In 1824 Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse developed a mechanism for opening and closing the breach of the barrel to allow the loading of a paper cartridge. The design became the first viable breech loading design using a complete cartridge in 1836. This designed was refined and adopted by the Prussian Army in 1841. The Zündnadelgewehr (Needle gun) showed its worth during the Austro-Prussian War(1866), notably at the battle of Königgrätz.
The Austrians, using muzzle loading rifles, Found themselves supremely outgunned by the new needle rifles. The Needle rifles were much faster to reload and gave the Prussians a volume of fire that overwhelmed the Austrian troops.
Loading procedure was simple.
Open the breech, fully insert a paper cartridge, close the breech, and lock the bolt handle by rotating to the right until it stops. Depress the striker on the rear of the bolt and then the weapon is ready to fire.
-Note the angle the bolt closes at, which is odd compared to more modern designs with full 90 degrees of rotation.
When the weapon was fired, a long needle pierced the back of the paper cartridge and ignited a primer that sat on the back of the sabot holding the projectile.
During the Franco-Prussian War(1870-71), The French had armed themselves with the new Chassepot needle rifles, which were far superior to the Dreyse design.
The Chassepot varied from the Dreyse rifle in that it fired a smaller 11mm projectile(compared to the Dreyse’s 15mm) which greatly improved the effective range of the rifle.(1500m to the Dreyse’s 600m) The rifle also included a rubber gas seal that kept hot gas from burning the face of the operator. Due to the design of the cartridge, the rifle was easily converted to use metallic cartridges in 1874, being called the Gras Rifle.
Breech of the Chassepot 1866. Notice the rubber seal.
Differences in the two cartridge designs.
Even with the 25 year old Dreyse design against the brand new Chassepot rifles, the Prussian tactics and use of resources gave them a victory over the French forces.