Guns and Late 19th Century Imperialism

The Situation in the 1850s

The rifles of the 1850s were far superior to those before yet they still had problems:

The Change

Although these were good weapons for their time they did not provide overwhelming firepower over an enemy. It was the Breechloading guns which first provided this in the later 19th century. They had a profound influence on warfare in that they provided European armies with overwhelming firepower against less advanced powers. They were a major factor in late 19th century Imperial expansion. For they allowed war to be conducted with small armies and little cost. This was a significant development compared to the possibilities earlier in the century and helps explain why the expansion occured so rapidly over such a short space of time.

The idea of a breechloading gun came well before the 19th century. The earliest working breech guns were mainly American: the Ferguson and the Hall. In Europe the take up of this type of gun was very slow. They were developed from Johann Nikolaus von Dreyse in the 1820s. The Prussian army adopted it around 1841-2, but only by 1848 had she replaced all her muskets with Dreyses. The strength of this gun was in its loading speed. In the 1866 war between Prussia and Austria, where the Austrian army had not yet upgraded its weapons, Prussian soldiers kneeling or lying down could fire their weapons 7 times in the time it would take the Austrians to fire once standing up. This helped the Prussians win a great victory at the battle of Sadowa.

Effects of Prussian victory at Sadowa

This was a crucial event. Not only did the breechloading guns aid the dominance of Prussia in Germany but also it affected the way in which armies were equipped. Previously weaponry had been gradually replaced. Now it became imperative that armies had the latest weaponry. It led to huge increase in interest in developing arms. Private arms manufacturers became increasingly important in advancing military technology rapidly.

The Developments in Breechloading guns

  • In 1866 the French army used the Chassepot, a bolt-action needle gun that fired 6times a minute and had a range of 650 yards (the Dreyse had one of 350).
  • The British began by converting their muzzle loading Enfield rifles using an idea of Jacob Snider of New York. However Colonel Boxer of the Woolwich Arsenal saw that the main disadvantage with the breechloading guns as they were lay in the cartridges. he solved this in 1866 by developing the brass cartridge. Now the powder would be protected in transit; the breech was sealed at the moment of firing; the bullets could be made harder and tighter.
  • In 1869 the British adopted the Martini-Henry rifle which was the first truely effective modern rifle. The French followed suit adopting the Gras in 1874, whilst the Prussians adopted the Mauser in 1877.

Repeating Rifles and Smokeless Powder

The next development was repeating rifles. These originated in America with the Wesson of 1855 and the famous Winchester rifle of 1867. These did have a problem of bullets exploding if they touched eachother in a particular way. By 1879 the British had upgraded whilst the Germans and the French did so in the 1880s. Their obvious advantage was in the speed of firing.

In 1885 Vieille (who was French) discovered that nitrocellulose was explosive. The significance was that it burned without ash or smoke meaning that soldiers could be invisible on the battlefield. It also reduced the need to clean the barrel and was less vulnerable to moisture.

One should also note that alongside these developments barrel size was decreasing and accuracy was increasing.

Machine Guns

These were first properly used in the American Civil War with the Gattling gun which was hand cranked and multi-barreled. The use of machines guns by the French in the Franco-Prussian War failed to save them. At this stage they were too prone to failure. It was with Maxim gun patented in 1884 that a giant leap forward occured. It used only one barrel and was light enough to be moved by infantry easily. Soon even more improvements were made. For example The 1892 Nordenfelt which had 5 barrels and fired 10 rounds per second.


This was crucial in facilitated the rapid change in technology. Mass production millions of rifles could be made relatively quickly. The "American System" of using interchangable parts filtered through to Europe in the later 19th Century, whilst American steel was dramatically reducing in cost. With the introduction of new steel-making processes such as the Bessemer the cost of crude steal decreased by 3/4s or more. This was deeply significant for it meant newer European guns could no longer be copied by local blacksmiths.

So Why does this matter?

Good point. Well put simply the colonial armies were often the first to benefit from this improving technology. The technology was improving so quickly that the peoples who came to be conquered were simply at an astronomical disadvantage in so many ways. Ultimately it meant little manpower was needed to conquer many territories. This was important as very often the centre was not very interested in conquest. If the cost in manpower and would have been far higher it was not so likely to have happened. Further it would have taken much more effort to retain control of colonies. One needs to remember the cruely that the Imperial powers were willing to inflict to maintain this. The dum-dum bullet which mushroomed causing great agony and a very painful death to its victim is an example of this. It was invented in 1897 but it was agreed that "civilised" nations would not use it against each other. Meanwhile the weaponry the territories that were attacked tended to have were vastly inferior. Even in the cases of states such as the Central Sudanic Kingdoms who had large stores of guns, the soldiers were not trained in how to use them and they were out of date by the time they were used. For various reasons the diverse areas of Africa suffered from a lack of up to date guns. The difference in technology had always been there. However the gap had not previously been nearly so great. It had a profound influence on so many European States (including Belgium) grabbing as much of the world as they did.

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