The Bittner Repeating Pistol of 1896
by Ed Buffaloe
In the late 19th Century there existed a class of mechanically operated repeating pistols (Repetierpistolen or sometimes Repetir Pistolen in German) which were quite distinct
from revolvers. These guns served as a transition between the single shot pistol and the self-loading pistol, and were based largely on the design of various rifles of the lever- and bolt-action variety. As Ian Hogg and John
Weeks state in Pistols of the World: “By adapting the linear motion of the bolt action to a hand gun, it [was] possible to come up with something new, attractive and profitable. ...the
mechanical repeater was the result.” Jaroslav Lugs, in his book Firearms Past and Present, refers to such guns as “magazine repeating
pistols”. He says: “During the period extending from the 1870s until the end of the century, magazine pistols were constructed by several well-known designers who based their designs on
principles which were subsequently to be employed in all automatic firearms.”
Perhaps the earliest example of this type of weapon is the Volcanic pistol of Daniel B. Wesson, patented in 1854, though, as Mötz & Schuy point out in their book Vom Ursprung der Selbstladepistole, the Volcanic was not a true cartridge pistol and also required operation with
two hands. The Volcanic featured a lever with a ring on it, for working the action, which is seen on many of the later repeating pistols.
The Bittner Repeating Pistol
The Bittner pistol falls at the very end of the period of development of magazine repeating pistols, in the same time period in which the earliest self-loading pistols were beginning to appear;
consequently, its appeal was very short lived. Nevertheless, as Lugs points out: “Of all the pistols of this type, the one most frequently to be seen in collections is the five-shot repeater made...by
Hogg & Weeks likewise note: “[The Bittner] seems to have sold in some numbers, as it is probably the most common of its type to be found today. Probably two or three thousand may have
been made.” Mötz & Schuy echo this, saying: “Probably the most common European bolt-action pistol with around 3,000 produced.” They state further: “The highest known serial number is 2831.
However, the numbering cannot be relied upon 100% because, as with other weapon manufacturers, it was probably not carried out consistently.” Their information is based on
Austrian proof records. All known examples were proofed in 1897 or 1898, and the highest serial number proofed in 1897 was 2831. It is not known exactly how many were proofed in 1898, but
all serial numbers were apparently lower than 2831.
According to Mötz & Schuy, the serial number is stamped on the bottom of the barrel but is not visible unless the cartridge clip spring housing is removed. Also on the bottom of the barrel, but
clearly visible because in front of the cartridge clip spring housing, is the the proof number from the Wiepert proof house which is often mistaken for the serial number, followed by a two-digit
year number. Other numbers are stamped in various places, including the bolt, grip frame, and inside the lockwork housing, but these are apparently assembly numbers.
The Bittner preferment, as it was known at the time, Austrian patent number 46/4690, was filed in Prague on 17 October 1896. Acceptance of the preferment must have taken place very quickly, and
production also must have begun almost immediately (or perhaps had already begun) since most known examples were proofed in 1897.
The Bittner pistol features a ring lever which is pressed forward to open the bolt. A five-round cartridge clip is inserted from the top, through the open breech, in the manner of the 1886
Mannlicher rifle. Cartridges in the clip are immediately engaged by a flat spring which extends into the magazine bay from the spring housing in front of it; the spring exerts upward pressure on
the cartridges, feeding them up into the breech as the action is worked. After the last cartridge is fired, the clip drops out the bottom of the pistol.
The bolt contains the striker and extractor. The bolt springs open when the ring lever is pushed forward, automatically extracting the cartridge case if there is one in the breech. The bolt is closed
by pulling the ring backward using a small checkered extension at its base, or by simply leaving the finger in the ring so it engages the trigger on the backstroke. As the lever is pulled to the rear,
pushing the bolt forward, the next cartridge is chambered, and a single locking lug on the bolt is cammed in a counterclockwise direction, locking the breech. A transverse safety button in the
uppermost portion of the grip serves to lock the trigger when pressed to the left and is easily released by the thumb of a right-handed shooter. The Bittner features an adjustable rear sight with
very optimistic range markings of 100 to 300 meters.
According to Mötz & Schuy, the Bittner design is largely based on that of the Passler & Seidl pistol of 1887 (see addendum below),
which also featured an octagonal barrel and a similar front sight, a flat spring to feed the cartridges, and a bolt, ring lever, and trigger. The Bittner was improved over the Passler & Seidl design by
the addition of its Mannlicher-derived cartridge clip and the housing that covers the spring that feeds the cartridges.
The finish of the Bittner is of the highest quality, reflecting that of the deluxe single-shot target pistols of the day. The barrel is blued and the
entire receiver is color case-hardened. The bolt is highly polished. The grip stocks are of fine checkered walnut, as are the covers for the cartridge clip spring housing. The Bittner GBW monogram is stamped
on the right side of the receiver beneath the words PATENT BITTNER.
