Innovation and Cunning: Weaponry of Imperial Germany Part 1: The Rifles


The German Empire came into existence in 1871, following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war, and then ceased to exist in 1918 with the defeat of the Central Powers in World War I. Of course, the German Empire didn't come from nothing; the heart of the Empire was the Kingdom of Prussia, whose arms and doctrine over the 18th and 19th centuries foreshadows the course of the empire. Similarly, the collapse of the empire merely transitioned to the Weimar Republic, and subsequently the Nazi Reich and then the modern German Republic. In the early 19th century the rise in German Nationalism began pushing the patchwork of independent kingdoms, Prussia, Saxony, Baden, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, among others, relics of the aftermath of the 30 years war 2 centuries earlier, towards greater integration under the Hohenzollern family who ruled Prussia. The biggest barrier to unification was other powers which claimed parts of the prospective German super-state, including France and Denmark, as well as Austria (another presumptive part of the empire, as Austria is German and very important historically to the German kingdoms) already being the seat of the sizable empire of the Habsburgs.

The Kingdom of Prussia

The Prussian military was flexible and forward looking, with a well trained professional officer class willing to adopt and exploit new technologies. In the early 1840's they adopted a new service rifle called the Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr or Needle Gun. The Dreyse was the first practical bolt action military rifle, using a paper cartridge containing ball, powder, and a percussion cap at the base of the ball. The needle was the long firing pin that pierced the cartridge to fire the gun. This was one of the first military breechloaders, and was about 2 generations ahead of anything their rivals were using. Foreign (British, etc) militaries evaluated the Dreyse and were largely unimpressed due to fouling and durability issues, but Prussia adopted it in large numbers.


In the 1860's, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck engineered a series of wars to unite the German kingdoms under Prussian rule. 1866 Austro-Prussian war showed the superiority of bolt-action breechloaders, and flexible Prussian tactics. The Prussians successfully used Telegraph, Railroad, a doctrine of war of maneuver, breechloading artillery, and breechloading rifles, decisively defeating Austria and sparking an arms race across Europe.


The French had adopted the Chassepot quickly after the Austrian defeat in 1866, along with Tabatiere conversions, but nonetheless, the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war 1870-1 unites Germany, leading to the rise of the empire, and the arms race heated up.


Mauser 1871

Even by the start of the Franco-Prussian, the Dreyse had become obsolete due to new advances in gas seals and cartridges for breechloading rifles. In 1871, the Prussian army, and by extension the new Imperial Army, adopted a new breechloading cartridge rifle, the 1871 Mauser. This is a single-shot bolt-action rifle chambering an 11mm, .43 caliber, black powder cartridge. It was designed in answer to the Chassepot. Metallic cartridge and centerfire design solves the problems of both the Dreyse and Chassepot with managing the gas seal and fragile needle. Widely exported as well; some were even brought out of the reserves in WWI.

The M1871 used the S1871 bayonet, a flashy brass-hilted sword bayonet with a long straight single-edged blade.


Mauser 71/84

By the 1880's, single shot rifles were becoming obsolete, and a repeating rifle was called for. The answer was a magazine upgrade on the 1871, using a Winchester-style tube magazine accessed with complex cartridge elevator in the receiver. This allows a theoretical 10-rd load, although 8 in practice, and using a magazine cut-off, was still used mostly as a single shot (it's a little complicated to reload, so the rounds in the magazine were generally left alone until a need for rapid fire called for disengaging the cutoff). This rifle is actually very similar to the Steyr/French 1878 Kropatchek marine rifle, but using a Mauser style bolt. While this is considered a modification on the 1871 design, there is very little parts compatibility and they are essentially different guns.

1888 Commission Rifle


In 1886, the chief rival of Imperial Germany, France, stabilized nitro-cellulose smokeless powder, a new propellant for firearms ammunition that provided a slower, more controlled, burn allowing higher pressures and thus higher velocities. This allowed for the creation of a smaller caliber, but longer range and harder hitting cartridge, sparking a new round of the arms race. The French adopted the M1886 Lebel, and in response the German General Staff started a commission to find or develop a next generation service rifle to match. In 1888, the result of that commission was the adoption of a hybrid rifle design, using a Mauser style action with a Mannlicher en-bloc clip magazine, loading a smaller 8mm round (7.92x57mm) and a distinctive metal barrel shroud (with the change to smokeless powder, barrels get hot fast and need some protection for the shooters hands). The Commission rifle was somewhat unpopular at the time, but ultimately enjoyed a lengthy service life in German reserves and in other county's arsenals, including Turkey and China.

While the S1871 bayonet fit on the M1871/84 and M1888 rifles, the S1871/84 was developed and adopted as well. It is a shorter (10 inch) knife bayonet.

The 1898 Mauser

Dissatisfaction with the 1888, along with new advances in rifle and ammunition designs led the German Army to look to replace the Commission rifle after only a few years, and in 1898 they adopted the latest design from the Mauser company, the Model 1898 (Mauser had spend the previous decade developing a sequence of increasingly perfected infantry rifles for export). The M98 used an improved version of the 7.92mm round, a double stack, charger fed magazine, and overall was the crowning achievement of 19th century bolt action military rifles. The M1898, in various forms, would soldier on into the 1960's, and later in some developing regions.

Several varieties of large, Butcher-knife shaped bladed bayonets were adopted for the M98, including sawbacks, and longer, quill bladed bayonets. Sawbacks (meant for Pioneers) looked fearsome, and led to war crime accusations, but they were actually meant for sawing wood when building fortifications and digging emplacements.


The 1869 Werder

As Imperial Germany was built from a patchwork of existing, independent, kingdoms, most of those kingdoms already had armies of their own, with their own weapons. While Prussia by far dominated the Empire, Bavaria also had a martial tradition, and just prior to the establishment of the empire they had adopted a new service rifle, the M1869 Werder rifle. The Werder is a falling block design, that saw some service with the Bavarian army in the Franco-Prussian, and in the early empire. It replaced the Podewils, which was a muzzleloader conversion. Inferior to the 1871 Mauser, the Bavarian army tried some upgrades but ultimately replaced them with Mausers.


Carbine Variations

The 1871, 1888, and 1898 rifles all also had more compact Cavalry Carbine variants, the Kar71, Kar91 (from the 88), and of course the Kar98, which had several variations. These carbine versions were issued to cavalry and artillery, and the Kar98 eventually supplanted the Gew98 as the standard service rifle, although that is after the fall of the Empire, and thus out of scope for today.


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