In early 1865, in the wake of the Danish-Prussian War which had shown how effective breechloaders could be, Britain’s Board of Ordnance began to explore retrofitting Britain’s muzzle-loading Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle Muskets with a breech-loading cartridge conversion. Along with this interim solution the Ordnance Department also began the search for a breech-loading rifle designed from the ground up. Dozens of designs were examined from engineers and gunsmiths from across Britain, Europe, and the United States. One of these came from Johann von der Poppenburg, a Birmingham based engineer. Poppenburg’s rifle was tested along with 24 others during the initial phase of testing. The Ordnance Department’s Breech-Loading Rifle Committee were largely unimpressed by the rifles submitted and selected only four to progress, Poppenburg’s design was not included.
Poppenburg patented his first breech-loading design in February 1865 (#421) with an American patent following in October (US #50,670). It was this system which was first submitted to the trials, the rifle while described as ‘Poppenburg’s principle’ was made or at least submitted by Messers. Benson and Co., also of Birmingham.
Poppenburg’s patent describes a system that could be loaded with either loose powder and a projectile – with a percussion cap igniting the charge held in the ‘charge-chamber’ or with a paper cartridge which was detonated when pierced by a needle. It was the latter, more modern, option which was chosen for submission to the British trials.
The submitted design used a needle fire action, which ignited a paper cartridge by piercing through the paper and powder to ignite a copper cap in the base of the projectile. Poppenburg patented this cartridge design was on 3rd April 1865 (#932), it lapsed three years later and became void in April 1868. The action was hinged to the right, with a hollow breech chamber swinging out to allow a cartridge to be loaded into it. The estimated unit cost to produce these rifles, for quantities over 5,000 rifles, was £3 each. The needle fire action and hinged breech proved “too complicated, and liable to accident for a military arm” according to the Trials report.
Interestingly, in October 1866 Poppenburg also patented specific system for a breech-loading conversion (#2580). The system used a vertically hinged breech block which locked using a rack and pinion system attached to a lever. It does not appear that this system was tested by the Trials Committee. This action may have been developed following the failure of his more complex action and the adoption of the brass-cased .577 round. This patent lapsed and became void in October 1869.
The October 1866 patent (#2580), appears to be the last patented solely under Poppenburg’s name. Subsequently patents were granted jointly between Poppenburg and John Solomons Benson. This may have been due to the cost of applying for and maintaining patents, which in the 1860s could cost over £45 for three years of protection. Today that’s the equivalent of over £5,000 or nearly $7,000. Both Benson and Poppenburg were based in Birmingham, Britain’s leading centre for small arms manufacturing at the time. In a patent notice, dated 22nd December 1866 (#3382), Benson is listed as a merchant while Poppenburg is described as a mechanical engineer. It may be that Benson provided the financial backing for Poppenburg’s breech-loading system, this was an arrangement that was common at the time.
In 1866-7 Benson and Poppenburg submitted a number of rifles for testing in the Prize Competition launched by the War Office to find a new breech-loading rifle. The system submitted was radically different to Poppenburg’s earlier needle fire designs which used hinged breeches. The patent for the new system was granted jointly to Benson and Poppenburg on the 22nd December 1866 (#3382).
Benson and Poppenburg’s new rifle had a breech which opened horizontally with a ‘tubular breech-block’ which slid to the rear when a hinged lever was liftedand pulled backwards. To open the breech the rifleman first depressed a small catch on the left side of the breech cover, once depressed the breech block could then be pulled back by the hinged lever. This movement also actuated the rifle’s T-shaped semi-circle extractor allowing the rifleman to remove the spent case. A new cartridge could then be loaded and the breech closed and the striker was then pushed forward with the thumb to cock the weapon. Once the hinged lever was pushed forwards again the breech block moved forward, closing the action, and locked with a pair of lugs cut into the receiver (described as the ‘breech-shoe’ in the patent) and at the rear by the catch.
