Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Reflections on the Dreyse needle gun

I began reading Geoffrey Warwo’s history of the Austro-Prussian War recently, and I found his discussion of Prussian “fire tactics” versus Austrian “shock tactics” fascinating. The enabling weapon of Prussia’s fire superiority was the Dreyse needle gun.

Introduced into service in 1848, the Dreyse was the standard Prussian long arm until 1871. Named for its long, needle-like firing pin, the Dreyse was the first bolt-action rifle adopted for general service by any European army. Despite its revolutionary nature in an age of muzzle-loaders, the Dreyse was actually rather crudely made: anecdotes tell of soldiers needing to hammer the breech open with a rock. The bolt’s seal was also imperfect, meaning that hot gases could vent into the user’s face when he fired. Near the end of its life, it was outperformed quite significantly by the French Chassepot.

Despite these flaws, the Dreyse’s revolutionary nature lay in its rate of fire. The breech-loading bolt-action allowed it to be loaded and fired four times as quickly as muzzle-loaders like the Austrian Lorenz rifle or the British Pattern 1853 Enfield. Notably however, Generals outside Prussia saw this as just another flaw of the Dreyse: rifle cartridges in the 19th century were heavy, large-calibre tubes about the size of a man’s finger, so a line infantryman could only carry sixty of them. With the Dreyse’s rate of fire, a soldier would blow through his entire ammunition load in just fifteen minutes of firing, and probably rather inaccurate firing too, given the rifle’s other aforementioned flaws.

For this reason, no other state but Prussia adopted breech-loaders. The accuracy and moral effect of a line of soldiers firing rifled muskets simultaneously on command seemed so superior. However, in the Prussian Army, the technical innovations of the needle gun went hand-in-hand with the tactical innovations of its chief of staff, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. Moltke abandoned the traditional tactics of lines and shock columns used since the Napoleonic Wars in favour of more dispersed companies and platoons. With every man armed with a needle gun, these small units could work independently and aggressively, making heavy use of cover, for while traditional rifles could only be loaded while standing, the Dreyse could be loaded from any position; standing, kneeling or lying.

The Second Schleswig War of 1864 proved the superiority of the new Prussian weapon and tactical system. Danish “storm columns” made repeated, futile and bloody attacks against Prussian lines and were driven off with horrendous losses. Nevertheless, the Austrians, Prussia's then-ally, found increasingly-desperate and hilarious-sounding reasons not to adopt fire tactics in favour of shock tactics. As a war between Prussia and Austria loomed, the Austrian General Benedek remarked; “Because given the excellent Prussian rifle, the Prussians will never expect us to attack their front.” We would be forgiven for thinking that this came straight from the mouth of General Melchett.

The Austro-Prussian War began in 1866, and in six weeks, the Prussians completely swept the field with the type of fire tactics the Dreyse enabled. The supremacy of the needle gun's rate of fire over slow, aimed musketry heralded the adoption of breech-loaders worldwide was the predecessor of the machine guns of the First World War, and the superiority of fire still sought by armies to this day.

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