by Tom Caceci
Shooting the Model 1878 Vetterli Rifle
(This article appears in slightly shorter form in the February 2001 issue of Magnum)In French, there's an aphorism for every human foible. "Chacun a son gôut," applies to me. I have my preferences, like any man. I like strong wines tinged with the flavor of earth; I like small brunettes with dark flashing eyes; I like Border Collies; and I like weird old military rifles. The older and weirder they are, the better I like them. I've never owned a Gras or a Werndl, though I've had a couple of Berthiers; and once, a handsome Model 1886 Kropatschek rifle whose sale I still regret. But of all the weird guns I've owned, my hands-down favorite, easily the weirdest of them all, is my Model 1878 Vetterli Infantry Rifle.
I came across it by accident in a local gun shop, not long after I'd made the mistake of selling that Kropatschek. The shop owner clearly had no idea what it was, his bread and butter being Ruger M77's and Smith & Wesson revolvers. It was in fine shape: about 95% condition, bore clean and bright, and complete with the cleaning rod. I could tell he was eager to get it off his rack: probably he'd taken it in a trade and was regretting the action. I offered him $100, which he immediately accepted, and I walked out with it. It was a bargain for a mere C-note, even in its unobtainable caliber of 10.4x38R rimfire, known in the USA as ".41 Swiss."
The Vetterli represents an interesting and significant chapter in military rifle development. Friedrich Vetterli was a Swiss arms designer who eventually became Director of the Bern Arsenal. There's a storyif this isn't true, it surely ought to bethat he'd served as a military observer in the American Civil War. He there encountered the Henry rifle, which the Rebs referred to as "...that damned Yankee rifle you load on Sunday and shoot all week." The Henry had a long tube magazine under the barrel, and though it shot an anemic .44 rimfire cartridge, the volume of fire it produced was staggering compared to the single-shot muzzle-loaders of the day. Impressed with the Henry's performance in battle, Herr Vetterli is said to have combined its gate-loading tube magazine with the turn-bolt breech action pioneered by the French Chassepôt and the Prussian Dreyse. It was an inspired union, one that created a viable military weapon. Switzerland adopted the first of several very similar Vetterli rifle patterns in 1869. The Vetterli was, simultaneously, the first bolt-action military rifle using metallic-cased ammunition; the first bolt action repeating rifle adopted by any nation; and the last of the large-bore black-powder designs approved for military use. It had the further distinction of using the last rimfire round adopted for general issue to troops by any European power.
In the early 1860's Switzerland, faced with the necessity for rapid transition to breech loading rifles firing fixed ammunition, adopted a stop-gap weapon, the Milbank-Amsler. This economical conversion of existing muzzle-loaders used a copper-cased rimfire round. When the Vetterli was being developed the authorities briefly tested and promptly discarded a centerfire version of the Milbank-Amsler round, mainly in order to make use of their existing stocks of rimfire ammunition. In this they were unique: every other nation that had tried rimfire ammunition replaced it with a centerfire. The thrifty Swiss chose to stick with what they had and in the end the decision was a sound one.
The performance of the rimfire Vetterli cartridge was on a par with contemporary centerfires. Like most military rifles of the time it fired a fat lead bullet which loped along at a leisurely 1300-1400 feet per second. Several different military loadings, including paper-patched versions, were produced. And, as with other large-bore black-powder rounds, its service life was short. Vielle's invention of smokeless powder in 1886 and the development of high-velocity small-bore rifles firing jacketed bullets made the black-powder calibers obsolete, almost literally overnight. Once the French had adopted the 8mm Lebel every European power was forced to play catch-up, all of them developing their own smokeless small bores. The brief six years between 1886 and 1892 saw the introduction of the 8mm Lebel, .303 British, 7x57 and 8x57 Mauser, the .30-40 Krag, the 6.5x52 Carcano, and a gaggle of 6.5 mm rounds plus several others of lesser importance.
The historically-neutral Swiss were compelled to run in this arms race, too. Everyone was aware that the Franco-Prussian War had merely sown the seeds for a larger conflict, and it was a universal assumption that a general European war was inevitable. An official treatise comparing rifles of this period, written by one Col. Jacques Ortus of the French Army, bears the laconic and brutally frank title, Lebel Contre Mannlicher Et Vetterli Dans La Prochaine Guerre ("Lebel versus Mannlicher and Vetterli in the Next War"). With the French on one border, the newly-formed Republic of Italy on another, and the growing might of Germany on the third, to stay neutral the Swiss had to modernize their forces as fast as possible. By 1889 they had designed and adopted the 7.5 mm Swiss round, fired from the modern straight-pull rifle, the Schmidt-Rubin. The Vetterli was declared obsolete as soon as these were in sufficient production to equip the Swiss army.
