Rifle: Italian Carcano M1891

Carcano M1891 Tilt

Rifle Fucile Modello 1891 Manufacturer Various
Cartridge 6.5x52mm Overall Length 50.6″
Action Rotation Bolt Barrel Length 30.7″
Magazine 6 rounds En-bloc Weight 8.4lbs

 

Variations of the Italian Carcano are one of the more common sights in gun shows and shops and yet most people, plenty of collectors included, barely give them a second glance.  They are often seen as an inferior derivation of the German Gewehr 1888 but if you’re prepared to read this short novel we’re sure you’ll realize they have their own unique story.  It all starts with the original Model 1891.

When considering the small arms history of the Kingdom of Italy it is important to remember the nation had only just formed in 1861.  Before this it was split into a number of smaller states ruled over or influenced by various foreign countries, internal lords, and the papacy.  The biggest enemy of fledgling Italian nationalism was the Austrian Empire.  Through a complicated series of rebellions and wars, mostly with the Hapsburgs, modern Italy was formed.  Unification was not considered complete until 1870 when Rome was assimilated after being evacuated by the French. (a successful bid to buy Italy’s neutrality in the Franco-Prussian War)

Once on the world stage, the new kingdom began to play the European game of colonialism.  There was also a notion among nationalists that the Kingdom of Italy should naturally inherit the former Roman Empire and a concept of “Mare Nostrum,” meaning “Our Sea,” was encouraged to take root.  Having spent much of the 19th century embroiled in conflict the kingdom knew it must rely on its military.  The army was carrying a dizzying mix of small arms, mostly muzzle loaded rifles.  Efforts were made, as in other countries, to develop inexpensive breach loading conversions to quickly standardize their army.  However, a new service rifle was soon found in the Vetterli.  It saw various updates but ultimately fell behind in the rapid arms race in Europe.  Italy was determined to stop playing catch up and for once take the advantage.   

Carcano M1891 sidesLike other rifles on this site, the Carcano was one of many reactions to the French suddenly revealing their small bore, smokeless gunpowder rifle in 1886.  Austria quickly adapted by necking down their 11mm cartridge to 8mm but was forced to continue on with black powder.  With a change in scale their straight pull Mannlicher M1886 became the Mannlicher Model M1888 rifle.  They updated their cartridge as soon as a semi-smokeless formula became available and modified the M1888 into the M1888/90 with a simple sighting change over.

Still wary of their former rulers, Italy set out to adopt their own, superior, small bore rifle.  A commission was setup at the army infantry school in Parma and began work in 1889.  It was headed by General Parravicino and came to feature two important names: Major Antonio Benedetti and later Lt. Col. Pietro Garelli-Colombo.  The commission was thorough and reviewed a broad number of cartridges and rifles.  Ultimately they adopted a rather advanced rifle for its time, created from an amalgam of the best ideas of the era.  Because this gets a bit muddy, lets go through the evolution of each component one at a time.

Ammunition

Benedetti was a strong believer in the then cutting edge Swiss research into small diameter, high speed projectiles headed by Professor Freidrich Hebler.  While it is true these low caliber rounds lacked “knock down power” they traded it for the advantages of requiring less production material, being easier to pack and carry, maintaining a flatter trajectory over distance, having superior penetration at range, lower recoil easing follow up shots, and less muzzle flash to give away the shooter.  With eyes on colonialism, Italy was eager to carry as many rounds as efficiently as possible.  Ultimately the 6.5x52mm cartridge was adopted, a rimless version of one of Hebler’s test ammuntions that went on to inspire many more 6.5mm rounds.

