M1868 Russian Berdan I

(Pekhnotniya vintovka Berdana obr. 1868g)

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M1868 Russian Berdan I


M1868 Russian Berdan I


  In the early 1860s virtually all of the nation-states of European were engaged in massive small-arms rearmament programs.  The Russian experience in the Crimean War (1853-1856) had set the stage by bringing into sharp relief the dire military disadvantages to be faced any nation bearing arms from an earlier generation.  This conflict was soon followed by the closely watched destructiveness of the American Civil War (1861-1865) coupled with the Second Schleswig War (1864) fought between the combined forces of Prussia and Austria allied against Denmark for control of the Schleswig (or South Jutland) region between modern day Northern Germany and southern Denmark.  The Second Schleswig War was over in 8 months, during which the muzzleloader forces of the Danish Kingdom were decisively outmatched by the breechloader (Dryse) armed Prussians.  None of this was lost on the Russians, who set about to completely remake their arms manufacturing and procurement systems from an essentially feudal one powered primarily by small-scale serf labor building rifles by hand, to a modern, centralized, mass-production system building rifles extensively by machine.  The Berdan would be their first foray into this new world.


  The American Civil War had seen the first introduction, wide-spread deployment and military use of small arms utilizing breechloading metallic cartridges, and the results left no doubt as to the future of arms.  European military representatives in America during the war, including Russian officers, returned with a variety of examples of new systems.  Even before the conclusion of the Civil War, the Russians had dispatched Colonel Alexander P. Gorlov (1830-1905), an artillery engineer, to study the US arms industry.  Gorlov’s first foray to America resulted in a highly influential Russian report, coupled with sample rifles and machinery to enable Russia to first begin manufacturing metallic cartridges.  This action sealed Russia’s decision to adopt metallic cartridges as its small arms ammunition standard and conversions of existing patterns to metallic cartridge breechloaders was quickly undertaken.[1]  But it was fully acknowledged that the conversions were only interim measures.  A newly made, dedicated cartridge rifle was still needed.  And ultimately Russia was committed to being able to manufacture it at home.


  Uniquely among the Great Powers of the time, Russia embarked on an effort to find the best possible cartridge available, and then to adopt an arm around the cartridge.  In 1867 Gorlov was dispatched back to America to spearhead this effort.  Gorlov, accompanied by Captain (then Lieutenant) K.I. Gunius decided to headquarter their research in Hartford, Connecticut, then the very heart of American manufacturing and arms industry.   In what was ultimately an excellent PR move (although not universally profitable as will be seen), the Colt company offered the Russian officers the use of Colt’s facilities for their testing and considerations.


  The Russians were relentless in their evaluation of every promising breechloading system then being considered in America.  None perfectly met their needs, but they were nonetheless impressed by the most advanced evolution of the designs of an already prolific inventor, Colonel Hiram Berdan (1823-1893).


  Berdan had already designed a conversion system adopted by Spain for converting its capping breechloading long arms, the Spanish Berdan series, and was claiming credit for designing the US’s implementation of a system of converting its Springfield capping breechloaders to metallic cartridge, what would come to be known as the Allin Springfield.  Further, Berdan had developed a metallic cartridge that would go from near universal service during the early metallic cartridge era to become the world standard for military ammunition to the present day.

Berdan consulted and worked with the Colt company in the manufacture of this rifle. 


  The new Berdan rifle offered significant improvements over the Russian conversions then being undertaken.  Additionally, by altering the caliber to the .42 desired by the Russians, Berdan’s cartridge became the best military cartridge of the period, not improved upon until the M1887 Turkish Mauser, adopted at the very end of the black powder era and not significantly bettered until the French smokeless Lebel cartridge of 1886.


  Working together, from 1867 to 1868, Berdan, Gorlov and Gunius consulted regularly with Colt’s and made multiple refinements to the design, substantially improving it, to the point that some authors have suggested that the rifle should more properly be referred to as the Berdan-Gorlov.


