A breech-loading gun is a firearm in which the cartridge or shell is
inserted or loaded into a chamber integral to the rear portion of a
Modern mass production firearms are breech-loading (though mortars are
generally muzzle-loaded), except those which are intended specifically
by design to be muzzle-loaders, in order to be legal for certain types
of hunting. Early firearms, on the other hand, were almost entirely
muzzle-loading. The main advantage of breech-loading is a reduction in
reloading time – it is much quicker to load the projectile and the
charge into the breech of a gun or cannon than to try to force them
down a long tube, especially when the bullet fit is tight and the tube
has spiral ridges from rifling. In field artillery, the advantages
were similar: the crew no longer had to force powder and shot down a
long barrel with rammers, and the shot could now tightly fit the bore
(increasing accuracy greatly), without being impossible to ram home
with a fouled barrel. It also allows turrets and emplacements to be
smaller (since breech loaded guns do not need to be retracted for
loading). After breech loading became common, it also became common
practice to fit recoil systems onto field guns, to prevent the recoil
from rolling the carriage back with every shot and ruining the aim.
This allowed for faster firing times, but is not directly related to
whether the gun is breech loading or not. Now that guns were able to
fire without recoiling, the crew were able to remain grouped closely
around the gun, ready to load and put final touches on the aim,
subsequent to firing the next shot. This led to the development of an
armored shield fitted to the carriage of the gun, to help shield the
crew from long range area or sniper fire from the new, high-velocity,
long-range rifles, or even machine guns.
2 See also
4 Further reading
5 External links
Early types of breech loaders from the 15th and 16th century on
display at the Army Museum in Stockholm.
Although breech-loading firearms were developed as far back as the
late 14th century in Burgundy, breech-loading became
more successful with improvements in precision engineering and
machining in the 19th century (see Dreyse needle gun).
The main challenge for developers of breech-loading firearms was
sealing the breech. This was eventually solved for smaller firearms by
the development of the self-contained metallic cartridge. For firearms
too large to use cartridges, the problem was solved by the development
of the interrupted screw.
Main article: Breech-loading swivel gun
Breech-loading swivel guns were invented in the 14th century. They
were a particular type of swivel gun, and consisted in a small
breech-loading cannon equipped with a swivel for easy rotation, and
which could be loaded by inserting a mug-shaped chamber already filled
with powder and projectiles. The breech-loading swivel gun had a high
rate of fire, and was especially effective in anti-personnel roles.
Henry VIII breech loading hunting gun, 16th century. The breech block
rotates on the left on hinges, and is loaded with a reloadable iron
cartridge. Thought to have been used as a hunting gun to shoot birds.
The original wheellock mechanism is missing.
Breech-loading firearm that belonged to Philip V of Spain, made by A.
Madrid circa 1715. It came with a ready-to-load reusable
cartridge. This is a miquelet system.
Mechanism of Philip V's breech-loading firearm (detail).
The breech mechanism of the Ferguson Rifle.
Breech-loading firearms are known from the 16th century. Henry VIII
possessed one, which he apparently used as a hunting gun to shoot
More breech-loading firearms were made in the early 18th century. One
such gun known to have belonged to Philip V of Spain, and was
manufactured circa 1715, probably in Madrid. It came with a ready-to
load reusable cartridge.
Patrick Ferguson, a
British Army officer, developed in 1772 the
Ferguson rifle, a breech-loading flintlock firearm. Roughly two
hundred of the rifles were manufactured and used in the Battle of
Brandywine, during the American Revolutionary War, but shortly after
they were retired and replaced with the standard
Brown Bess musket.
Later on into the mid-19th century there were attempts in Europe at an
effective breech-loader. There were concentrated attempts at improved
cartridges and methods of ignition.
