The Berdan rifle is a Russian rifle created by famous American firearms expert and inventor Hiram Berdan in 1868. Standard issue in the Russian army from 1869-1891, the Berdan was replaced by the Mosin-Nagant rifle. Widely used in Russia as a hunting weapon, sporting variants, including shotguns, were produced until the mid-1930s.
Note that this article discusses the Russian Berdan I (M1868) and Berdan II (M1870) rifles of .42 caliber. The Russian models are distinct from the Spanish Berdan 15mm (.58+ cal) conversion rifles adopted by Spain as the M1857/67 Berdan (and related engineer, artillery & short rifles).
Two different versions of the later single-shot Berdan rifle were adopted as service weapons by Imperial Russia. The first version, manufactured by Colt in the USA, is known as the model of 1868, or Berdan I. It is a hammerless "trapdoor" breechblock design, and was manufactured in limited numbers (40,000?) as a full length infantry rifle. Colt also manufactured a few half-stock Berdan I cavalry carbine prototypes, but these were never adopted for Russian service. Colt even produced a few target rifles based on the Berdan I.
The model of 1870, or Berdan II, is a bolt action with a distinctive short, pear-shaped, bolt handle. The bolt handle serves as the only locking lug for the action, and when closed, points upwards at a 30 degree angle, rather than horizontally. The Berdan II was produced in four variants: an infantry rifle, the lighter and slightly shorter dragoon rifle, a cossack
rifle with a button trigger and no trigger guard, and a cavalry carbine
. Infantry and dragoon rifles were issued with quadrangular socket bayonets. Initial production of the Berdan II was at Birmingham Small Arms in England. The rifles were later manufactured in large numbers by Russian factories at Tula
, and Sestroretsk
. Estimated total production of all models is over 3 million. The rifle was known for its accuracy, simplicity and reliability.
The 10.75x58r cartridge used in the Berdan was also invented by Hiram Berdan, with assistance of Russian Colonel Gorloff. It was the subject of many patents in both the USA
and Great Britain
. The bottleneck cartridge case used the Berdan primer, its first use in a small arms cartridge. Cartridges were issued in blue paper packets of six rounds each. In addition to the regular cartridge for rifles, a special cartridge was manufactured for use in the cavalry carbine. It consisted of the same cartridge case and bullet, but with a lighter powder charge of only 4.5 grams, and was issued in six round pink paper packets. At the time of its use, the 10.75x58r (4.2 line) cartridge was known for its power and accuracy.
Both the Berdan I and Berdan II were used by Guard units in the Russian Army
during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78
. Russian forces, although ultimately victorious, were badly mauled by the very long range fire from Turk Peabody-Martini rifles at battles like Pleven. After the war a long-range auxiliary sight was adopted and retrofitted to the Berdan II infantry rifle.
The Berdanka, as it was called, continued on in Russian service even after the adoption of the Mosin Nagant. During World War I, some Russian second line, training and service units were armed with the Berdan II. It is common to see Berdan rifles in photos of street fighting taken during the Russian Revolution of 1917.
The Berdan II was also adopted by Bulgaria, and saw very limited service in Finland as late as World War II.
Kingdom of Serbia also received some as military aid at the turn of the 20th century. It saw service in the Balkan Wars and WWI in the hands of Serbian soldiers of the 3rd class (men over 50 years old).
No magazine-fed versions of the Berdan ever progressed beyond the prototype phase. Russian troops, however, did have various cartridge holders, such as the Krnka quick-loader, attached to their rifles to aid in reloading. By the late 1880s Russia began the process of replacing the Berdan with a magazine rifle, and this resulted in the adoption of the Mosin Nagant. In about 1900, a limited number of Berdan II infantry rifles, perhaps as many as 200,000, were converted to 7.62x54r (the Mosin Nagant caliber) for Russian service by arms makers in Belgium
. These rifles have new barrels and sights, and new bolts with a front locking lug and longer bolt handle.
Sporting rifles and shotguns were re-manufactured in Russia from surplussed rifles after the Mosin Nagant was adopted into service. These firearms can be found as ornately engraved, well fit and finished custom sporting rifles, intended for the Russian ruling class, or can be just simple unadorned shotguns.
Solzhenitsyn, writing in "Gulag Archipelago" states that in 1941 the Moscow People's Volunteer Corps was sent into the Vyazma encirclement armed with "1866 Berdan rifles" to "fight tanks".
Markings on the Berdan rifle usually consist of the Imperial Russian double-headed eagle
cypher on the top receiver flat. The manufacturer's name in Cyrillic, date of manufacture, and rifle serial number, are on the top of the barrel. Some rifles also show a date of manufacture on the receiver. The serial number was also applied to the bolt. Additional proof marks and property markings are found on the receiver and barrel. There is a factory cartouche on the right side of the buttstock.