What if? Thin Red Line v Dreyse Needle Rifle.

#1
What I think was an excellent Danish historical drama 1864 ended on Saturday:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05y3m23/1864-episode-7

Bit of a taster here:


If you've not seen it, bit arty but on the whole to me a very watchable story based on Danish v Prussian & Austrian war of 1864. I was aware of this war but didn't know too much about it and it filled in some of the background. I guess some of the event received poetic licence but it gave background and colour to the history behind this war. The only false note for me was the 'psychic' veteran soldier character.

It got me thinking though. The Danes were armed with muzzle loading rifles I guess fairly similar to the 1853 Enfield Rifle whilst the Prussian troops had the Dreyse needle gun. The Danes got a hard time of it, a lot of it due to politicians not listening to the generals (if the series is to be believed) but also probably due to the Prussian needle gun. The Austrians came a cropper against the Prussians a few years later for the same reason being armed with muzzle loaders but also poor tactics and training, if Wiki is to be beleived.

Got me thinking though. The '53 Enfield rifle came into service after the needle gun and I was wondering as a what if scenario, the British army (just go with this scenario, ignore historical reasons why not) had to come up against the Prussians in say the 1850s how they would have fared. The Enfield had a longer range so would this and maybe British tactics have overcome the slower loading disadvantage?

Or would the generalship, organisation of the army and planning have caused the usual balls ups given that this is during the decade of Crimea?

I'm not a military expert nor have I been in the forces so apart from applying 'Hollywood' level strategy knowledge on this, I couldn't give any reasonable assessment of my own so I wondered if any military history buffs could 'game' this one and come up with a hypothetical outcome.
 
#2
Given that you could fire the Dreyse lying down [carefully as opturation was a problem] I suspect we would have been well and truly stuffed.
 
#3
Given that you could fire the Dreyse lying down [carefully as opturation was a problem] I suspect we would have been well and truly stuffed.
That was my thought.

I just wondered whether the British generals would either looked at the options and considered whether to for instance buy different rifles, change tactics or go at them in the same old way. I think I know what the answer is.
 
#4
Tactically the British fought the Crimean War as if it was the Peninsula round 2, and arguably they didn't even do that very well.
 
#5
That was my thought.

I just wondered whether the British generals would either looked at the options and considered whether to for instance buy different rifles, change tactics or go at them in the same old way. I think I know what the answer is.

British small arms procurement in the 19th century was probably the best we've ever had. All of the weapons adopted - P'53, Snider, Martini-Henry, Lee Metford, Lee Enfield - were outstanding, and arguably the best in the world of their class.

The reason why British small arms often appeared to be one generation behind was that they were selected to much more rigorous standards for reliability than most European weapons. Britain had global military commitments, and in all operating environments. Hence new technologies such as breech loading, magazine loading, small calibre, etc were not adopted until they were proven - unlike with the European "early adopters".

The P'53/Dreyse is such an example: the P'53 had nearly 100% operating reliability anywhere in the world, whereas the Dreyse had (depending upon sources) somewhere between 60-90% just in temperate European conditions.

The Danish War was in 1864. By 1866 Britain had adopted the Snider - although it was intended as an interim conversion of the P'53, the system was far more reliable and effective than the Dreyse and other needle systems.

Tactics apart, IMHO the choice of rifle wouldn't have made that significant a difference between a British army and a European one.
 
#7
The Prussians do seem to have had the better tactics as well as the needle gun. After wiping the floor with the Danes, they then went on to give the French a good pasting in the Franco-Prussian war..

The French by this time had also adopted a needle gun, the Chassepot which was superior in almost every way to the Prussian one.. but it did not prevent them getting handed a major portion by the Prussians. The French have form here.. the Chassepot, Lebel, and the Mitralleuse should all have been show stoppers.. except they weren't! It's not wot you got, its how you use it, as the actress ect..

Muzzle loaders are perfectly fine.. as long as the opposition do not have breech loaders (or are french)!
 
#9
The Prussians do seem to have had the better tactics as well as the needle gun. After wiping the floor with the Danes, they then went on to give the French a good pasting in the Franco-Prussian war..

The French by this time had also adopted a needle gun, the Chassepot which was superior in almost every way to the Prussian one.. but it did not prevent them getting handed a major portion by the Prussians. The French have form here.. the Chassepot, Lebel, and the Mitralleuse should all have been show stoppers.. except they weren't! It's not wot you got, its how you use it, as the actress ect..

