Saturday, November 05, 2005

From the Vault: A 19th Century assault rifle.

The year is 1869. The U.S. military is pondering the cheapest way to convert its overstock of muzzleloading Springfields to single shot breechloaders, and the British are doing likewise with their large supply of P1853 Enfields. For countries whose only real zones of conflict are scattered brushfire wars against primitively-armed opponents, this is a cost-effective move. Continental European armies, however, are driven by a more serious imperative: The Prussians. For twenty nine years now, the Prussian soldier has been issued a veritable wonder-weapon: a single-shot breechloading bolt-action rifle, the Dreyse "Needle Gun", and has demonstrated its effectiveness against both the Danes and the Austrians. The French, ever anxious of their arch foes across the Rhine, have responded by fielding a similar arm; the Mle. 1866 Chassepot. Both of these rifles used primitive, combustible cases that were vulnerable to damp and mishandling, but the ability to fire from prone or kneeling and still reload rapidly that they granted their users was a large leap forward over the awkward frontstuffers of the day.

Rightly paranoid of the saber-rattling powers on their northern border, and ever-jealous of their independence and neutrality, the tiny nation of Switzerland responded with a weapon that, compared to other standard infantry arms of its time, was pure science fiction: The Gew. 1869 Vetterli. ABOVE: Gew. 1869/71 Vetterli. Photo by Oleg Volk.

While the Prussians and French had to worry about gasses blowing back into their face from badly-sealed breeches, and fumble with loose rounds after every shot, the Swiss rifleman had a 12-shot breechloading turnbolt that used self-contained metallic cartridges. The 10.4x38R rimfire cartridge was no great shakes ballistically, lobbing a 334gr bullet at a leisurely 1345fps, but magazine capacity can cover a multitude of sins, especially in the hands of of an experienced rifleman, a commodity that the Swiss have never lacked.ABOVE: 10.43x38R, flanked by 7.62x51 NATO and 5.56x45 NATO.

The mechanism of the Vetterli was simplicity itself, being drawn from the 1866 Winchester; the bolt operated a bellcrank that knocked the cartridge lifter up and down. The bolt cocked itself on opening, and dual firing pins helped mitigate the occasional priming deficiencies of the rimfire cartridge.ABOVE: Gew. 1869/71 Vetterli action detail. Photo by Oleg Volk.

Never tested in battle, and superceded in only 14 years by the excellent Schmidt-Rubin series of rifles, the Vetterli often draws fire for its anemic cartridge and rear locking lugs, but compared to every other service rifle of the day, the fact remains that the Swiss were issuing the future while everyone else was still fumbling in the past.

7 comments:

Elmo's aphasiatic twin said...

That is a detailed background piece on the Vetterli. I first stumbled across a Vetterli when I was about 14. A friend had one in very good condition propped up in the corner of his room. Neither of us could find much out about it, which made it even more mysterious. Hefting it put us back into time.

Tam, you ought to become a scribe for the gun rags. You do a far better job than most plying that trade. Send some of the companies a submission letter on those 19th century innovations.

Dutch Expat said...

Is the ammo for this rifle still available?

Elmo's aphasiatic twin said...

If there is any of that old rimfire ammo floating around, I doubt it would pop.

Dr. StrangeGun said...

Anemic old cartridge... y'know, I don't think I'd want to get hit by a 336gr anything moving over 100fps...

Tam said...

" Is the ammo for this rifle still available?"

Sadly, no. The last commercial US production was by Remington-Peters in 1941. The caliber is common enough in antique collections though that a good letter-writing campaign might get Old Western Scrounger to do a limited run. I know I'd be willing to pay up to $3/round with a smile on my face...

Standard Mischief said...

It would be quite a hassle but you could have something made up custom like this adapter at Dixie Gun Works:

http://www.dixiegunworks.com/product_info.php?products_id=8153

They are made of brass stock and use a ..22 rimfire blanks as a primer.

Your special custom thingy could have something special made up to deal with the double firing pin, either a spot on the opposite side to put a dab of RTV, or a second place to put a second blank. I don't know much about the gun, could a special firing pin with only one striker be made up?

The second is the fact that you are not going to be able to feed such a thing through the magazine. It needs to be hand loaded to be sure the firing pin will hit the blank.

All in all it's just a major PITA.

Standard Mischief said...

Wow, there really is a forum or a newsgroup for everybody. Check out this:

Vetterli Rifles

Converting to centerfire, brass forming, bullet molds, even deer hunting. That's enough daydreaming about a relic I don't even own.