About 200,000 Vetterlis were produced, the Model 1878 Infantry Rifle accounting for about half of the total. The French and the English could dump their old guns onto colonial levies, an option not open to Switzerland. The Vetterli chambered a non-standard, hopelessly outdated cartridge not even suited for training. The business-like Swiss recouped some of their investment by offering Vetterlis on the world market at fire-sale prices. By far the greatest number of surplus Vetterlis ended up in the United States, thanks to the historical coincidence of the Swiss need for cash and the insatiable demand of an agrarian and frontier America for cheap guns.
Everything from the early Model 1869's to the Model 1878 and 1881 long rifles, were sold to large mail-order retail companies, who then in turn peddled them to American farmers as a cheap, reliable, well-made utility rifle. The Sears Roebuck Company of Chicago, one of the huge mail-order houses that flourished in mid- to late-19th-Century America, was the biggest such reseller, though not the only one. Sears bought guns by the ton, literally at scrap-metal prices, and sold them in staggering numbers at prices as low as $7.25. No one really knows how many Vetterlis "immigrated" to America this way, but it must surely have been the bulk of the Swiss production. They were still being advertised in magazine ads as late as 1958 for as little as $11.00!
Today Vetterli rifles can be found in estate auctions, flea markets, small gun shops, and on Internet auction sites. It's easy to understand why they sold so well: they're beautifully made, assembled with the craftsmanship and attention to detail for which the Swiss are well known. Even though $7.25 was a fair sum of money in 1900, it was half the price of a Winchester Model 1894, and only $3.00 more than the single-shot Trapdoor Springfield. Sears even included 20 rounds of ammunition for the price, with extra ammunition at $2.00 per 100 cartridges. Farmers who needed a rugged utility rifle, recognizing a bargain when they saw one, bought them as fast as vendors could get them into the country. Naturally, this created a demand for the cartridges. Remington-UMC, Peters, Western and Winchester all produced the .41 Swiss, with the added advantage of smokeless powder charges. The .41 Swiss Rimfire was a standard catalog item for the next 40 years, though by 1939 the price had climbed to $1.04 per box of 20 in Stoeger's catalog. But the .41 Swiss was dropped from the ammo maker's product lines in 1941, with the entry of the US into World War Two. After the war ended production was never resumed, and eventually dealer inventories of the ammunition dwindled away to nothing.
Without doubt, the biggest problem for anyone who wants to actually shoot one of these beautiful old clunkers nowadays is finding something to put into it. When I bought my gun, it was on a whim, with the intention of using it as an attractive but non-functional wall-hanger, a mere fireplace decoration. But I'm constitutionally unable to bear the thought of owning a gun that can't be shot at least once. Every time I looked at that fine rifle hanging on the wall it reproached me for not at least trying to fire it, even if only once.
When I couldn't stand the guilt any more I undertook a search for some of the rimfire ammunition. The local shooter's grapevine put me in contact with a gentleman who had about 30 rounds, an almost-unheard of find. Incredibly, 20 of them were in an original, intact box of Remington-UMC manufacture, vintage about 1915. We struck a deal, and I bought every round he had, the first examples of the .41 Swiss Rimfire round I'd ever actually laid eyes on. I eagerly headed to the range to see what it was like to shoot a gun made in 1880 with ammunition that was older than my father. I never found out.
Every single one of the ten rounds I tried was a dud. Not a one would go off. That the priming was completely dead wasn't too surprising: some of it was military surplus, at least 100 years old, and the commercial rounds weren't much newer. I dinged all of my loose ammunition several times to no avail. I was very reluctant to use any from the full box, because it had considerable collector's value (I eventually sold that box via an Internet auction site for $92.00). The gun went back on the wall while I gnashed my teeth in frustration; rimfire was clearly not the way to go, so the logical alternative was to convert the gun to centerfire. I shipped the bolt off to a gunsmith, and a few days later it came back with a modified striker, a centerfire hole drilled in the bolt face, a set of custom dies, and 20 hand-made cases turned from brass bar stock.
