A Heidi Report

The Werndl action with its rotating breechblock closed. The quality of the materials and workmanship is obvious, and the action itself is ingenious.

by Terry Wieland

In my first Sporting Note a couple of weeks ago about Heidi, the sweet little Werndl-action hunting rifle that came from Rock Island in December, I had no idea who made her, or the actual cartridge for which she is chambered.  I can now report that both mysteries have been solved — to my satisfaction, anyway.

Without taking you every tortuous step of the way, finding a clue here, a vague reference there, an historical fragment somewhere else, my conclusion is that the gunmaker was Ferdinand Fruwirth of Vienna.  Fruwirth was a master gunmaker who produced rifles and shotguns for everyone from the Hapsburgs on down.  Several very fine pieces have shown up in auctions in Europe over the past few years, including one rifle that is identical, except for the engraving, to Heidi.

Josef Werndl apprenticed with Fruwirth, and when the Austro-Hungarian government adopted the Werndl rifle in 1867, part of the production contract went to Fruwirth, with the rest being produced by ŒWG (later Steyr Mannlicher).  Fruwirth apparently made the variation called the cavalry carbine, which was more compact, and had a shorter action.  Later, Fruwirth introduced his “Fruwirth Carbine of 1870,” chambered for a short cartridge.  This is Heidi.

The 11.3mm cartridge just fits the shorter Werndl action, which was probably used for both the carbine and the military handgun.

The cartridge in question was probably designed by Werndl for the carbine, or possibly for the single-shot pistol that was also built on his action.  Whether the carbine action was identical to the pistol I haven’t been able to determine, but it makes sense.

At any rate, the cartridge went on to enjoy a career that was bizarre by any standard.  In the Austrian army, it was used first for the carbine, then by the Werndl handgun, which was briefly military issue.  This was soon replaced by the Gasser revolver, but the chambering was retained.

Meanwhile, King Nicholas I of Montenegro adopted an innovative method of raising revenue:  He dictated that every male subject carry an approved revolver, and the king held a monopoly on these.  The subject of “Montenegrin revolvers” could fill a book, although you’d go mad trying to write one.  It’s confused, to put it mildly.  There were many different configurations and chamberings for them, and they were produced by just about every European gunmaker, large and small, but essentially all were based on the Gasser design.  Obviously, they were a valuable revenue source for more than King Nicholas.

The Werndl cartridge, known in Austria as the “11.2 Austrian Army Revolver M. 1870,” among other things, became a favorite chambering for the Montenegrin revolvers, under the name “11.3 Montenegrin.”  I should point out right here that these were just two of the cartridge’s more than 20 aliases.  The 11.3mm was produced by every ammunition company in Europe, while in America, Winchester catalogued ammunition for it until 1939.  Believe it or not.

According to Munhall and White (Centerfire Pistol and Revolver Cartridges [1967]), the 11.3 was produced with three different case-head configurations (Mauser Type ‘A’, and conventional head with either thick or thin rim), with cases rated as heavy (strong) or light construction, indicating different wall thicknesses, and in bullet diameters ranging from 10.8mm to 11.75mm.  But these were nominal at best.

“Such a thing as tolerances of weights and measurements seems to have been given slight heed by the various makers as wide discrepancies exist,” they wrote.  However, since there were equally wide tolerances in the various makes of Montenegrin revolvers, pretty much anything would fit pretty much everything.  Sort of.

This sloppiness was most emphatically not true of either Werndl or Fruwirth.  For a rifle made in the 1870s or ‘80s, Heidi is a model of precision, to say nothing of excellent workmanship.  There are no proof marks and, since proof laws were not introduced in Austria until 1892, this dates the rifle within a 22-year period.

A chamber cast indicated that, by some miracle, brass could be fashioned from .40-65 brass, simply by shortening it by .75” and trimming the rim from .600” to .585”.  By another miracle, I had 100 rounds of excellent Starline brass, and two sets of .40-65 dies.  After experimenting with different powders, I found that 35 grains of Swiss FFFg, combined with a 200-grain soft lead .44 Special bullet, gives me 1,322 feet per second, which is not too shabby.

So Heidi is shooting once again, possibly for the first time in 140 years, and can best be described as a sweetheart to shoot.  At some later date, I hope to be able to report on accuracy.


Gray’s shooting editor has no plans for a book about Montenegrin revolvers, although if he sees one for sale he’s making no promises.