About this web page ...
Berdankas were sniper-like military rifles adopted by the Imperial Russian army in 1868, and used as standard issue for its infantry in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and beyond that time elsewhere. The rifle was eventually retired as a combat weapon and converted for use by the general public as a sport or hunting rifle. This web page briefly examines the curious history of this weapon ... its Americian Civil War origins and namesake, Colonel Hiram Berdan, its mass production in the Russian armories near the Ural Mountains, and its reported use by Doukhobors for non-military purposes in the Elisavetpol Slavianka village in the Caucasus.
Historical Background ...
In the second half of the 19th century, many European nations were engaged in what appeared to be a perpetual military arms race and efforts were made to upgrade their military equipment in readiness for the next inevitable war. Having learned from its disastrous losses in the Crimean War of the 1850s with Turkey, Great Britain and France, Czarist Russia was determined to retire its obsolete muzzle loading rifles, and a contract was arranged with Ludwig Nobel, an accomplished Swedish mechanical engineer, arms developer and entrepreneur, then employed by the czarist military in 1867, to convert over a hundred thousand of them to breechloaders.
At the same time a military quest was undertaken abroad for readily available modern single shot breechloaders, and the search focused on a suitable design that had been used by American Union Army, Hiram S. Berdan's "Sharps Shooters" in the Civil War. Colonel Berdan, who was himself an inventor and mechanical engineer, improved the rifle design during the end of the war, and the new breechloaders were manufactured by Colt in the US. The Russian military authorities purchased 30 thousand of these "Berdan I" rifles, and not long afterwards determined that an even more improved version could be made at home, inviting Hiram Berdan to come to Russia as a consultant.
A contract for their manufacture was awarded to Swedish arms builder Peter Alexandrovich Bilderling, who partnered with his old friend, Ludwig Nobel, to produce the improved Russian Berdan known as the "Berdan II" or the “Berdanka” at the government armories at Izhevsk near the Urals. The rifle design was slightly modified for three different military applications, which included bayonets as seen in the photos below.
Berdan NM1859 Sharps rifle. (Source)
According to Robert Tolf - (The Russian Rockefellers); "The improved Russian Berdan known as the Berdan II or the “Berdanka” was a 42-caliber with a circular thumbpiece at the rear of the bolt and with turning-block action in place of the Berdan’s lifting hinged block. It utilized a new type of cartridge, one that marked another critical phase in the development of the rifle, the first center-fire bottlenecked cartridge with an outside Berdan primer. The imaginative colonel had developed the primer for use with a brass case and at the same time devised a new method of quickly and inexpensively drawing the brass, thus helping to usher in the age of high-powered small-bore rifles with greater accuracy, range, and with a low trajectory".
Doukhobors and Berdankas ...
One of Berdan's "Sharps Shooters", Dyer Burgess Pettijohn, was captured at Gettysburg in the American Civil War of the 1860s, and was a Confederate prisoner of war for a period of time. After the war and married with children, he brought his family west, eventually turning up in Grand Forks, BC, to homestead at Spencer Hill on July Creek, within a stone's throw distance from the American border. Their interesting story has been published by the Boundary Historical Society and more recently on an internet family blog. (Link) The CCUB Doukhobors subsequently purchased this property in 1911, and curiously as it turns out, they too had been familiar with Berdankas in the Caucasus decades earlier, albeit for very different reasons. And they, like most other Russians at that time, were not likely aware of Hiram Berdan and their American association.
The gentleman depicted here has been verified as a Mr. Androsoff, a well known Doukhobor, who was indeed, quite likely a "gentle" man, although the bandoliers draped over his shoulder and waist, might have suggested otherwise. But as it is well known, Doukhobors were pacifists when they arrived in the Caucasus in the 1840s, and being one of them, he would not have used his ammunition and firearm to take human life. He may however have openly displayed his ammunition as a deterrence against attack by marauding mountain bandits, and used his rifle to protect his herds of domestic animals.
This extraordinary photograph from a private collection surfaced unexpectedly as the research for this Berdanka segment of the web page was under way, and it was immediately thought to potentially confirm the use of Berdanka rifles by Doukhobors. Subsequent online research does indeed appear to confirm that notion. The Androsoff cartridge shells as depicted in the upper inset of the composite image above, appear to match the white-banded cartridge in the lower inset, which is identified on a firearms expert's website as a 42 calibre Berdan No. II, 1868. This evidence does suggest that at least this one Doukhobor gentleman may have been a Berdanka user.
Thousands of the single-shot Berdankas were retired by the Russian military after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, when it recognized that these weapons were outmatched by the newer longer range Winchester and Peabody–Martini rapid-fire repeaters in the hands of the Turkish army. To remain competitive in this "small" arms race, the Russian military then purchased more advanced multi-cartridge Mosin–Nagant rifles, designed by Russian Capt. Sergei Mosin, for the use of its infantry in the subsequent Russo-Japanese War and World War I. Many of the surplus Berdankas were then sold, as they became available, to the general public and quite likely many Doukhobors as well, for domestic security purposes and hunting.
