The Dreyse Needle gun, named the Zündnadelgewehr (Needle Ignition Rifle) in German, was a breechloading rifle which, unlike the percussion rifles of the time, used a firing pin (shaped like a needle) to pierce the paper cartridge and strike the percussion cap within it. It was designed in Prussia by Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse for the Prussian army and was a revolutionary step in the development of firearms.
The Dreyse Needle gun was among the first firearms to feature a firing pin, developing upon the invention of the percussion rifle. It was also the first breechloading rifle to use bolt action to open and close the chamber. The percussion rifle used a hammer to strike an external percussion cap, placed on a nipple above the breech of the rifle, to ignite the powder. The Dreyse Needle gun, on the other hand, used a spring (which was reset by pulling the bolt back to open the chamber) to push a firing pin into the paper cartridge (which contained the bullet, percussion cap and gunpowder) and ignited the charge, firing the bullet.
The Dreyse Needle gun also featured a fixed v-notch at the back and post at the front for sights, along with the possibility to fix a bayonet to it. The Dreyse was also issued with two spare needles, as the needle would often fail, having to be in the gunpowder when it was ignited. Therefore it became common practice for the user to change the needle in mid-combat.
However the Dreyse Needle gun, for all its innovations, had a significant number of flaws. As already mentioned the firing pin was particularly vulnerable to failure, the exposure to each explosion placed alot of stress on it, causing the needle to fail after a few hundered shots. Furthermore the bolt action mechanism for opening the chamber caused a significant amount of gas-leakage which not only reduced the effective range and velocity of the bullet, but also had the potential to burn the user.
The Dreyse Needle gun, unlike its main muzzle loading contemporaries, used a paper cartridge. This contained an acorn shaped bullet (measuring 0.61in or 15.4mm in size) with the percussion cap attached to it in a seperate section named the sabot. Behind this was the gunpowder which would burn from the front (by the percussion cap) to the back of the cartridge, which was more efficent than the conventional back to front burning of other rifles.
The Dreyse Needle gun was also classed as a caseless ammunition rifle, with the paper cartridge being completely burned in the firing process. Furthermore, with the percussion cap attached to the bullet itself, the entire cartridge would be removed, minus some fouling caused by the powder (a common occurence in firearms at the time).
The Dreyse Needle gun was first adopted in 1841 by the Prussian army as the "Leichtes Perkussionsgewehr Model 1841" or Light Percussion rifle Model 1841, to disguise the true nature of the weapon. The Dreyse's first major conflict was the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, where the true power of the Dreyse was demonstrated. Austrian and German confederate states were equipped with muzzle loading Vereinsgewehr and Lorenz Rifles, which were off-shoots of the Minie Rifle, firing the Minie Ball. Though these rifles had an advantage in terms of range and muzzle velocity over the Dreyse, their low rate of fire (average of 3 shots per minute) gave the Dreyse the advantage, able to fire over 10 shots per minute.
The Dreyse also benefitted from allowing the user to lay on the ground when reloading, meaning less of the soldier was exposed during reloading and operation. This tactical advantage was another key feature of the Dreyse Needle gun and helped to develop a new method of fighting. The Dreyse's success on the field helped Prussia to unify Germany by 1871 and led to the observation by some of "the needle-gun is king".At the time of the Dreyse Needle gun's distribution in 1848 there was only one other breechloading rifle adopted at the time, the Norwegian Kammerlader. The Kammerlader used a crank to open and close the breech, rather than the bolt action of the Dreyse or the later 'Trapdoor' Springfield Model 1865. The Kammerlader was superior in range and muzzle velocity, but was heavier and had a marginally longer reload time than the Dreyse. These two rifles were the first breechloading rifles to become standard issue to any armed force.
The Dreyse, however, did become obselete in the years following the Austro-Prussian War, being out-performed in the Franco-Pussian War (despite a Prussian victory) by the French Chassepot rifle, hence provoking Prussia, and the united Germany, from 1871 to use the Mauser Model 1871 rifle.