At the beginning of the 19th century, the flintlock musket was the accepted state of the art in shoulder-fired weapons. The combination of rifled barrel, cylindrical or conical projectile and reliable flintlock action made for a solid firearm, accurate and serviceable, with which an experienced shooter could get off perhaps three or four shots per minute. Use of the flintlock musket in both sniping and volleyed fire was widespread among armies of the period.

There were, of course, disadvantages to the musket which most folks who used it couldn't wait to be rid of - and in 1836, one of the most important advances in shoulder arms since the flintlock was unveiled in Germany. The gunsmith Johann Nicholas von Dreyse produced the first needle gun, a weapon which would become famous as the weapon of the formidable Prussian mercenaries and armies.

The needle gun was, essentially, the first modern breech-loading military rifle. It used standardized, manufactured cartridges of .607 caliber which included bullet, charge and primer in one unit for easier reloading. At a stroke, this gun changed the nature of military rifles forever, and a surge in new designs began, leading in the Americas to the Winchester and Spencer rifles, and in Germany to the Mauser rifle used through World War II.

The needle gun used paper cartridges. The bullet was secured at the front, with the powder (it was black powder) contained at the rear inside the paper tube. There was a small charge of primer (fulminate) between the bullet and the main charge. To load the needle gun, a turn of a knob cocked a spring and cranked back a breechblock which allowed the cartridge to slide into place. When the breechblock was moved back, a small hole at the center of the front of this cylinder faced the back of the cartridge. At the trigger pull, the spring forced a steel needle out this hole and through both the cartridge casing of paper and the black powder, to strike the primer against the back of the bullet. This meant that the charge ignited from the front, which was important in an era of limited machining technology. Breechloaders tended to leak gas at their joins, lessening the velocity (and hence range and accuracy) of the bullet. The front-burning powder in the needle gun meant that not only did the rear of the cartridge and charge serve to further seal the breech, but the impulse of the charge did not throw the charge itself down the barrel as could occur with rear-igniting charges.

The needle was the precursor to the modern firing pin. The weapon was adopted by various armies in Germany. The French rejected it for several reasons; they cited its leaky breechloading nature, the fragility of the needles, and the complexity of the mechanism. It was, however, accurate and lethal out to around 'eight hundred paces' according to contemporary sources.

There were, of course, shortcomings in the design. The needles were (as the French pointed out) prone to breakage. Despite the ease of replacement and the ready size and availability of spares, it was an inconvenient glitch on the battlefield. The paper cartridges were fairly easily damaged. The breechloading design and consequent loss of breech pressure did, in fact, limit the range of the gun compared to contemporary muzzle-loaders.

On the other hand, it made the standardization of cartridged ammunition a practical reality; its interchangeable parts made for ready battlefield maintenance and resupply, and the quick action of loading meant a competent shooter could suddenly crank out upwards of ten shots per minute, rather than three. Furthermore, it could be loaded while on the move or atop a horse, and as a breechloader could be reloaded inside a confined space. The ammunition, although vulnerable to damp and damage, was nevertheless much, much more handy than the separate charge/primer/bullet systems used in muskets.

Various versions of the needle gun were eventually produced in other countries; the U.S. saw one known as the Klein patent needle gun, and the French, Belgians and British all experimented with the design. By the middle of the century, however, it was clear that later refinements which used firing pins or hammers, striking primers at the rear of a rigid cartridge, were ascendant. These systems were further iterated into the first repeating arms, and the needle gun was left behind. It had, however, begun the push towards unit cartridge, standard loading weapons which made the repeaters (and, indeed, all standard semi-automatic and automatic rifles up to today) possible.


  • "Dreyse's Needle-Gun and Training of the Prussian Soldier" from Chambers' Journal,
  • Various Encyclopedae
  • Robert D. Ball, Springfield Armory Shoulder Weapons 1795-1968. Antique Trader Press, 1999.
  • Lecture notes, MIT 17.4xx Grand Strategy and Military Doctrine, Professor Barry Posen, 1996