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Breech from Russian 122 mm M1910 howitzer, modified and combined with 105mm H37 howitzer barrel
A breech-loading weapon is a firearm (a rifle, a gun etc.) in which the bullet or shell is inserted or loaded at the rear of the barrel, or breech; the opposite of muzzle-loading.

Modern mass production firearms are breech-loading (though mortars are generally all muzzle-loaded). Early firearms 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 charge into the breech than to force them down a long tube, especially when the tube has spiral ridges from rifling. In field artillery, breech loading allows the crew to reload the muzzle without exposing themselves to enemy fire, and it allows turrets and emplacements to be smaller.


Although breech-loading weapons 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.

The main challenge for developers of breech-loading weapons was finding a way to effectively seal the breech. This was eventually solved for smaller weapons by the development of the self-contained metallic cartridge. For weapons too large to use cartridges, the problem was solved by the development of the interrupted screw.

Swivel guns

Breech-loading swivel guns were invented in the 14th century. They were a particular type of swivel gun, and consited in a small breech-loading cannon equipped with a swivel for easy rotation, and which could be loaded by inserting a mug-shaped chambers 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.


Mechanism of Philip V's breech-loading firearm (detail).
Breech-loading firearms are known from the 15th century. Henry VIII possessed one, which he apparently used as a hunting gun to shoot birds.

More breech-loading firearms were made in the early 18th century. One such weapons is known to have belonged to Philip V of Spain, and was manufactured circa 1715, probably in Madridmarker. 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 weapon. Roughly two hundred of the rifles were manufactured and used in the Battle of Brandywinemarker, during the American Revolutionary War, but shortly after they were retired and replaced with the standard Brown Bess musket.

Later on into the mid-1800s 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 Prélat, 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 paper casing and a round bullet 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 cartridge was further improved by the French gunsmith Casimir Lefaucheux in 1836.

The low-powered copper Flobert cartridge was invented in 1836, as was the pinfire cartridge (Lefaucheux), although this required fixative work by Houiller in 1846 to produce a workable cartridge. The rimfire cartridge was introduced in the 1850s, and centrefire cartridge in 1857 by Pottet, with both Berdan and Boxer priming.

The Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr or Dreyse needle gun, was a single-shot breech-loader 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 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 (7 weeks) 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.

During the American Civil War many breech loaders would be fielded. The Sharps rifle used a successful dropping block design. The Greene Rifle 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 rifles and Volcanic rifles 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 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, adopted in 1871.

Single-shot breech-loaders would be used throughout the latter half of 19th century, but they were slowly replaced by various designs for repeating rifles, first used—and heavily—in the American Civil War. Manual breech-loaders gave way to manual magazine feed and then to self-loading rifles.


The first modern breech-loading rifled guns were the M1867 naval guns produced in Imperial Russiamarker at the Obukhov State Plantmarker using Krupp technology.

See also


  1. Tower of London exhibit.
  2. Musée de l'Armée exhibit, Paris.
  3. Chemical Analysis of Firearms, Ammunition, and Gunshot Residue by James Smyth Wallace Page 24 [1]
  4. Firearms by Roger Pauly p.94
  5. A History of Firearms By W. Y. Carman p.121
  6. The History of Russian Artillery since the mid­19th century up to 1917

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