|Rifle||Carcano M38 Cavalry||Manufacturer||various|
|Cartridge||6.5x52mm, 7.35x51mm||Overall Length||36″|
|Action||Rotation Bolt||Barrel Length||17.6″|
|Magazine||6 rnds enbloc fed||Weight||6.6lbs|
We’ve covered the original Carcano M1891 before. But for the sake of our Anatomy Series let’s skip ahead and talk about the M38 Cavalry in detail.
WWII was especially rough on the Kingdom of Italy. The nation was goaded into a war footing by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini, who was eager not to be out done by Hitler’s Reich. The public was sold the idea of “Mare Nostrum” or “Our Sea” and an Italian domination of the Mediterranean. A colonial mindset and weak industrial base meant that Italy’s military forces were equipped with somewhat lighter gear than other world powers. The Second Italo-Ethiopian War was a military and political success for Mussolini that he soon repeated in Albania in 1939. But declaring war along in 1940 meant challenging other first rate nations and Italy would pay the price for their leader’s arrogance.
Any details on the overall development of the Carcano can be found in the article linked above. With the adoption of the Carcano long rifle the cavalry was ready to replace their out dated Vetterli black powder carbines. The new action was stocked into a familiar pattern and size, emulating the existing cavalry carbines, and paired with a shorter adjustable sight in 1893 to form the Moschetto Modello 91 da Cavalleria. One major difference was that the Vetterli’s socket bayonet (stored reverse on the barrel) was replaced with a similarly stowed cruciform that could be swung into position on a hinge at the front of the barrel. The decision to use these spike bayonets was because Cavalry were issued full length swords and the addition of a knife bayonet to their kit would make for a clattering mess. This is the same consideration we see on the later Japanese Type 44. Other than the addition of a short handguard and some variations on locking the bayonet this rifle remained unchanged until 1938.
Lessons learned in North and East Africa left the Italian military itching for improved ammunition. Their 6.5x52mm cartridge was the first of its kind and while that’s a proud accomplishment it had not shaken loose some design flaws. In an attempt to gain better penetration, flatter trajectory, and more fatal impacts on soft targets a new 7.35x51mm cartridge, with a modern spitzer bullet, was adopted.
Production of one new rifle and two updates in 7.35 began in 1938, but we’re only addressing one of these today. The Moschettoa Modello 91/38 Cavalleria was essentially the same rifle as the early M1891 pattern with only a few minor changes. Other than the chambering and dropping the gain-twist rifling method, the only significant alteration was that the adjustable rear sight had been replaced with an incredibly simple fixed rear notch. This was a radical departure in military small arms thinking. The Italians had made the ambitious decision that most engagements were at a range best suited to a 200 meter battle sight (ultimately true in much of WWII) and that an adjustable sight was likely just a distraction. Ranged engagement should be handled by more appropriate equipment than riflemen.
Many collectors have trouble at first determining the differences between Carcano rifles. We have an overall guide for that but the 1891 and 1938 Cavalry models can be quite similar. The single best determining factor is the shape of the chamber area of the barrel. On the earlier Carcano these are octagonal. The M38 series have rounded barrels. Most M38 Cavalry carbines have simple, fixed rear sights. The exception is that when FNAB switched back to 6.5mm production they continued using the adjustable rear sight. There are three major variations on the cavalry bayonets. All three were tried with the original 1891 but by the 1938 version the matter was settled on the push button style. However, some surplus parts were used in assembly and small numbers have been found with slider-type locks.
The Carcano action is loaded with a six round enbloc clip that is retained as a component of the magazine. A spring-loaded follower meets the lowest cartridge and applies pressure upwards. As the bolt travels forward is strips the top cartridge from the clip and feeds it into the chamber. The sear attached to the trigger catches the cocking piece at the rear of the bolt and holds it in place as the bolt handle is turned down. Two front-locking lugs on the bolt body are turned into mortises in the front of the receiver in this same rotation. When the trigger is pulled the cocking piece and attached firing pin are released and driven forward by spring pressure to discharge the cartridge. When the bolt handle is raised a sloped surface at the back of the bolt body meets an opposite slope on the cocking piece and forces it rearward until it catches on a notch in the bolt body, cocking the action. As the bolt is pulled back the extractor claw drags the spent casing out of the chamber. A spring-powered ejector presses against a groove in the bottom of the bolt that grows deeper towards the bolt face. The spent casing is pulled into this ejector and flicked out of the action. With the bolt close the rifle can be set on safe by depressing the tab at the back of the bolt and rotating it upwards. This takes pressure off the firing pin spring, puts spring pressure against the cocking piece, preventing the rifle from firing. When the last cartridge is loaded the follower is too narrow to support the clip and so it falls free of the action or, if snagged, is pressed out by the next loaded clip.
