The Needle Gun name comes from the firing pin, long and slender like a needle. It pierced clear through the paper-encased cartridge to strike the primer. They really became well known for their use in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
A Swiss gunsmith named Jean Samuel Pauly designed the first experimental needle gin in 1808. He also made the first fully self-contained cartridges. They had a copper base with integrated mercury fulminate primer powder (the major innovation of Pauly), a round bullet, and either brass or paper casing.
Pauly made an improved version of the firearm which received a patent on September 29, 1812. The cartridge was improved by a French gunsmith Casimir Lefaucheux in 1836. In 1809 Pauly employed the German Johann Nicolaus von Dreyse, who later invented the famous Dreyse rifle. This was the first mass-produced needle gun. The first early Dreyse guns were smooth-bore.
The Prussian army adopted these and they were rifles using self-contained combustible cartridges holding oblong lead balls held in a paper-mâché “sabot”. From 1948 onward the new weapons were introduced into Prussian service.
In 1861, the needle was shortened and the handle was moved to the rear of the bolt by Johannes Doersch and Cramer von Baumgarten. More than 1000 of these Model 1861s were made. In 1865, Johannes Friedrich Christian Carl patented another needle gun for the Russian forces. Antoine Alphonse Chassepot, patented another version of the needle gun in France, 1866. In the Franco-Prussian War, it was said to outrange the German Dreyse needle gun 2 to 1. The Carcano Fucile di Fanteria Modello 1860/67 needle gun, was developed in Italy by Salvatore Carcano in 1867.
This rifle was operated by pulling a cocking knob on the back of the action, retracting the needle, and allowing the bolt handle to be lifted. Americans made a few needle guns but they were soon replaced by rifles that fired metallic cartridges.
When needle guns were popular the Americans were not buying guns in bulk for the military. By the time they were, the brass cartridges were available.