In their search for a smokeless gunpowder the Italians encountered Alfred Nobel, who had his ballistite propellant rejected by the French government.  They licensed the production in Italy, which enraged the French who all but declared treason.  Nobel was banned from further research or explosives manufacture in France so he moved to Italy for the remainder of his life.  Ballistite was initially used to update the 10.4mm Vetterli cartridge but went on to power the Carcano until the introduction of solenite, which flamed lower and saved further on barrel wear and functioned better in extreme conditions.Carcano M1891 top

Barrel

These early small bore, high power rounds wore heavily on the experimental barrels and eroded them much faster than the previous black powder ammunition.  Garelli-Colombo, having taken Benedetti’s seat, solved this issue by utilizing gain twist rifling.  A bullet fired from such a barrel meets little change in rotation as it leaves the chamber and enters the throat.  The twist of the rifling becomes more pronounced as the round travels through the barrel, accelerating its angular momentum over the length of the barrel instead of in the first few centimeters.  This distributes the torque over a much longer section of barrel and dramatically reduces wear.  The Italians kept this a military secret for many years.  It came in handy during the interwar period when many rifles were easily converted to carbines, retaining their excellent barrels.

Magazine

With a barrel and cartridge in place, the commission began to seriously investigate overall actions.  There were many bids and prototypes but at the time Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher’s magazine was the inarguable forerunner.  His en-bloc clip loading system was an outstanding advancement in the Austrian Mannlichers, however there was a distinct top and bottom to his clip which could confuse loading.  The Germans resolved this issue when they borrowed and modified his action in their Gewehr M1888 rifle.  Steyr (who held the Mannlicher patent) sued the German government over the infringement and won rights to produce, modify, and market the Gew.88.  Another Steyr employee, Otto Schönauer, went on to refine the rifle for sale to the Romanians, Dutch, Greeks, and others.  While the Romanian Md.1892 was the first of the Schönauer-modified Gew.88 rifles to be adopted, it is very likely the same base design was offered to the Italians.  While the overall rifle was rejected, the magazine was licensed for manufacture.  So the new Italian rifle would feature a six round en-bloc clip in an open bottomed Mannlicher magazine.

Action and Bolt

Having been paid for the magazine alone, Steyr apparently offered the Italians free license to duplicate their new Gew.88 derived receiver and bolt.  Nothing I have read has pointed out quite why the Italians rejected this idea but I believe the ultimately adopted design seems to suggest it was something of national pride.  Perhaps they were not happy to use so many Austrian concepts in their rifle.  The commission in Parma turned to Italy’s own arsenals for ideas.  Ultimately, they went with a hybrid action offered up by the Chief Technician of the Torino Arsenal.  This design is often and fairly compared to the German Gew.88 as it borrows several key features.  It is, however, much more true to its Italian heritage, especially when you consider the bolt.

Salvatore CarcanoSalvatore Carcano was born in 1827.  Forced to seek work at a young age, he eventually joined the rebellion in Italy where he served as an artilleryman against the Austrians.  Later he was assigned to be a gunsmith in training.  After leaving the army he went on to serve at the arsenal in Torino.  In 1868 his design to convert Italy’s muzzle loaders into breach fire needle rifles was adopted.

This first “Carcano ad Ago” rifle served as a partial basis for the Model 1891.  It featured a central firing pin that ran from needle point to the rear of the cocking piece.  Around this was a coil spring that sat between the head of the firing pin and a tubular collar with a lug and a thumb piece, this is the safety.  When the rifle was cocked the safety’s lug locked it to the bolt body, essentially compressing the spring between the firing pin head and the locked bolt body.  When the firing pin was released by the trigger it would slam forward and discharge the ammunition.  With the rifle cocked the safety could be pressed and twisted, allowing its lug to transition to a longer channel in the bolt body, which permitted the tubular collar to extended out the back of the bolt body until it rested against the cocking piece, threaded on the end of the firing pin.  This meant the bolt body was no longer acting on the spring; which was now held captive down the length of the firing pin applying mechanical force to nothing.  You can toy with this system by setting your Carcano to the safe position, pulling the trigger (unload the gun first please), and pressing the cocking piece home.  As you can see it has no spring pressure and will slide back and forth with ease.