Manufacture of all three 7.35mm Carcano rifles was short lived, with only 200,000 or so M38 Cavalry models being produced by Terni, Beretta, Fabbrica Nazionale Armi Brescia, and Gardone Val Trompia before being changed over. The new cartridge was proving to be a logistical nightmare. It’s advantages were not worth the chaos and strain added to the Italian armed forces, which were already being pushed steadily towards their limits by a Fascist government looking towards still more colonial and even European expansion. In early 1940 production was switched back to the 6.5 caliber ammunition. Only Beretta, Gardone V.T., and FNAB continued manufacture. Most of the 7.35 cavalry carbines were moved to rear guards and paramilitary organizations. Production did not end until 1943 in most factories, 1944 by FNAB with roughly 1,600,000 M38 Cavalry carbines in 6.5mm assembled.
It is not uncommon to find these carbines with large repair sections on the right side of the stock. These are actually another attempt at military recycling and these stocks were originally cut for the 91/28 T.S. with attached grenade launcher. Production was stopped before the surplus of pre-cut stocks could be used so they were trimmed and patched for use with the M38 Cavalry.
These handy little carbines were favorites among troops. Besides cavalry they served with the military police, Bersaglieri, artillery, and motorized troops. While the light rifles shouldered well they could also be issued to horse and bicycle troops with scabbards for easier transport. They were also the natural choice for paratroops. The cavalry carbines served in every theater of WWII with the Italians, including Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean and appear to have been well liked over other variants due to being exceedingly light and small. A small run of exceptionally rare Carcano M38 Cavalry carbines were fitted with black stocks, nickel plated fixtures, and marked on the receiver with a fasces over “DUX.” These carbines were provided to Mussolini’s private guard.
When Italy signed the armistice in 1943, the M38 Cavalry wasn’t done fighting. Italian troops in Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia either surrendered their arms or joined the rebels and both cases put the Carcano on the front line against the Germans. Carcano rifles remained on both sides of the Italian Civil War.
Carcanos were also seized by the German military after the armistice and these appropriated rifles have been much misunderstood by collectors. Some cavalry carbines were seized, unchanged, by German defenders and have German eagles with HZa Jt3 stamped on their stocks. A small number were also converted into single-shot 7.92x57mm emergency rifles intended for the Volkssturm (although few, if any, were delivered). These will be marked “7.9” on the barrel and “HK” in an oval on the receiver. Post war conversions to 7.92x57mm are more common on the collectors market and regularly confused with the much rarer German program. These were a commercial decision in order to market the rifles in the Middle East theater. Most were sold to Egypt for training purposes. They are marked 7.92 on the rear sight. No dedicated 7.92mm enbloc clips have been noted so we assume they were used as single shots.
In the end the Allied occupation of Italy brought a host of better small arms into the country and post-war the Carcano was finally allowed to retire from standard issue usage. It did, however, make the rounds in the surplus African market and many were even spotted in the Libyan Civil War.
Dating your Carcano is usually pretty simple as most are stamped with a three digit year code (941 for 1941) and a fascist date in roman numerals next to it. Somewhat redundant but add 22 if you want to make the conversion. Some later production models lack the date marking but can be determined by their serial number. We’ve provided the likely dates below.
Overall the Carcano as a whole gets a bad wrap. Again, in the Model 1891 article we’ve gone over a little of where this came from. But just to recap, the actions are very strong and rarely, if ever, fail. The M38 Cavalry carbines tend to be found in good condition because their light and somewhat sporty shape means there really isn’t much to modify short of losing the bayonet. The 300 meter sighting does require a 6 o’clock hold but otherwise they are usually accurate shooters with moderate recoil. The actions can often feel stiff but this is usually from refurbishment and some lubrication and use tend to get them running smooth again.