The 7.7mm Bittner cartridge is said to have been based on the .320 short revolver cartridge but has a slightly tapered case, is loaded with a steel jacketed 85 grain round-nose bullet, smokeless
powder, and is Berdan primed. According to Mötz & Schuy, the only manufacturer was FL Uttendorfer of Nuremberg. However, White & Munhall state that the cartridge they examined was
manufactured by Rheinisch Westfalische Sprengstoff.
Joseph Schroeder, in his 1981 article The Bittner Pistol, points out a major disadvantage of the design: if the cartridge clip is damaged or lost, the gun effectively becomes a single-shot. The
Mannlicher cartridge clip design was ideal in a military environment but not necessarily in a sporting environment. In any case, an even more significant issue today is the proprietary
ammunition, the lack of which makes it impossible to shoot a Bittner pistol. The cartridge has not been available for more than a hundred years.
Two Bittner Advertisements
I had observed a few Bittner pistols come up at auction and knew vaguely that it was a precursor of the modern “automatic” pistol but my interest was not piqued until I found
advertisements for the gun in two early catalogues of the Kirtland Brothers of New York, a general supply store that also purveyed sporting and military goods. These are the only advertisements I have
ever seen for the gun; they use a factory drawing showing the gun with sideplate removed and an illustration taken from the patent. The first catalog is undated but lists the .38 Smith & Wesson Special
cartridge which first appeared in 1898; however, it lists not a single “automatic” pistol, so I have tentatively dated it to 1899 or possibly 1900. The price for the
Bittner was $14.75 whereas, by comparison, a .50 caliber Remington rolling block pistol was only $2.50, a New Protector palm pistol was $2.45, a .38 Smith & Wesson Safety Hammerless was
$11.37, and a Colt single-action army revolver was $9.37. The Bittner was the most expensive pistol listed in the catalogue.
I believe the advertisement is of sufficient interest that I should quote it in full:
Note that the manufacturer’s name is misspelled as “Bitner”. Still, the advertisement actually contains a very accurate description of the gun. I found it interesting that the
advertisement touts the Bittner as being able to fire both black powder and smokeless powder ammunition, particularly since there is no record of the cartridge ever being loaded with black powder. I did not find
ammunition for the Bittner listed in the catalog but have to assume that it was available through Kirtland Brothers.
BITNER’S CELEBRATED, AUTOMATIC, SAFETY HAMMERLESS, REPEATING MAGAZINE PISTOLS. 6-INCH, 32 CALIBER, OCTAGON BARREL, HANDSOMELY CHASED, 5-SHOT MAGAZINE, ELEVATING
REAR SIGHT FOR LONG RANGE. No other pistol in the world has so many good qualities as the Bitner.
Shoots either black or smoke-less powder cartridges, using either 32 caliber plain lead or steel-manteled
ballets. Range 150 yards. Can fire five shots in two seconds.
Correct balance in the hand. It is lighter than any other magazine pistol. It is sliding bolt (or breech block),
action actuating by trigger guard lever. It can be drawn from the pocket and fired as quickly as the finest double-action revolver, which is not true of any other Magazine Pistol. No other Magazine Pistol can use
black powder. By the use of black powder cartridges for common shooting, you can save half the expense in cartridges, with smokeless powder mantel bullet you can kill a deer 100 to 150 yards; you can penetrate 1
foot of solid wood. The advantages of a Magazine Pistol over a revolver are many. First, the cylinder of a revolver is thick and heavy; it does not always stop exactly true with the barrel, especially after the arm gets
worn. With the old-fashioned revolver a portion of your powder charge escapes between the cylinder and the barrel, sometimes more, sometimes less; consequently the shooting is uneven. With the Magazine Pistol,
the cartridge is fitted snug and true into the chamber and the sliding breech block is hard up to the head of
the cartridge before it is fired, thus insuring accuracy and the full force of the cartridge. When the last of the 5
cartridges is fired the empty clip drops out, leaving the chamber of the magazine clear for the insertion of a
fresh clip. Only the fractional part of a minute is required to recharge the arm. The mechanism and finish are perfect. The frame and all parts are case-hardened; the finish is a handsome marbleized blue; stock and
magazine sides nicely checked. This is an arm anyone may feel proud to possess. In fact, it is as good as money will buy. It is simple, strong, reliable, accurate and handsome. Our Special Price, $14.75. There is no
other pistol with all these good qualifies at any price.