  In 1868 the Berdan I rifle was officially adopted by Russia as the “4,2-линейная стрелковая винтовка образца 1868 года  (4.2 line infantry rifle model 1868).  At that time, Russia also purchased from Berdan the full rights to have the rifle manufactured anywhere, including the right to manufacture it themselves.  An initial order for 30,000 rifles was placed with Colt’s along with an order for 7.5 million cartridges of Berdan’s design from the Union Metallic Cartridge Company located in Bridgeport, Connecticut..  Gorlov was placed in charge of overseeing inspection of the order.  Interestingly, by dint of his high standards and insistence on strict quality control of the arms which he was charged with approving, not only was a higher standard of parts interchangeability achieved than expected, but Gorlov was to become a significant force in shaping the quality standards of the American arms industry in the post-Civil War era.


  The M1868 Berdan I is an elegant, particularly sleek, the receiver being almost the same diameter as the barrel and with only a very small lifting bolt head protruding to the right of the breech block.  It has two screw-retained barrel bands and a small nosecap, with the swing swivels being attached below the top band and at the front of the trigger guard.  It mounts a cruciform blade socket bayonet to a small bayonet stud fixed to the right side of the barrel.  The windage-adjustable front blade sight is mounted well back from the muzzle allowing plenty of room for the bayonet socket.  A serrated, cylindrical-head cleaning rod, with single transverse hole through the head, is carried below the barrel in a conventional cleaning rod channel partially inletted along the bottom of the stock.  Unexpectedly, the rod is secured not at the receiver via its lower jag threads, but rather by utilizing a shoulder in the rod 3.75 in. (95.25 mm) back from the front which locks against the bottom of the nosecap, a system used by the U.S. M18 _____ and later followed by the British Martini-Henry.   


  Most of the surviving examples seen in the US are Colt sales samples marked in English rather than in Russian and are not Russian inspection stamped.  Some examples remain as chambered in Berdan’s original .45 caliber.  These examples are often encountered with a totally polished (“in the white”) finish, without blue.



  The basic principle of the Berdan I action is that of a forward lifting breech block which is locked behind the chamber by the passage of the longitudinal striker through the rear of the receiver into the breech block.  There is no separate, outside hammer or lock, firing being actuated by a coil-spring powered striker that moves along the axis of the bore into the hollow back of the breech block.  The striker locks the block in place as it moves forward striking the back of the firing pin causing the firing pin to hit the central primer of the cartridge.  This is the exact principle utilized in the Belgian Albini-Braendlin except for how the striker is powered.


   The lifting breech block portion of the design is much like Berdan’s previous conversion system adopted by Spain (the Spanish Berdans) and, unsurprisingly, similar in principle to the U.S. "Trapdoor" Springfield rifles.  The top of the barrel is cut out at the breech to allow the cartridge to be introduced into the breech and thumb-pressed into the chamber.  The cut is nearly 160o, about __ in. (__mm) across the diameter of the barrel but asymmetrical, with more of the barrel open on the right than on the left (allowing ejection to the right and easier reloading with the right hand).  Additionally, the cartridge trough is surprisingly long, __ in (__mm), but necessarily so to accommodate the advanced for the time Russian 10.75x58R bottlenecked cartridge.  This places the receiver some 7.5 in (__mm) back from the cartridge base.  As the receiver is itself __ in (__mm) long, this makes for an overall exceptionally long action at about 10 in. (__mm) with the bolt closed.


  The bolt has a thumb or palm-operated cocking spur which juts upward from the back end of the bolt.  To cycle the rifle, the striker is retracted by rearward thumb or palm pressure against the cocking spur simultaneously unlocking the breech block and cocking the rifle.  Utilizing a small knob affixed at the right rear of the breech block, the block is lifted up and forward, pivoting on a transverse hinge screw at the top front of the block.  When fully open the breech block does not rest against the top of the barrel or its hinge but instead arcs through only about 120o of travel, resting at about 60o forward.


  As the breech block is laid on top of the barrel it engages a spring assisted extractor which doubles to perform primary extraction and, as the cartridge rim clears the pivoting breech block, powers secondary extraction sending the empty case sliding rearward where it encounters a small ramp in the bottom back of the receiver trough which guides the case out of the action. [kd confirm functioning]When the bolt is closed, this ramp fits into a dedicated hole in the bottom of the breech block.  A fresh cartridge is then thumb-pressed into the chamber, the breech block is flipped back into place, and the rifle is again ready to fire.