Carcano Bolt Comparison

Carcano resurrected his simple bolt body with its forking grooves for the safety collar but updated it to fit a modified Gew.88 receiver and the cartridge at hand.  One additional change to the safety is that it would now cover the rear sight from the shooter’s perspective as a not so gentle reminder his rifle would not fire unless disengaged. The Gew.88 bolt was an advancement of the earlier Mauser M1871.  Louis Schlegelmilch added two symmetrical front locking lugs which greatly strengthened the rifle.  He also setup a cam-action to cock the bolt on the opening stroke.  Carcano adopted both of these features and worked them into his bolt body.  The Gew.88 inherited a cocking piece with a lug that wedged in the split bridge of the receiver while the bolt body was rotated.  Carcano borrowed this feature but rotated it 90 degrees, wedging the cocking piece’s tab in the left lug channel.  The Gew.88′s spring loaded safety flag was replaced with a simple button to lock the cocking piece nut.  Originally the Carcano featured a gap in the right lug for the extractor but this was quickly moved to over the top of the bolt.  A tapered channel was set in the underside of the bolt for the ejector.

Trigger GroupThe receiver remained a simple split bridge but the internals were changed.  The Carcano used a tipping trigger pushed by a vertical spring seated between the sear and the fin-shaped ejector.  As the bolt was driven forward it pushed down on the ejector and spring, setting the trigger up for a crisp pull.  When the bolt was retracted its tapered channel permitted the ejector to spring back and press on the spent casing.  The trigger assembly also featured a small arm and stud that retained a vertical block which acted as the bolt stop.  To remove the bolt a soldier only had to pull the trigger while retracting it.

Rear sight

Back in 1876 Carcano had revised the sights for the Vetterli M70 rifle to include a simple spring on the right side and a push button release on the left for adjustment .  This same rough pattern was carried forward and improved for the new rifle.  It culminated in an adjustable sight ranged from 600 to 2,000 meters.  A spot was cut in the handguard to allow the sight leaf to be flipped over the top of the base, revealing the 300 meter battle sight.

Carcano-M1891-and-Vetterli-sight-comparison

The rifle was paired with a knife bayonet, 16 inches in length with a 12 inch blade.  It features a pronounced crosspiece and push button release.  During WWI Vetterli M70 bayonets were cut down and fitted with simple handles and spring clips as an emergency measure.  A variety of scabbards abound as the bayonet was supported by the M1891, late model 91 T.S., M91/24 and M91/28 T.S., M38 T.S., and M41 rifles.  It has been suggested the fluted steel scabbards were only for the T.S. carbines while the M1891 used varied leather versions.

In summary, the Carcano amalgamated the following:

  • New small caliber, high power 6.5mm ammunition
  • First powered by Nobel’s Ballistite
  • Six round capacity Mannlicher en-bloc fed magazine
  • German Gew.88 style split bridge receiver
  • Heavily overhauled M1868 bolt body and safety
  • Gew.88 style locking lugs and cocking piece
  • Novel trigger/bolt stop/ejector.
  • Revised Carcano-devised Vetterli rear sight
  • Knife style bayonet with push button release

So, with all that and a little more, Salvatore Carcano’s action, combined with the Mannlicher magazine, beat out the competition resulting in the adoption of the Fucile Modello 1891.  It was nicknamed “Carcano” after its most influential designer.  It went into production in 1892 and was produced in its original form until 1940 (with a small batch of less than 20 made in 1941).  The action was used in production of carbines and short rifles through WWII.

Manufacturer Dates Produced ~# Produced
Terni 1892-1918, 1932-1936, 1941 2,820,000
Roma 1917-1918 233,000
Torino 1892-1900 184,000
Torre Annunziata 1894-1900 148,000
Mida 1916-1918 129,000
Brescia 1895-1897 51,000
Beretta 1937-1940 22,000

