Johann-Ludwig Werder Creates The World’s
Fastest Single-Shot At The Dawn
Of The Repeating Rifle Era
By Holt Bodinson
One of the most advanced single-shot, military rifles ever fielded is known to few. Its dropping block mechanics were ingenious and robust. It could be fieldstripped in seconds by removing one screw without any additional tools. Most importantly, an experienced rifleman could fire 20 to 24 aimed shots a minute—a rate-of-fire superior to most competing single-shot and bolt-action rifles of the day.
It was thrown into head-to-head competition and punishing ordnance tests with the Berdan, Austrian Werndl and Mauser-Norris rifles. At the end of the testing and after King Ludwig of Bavaria personally inspected the trial rifles, the Werder was adopted by the Kingdom of Bavaria as “the Breech-Loading Rifle Model 1869.” We know it simply as the “Werder.”
Its inventor was Johann-Ludwig Werder, Director of the Cramer-Klett Machine Factory in Nürnberg. Werder was most certainly a gifted mechanic for his inventions ranged from steel buildings to orthopedic devices. He had a fine sense for minimizing the hand motions required to operate a firearm efficiently and rapidly. His Werder rifle was, to use the modern term, “ergonomic.” Here’s how it worked.
The secret to the Werder’s rapidity of fire was a robust extraction-ejection-reloading cycle spring powered and operated by a finger tap on the reverse styled trigger housed at the front of the triggerguard.
With the Peabody/Martini-styled breechblock of the Werder lowered, a cartridge is chambered. As the shooter brings his hand back, he cocks the hammer which is seen as a side lever on the right side of the action. As the hammer is cocked back, a roller attached to the front of the hammer rises and pushes up against the underside of the breechblock closing it. At this moment, the breechblock is locked in place by a bar attached to the reverse-styled trigger.
Cocking the hammer compresses two springs—a Q-shaped hammer spring and a separate V spring which rides underneath and tensions the rear of the breechblock.
When the shot is fired and the rebounding hammer falls to strike the internal firing pin, the roller attached to the front of the hammer falls away and no longer pushes up against the underside of the breechblock.
Werder’s “Blitz” action rifle produced a remarkable rate-of-fire
and lead to a call for “fire discipline” from the higher commands.
Fastest of the single shots, the unique rifle didn’t
survive the bolt-action rifle’s coming supremacy.
gger finger forward tapping the reverse trigger which unlocks the breechblock. Powered by the compressed “V” spring, the unlocked breechblock immediately snaps down and the front of the block strikes the tail of the extractor with force. The fired shell is extracted and ejected with some vigor. The empty case is not simply ejected, it’s expelled!
Werder’s genius was to accomplish three, separate operations with just a forward flick of the trigger finger—dropping the breechblock, extracting and ejecting the case in a split second and making the rifle immediately ready for reloading.
Production of the Werder began at the Royal Rifle Factory in Amberg in 1869. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (July, 1870–May, 1871), only four Bavarian Jaeger battalions fought the war armed with the Werder, but the results were watched carefully by the Bavarians, the Prussians and the French.
Possibly, for the first time for men under arms, the issue of “fire discipline” raised its ugly head. Commanders observed soldiers armed with the Werder too rapidly depleted their basic load of 11.5x50R ammunition. Other than the lingering issue of fire discipline, the Werder drew nothing but praise and shortly thereafter, both a carbine and a pistol were introduced using the Werder action and chambered for a shorter case, the 11.5x35R.
By 1872, the Bavarian War Minister reported all infantry, engineer and Jaeger battalions of the Royal Army were completely armed with the Werder, but Prussia had other ideas.
In spite of a rough bore and chamber, this Werder was still capable
of keeping its bullets on target. As the bore fouled, groups grew.
The Franco-Prussian War had resulted in the unification of the German states with Wilhelm II of Prussia declaring himself Emperor. Under the resulting Imperial Constitution, Bavaria continued to maintain its own military forces and, indeed, Bavarian soldiers continued to swear their allegiance to the King of Bavaria and not to the German Emperor. Nevertheless, the Prussian military, having adopted the Mauser M1871 in 11.15x60R, pushed for the unification of small arms and small arms ammunition.
Phase one consisted of rechambering the Werder from 11.5x50R to 11.15x60R and adding M/71 sights. The modification was not successful. Chambers were hand-reamed, irregular and rough. The higher pressures generated by the 11.15x60R cartridge resulted in numerous mechanical and stock problems. These conversions are known as M1869 “adaptierte” rifles. The Werder pictured here is an “Adaptierte” and is identified by the short knox form (the flats at the breech end) on the barrel.
Phase two consisted of essentially rebarreling the Werder with M/71-style barrels and adding, beefed-up extractors, stocks and 1871-type barrel bands and nose caps. These are known as Werder Rifle New Models, designated M/69 n.M. and are readily identified because the knox form extends all the way forward from the breech to the edge of the rear sight base. It was a workable design, but because Prussia was contracting with all available armories—including Bavaria’s—for the production of Model 1871 Mausers, the Werders couldn’t be built and simply faded from the Bavarian scene. By 1883, existing stores were sold off as surplus.
How do they function and how do they shoot?
The rechambered Werder pictured here is the property of a shooting partner, Cyrus McKeown. The action still functions as well as the day it left the Royal Rifle Factory in Amberg. One of the remarkable aspects of Johann Werder’s design is the mechanical action can be removed as a complete housing unit by simply removing the triggerguard screw and triggerguard. It consists of only 11 working parts, rotating on axis pins and held together by two removable sideplates. Remarkable engineering!
The single-shot, loading cycle of the Werder (above) is amongst the fastest
ever designed. A forward flick of the trigger finger lowers the breechblock
(below), extracts and ejects the shell and makes the rifle ready for reloading.
The barrel and chamber of this Werder are rough but shootable. McKeown’s 11.15x60R Mauser load consists of 28 grains of IMR 4198 and a 345-grain cast bullet sized to 0.446 inch. The load is designed to be effective but not stressful to the rechambered Werder. Yet, it proved pretty snappy with an average velocity of 1,371 fps.
Accuracy was another story. Before heading for the range, I thoroughly scrubbed out the bore with Brownells J-B Non-Imbedding Bore Cleaning Compound loaded onto a .45-caliber, brass-bristle brush. Yes, I could actually see lands and grooves. Rough looking barrels from the lead bullet era often shoot better than they look, but they degrade quickly because of the rapid build-up of leading and powder residue. As you can see from the 25-yard target, the Werder settled down after an initial fouling shot and generated a remarkable 3/4-inch group. At 50 yards, the old Werder strung its group out to 5 inches, but considering the condition of the bore, a 5-inch group is very acceptable after 15 or 20 shots of leading and powder accumulation.
Much to Johann Werder’s credit as a designer, his 146-year-old action performed perfectly. All it took was a flick of my trigger finger, and I was ready to blitz the enemy.
Werder Model 1869
Maker: Royal Rifle Factory Amberg, Bavaria, Germany
Action: Werder “Blitz” action,
Caliber: 11.5x50R and 11.15x60R,
Capacity: 1, Barrel length: 35 inches,
Overall length: 52 inches, Weight: 9.5 pounds,
Sights: Adjustable rear to 1,200 meters,
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