In the late 1760s a Milanese machinist/clockmaker Giuseppe Crespi developed a breech-loading system for the Austrian Empire. Working with Ambroglia Gorla Crespi built a practical breech loader which was eventually adopted and fielded by the Austrian army during the 1770s. Crespi’s system is a lesser known contemporary of the Girandoni air rifle.
Crespi and Gorla’s system was designed to be a conversion of standard Austria’s muzzle-loading carbines. It used a hinged breech which tipped up to allow powder and then a ball to be loaded into the chamber. The breech was then closed and the handle locked into a pair of lugs mounted to the barrel. Austrian Emperor Josef II ordered testing of the design and over 350 were initially ordered and delivered by June 1771.
Despite some wrangling over payment a further order for 2,000 guns using Crespi’s system was made in 1772. These were to be made by the Ferlach gunmakers association in southern Austria and Crespi was paid a lump sum settlement for his design. Gorla’s role in the development of the system is unclear and he did not receive a settlement from the government. In 1771, he sued Crespi for his share but the courts threw out his claim in 1778.
The principle problem with Crespi’s system was that it was not gas tight, a problem which plagued many early breech-loading systems. As can be seen in the images above the breech block is flat where it meets the breech. This allowed gas to escape and troops complained the chamber was susceptible to wear. The Crespi carbines were issued to Austrian cavalry with a long bayonet, some sources also suggest a spear point bayonet. The bayonet was carried reversed suspended in the carbine stock. The Austrian carbines were removed from service in 1779, following numerous reports of men being badly burned by escaping gases and opening breeches during the War of Bavarian Succession.
In 1768, Crespi was also allegedly hired by the Portuguese crown to establish a factory at Coimbra to manufacture guns using his system. By 1776, Crespi no longer had any interests in the factory and it was taken over by Companhia de Armamento who continued to manufacture conventional muzzleloading muskets.
In the early 1780s, the Duke of Richmond became the Master General of Ordnance and ordered a selection of breech loaders for trials. Two of these came from Swiss-born London Gunmaker Durs Egg. Egg’s carbine was a copy of Crespi’s system. The carbines were tested by a board of general officers in July 1784 and it was recommended that the carbine be issued to the Light Dragoon regiments. Egg was paid £31 10s for two carbines with one being presented to King George III and the other retained by the Ordnance office. Sources suggest a further 36 breech-loading carbines were ordered from Egg. In 1786, these were issued to the 7th, 10th, 11th, 15, and 16th Light Dragoons for field trials. These are often reffered to as the Pattern 1785 Egg/Crespi carbines, some of these trials guns were rifled for testing.
The Egg carbines were almost as long as a standard issue Short Land Pattern (Brown Bess) musket which was 58 inches or 150cm in overall length. Based on surviving examples it seems the smoothbore Egg carbine was 48.1 inches or 122cm overall while the rifled version was slightly longer at 53 inches or 135cm in length. This combined with the long reach of the spear bayonet, an estimated 35 inches (88cm) long, made for an extremely long weapon – certainly capable of reaching any mounted assailant a dragoon might face while dismounted. Unlike the Brown Bess’ the rifle fired a .60 calibre ball while the smoothbore fired a .68 calibre ball.
A standard dedicated carbine was not introduced for Britain’s light dragoon regiments until 1796. Until then the Short Land Pattern musket had been issued to dragoon regiments. The trials report was returned in 1788, recommending that more experimentation with the rifled carbines should be carried out and that a folding bayonet may be better suited to cavalry use.
The lack of a gas seal at the breech was also criticised and the Duke of Richmond began to explore other designs including those by Henry Nock. Tatham & Egg (Egg’s nephew) continued to manufacture weapons using the Crespi system until at least 1810, when some were made for volunteer yeoman cavalry (with serial numbers ranging up to at least #134). Crespi’s system would be improved by Urbanus Sartoris in 1817, with the addition of an interrupted screw and a moving barrel. Giuseppe Crespi reportedly died in poverty and his breech-loading system became another footnote in the early history of breech loading firearms.
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John H. Hall and the Origin of the Breechloader, D.B. Demeritt Jr., (source)
British Military Firearms 1650-1850, H.L. Blackmore, (1961)
The Austrian Army 1740-80: Cavalry, P.J. Haythornthwaite, (1994)