Muzzle loaders are perfectly fine.. as long as the opposition do not have breech loaders (or are french)!
The major war winner for the Prussians was their artillery. Breech loaders against muzzle loaders.
Plus the shite French reservist recall system, and the fact that they are ,well, French.
 
#10
Early accounts of the use of the Snider Enfield breech loader demonstrate what a game changer it was. It ould be loaded prone (although this was not a general training point) and the rate of fire, combined with it's accuracy and beaten zone meant ti was an excellent all-round weapon, especially if the opposition were armed with nothing more than sharpened mango halves. The point is very well made above about the rigorous testing of British rifles than had to (and still have to) operate in all climate zones and were operated by semi-literate British and Imperial troops. The Boxer cartridge was surprisingly reliable and, of course, had impressive muzzle energy compared with many others of the time. The Snider-Enfield was a developmental weapon and was replaced a few years later by the superlative Martini Enfield. However, for anyone who has served in Afghanistan, the number of 'good' snider enfields in the local markets that are still in a fireable condition is a measure of the reliability of the original P53 design and the Snider modifications.
 
#11
Early accounts of the use of the Snider Enfield breech loader demonstrate what a game changer it was. It ould be loaded prone (although this was not a general training point) and the rate of fire, combined with it's accuracy and beaten zone meant ti was an excellent all-round weapon, especially if the opposition were armed with nothing more than sharpened mango halves. The point is very well made above about the rigorous testing of British rifles than had to (and still have to) operate in all climate zones and were operated by semi-literate British and Imperial troops. The Boxer cartridge was surprisingly reliable and, of course, had impressive muzzle energy compared with many others of the time. The Snider-Enfield was a developmental weapon and was replaced a few years later by the superlative Martini Enfield. However, for anyone who has served in Afghanistan, the number of 'good' snider enfields in the local markets that are still in a fireable condition is a measure of the reliability of the original P53 design and the Snider modifications.
I have both a Mk3 Snider and a Martini Henry (and a Chassepot as a matter of fact).. I think the Martini Henry was a well tested weapon, but the Snider was always a bit of a stop gap.. although it was considered a good rifle at the shorter ranges..

The problem with both the P53 and the Snider was the short fat bullet and the shallow rifling. The main problem with gunpowder driven rifles is the control of fouling. The residue from the gunpowder, particularly at low pressure, is the builds up just in front of the chamber. Depending on the moisture content of the air, you get a ring forming that either stops you loading or causes the accuracy to drop off..

As a breech loader, the Snider was easier to keep clean and less likely to jam.. but they did have some real problems getting the bullet to fly consistently. There were all sorts of variations such as hollow noses and base plugs to get the bullet to expand reliably and counter the fouling. Most of the P53 muzzle loaders were converted to Mk 1 and 2 Sniders. Mk3 Sniders were built from scratch, and had steel rather than wrought iron barrels. I suspect the reason they kept making Sniders even after the Martini had been accepted, was that the Enfield tooling for the P53 was still ok and cheap to run..

The fact that the Army was able to switch quickly from the relatively new P53 muzzle loading rifle to breech loaders bought the time needed to test and develop the Martini. This rifle was based on the pioneering work done by Joseph Whitworth on barrel design. Henry modified the hexagonal Whitworth barrel, which really needed mechanically fitting bullets, to one which would reliably accept cylindrical bullets, but which minimised the sharp angles which caught the fouling in the Enfield rifling. It was the introduction of the drawn cartridge case, initially for the Gatling that made the Martini a reliable proposition.

My main point is however that it was the competitive civilian shooting at the time that really drove the development effort... Although the popular myth is that bearded gentlemen in Hythe and Woolwich where responsible, I contend that it was the competition shooting at Bisley and the efforts made by the likes of Metford that were the real pioneers of scientific rifle shooting..

A great pity that civilians are now prevented from using military rifles in competition, but then we don't need them to design long range sniping rifles any more...

do we?

Oh, hang on....

Edited to add..