 The breech block is a separate assembly consisting of a block hinged at the front and pinned to the back of the hinge, which itself is secured to the top of the barrel via a locking spring hidden within the hinge top.  [kd confirm!] This mechanism is nearly identical in concept to that of the cartridge conversion system utilized in the Spanish Berdan conversions, except that instead of the Spanish conversion’s cammed screw securing the breech block mechanism to a spur on the barrel, a locking spring is used.  The hinge is attached by sliding it rearward from the front along a beveled rail and secured in place via the transverse screw that acts as the hinge pin of the breech block. [kd confirm!]


  The plate on which the breech block is hinged is not fixed rigidly to the barrel but retains a slight bit of play.  Whether deliberate or not, this play provides the breech block a very small bit of movement along the axis of the barrel.  At firing, this slight play allows the firing pin-locked breechblock to bear firmly against the rear of the breech at firing and allows the breech block-hinge assembly to move as a unit, preventing degradation of the hinge from repeated firing.  A bonus in this early manufacturing age is that production and assembly can still be achieved without the hand fitting required of nearly all previous generations of arms. All-in-all, a both secure and forgiving design.



  The Berdan I is quite long and relatively slender, having only a small pear-shaped knob protruding from the right side of the lifting block and an equally unobtrusive cocking lever, giving the rifle a particularly clean line.  There is no “bolt” in the sense of a turning bolt action rifle, but only a cocking spur jutting up out of the rear end of the bolt body.  The action is noticeably long.


  The trigger guard has an integral lower trigger guard tang with a substantial finger spur forming a hand grip somewhat more prominent than that found on the Russian M1867 Krnka but less so than those on either the late M1867 Austrian Werndl or the M1886 Portuguese Mauser-Kropatschek. [kd confirm!]


  The rear sight consists of only a single elevating leaf with slider and sight notch for use with the leaf lowered.  The sight is hinged at the front so that the leaf lifts from back toward the front, in the manner of the contemporary M1868 Egyptian Remington.  The placement of the rear sight is somewhat curious, however.  The sight has no dedicated base; rather it is mounted on top of the breech block hinge. As the breech block does not swing through a full half arc when the breech is opened, the block never contacts the sight directly. However, the sight is nevertheless subject to all movement to which the block and hinge base might be subject.  It appears that placement of the sight in this location may be a trade-off between security of the sight, and the already significant distance from the shooter’s eyes (about 14 in (355.6mm)) to the sight.  Fixing the sight forward of the hinge base would put it at least 16-17 in (406 4 to 431.8 mm) from the shooter.



  The receiver and breech block are case hardened, the cocking spur is left polished, the barrel, nosecap and breech block hinge are blued and remaining parts, including cleaning rod, are left only polished.



  Top of the barrel forward of the rear sight.   The Cyrillic inscription on this Berdan I rifle reads “Кольтовскiй  Оружейный  заводЪ. г. ГартфордЪ. Америка No.” [serial number] which may be translated as “Colt's Armories, Hartford, America, No. ..." or alternatively also as "Colt Arms Factory (or Colt's ordinance works) City of Hartford. America." or in the Latin for spoken as:  “Koltovskij Oruzenyj zavod gorod Hardford, Amerika  , city Hartford, Amerika").  Some sales samples seen in the U.S. are marked “COLT’S PT FIRE ARMS MF & CO HARTFORD CO”. 

Thank you Ilija Stanislevik (ilijas@siva.com.mk) for providing this information.


  Serial numbers were applied locally in Russia after delivery and were stamped by hand, one digit at a time, and thus are usually somewhat uneven.  If the rifle is not serial numbered then it is likely that the rifle was never delivered.  An Imperial Tsarist eagle stamped after the serial number would have signified acceptance for Russian army service.  M1868 Berdan I rifles with Russian serial numbers and Imperial Tsarist acceptance marks are extremely rare and few have ever been seen in the west.


No other markings, including cartouches of any kind, have been observed.




