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Never tested in battle, and superceded in only 14 years by the excellent Schmidt-Rubin series of rifles, the Vetterli often draws fire for its anemic cartridge and rear locking lugs, but compared to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.