Modern mass production firearms are breech-loading (though mortars are generally all muzzle-loaded). Early firearms were almost entirely muzzle-loading. The main advantage of breech-loading is a reduction in reloading time; it is much quicker to load the projectile and charge into the breech than to force them down a long tube, especially when the tube has spiral ridges from rifling. In field artillery, breech loading allows the crew to reload the muzzle without exposing themselves to enemy fire, and it allows turrets and emplacements to be smaller.
Patrick Ferguson, a British Army officer, developed in 1772 the Ferguson rifle, a breech-loading flintlock weapon. Roughly two hundred of the rifles were manufactured and used in the Battle of Brandywine, during the American Revolutionary War, but shortly after they were retired and replaced with the standard Brown Bess musket.
Later on into the mid 1800s there were attempts in Europe at an effective breech-loader. There were concentrated attempts at improved cartridges and methods of ignition. The low-powered copper Flobert cartridge was invented in 1836, as was the pinfire cartridge (Lefaucheux), although this required fixative work by Houiller in 1846 to produce a workable cartridge. Rimfire cartridge (1850s). Centrefire cartridge (Pottet, 1857. Berdan or Boxer priming). See Cartridge.
The Dreyse Zündnadelgewehr or Dreyse needle gun, was a single-shot breech-loader rifle using a rotating bolt to seal the breech. It was so called because of its .5-inch needle-like firing pin which passed through a paper cartridge case to impact a percussion cap at the bullet base. It began development in the 1830s under Dreyse and eventually an improved version of it was adopted by Prussia in the late 1840s. The paper cartridge and the gun had numerous deficiencies; specifically, serious problems with gas leaking. However, the rifle was used to great success in the Prussian army causing much interest in Europe for breech loaders.
During the American Civil War many breech loaders would be fielded. The Sharps rifle used a successful dropping block design. The Greene Rifle used rotating bolt-action, and was fed from the breech. The Spencer, which used lever-actuated bolt-action, was fed from a 6-round detachable tube magazine. The Henry rifles and Volcanic rifles used rimfire metallic cartridges fed from a tube magazine under the barrel. These held a significant advantage over muzzle-loaders. The improvements in breech-loaders had spelled the end of muzzle-loaders. To make use of the enormous number of war surplus muzzle-loaders, the Allin conversion Springfield was adopted in 1866. General Burnside invented a breech-loading rifle before the war.
The French adopted the new Chassepot rifle in 1866, which was much improved over the Needle gun as it had dramatically fewer gas leaks. The British initially took the existing Enfield and fitted it with a Snider breech-action (solid block, hinged parallel to the barrel) firing the Boxer cartridge. Following a competitive examination of 104 guns in 1866, the British decided to adopt the Peabody derived Martini-Henry with trap-door loading, adopted in 1871.
Single-shot breech-loaders would be used throughout the latter half of 19th century, but they were slowly replaced by various designs for repeating rifles, first used – and heavily – in the American Civil War. Manual breach-loaders gave way to manual magazine feed and then to self-loading rifles.