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Action Shooting History Part 2; Metallic Rifle Cartridges, Dreyse Needle Guns, Snider-Enfields & More

Considered by many, the US Civil War is the first modern warfare. Integrated artillery and infantry. Hit and run cavalry raids. Electric communications (telegraph), aero assets (Balloon artillery and general observation), prime mover transportation (trains) and the introduction of metallic cartridge firearms and rapid fire weapons like the Gatling Gun.

Metallic Rifle Cartridges

Smith & Wesson obtained patent rights to the bored through cylinder, and introduced the Model 1 break-top revolver chambered for the humble .22 short rimfire with a black powder loading in 1857, prior to opening of the Civil War. Benjamin Tyler Henry introduced his lever action, breech loading repeater in 1860 and his 44 Henry rimfire cartridge. The union followed with the Spencer, the first adopted repeating, metallic cartridge rifle by a military force. The US Navy was the first to adopt the weapon followed by the Union Army. Popular with the cavalry, at 14-20 shots a minute two Spencer’s could deal as much lead as a squad of Confederate muzzle loaders. With tubular magazines reloading could be accomplish in seconds. An extremely proficient soldier could get off only about 3 rounds a minute, maximum with maybe 5 shots every two minutes using a muzzle loader. The metallic cartridge was game changer, and combined with a repeater a force to be reckoned with. After the war, metallic cartridges begin to replace cap ‘n ball. By 1873 virtually every major power had adopted a metallic cartridge rifle, though many were single shot.

Dreyse Needle Gun

The German developed and adopted the Dreyse needle gun. A bolt action rifle that fired 5-6 paper cased cartridges with the primer attached to the base of the bullet. A needle would pass through the base of the bullet through the propellant charge into a primer or cap. Needless to say at the least this would put a lot of strain on the needle operating in a ‘heated’ environment. The Dreyse was first used in 1846, though adopted in 1841. Problems included during British trials were delicate springs that broke regularly. When dirty the needle would cause misfires, and black powder is very dirty and tends to create fouling in firearms after multiple firings. The bolt required high strength to operate due to fouling build up. There was extensive wear between the barrel junctions, a breach cylinder, and gas escaping at bolt face. The escaping gas caused bullet velocity reduction. Needle breakage over time due to heat and mechanical stress was not uncommon.

Snider-Enfield Cavalry Carbines

The Brits had their Snider-Enfield cap ‘n ball cartridge conversions. Developed by an American the Snider-Enfield was adopted in 1866, and repurposed the ubiquitous Pattern 1853 Enfield, prolific in the British Empire forces. The US conversion of the Trapdoor Springfield Model 1865 was chambered in .50-70. By the introduction of the 1873 Trapdoor and the adoption of the .45-70 cartridge the trapdoors were new production not conversions. The Brits followed the Snider with the Martini-Henry a ‘drop’ block single shot of the Zulu War fame.

Repeating Rifles

By the late 1888 to the early 20th century the major militaries where converting to bolt action weapons based on the Mauser bolt-action. By the opening of World War 1 every one of the belligerents were armed with repeating bolt action rifles, firing high velocity jacketed bullets backed up the Maxim machine guns or knock-offs.
We will address more “action history” future installments.

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