In Paris in 1808, in association with French gunsmith François
Jean Samuel Pauly created the first fully self-contained
cartridges: the cartridges incorporated a copper base with
integrated mercury fulminate primer powder (the major innovation of
Pauly), a round bullet and either brass or paper casing. The
cartridge was loaded through the breech and fired with a needle. The
needle-activated central-fire breech-loading gun would become a major
feature of firearms thereafter. The corresponding firearm was also
developed by Pauly. Pauly made an improved version, which was
protected by a patent on 29 September 1812.
The Pauly cartridge was further improved by the French gunsmith
Casimir Lefaucheux in 1828, by adding a pinfire primer, but Lefaucheux
did not register his patent until 1835: a pinfire cartridge containing
powder in a card-board shell. In 1846 another Paris Frenchman,
Benjamin Houllier, patented the first fully metallic cartridge
containing powder in a metallic shell. Houllier commercialised his
weapons in association with the gunsmiths Blanchard or Charles
Robert. But the subsequent Houllier and Lefaucheux cartridges,
even if they were the first full-metal shells, were still pinfire
cartridges, like those used in the LeMat (1856) and Lefaucheux (1858)
revolvers, although the LeMat also evolved in a revolver using rimfire
cartridges. A year before Houllier's invention, in 1845, the Frenchman
Louis-Nicolas Flobert invented, for indoor shooting security, the
first rimfire metallic cartridge, constituted by a bullet fit in a
percussion cap. Usually derived in the 6 mm and 9 mm
calibres, it is since then called the Flobert cartridge or the
Bosquette cartridge but it does not contain any powder; the only
propellant substance contained in the cartridge is the percussion cap
itself. In English-speaking countries the Flobert cartridge
corresponds to the
.22 BB and
.22 CB ammunitions.
The first centrefire cartridge was introduced in 1855 by Pottet, with
both Berdan and Boxer priming.
In 1842, the
Norwegian Armed Forces
Norwegian Armed Forces adopted the breechloading caplock,
the Kammerlader, one of the first instances in which a modern army
widely adopted a breechloading rifle as its main infantry firearm.
The Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr (Dreyse needle gun) was a single-shot
breech-loading rifle using a rotating bolt to seal the breech. It was
so called because of its .5-inch needle-like firing pin, which passed
through a paper cartridge case to impact a percussion cap at the
bullet base. It began development in the 1830s under Johann Nicolaus
von Dreyse and eventually an improved version of it was adopted by
Prussia in the late 1840s. The paper cartridge and the gun had
numerous deficiencies; specifically, serious problems with gas
leaking. However, the rifle was used to great success in the Prussian
army in the
Austro-Prussian war of 1866. This, and the Franco-Prussian
war of 1870–71, eventually caused much interest in Europe for breech
loaders and the Prussian military system in general.
In 1860, the New Zealand government petitioned the Colonial Office for
more soldiers to defend Auckland. The bid was unsuccessful and the
government began instead making inquiries to Britain to obtain modern
weapons. In 1861 they placed orders for the Calisher and Terry
carbine, which used a breech loading system using a bullet consisting
of a standard Minié lead bullet in .54 calibre backed by a charge and
tallowed wad, wrapped in nitrated paper to keep it waterproof. The
carbine had been issued in small numbers to English cavalry (Hussars)
from 1857. About 3–4,000 carbines were brought into New Zealand a
few years later. The carbine was used extensively by the Forest
Rangers, an irregular force led by
Gustavus von Tempsky
Gustavus von Tempsky that
specialized in bush warfare and reconnaissance. Von Tempsky liked the
short carbine, which could be loaded while lying down. The
waterproofed cartridge was easier to keep dry in the New Zealand bush.
Museums in New Zealand hold a small number of these carbines in good
During the American Civil War, at least nineteen types of
breech-loader were fielded. The Sharps used a successful dropping
block design. The Greene used rotating bolt-action, and was fed from
the breech. The Spencer, which used lever-actuated bolt-action, was
fed from a seven-round detachable tube magazine. The Henry and
Volcanic used rimfire metallic cartridges fed from a tube magazine
under the barrel. These held a significant advantage over
muzzle-loaders. The improvements in breech-loaders had spelled the end
of muzzle-loaders. To make use of the enormous number of war surplus
muzzle-loaders, the Allin conversion Springfield was adopted in 1866.