The replacement of the standard line rifle/musket is always a big deal. It involved changing a huge infrastructure - not only the rifle, but all the tooling, repair and maintenance arrangements, training and doctrine and in many cases the ammunition stock, which can actually cost far more than the weapon. This is why such changes are inevitably political and seldom smooth.. This is why countries often do not change the ammunition and the rifle at the same time, or at least minimise the degree of change.. (the 7.62x51 NATO is actually a shortened .30-06, used by the US since the turn of the last centuary...)

The one change I could never get was the adoption of the .223 Armalite.. why change both the calibre and the firearm at the same time, and right at the start of a major conflict? Some king size cojones (or at least egos..) involved in that one IMHO...
 
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#12
British small arms procurement in the 19th century was probably the best we've ever had. All of the weapons adopted - P'53, Snider, Martini-Henry, Lee Metford, Lee Enfield - were outstanding, and arguably the best in the world of their class.

The reason why British small arms often appeared to be one generation behind was that they were selected to much more rigorous standards for reliability than most European weapons. Britain had global military commitments, and in all operating environments. Hence new technologies such as breech loading, magazine loading, small calibre, etc were not adopted until they were proven - unlike with the European "early adopters".

The P'53/Dreyse is such an example: the P'53 had nearly 100% operating reliability anywhere in the world, whereas the Dreyse had (depending upon sources) somewhere between 60-90% just in temperate European conditions.

The Danish War was in 1864. By 1866 Britain had adopted the Snider - although it was intended as an interim conversion of the P'53, the system was far more reliable and effective than the Dreyse and other needle systems.

Tactics apart, IMHO the choice of rifle wouldn't have made that significant a difference between a British army and a European one.
As always, many interesting contributions and posts from ARSSErs. Thanks for that

From what I've read I can see that the P53 was an excellent weapon though replaced in 1866 with the Snider.

With your last sentence, do you mean you think the British would have come a cropper?

In 1866 there was the Austro Prussian war and the Austrians had the Lorenz similar to the P53 and they were badly mauled. As a result the Austrians went through the same process of converting Lorenzes to breechloaders until the purpose made Werndl came in.

I read that the Austrian army was badly underfunded (maybe the same problem as Britain had at the time) but also poorly led and tranied with many conscripts being sent home on permanent leave until their time expired, unlike the British.

I can see the pro's and cons of the P53 versus the Dreyse but what I also wanted to get if possible is any views on what people think on how the British army would have coped if up against Prussians before say the Snider entered service given that it was a professional army with different training and methods (I think) to say the Austrians and Danes. (That is if anyone has the time and inclination).
 
#13
The Snider-Enfield was a developmental weapon and was replaced a few years later by the superlative Martini Enfield. However, for anyone who has served in Afghanistan, the number of 'good' snider enfields in the local markets that are still in a fireable condition is a measure of the reliability of the original P53 design and the Snider modifications.
Except for the Indian army who retained it until, I believe, the introduction of the Lee-Enfield.
 
#14
I also wanted to get if possible is any views on what people think on how the British army would have coped if up against Prussians before say the Snider entered service given that it was a professional army with different training and methods (I think) to say the Austrians and Danes. (That is if anyone has the time and inclination).
I would suggest that the biggest difference would have been at a strategic level. The Prussians had a professional general staff, a regular army located essentially in Prussia that was larger than the British army that was scattered all over the world. Against these problems what rifle who had would not have made much difference [see commments above re the French].
 
#15
I would suggest that the biggest difference would have been at a strategic level. The Prussians had a professional general staff, a regular army located essentially in Prussia that was larger than the British army that was scattered all over the world. Against these problems what rifle who had would not have made much difference [see commments above re the French].
Thanks for that. I'm getting that view too.
 
#16
Britain vs. European powers has always been chalk and cheese.

Historically, there has always been a recognition that Britain simply didn't have the population base to support a mass army that might march around Europe doing battle with continental mass armies. Even when the Napoleonic wars propelled Britain into the role of military superpower, the choice was to make up numbers through alliances an coalitions on land - but wielding absolute supremacy at sea instead.

Despite the legendary (or mythological) poor leadership and poor officer training of the British army, the combat record of regiments and formations has been astonishingly good - especially given the appalling conditions they usually endured. The success rate indicates that the overall quality and reliability of line units was very high.