  No fielded versions of any M1868 Berdan I arms are known.  There were no other Colt contracts for the Berdan I aside from the 30,000 initially ordered, although the Russians reportedly produced it domestically briefly.  Some shortened versions of the M1868, stocked to the muzzle with a barrel length of 18.3 in (465mm) have been reported, but these are thought to number only 30 to 40 and to have been experimental samples only.



  The Russian Berdan 1 used a standard Socket Bayonet.



Overall Length:  53 inches (1,346 mm)

Barrel Length:  32.5 inches (825.5 mm)

Weight:  4.2 kg (__ lbs.)

Rifling:  6-groove; RH, concentric

Sight:  Leaf-type rear sight, graduated from ___ - 1,400 paces; ( ___ - ___ m; ___ - 1,090 yards)

            Alexey says out to 600 paces!!


10.6mm Russian Berdan 


  • 10.67 x 58 R

  • 10.6 x 57.5 R

  • .42 Russian


Muzzle velocity:  427 m/s (~1,390 ft./s)


The .42 Russian Berdan cartridge consists of a rimmed, bottlenecked, straight-walled brass case loaded with 4.95 grams of black powder beneath a 23.7 gram, round-nosed, paper-patched lead bullet.  It is the first Berdan primed cartridge.


Bullet diameter:  10.95 mm

Neck diameter:  11.46 mm

Base diameter:  13.10 mm

Rim diameter:  15.18 mm

Case length:  57.6 mm

Total length:  74.6 mm

Total weight:  41 grams



  Colt clearly had hoped to make a significantly larger sale to the Russians that a meager 30,000 production run, and had also hoped to secure other European orders.  But the furious pace of small arms development in this time frame, coupled with both the success of the Remington (Rolling Block) abroad and the preference of larger nations for indigenous designs, meant that no significant further orders were forthcoming.  Further sealing the Berdan I’s fate, Hiram Berdan had traveled to England in 1868 to continue development of his new turning bolt design (which would become the Berdan II ) and contracted with Birmingham Small Arms Company to manufacture these rifles to his order.  In October of 1869, before Colt had even completed delivery on its Berdan I contract, Russia had signed a contract with BSA, for the manufacture and delivery of 30,000 Berdan II rifles.  Gorlov was clearly incensed and lobbied vigorously for the Berdan I, but the nature of the numerous delicate parts of the Berdan I, contrasted with the robust simplicity of the Berdan II, meant that the Berdan II would be considerably simpler for the Russians to manufacture themselves (always the plan) and this tilted the Russian War Ministry.


France:  French records indicate that 5,700 “Russian Berdan” rifles were supplied to France during the height of its Franco-Prussian War buying frenzy but arrived in port December 15, 1871, too late to have made it into combat before the January 28, 1871 Armistice.  Unfortunately, the source of these rifles is not apparent from French records, although it seems possible that these rifles may have remained un-paid-for in Colt inventory at the conclusion of the Russian order.  Berdan I rifles exist in Western Europe which are fully Russian marked in Cyrillic but are non-serial numbered and non-Russian accepted.  While the Colt manufactured rifles were fully Cyrillic marked with Colt’s Patent information, serial numbers were not applied at the Colt factory but were to be applied by the Russians in Russia, the lack thereof on a rifle suggesting that it was never delivered there.


The Franco-Prussian War became an extraordinary opportunity for American firearms manufacturers and arms dealers to divest themselves of hundreds of thousands of recently obsolete arms at profits which would have been otherwise impossible to realize.  It is entirely possible that the Russians, in lieu of taking delivery of rifles, which by 1870 were already in the process of being supplanted by the Russian Berdan II, simply sold undelivered Berdan I rifles to France to recoup some of their costs.  Alternatively, as Gorlov became notorious for his high inspection standards and high rate of arms rejection, the French delivery could well have been made up of rejected Russian arms or assembled from rejected parts thereof.


Aside from Russia and France, no other nation is known to have employed this Berdan model. 


Predecessor Rifle(s): M1857/67 Russian Krnka


Follow-On Rifle(s): M1868 Russian Berdan II





Page first sketched out February 7, 1999
Revised May 9, 2000
Revised July 30, 2000

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Updated: July 18 2022