I have located a 1903-1904 Kirtland Brothers catalogue which also lists the Bittner but the price has been reduced to $12.50. By contrast, the Colt single-action army was selling for $7.00, the
Colt 1894 New Army was $12.00, and the 1896 Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector was $10.50 with a 3¼” barrel. Once again, ammunition for the Bittner is not listed.
Addendum: Early Magazine Repeating Pistols
In addition to the Volcanic pistol, mentioned above, other early magazine repeating pistols mentioned by either Jaroslav Lugs or Mötz & Schuy include:
1871. The Remington Rider (of Newark, Ohio) repeating pistol which featured a tubular magazine under the barrel and was manufactured by Remington from 1871 through 1888. The patent shows a gun with a
trigger guard but the production gun was manufactured by Remington with a sheath trigger.
- 1881. The Rudolf Oesterreich (of Berlin) repeating pistol which featured a tubular magazine under the barrel and a ring trigger.
- 1881. The Franz Drevenstedt (of Klein-Ammensleben, near Magdeburg) repeating pistol which featured a horizontally rotating flat cylinder containing Lefaucheaux cartridges, and
which was apparently based on a much earlier 1837 design by the American John Webster Cochran (U.S. Patent numbers 183 and 188).
1882. The Jacques Edmond Turbiaux (of Paris) palm pistol, marked Le Protector, Système Turbiaux, which likewise featured a rotating flat cylinder magazine. The same
gun was known in the U.S. as the Chicago Pistol, was marked The Proctector, and the inscription included the patent date and the name Chicago Fire Arms Co, Chicago, Ill.
- 1884. The Josef Schulhof (of Vienna) repeating pistol which featured a tubular magazine inside the curved grip, a ring lever
and flat trigger, and a toggle locking mechanism. Initially, the magazine was loaded by opening the left grip plate, but later was loaded from the bottom.
1886. The Paul Mauser (of Oberndorf) repeating pistol which featured a tubular magazine beneath the barrel and a ring trigger which both cycled the action and fired the gun. According to Baudino &
Vlimmeren, the extracting action was weak and the gun required two hands to cycle the action, much like the Volcanic pistol. Neither the pistol nor the rifle version were ever manufactured.
- 1887. The Josef Schulhof (of Vienna) repeating pistol, featuring a cylindrical magazine beneath the breech in front of the trigger and a ring lever and flat trigger. This was
upgraded in 1888 with a removable magazine.
1887. The Passler & Seidl (of Vienna) repeating pistol which featured a bolt very similar to the Schulhof, a ring lever and flat trigger, and a removable magazine in front
of the trigger. A spring-loaded lever attached beneath the barrel serves to press the cartridges upwards so they can be fed into the breech. Mötz & Schuy estimate that only about 100 were made, most of them
with differing features, so it appears the guns were largely experimental.
1888. The Krnka (of Michle, near Prague) repeating pistol featured a bolt like its predecessors, a rotating six-round cylindrical magazine loaded through a sliding cover on the right side of the gun,
and a ring lever and flat trigger. It likely never got beyond the prototype stage and was superceded by a later design. The design was patented in the United States in 1892 (U.S. patent 459,874).
- 1889. The Rieger (of Vienna) repeating pistol was apparently an improvement on the design of Passler & Seidl with a rotary
magazine similar to that of Krnka, and loaded via a sliding cover on the right side. Only a couple of specimens are known to exist.
- 1889. The Laumann (of Vienna) repeating pistol featured a straight-pull bolt operated by a lever; a falling-block lock, said by Mötz & Schuy to be very similar to that of the Mannlicher
rifles between 1885 and 1888; a five-shot clip, also similar to that on the Mannlicher rifle, spring-fed from the front like the Passler & Seidl, with a button release; and a safety lever.
Two additional patents were filed in 1890 with improvements, and a fourth in 1891.
- 1892. The Fortelka & Brüll (of Vienna) repeating pistol is known only from its British patent. The breech is held open by a spring when the ring lever is released; the gun has a locking bolt
and a vertical magazine in front of the trigger.
- 1892. The Krnka & Ríha (of London and Pilsen) repeating pistol represents several minor improvements on the earlier Krnka pistol of 1888. Ríha’s name may appear on the patent only
because he was intended to manufacture the gun.
1893. The Le Gaulois repeating pistol, made by Manufacture Française d’Armes de Saint-Étienne, now known as Manufrance. This was a simple but effective palm pistol with a box magazine.
- 1894. The Josef Vanyek (of Budapest) repeating pistol featured a ring lever and a flat trigger. In the front of the ring is a small lever which causes the breech to open under
spring pressure and the empty cartridge case to be automatically ejected. When the ring trigger is pulled back the next cartridge is loaded
and the finger encounters the trigger. Mötz & Schuy state that with this arrangement of the trigger deliberate aiming was difficult.