Depressing the breech release button with the striker cocked will de-cock the action and in theory allow a round to be carried in the chamber. The example pictured in the accompanying photographs may be a slightly more refined version of the rifle submitted as it differs from another rifle, said to be a trials gun, which more closely resembles the December 1866 patent.
The rifle with its breech closed (left) and open (right)
At least four rifles (with some differences in design between them) were provided for testing, the War Office’s April 1868 Report on Breech Loading Arms found that three of the rifles submitted were shorter than the required length while a fourth was too long – with the maximum overall length allowed being 51 inches. Examples of both full-length rifles, with 32 inch barrels, and carbine models with 23½ inch barrels exist (both of these lengths are significantly shorter than the Snider-Enfield’s barrel length). The trials rifles appear to have been sighted out to 1,100 yards and were chambered in a .577 calibre cartridge (probably the Boxer cartridge selected officially in 1866). At least two probable trials example were also chambered in a .450 cartridge. From a survey of the remaining examples it seems that the serial numbers for the rifles range up to at least 239.
The Benson-Poppenburg was unsuccessful during the trials, being rejected from both the Prize Competition and the Breech Action Selection Trials. With the Committee’s report stating that despite the rifles having “several good ideas embodied in their breech action”, they “appear to have been hastily manufactured and the inventions are as yet in an incomplete state”. The specific reasons given for this were that the rifles were of unsatisfactory overall lengths. It seems they were submitted in a rush, in an ‘incomplete state’, with the report also noting that the extractors on two of the rifles submitted destroyed cartridges during extraction, probably ripping the base from the case.
The Committee’s report explained that its rejection from the separate Breech Action Selection Trials was due to issues: “if dirt or sand enters the shoe of this rifle it causes misfires, and even prevents the bolt from entering the aperture in the block.” They also noted that “The working of the breech mechanism is slow.”
The British Army’s extensive trials eventually resulted in the selection of Jacob Snider’s system, adopted in April 1866 to convert existing Pattern 1853s and the selection of Friedrich von Martini’s action and Alexander Henry’s barrel, which when combined as the Martini-Henry was formerly adopted in March 1871.
Mathieu Willemsen, curator of the Netherlands’ Military Museum, was kind enough to share some information about The Dutch Army’s trials with the Poppenburg in 1868. The Dutch trialled a version similar to that tested by the British but chambered in 11x42mmR. The rifle’s action has a more angled external appearance than the example we have examined but works along the same principle.
The rifle was found to be rapid firing but suffered from some issues with fouling and failed a pressure test. Later testing with a smaller calibre round was also carried out but the rifle was not adopted. We hope to have a chance in the future to examine a Dutch trials rifle for comparison.
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Treatise on the British Military Martini, I. Skennerton, (1995)
Reports of a Special Committee on Breech-Loading Rifles (1869)
Abridgements of the Specifications Relating to Fire-Arms and Other Weapons, Ammunition, and Accoutrements, Commissioners of Patents, (1870)
‘Poppenburg’s Projectiles’, Newton’s London Journal of Arts and Sciences, (January, 1866)
Experiment and Trial, M. Willemsen (2012)
Various British Patents:
‘Breech Actions, Hinged-Chamber’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #421, 14th Feb. 1865
‘Projectiles and cartridges for central-fire breech-loading fire-arms and ordnance’, J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #932, 3rd Apr. 1865
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J. von der Poppenburg , UK Patent #2580, 6th Oct. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Sliding Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patnet #3382, 22nd Dec. 1866
‘Breech Actions, Hinged Breech-Block’, J.S. Benson & J. von der Poppenburg, UK Patent #1950, 15th June, 1868
‘Improvement in breech-loading fire-arms’, J. von der Poppenburg, US Patent #50670, 24th Oct. 1865, (source)
Special thanks to our friends at the Hayes Collection for letting us examine their rifle, and thanks to David Minshall over at the Research Press for his help researching Poppenburg’s numerous patents.