I thus had a "shootable" rifle, though getting it to shoot properly was another matter, I discovered. My rifle's barrel has a groove diameter of 0.429" which naturally led me to think that bullets for the .44 Magnum should work. But I quickly found there aren't any suitable lead bullets for the .44 that can be used: none are long enough to function properly through the Vetterli action. Some of the heavier jacketed bullets for the .444 Marlin might have been used but I was reluctant to use jacketed bullets of any kind. Lead bullets were what the Vetterli was designed for and what I was determined to use. Cast bullets are not only much easier on the barrel, they're a great deal cheaper to shoot. The heaviest, longest commercially available lead bullet I could get in an appropriate diameter was a very nice one made by the Meister Bullet Company. This is a truncated-cone design with parallel sides, and a single large grease groove, weighing 300 grains. Commercial ammunition was loaded with 300-grain bullets, so these seemed like a logical choice for my first attempts.
The first thing I found out was that the Vetterli action is very, very persnickety about overall cartridge length. It must be exactly right. A cartridge that's even a millimeter too long or short invariably causes a jam, because the only thing that holds each round in the magazine in its proper place is the cartridge in front of it. A case protruding from the tube because the round on the box-like lifter is too short, or a bullet sticking out past the edge of the lifter because it's too long will block the lifter's upward movement. This precludes the use of bullets any lighter than 300 grains, unless they're single-loaded. They can't be seated out far enough. The Meister 300's were just barely long enough to be seated to proper OAL. But the 10.4x38R is a stubby case, with not much neck: hence the bullets could be seated no more than 1/8" deep, and often the neck tension was insufficient to keep it a bullet place under pressure from the magazine spring. If I loaded more than two rounds into the tube, one would telescope, and a jam resulted.
Nor did they shoot well. My first trial loads used a case full of Pyrodex P, about 37 grains by weight. The two problems that immediately presented themselves in these initial experiments were lack of obturation and lousy grouping. The very shallow seating depth turned out to be the root of the obturation problem. On firing, the bullet would exit the case neck so fast that the pressure never got high enough to expand the case and seal the breech. Soot and gas were blown back into the action, with fired cases blacked on the outside almost full length. I tried smokeless powder, with no better results. No powder charge I was willing to use was able to seal off the breech.
The next experiment was to move away from turned cases to the thinner-walled drawn type. Buffalo Arms in Sand Point, Idaho, list 10.4x38R brass made from .348 Winchester, so I ordered some and tried again, still using the Meister bullet. There was only a very minor improvement. Even with smokeless powder, by the time the case expanded to seal the breech, serious gas leakage had already occurred, though at least the scorch marks were only along half the case length. My chronograph showed wildly variable velocities, and my targets, vertical stringing over about 14" at 50 yards, both confirmation of source of the problem. If I was going to get that gun to shoot well, I was going to have to fix the problem of early bullet exit.
The next step was obvious: I had to find a longer bullet, and load it with a very firm crimp, in the hope was that I could raise starting pressures enough, and delay bullet emergence long enough, to fully obturate the breech. I had Lee Precision Engineering make me a "factory crimp die" in 10.4x38R. This latter item was custom-turned using one of my dummy loads as a model, and was well worth the $27.00 Lee charges for the service. About that time an acquaintance had sent me a few long-shanked cast bullets of 0.429" diameter, so once the die was delivered, I set to work with these to see what would happen. It worked: the combination of smokeless powder, longer bullets, and a heavy crimp produced proper obturation.
I was then faced with the minor difficulty that my groups were at least 18" high at 100 yards, and I couldn't get anything smaller than a 14" group at that distance. I hadn't expected much from the gun in the way of accuracy, but 14 MOA was well outside my limit of tolerance!
I had, actually, expected it to shoot high. Most military rifles are designed to hit point of aim at 300 yards, the idea being that a standing man will be struck somewhere on his body at any range less than that, and for well beyond it. The Model 1878's original rear sight is graduated from a minimum of 275 meters to about 1200 meters, pretty typical of a rifle of this type and era. Given the ballistics of the 10.4x38 Rimfire, the bullet's midrange trajectory at 100 yards was probably about 18" or so. While this was perhaps perfectly practical for defending the Swiss Confederation with plunging volley fire from a bunker atop Mount Pilatus, it was more or less useless for hunting.
If you can't lower the rear sight, raising the front one will do the same thing: drop the point of impact. How to do this without irrevocably altering the gun was my next agenda item. In the end I simply soldered a piece of sheet brass to the back of the sight block, filed it to the width of the blade, and tried to file it off to a height that would give me a usable point of impact. Unfortunately even with the replacement sight shots were hitting pretty high By the time I'd taken off enough height to make it less prone to being knocked loose, I was still 8" above where I wanted to be. Something drastic was going to have to be done about that rear sight, like it or not
An acquaintance had bought an old sporterized M1917 Enfield for its action. It was wearing a very nice Redfield peep sight which he didn't want, and he kindly offered it to me if I had a use for it. I placed the mounting block against the receiver, and lo, it was a perfect fit: the curvature of the M1917 and the M1878 Vetterli's receivers seems to be identical! Next came the question of mounting it. The Vetterli has rear locking lugs on its bolt, and drilling holes to mount the sight block in the position I wanted would have put it squarely over the locking lug recesses in the receiver, not something I liked thinking about. I simply sweat-soldered the block in the proper place, and it worked like a charm.