I don't think British army tactics and tactical improvisation would have been any worse than that of a Prussian army with a professional staff - they were just different from the European model, and usually much smaller scale. Again, if you look at the history of British colonial wars at the time, they are full of innovative ops: night, mountain, jungle, desert, amphibious, fortification assault, deception, raids, and so on.

I guessing that 1864 British vs Prussians would have been a tale of (quality) vs (quality & numbers). I think some adaption would have been found to the problem of small arms and tactics. Discussion of firearms technology and the European threat (albeit with France in mind, as usual!) dominated society at the time, and military tactics pamphlets were frequently written and published outside of official channels. If you look at British Parliamentary records (Hansard), they are full of heated debates about the choice and production of rifles for the forces (nowadays military equipment gets barely a flicker of political interest....). Clearly, there was a public debate about the problems in fighting a modernising continental army, and there must have been some sort of resulting military contingency thought about.
 
#17
The other factor which we tend to overlook is that the Europeans were constantly ripping chunks out of each other from the end of Waterloo to WW2.. We scored a bye for most of the period up to 1914. We never really encountered a major opposed muzzle loading battle apart from the Crimea...

The appearance of the needle gun in the Prussian Danish War caused a near panic in the UK calling for "Something to be Done.." and the competition to convert the P53 (not replace it..!). But we were not really engaged in any major conflicts and could afford to take time to develop the next stage..

From a practical point of view, my thumbnail critiques of the various rifles are as follows:

P53 - good accurate rifle as long as it can be kept clean. Needs cleaning after about 6 -10 shots depending on weather and quality of powder.

Dreyse - pretty complicated and not that reliable. Breach seal is not good and leaks, particularly when it gets fouled. Ammunition is not robust and is easily damaged by poor handling and rain etc..The bullet is egg shaped and not very ballistically efficient. Weapon is heavy and not well balanced.

Chassepot - Actually a very good rifle. The rubber breech seal works, and the accuracy and range is an order of magnitude better than the Dreyse, P53 or the Snider. The gun is light and well balanced and is pleasant to shoot. The ammunition is still fragile, but less so than the Dreyse and easier to manufacture.

Snider. Not really a rifle in it's own right, being a converted P53! Because it is now a breech loader, they were able to use a slightly larger bullet. The action is quite fiddly and the breech is a bit picky about its ammunition, which has to fit accurately. Like the P53 and the Dreyse, it uses a short fat bullet at a relatively low velocity. You need to get your range estimation really close as the thing has a trajectory like a rainbow..

Martini Henry. I think this is one of the best designs of the period. It fires a long, heavy bullet at a decent velocity to give flat shooting (as does the Chassepot!). The rifle is light and handy and very well balanced (even with the bayonet). The action is pretty idiot proof, although there is sometimes a problem with hard extractions in a dirty gun.. ( use the clearing rod..!)

For completeness.. I will also consider the Mauser Model 71. This was the first of the bolt actions, converted to magazine feed in 1884.. A well made rifle in 11mm, slight smaller than the Martini.. but quite a lot heavier and with a habit of biting your palm! Again a good accurate rifle, but heavy, particularly with the tube magazine..
 
#18
Why would we have been fighting the Prussians anyway? :p
I suspect that we would have focussed on artillery and keeping the rifle range as long as possible for as long as possible. And possibly have fought in more open order than was common at the time.
 
#19
Why would we have been fighting the Prussians anyway? :p
I suspect that we would have focussed on artillery and keeping the rifle range as long as possible for as long as possible. And possibly have fought in more open order than was common at the time.
Good point..

As to the Artillery.. was there not a major internal punchup going on between the Horse, Field and Garrison factions at the time..?
 
#20
Why would we have been fighting the Prussians anyway? :p
I suspect that we would have focussed on artillery and keeping the rifle range as long as possible for as long as possible. And possibly have fought in more open order than was common at the time.
As mentioned in my opening post, I posed it as a 'what if' scenario and thus ignore the historical facts or reasons as to how we got there.

Of course, you could always pose a hypothetical reason why, such as Victoria rejected Albert, Germanic honour was insulted and Prussia in the name of the German Confederacy was seeking to have the insult redressed. They assembled a load of barges which were towed around the North Sea full of troops and landed on the East Coast in an operation called Sealion. They got past the Royal Navy cos most of their ships were dealing with slavers in the Atlantic.

Battle then ensued somehwhere near Newcastle.

Discuss.
 

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