At the onset of the Battle of Königgrätz, which took place on July 3rd, 1866, an Austrian force of 215,000 men had pinned down two Prussian armies numbering 124,000 in Swiep Forest, Bohemia. The outnumbered Prussians were praying for the speedy arrival of an additional 100,000 men led by Crown Prince Frederick. Despite being outnumbered almost 2 to 1, the Prussian army held off repeated attacks by the Austrians. When the Crown Prince finally arrived, his infantry smashed into the Austrian flank, inflicting massive casualties and completely collapsing the line. During the battle, the Austrian forces suffered 31,000 casualties to Prussia's 9,000. Königgrätz proved to be the decisive battle of the Austro-Prussian War and set the stage for German Unification, drastically shifting the balance of power in Europe.
How were the Prussians able to so easily massacre the Austrian troops at Königgrätz?
Well, besides for superior tactics and training, the Prussian Infantry was equipped with Dreyse Needle Guns, giving them an overwhelming battlefield advantage over their Austrian counterparts. In contrast to the Austrian muzzle-loading Lorenz Rifle, the Needle Gun was loaded at the bolt, more or less right above the rifle’s trigger, rather than at the barrel of the gun. It used a single self-contained cartridge, as opposed to the Austrian guns which had a paper gunpowder cartridge and a separate percussion cap for firing. When fired, the Needle Gun drove a long firing pin (the needle) into the cartridge to ignite the percussion cap. This allowed the Prussians to reload and discharge their weapons five times faster than the Austrians - up to 12 times per minute. Additionally, the Needle Gun could be reloaded from any position, even while a soldier was lying down or behind heavy cover. Austrian infantrymen had to stand up to reload, exposing them to the nonstop Prussian volleys.
The Needle Gun was the brain child of Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse, who had worked in Jean-Samuel Pauly’s Parisian (of all places) gun factory from 1809 to 1814. In 1824, Dreyse returned to Germany to open his own percussion cap factory. It was here that he invented the Needle Gun and gradually improved on its design. In 1836 he submitted a prototype for his new gun to the Prussian army. It was accepted in 1841 and formally introduced into military service in 1848. This was a time period when most modern armies were rushing to outfit their units with percussion cap, muzzle-loading rifles - the kind used by both Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War twenty years later. But the Prussian and other German armies were already equipped with the more effective Needle Gun - the first breech loading bolt-action rifle to be mass produced.
The Dreyse gun was not without its limitations. Like most black powder weapons, it had a fairly limited range. The needle mechanism (where the gun gets its name) that fired the cartridge wore down quickly and had to be replaced every few hundred rounds (Prussian infantrymen typically carried an extra needle with them). They also were prone to leak hot gas after a few rounds, which made the gun uncomfortable to fire (a searing gas hitting you in the face not being ideal during combat), leading many men to fire from the hip after the first few rounds. Despite its deficiencies, the superior rate of fire of the Dreyse gun made it clear that bolt-action breech loading rifles were the future of small arms and other European powers were quick to rush their own versions into production to match the effectiveness of the Prussian war machine.
In 1867, the French army introduced the Chassepot Rifle, which vastly improved on the design of the Needle Gun. The Chassepot had a longer range, greater muzzle velocity, and did not leak hot gas into the face of its user. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the third and final conflict of the German Wars of Unification, the Prussians saw the effectiveness of the Chassepot Rifle first hand and quickly realized their own Needle Guns were already obsolete. Still, the Prussian army was able to defeat the French thanks to better flanking techniques, a superior rail and supply system, commanders that were able to improvise on the fly and more effective artillery - in particular, the breech loading Krupp cannons (a gun for another post). The German army retired the Needle Gun after the war was won and soon introduced the Mauser Rifle.
With the introduction of bolt-action breech loading rifles, the era of concentrated volley-fire, which had defined warfare for over 400 years, came to an end. New weapons to compliment these rifles, such as machine guns and breech loading artillery, once again shifted military advantage to defense, eventually culminating in the obscenely prolonged trench battles of World War I. The Needle Gun was the world’s first look at the devastation that modern weapons could inflict on opposing armies. Indeed, the casualty rates of ensuing European conflicts would dwarf those of all previous wars.
Featured Image via The Firearm Blog