In the interim I'd sent a couple of sketches for a longer bullet to Lee Precision, who for a very modest $125 made me a custom mold. The design included a blunt nose (for safety in a tube magazine), two lubricant grooves, and a long shank without a crimping groove. Not having a fixed groove would allow me to position the bullet at any depth. This mold casts a bullet that weighs about 440 grains and comes out at 0.431-432" as-cast, using range scrap lead. The nose is a perfect fit for a #374 top punch in my Lyman Model 450 Lubrisizer.
There remained the matter of appropriate powders. I like black powder but using it requires that the shooter be religious about cleaning, and the Vetterli isn't a gun you want to take a part a lot if you can avoid it. Since the commercial loads for this rifle had used smokeless powder, it seemed reasonable to try it, keeping in mind certain safety factors.
Cases designed for black powder have a lot more room than needed when smokeless is the propellant. Black powder is inefficient, requiring a fair amount to generate proper pressures and velocities: the general rule is to just use as much as the case will hold. In the Vetterli this would be suicidal with any smokeless powder. Smokeless powder is "energy dense," and you need far less to achieve the same results. The 10.4x38R is pretty roomy by modern standards: filling it with any kind of smokeless would certainly wreck the gun.
Achieving uniform velocity demands that the case volume be used as efficiently and fully as possible. A low-density smokeless powder, which will fill most or all the case, and whose burn rate is reasonably similar to black powder, is an option that can provide decent ballistics and safe working pressures, if you're careful. I'd have given a great deal for a can of DuPont's "Bulk" smokeless powder, which was specifically intended for loading old black powder rounds, but it has been out of production for decades. There are a couple of low-density powders still on the market, though.
With the Meister bullet I had been working with IMR 4198, frequently used in old rifles. By the time the Vetterli was built, steel had replaced iron and the receiver is much stronger than it absolutely had to be for black powder. Then too, its bolt action is much stronger than some black powder rifles in which smokeless is commonly used, such as the Trapdoor Springfield. I started with charges of IMR4198 well below levels recommended for the .43 Spanish and .45-70. None of my loads had given me any indications of excessive pressure.
With the new, heavier bullet, however, I decided against using IMR 4198. Instead I opted for IMR's SR4759, a very "bulky" shotgun powder, one also frequently used for loading old calibers. Since I was loading for only the one rifle, I didn't need to do full-length resizing. Cases were neck sized in a .44 Special carbide die, and the mouths belled. I used a Winchester standard large rifle primer. My reloading manuals listed 27 grains of SR4759 with a 405-grain bullet as a load for the very weak Trapdoor Springfield. I started well below that point: my first SR 4759 load was 20 grains, beneath that big 440-grain lead banana, seated deep enough to match the OAL of a factory round, and heavily crimped.
The proof of the pudding is in the shooting, so I hied myself off to the range. With the Redfield peep sight in place I'd removed the original tangent sight. I set the Redfield down as low as it would go, popped a round up the spout, and let go at a target. I had no idea where that first shot would go, so I'd covered the entire target frame in white paper. I needn't have bothered: the very first shot was on the target paper, a couple of inches left of my aiming point, and to my delight, it was low. A few quick adjustments brought the impact point where I wanted it to be. After letting the gun cool, my first 5-round group for fired "record" ran about 3 minutes of angle: not terribly impressive, but a vast improvement over previous groups. A few casual shots at "targets of opportunity" on the hill demonstrated that even without further work-up I'd certainly be able to hit deer-sized targets with reliability at ranges out to 200 yards.
I held back some rounds for chronographing: average velocity was 1315 feet per second, close to what various reference books say is the factory standard for the 335 grain bullet. With my 440-grain bullet that translates to 1700 foot-pounds of energy. Velocities were uniform, with no signs of excess pressure. My goal is 2 MOA, and with time I'll get there, but as things stand now, I'm ready for the deer season.
Shooting a rifle like this is taking a step back to a day long before my grandfather was born. The men who created my rifle have been dead for half a century or more, but their work lives on, still capable of doing what they intended it to do. Not everyone is fortunate enough to leave behind such a tangible legacy of skill and craftsmanship. I hope they're pleased to see my 120-year old wallflower back on the firing line, where it belongs.