 Carcano Operation

Operating the Carcano M1891 is quite simple.  Lift the straight bolt handle, which cocks the action as it rises, by 90 degrees and pull the bolt back to open.  Take a pre-loaded, six round en-bloc clip and insert either side (bullets forward please) into the action.  Press the clip in firmly with your thumb until it locks in place.  Push the bolt forward and it will strip a round from the anchored en-bloc clip and feed it into the chamber.  Rotate the bolt down into the locked position and the rifle is ready to fire.  To engage the safety press forward on the thumb piece at the right side of the bolt and rotate it counter clock wise 90 degrees.  When you release it should pop back and contact the cocking piece.  The spring is now “floating” and is incapable of driving the firing pin.  To ready the firearm again, push firmly on this thumb piece and rotate it back clockwise.   Pulling the trigger releases the cocking piece and drives the firing pin into the chambered cartridge, discharging it.  Repeat this process until the magazine is expended.  When the last round is chambered the en-block clip is no longer held within the rifle.  It may fall from the bottom of the action when firing or remain through simple friction until another en-bloc is inserted.  It will not interrupt normal operation.  If you decide to unload the rifle at any time, depress a button at the forward interior of the trigger guard to release the whole en-block vertically.  As mentioned earlier, the sights may be adjusted by depressing the button on the left side and simultaneously moving the rear leaf.  It is marked for ranges of 600-2,000 meters and the far forward position is for 300 meters.

Carcano-M38Service life for the Carcano M1891 was quite storied.  It saw action in both Italian invasions of Ethiopia, the Boxer Rebellion, the Italo-Turkish War, World War I, and World War II.  Italian soldiers were not the only the only beneficiaries of this long rifle as it was also sold to neighboring Albania, fell into the hands of many partisan groups in the Balkans, issued to African askari and a great many were bought by the Chinese warlord Wu Pei-fu.  They also found their way into the Spanish Civil War.  During WWI a great many were captured and reissued to Austro-Hungarian troops.  The robust rifles have also been seen, albeit in carbine form, in pictures from the Libyan Civil War of 2011!

Carcano M1891 Markings

Because of their long service history, Carcano rifles can exhibit a number of markings with various meanings.  There are three found commonly enough on the M1891 that merit mentioning here.  The most common is the “bullseye over crossed rifles” that indicates the rifles displayed superior accuracy in testing.  This marking is taken from the Tiro a Segno Nazionale or “National Gallery Shoot” and indicates the rifle is acceptable for use in the prestigious competition.  It was through this system that the Italian military found its marksmen and presumably they were issued these rifles whenever possible.  On some M1891 rifles a horseshoe-shaped word “TUBATA may appear above the manufacturer’s mark on the barrel knocks form.  Due to the high flame temperature of ballistite, many barrels were worn heavy despite their gain twist rifling.  Once solenite solved this issue the Italians sought to cheaply recover their rifles.  The barrel was drilled out and a rifled metal sleeve was fitted down the length to restore accuracy.  This method was later used on the Vetterli M70/87/15 conversions.  Lastly, you may find an irregularly struck AZF (Artillerie Zeugs Fabrik) marking on your M1891 which tells you it was captured by the Austro-Hungarian Empire during WWI.  Any other markings should be easy to interpret.  The barrels are dated on the right side in either two or full four digits.  Manufacturers are also spelled out on the nocks form of the M1891.

POV Carcano M1891 If you’ve made it this far in the article you’ve probably realized that Carcanos are pretty cool.  They aren’t just cheap little copies of a European design and merit an attention all their own.  Carcano collectors can take pride in owning a physical reminder of the ambition of unified Italy that went on the march with soldiers around the world.  Due to rumors repeated since the 1960s the rifle is often seen as unreliable or downright dangerous but the truth is they are simple and as strong as their contemporaries.  Many complain about the rough machining or poor manufacturing that went into these guns.  Here is a tip: most of the roughness you may encounter in a given Carcano is likely an easy fix.  Refinished bolts or rough ejectors with strong springs create drag at the bottom of the bolt.  Gently polish your ejector channel and ejector and give it another go.

 

 

Before you ask us where the carbines and short rifles are, remember this article is just about the original M1891.  Quick descriptions of the various models of Carcano rifle can be found here. 

 

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