by Terry Wieland
It was the name “Werndl” that first grabbed my attention, attached to a very pretty little Austrian hunting rifle from the late 1800s. The Werndl was the single-shot breechloader Austria-Hungary chose in 1867 to replace its Lorenz muzzleloading infantry rifle. It was designed by Josef Werndl, founder of what became Steyr Mannlicher, and while it was soon replaced in its turn by an early Mannlicher bolt rifle, it established a fine reputation.
The Werndl action, which employs an ingenious rotating breechblock, was used for a cavalry carbine as well as an infantry rifle, and was also employed as the basis for both Schützen target rifles and hunting Stutzen. The photo in the Rock Island catalog showed a short Jagdstutzen that appeared to be the direct ancestor of the famous Mannlicher Model 1903.
The first time I lifted it out of the rack, I fell in love with it. This affection carried through the bidding, and I brought it home with me. But now the mysteries began.
Rock Island listed no maker beyond the name “Jos. Heinige in Wien” engraved on the barrel. Far as I can tell, Heinige was a high-end Vienna gun dealer, not a gunmaker, and an assortment of very fine guns with his name on the barrel have appeared at auctions in Europe.
Beyond the name, however, there was nothing. No maker’s mark, nor caliber mark of any kind. The action was a short Werndl (they were made in two, and possibly three, different sizes) and the size determines the cartridge that can be used. The shorter actions have a steeper loading ramp, which does not accommodate longer cartridges.
So what was it? I had to know, because the rifle was too pretty and intriguing not to shoot. The first step was to take it to Lee Shaver for an overall assessment, and while it was there, he did a chamber cast and slugged the bore. The rifle is in such excellent condition he thought it possible it had never been sold, much less shot. The bore is absolutely pristine.
The bore is .424 inches, and the cartridge case is short (1.4 inches) with a straight taper. By an astonishing piece of luck, the base of the case is about the same size as a .40-65 but with a smaller rim. Cutting off .40-65 brass, trimming it, and slimming down the rim solved the problem of a shootable case. And, as it turned out, .40-65 dies size and deprime as well as a custom die would — which is fortunate, because Redding is so backlogged right now they are not making any custom dies.
The groove diameter is .440, so any soft-lead bullet for the .44-40 or .44 Special will work. A little small, but loaded with black powder, the bullet will bump up to fill the grooves. Alas, all I had were some hard-alloy 200-grain semi-roundnosed bullets, .430 diameter, which resist such ad hoc expansion. I figured that would be close enough, however, to at least fire-form some cases. And it was.
Loaded with FFFg black powder, the little rifle — now christened Heidi — will launch a 200-grain bullet at 1,188 fps; with FFg it’s a little slower, with a duplex load of FFg and 4227, slower still, and filled with Trail Boss, down around 1,100. The latter loads are cleaner and more convenient, but that’s about the only advantage.
I have not mentioned accuracy because it’s impossible to tell with the bullets I’ve been using. I managed to find some identical bullets made of pure lead and have some ordered. Once those arrive, I’ll be able to get a better idea of Heidi’s capabilities.
The final question is this: Exactly what game was Heidi intended for? All I can think of is hunting roe deer from a stand at close range, or possibly chamois if the hunter was a leopard-class stalker. She’s far too light for either wild boar or red stag, the other major mammals hunted in Austria. Capercaillie? Possibly.
Or, maybe, she wasn’t intended to hunt anything, and was put together by a gunmaker just to show what he could do. Lee Shaver, having had her apart, says she’s “as nice inside as she is outside,” and that if any member of the American Custom Gunmakers Guild (ACGG) had made the rifle, “he’d have it on display in a glass case.”
We’ve named the cartridge 10.75x35R, which is a proper designation for a European round. So far as we can find, however, no cartridge of those dimensions ever formally existed in Europe — at least not according to the old catalogues and cartridge histories on our shelves. But who cares? We have brass, dies, bullets, and the lovely old girl is shooting once again. That’s what really counts.
Gray’s shooting editor just can’t resist a mystery or a pretty face, and Heidi combines both.