Doukhobor hunting and the eating of animals
It should be pointed out that in the late 1890s, a large group of Doukhobors in the Caucasus, possibly the majority, (the so called "Verigin-Large party" or "Fasters"), aside from being pacifists, gave up the hunting of animals and eating meat, although there were disparate perspectives on this matter from village to village. Read about the naming of Doukhobor factions in the Caucasus on another web page. (Link)
An interesting analysis of the Skavianka village in the Elisavetpol district by an Orthodox priest who had lived among the Doukhobors, reveals that hunting by the villagers with rifles and other means was common in that village as late as 1899. And most surprisingly, a brief comment on page 26 of his 41 page report also definitively confirms the use of Berdankas for this purpose. View Llarion Dzashi's Russian language report on Slavianka in its entirety here as a pdf -12 MBytes. (Link)
They hunt with a hunting rifle or with a “berdanka”
Slavianka was known however to be more prosperous and somewhat more independently-minded than other settlements, and may have been unusual in this respect. The village was also the home of the Verigin family, and the birthplace of two prominent Doukhobor leaders, Peter V. Verigin, and his son Peter P. Verigin. According to the late historian Peter N. Maloff, young Peter V. Verigin, while under Lukeria Vasilievna Kalmykova's watch at Gorelovka in the 1860s, may have brought with him a measure of his youthful Slavianka interest in hunting. At Gorelovka he was known to "sometimes roam around in the open fields or woods with a shotgun as if intending to hunt. He wouild wander around alone for several hours or even a whole day, but would always return empty handed" And when accused in jest of being a "poor shot", "he apologized, repeating that it was true he did not know how to shoot well, although it was also apparent that he avoided killing animals".
Other Doukhobor settlements however had more mixed sentiments on these matters, as described in the writing of a Doukhobor elder, Nikolay Savelyevich Zibarov.
"Then, we began to talk about the killing of animals – this was already in 1894. Many did not want to quit killing animals, arguing that in our region it was impossible to live without meat. We consulted with some of the exiled elders and they were in agreement to stop eating meat. So we all agreed to stop eating meat at the same time, on November 8, 1894. And here we began to see, that if we were no longer going to use them to kill animals, then we should also destroy all of our weapons."
Peter Verigin was in Siberian exile at that time, and these conversations were undoubtedly a reflection of his own perspectives on this and other Christian ethical and moral values which had "matured" somewhat during his exile. He remotely encouraged his followers throughout the Caucasus to demonstrate their aversion to violence and the killing of human beings and animals, and they did so in a dramatic fashion in 1895, by burning their rifles and other weapons in the historic "Burning of Arms" protest, as an affirmation of these values.
The 1895 Doukhobor Burning of Arms ...
It is unclear whether Peter Verigin actually owned a Berdanka, but he demonstrated his personal committment to the cause by conveying instructions that his own special edition silver Winchester, said to be worth 250 rubles, was to be delivered from Shenkursk and symbolically sacrificed in the fires as an example to others. This Winchester was ceremoniously placed on the burn pile of weapons, firewood and coal at the village of Terpeniye in the Kars settlement. The stack of weapons was then doused with kerosene, and the fire was lit with a torch in the hands of local elder, Ivan Osachoff, precisely at midnight on June 28, 1895. There appear to be confilicting accounts regarding the timing of the rifle placement, whether it was first or last on the burn pile, although from a later book by his younger brother, Grigori Vasilievich Verigin, on this matter, we can perhaps conclude that its placement was first.
"First they laid, as a foundation, the gun of Pyotr Vasilyevich, which he sent from Shenkursk, in fact for this purpose, at a cost of 250 rubles".
"Сначала положили, как фундамент, ружье Петра Васильевича, которое он прислал из Шенкурска, собственно для этой цели, стоимостью 250 рублей, центрального боя".
There were three planned burnings arranged in the Caucasus for that late evening, in three mountain villages, (view map) and the fires burned throughout the following night and day. An enormous number of rifles had likely been consumed in that manner, and many of them could have conceivably been Nobel-built Berdankas. But no actual inventory of the weapons destroyed in these conflagrations has apparently been ever documented.
As it turns out, there is a small irony in the incidental connection between the Nobels and the Doukhobor Burning of Arms protest. According to Robert Tolf, Ludwig Nobel had manufactured over 400 thousand Berdankas for use in war. Yet here they were in the Caucasus mountains, being consumed by Doukhobor flames in peaceful protest against war, not far distant from the Nobel petroleum refineries at Baku. (Map) And in that sense, there is even a distinct possibility that the protest fires may have actually been fueled by Nobel kerosene.
The Nobel Peace Prize and Leo Tolstoy
The Nobel-Doukhobor connection furthermore also involved Leo Tolstoy, who was well aware of the persecution of the Doukhobors, and deeply moved by their heroic protest and stand against military service in 1895. His interest was in peace rather than war, and it concerned Alfred more than Ludwig. Alfred Nobel died in 1896, and in an effort to atone for his lifelong involvement in the manufacture of explosives and munitions, he had included directives in his will to use Nobel family wealth for the funding of annual prizes in recognition of "more worthy" human endeavors - in the sciences, physiology or medicine, literature and the promotion of world peace. The recipients were to be chosen by a Norwegian committee delegated for that responsibility. Leo Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times in the ensuing years but declined the nominations on principle. His sentiments on this matter were revealed on his first nomination in a long letter to the editor of a Swedish newspaper, the Stokholm Tagblatt, in 1897, suggesting that the distinction and prize money be more deservedly awarded to the destitute persecuted Doukhobors, for their pacifism and steadfast resistance to militarism. (Link) The final paragraph of his letter is reproduced below:
"This is why I believe that no one has served the cause of peace in a greater degree than they (the Doukhobors) have. The dreadful condition in which their families at present find them selves justifies one in affirming that no one can with greater justice be awarded the money which Nobel bequeathed to those that have best served the cause of peace". - from The Novels and Other Works of Lyof N. Tolstoy - Essays, Letters Miscellaneous, Charles Scribner's Sons 1902, Pgs. 317-323.
Berdankas are collectible today by firearms enthusiasts, but none of them are likely Doukhobors. And even if their ancestors did own these rifles at one time, their sacrifice in that historic peaceful demonstration, would arguably have been a most worthy undertaking.