridge was still not standardized.

Despite of that, it was such the difference in respect of the other contemporary rifles, that as a logical reaction the Dreyse had to be copied by the opponents, sooner or later, to allow them compete in equity of conditions. Every country started to design and build its own bolt action rifle, specially France, which Napoleon III was precipitately leading to the unfortunate Franco- Prussian War. In 1866 Antoine Alphonse Chassepot presented which would be the first bolt action rifle of France; Napoleon III counted on this rifle to defeat the Prussians. It was actually a better rifle than the Dreyse, having twice the range and a more durable needle, because the new cartridge had the fulminant in the base of the cartridge, like the modern ones. But Napoleon III was wrong by thinking that the war could be won by just equipping his infantrymen with a better rifle than the enemy, as had happened before with the Dreyse. He forgot that the Prussians possessed abundant breech-loading steel artillery pieces, while his army was equipped with outdated muzzle-loading bronze cannons. And to this we would have to add the specially rigurous Prussian discipline.

The first bolt action rifles

Probably some people, aware of the action lever rifles used in America in that time, those ones so renowned as the Winchester 1873, question why in Europe such system was not adopted. The reason is that the military required for their rifles the longer range possible, and for such, very powerful powder charges were needed, resulting weak in such circumstances a lever action mechanism. For such reason bolt action rifles were adopted as the standard weapon for the infantry in every country (including American ones) until the Second World War. Bolt action is also much more comfortable when shooting lying on the ground, which quickly discourages lever action for military purposes. The only disadvantage of bolt action rifles was their slower rate of fire, not really relevant in that time. Advancing the time, bolt action rifles were provided with deposits for the ammunition; in the beginning these were tubular, placed below the barrel, but from 1880 onwards this system started to be replaced by a box under the bolt. In 1885 Von Mannlicher created a special clip on which the cartridges were attached, leaving them ready to be inserted at once in the weapon, instead of being loaded one by one. The illustration below shows the Mauser 1898, probably the most renowned and used bolt action rifle ever. It had space for five cartridges and muzzle speed was almost 870 meters/second.

The first bolt action rifles

Categories: Small Arms - Infantry - Industrial Revolution - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-10-13

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