General Burnside invented a breech-loading rifle before the war, the
The French adopted the new
Chassepot rifle in 1866, which was much
improved over the needle gun as it had dramatically fewer gas leaks
due to its de Bange sealing system. The British initially took the
existing Enfield and fitted it with a Snider breech action (solid
block, hinged parallel to the barrel) firing the Boxer cartridge.
Following a competitive examination of 104 guns in 1866, the British
decided to adopt the Peabody-derived
Martini-Henry with trap-door
loading in 1871.
Single-shot breech-loaders would be used throughout the latter half of
the 19th century, but were slowly replaced by various designs for
repeating rifles, first used in the American Civil War. Manual
breech-loaders gave way to manual magazine feed and then to
Three-shot experimental breech-loading cannon (burst) of Henry VIII,
An animation showing the loading cycle for a large naval
breech-loader. Notice that there is a series of interlocking doors
that never permit an open path from the gunhouse, down which a flash
might travel, to the magazine.
Main article: Rifled breech loader
The first modern breech-loading rifled gun is a breech-loader invented
Martin von Wahrendorff with a cylindrical breech plug secured by a
horizontal wedge in 1837. In the 1850s and 1860s, Whitworth and
Armstrong invented improved breech loading artillery.
The M1867 naval guns produced in Imperial Russia at the Obukhov
State Plant used
Tower of London
Tower of London exhibit.
Musée de l'Armée
Musée de l'Armée exhibit, Paris.
^ a b c Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue
by James Smyth Wallace, p. 24 
^ Firearms by Roger Pauly p. 94
^ A History of Firearms by W. Y. Carman p. 121
^ Les Lefaucheux, by Maître Simili, Spring 1990 (in French)
^ An example of a Benjamin Houllier gun manufactured in association
with the gunsmith Blanchard
^ An example of a Benjamin Houllier gun manufactured in association
with the gunsmiths Blanchard and Charles Robert
^ History of firearms (fireadvantages.com)
^ How guns work (fireadvantages.com)
^ Shooting section (la section de tir) of the official website (in
French) of a modern indoor shooting association in Belgium, Les
Arquebusier de Visé.
Belich, James (1986). The New Zealand Wars. Auckland: Penguin. pp.
119–125. ISBN 0-14-027504-5.
Te Awamutu Museum, Te Awamutu, Waikato, New Zealand. Research notes
and a C and T carbine
^ "Terry Carbines", Te Papa
^ American Breech-loading Small Arms: A Description of Late
Inventions, Including the Gatling Gun, and a Chapter on Cartridges,
January 1, 1872, p. 14
^ The History of Russian Artillery since the mid-19th century up to
1917 Archived July 11, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
Greener, William Wellington. The Breechloader and How to Use It ...
Illustrated. London: Cassell & Co, 1892. OCLC 560426421
Held, Robert. The Age of Firearms; A Pictorial History from the
Invention of Gunpower to the Advent of the Modern Breechloader.
Northfield, Ill: Gun Digest Co, 1970. ISBN 069580068X
Layman, George J. A Guide to the Ballard Breechloader. Union City, TN:
Pioneer Press, 1997. OCLC 38968829
"Breech Loading Rifled Artillery". Global Security. Retrieved
"History of the Rifled Cannon: Discovery of the Breech-Loading Gun and
Conical Projectiles". The New York Times. July 12, 1861. Retrieved
"Notes on the History of the Breech-Loading Gun". Scientific American.
70 (22): cover, 343. 2 June 1894.
Firearms from the collections of the Prince of Liechtenstein, an
exhibition catalog from The Metropolitan Museum of Art (fully
available online as PDF), which contains material on breech-loa