Italy’s Vetterli M70/87/15.
Some milsurps are simply more intrinsically fascinating than others. It might be an unusual design feature, maybe a quirky mechanical component, possibly a peculiar method of operation or a unique historical association. When you run across a milsurp that combines all these elements, then you really have something. Meet the Italian Vetterli M70/87/15.
I was cruising the gun racks of the Frontier Gunshop in Tucson, Ariz., one bright fall day when its owner, Jim Sharrah, drew my attention to the end rifle standing in his double-sided, floor gun rack. From across the room, I could tell it was a Vetterli, but until I walked over and got a better look at it and saw its distinct Mannlicher magazine protruding from the bottom of the stock, I realized it was an Italian—not a Swiss—Vetterli and did it ever have a story to tell.
With the unification of Italy in the 1860s, it was natural for the new national army to begin a trials program, leading to the adoption of a common Italian military rifle and cartridge. The Swiss Vetterli was selected in 1870 and licensed for Italian production at the Torino and Brescia arsenals.
It was a good choice. Designed by Johann Friedrich Vetterli, director of the SIG factory in Neuhausen, Switzerland, and adopted by the Swiss army in 1869, the Vetterli was the first self-cocking, smallbore, bolt-action repeating rifle manufactured for general issue by any country. Beautifully machined and finished, the Vetterli incorporated, in concept, the side loading port, tubular magazine and cartridge lifter of the Winchester Model 1866 and the turning bolt of the Dreyse needle gun with the locking lugs of the Greene/Chassepot. Chambered for the .41 Swiss rimfire cartridge, the Swiss Vetterli was replaced in 1890 by the Model 1889 Schmidt-Rubin.
The Vetterli was charged with a 6-round Mannlicher clip. That’s 1936-era
Italian ball being loaded. Holt doesn’t recommend actually shooting these
conversions with ball ammo.
In the 1887 conversion, a bolt guide was added to better stabilize the
heavy Vetterli bolt. Note the two massive locking lugs on the
rear-locking bolt of the Vetterli.
Whether Swiss or Italian, the Vetterli rifles were beautifully machined
and finely finished. Vetterli rifles were made at the Torino and
Brescia Arsenals. This is a late one, dated 1889.
While the Italians adopted the Vetterli action, they had some ideas of their own when designing their Model 1870 rifle. Rather than adopting the elaborate and expensive repeating magazine system of the Swiss, the Italians opted for a single-shot rifle with a dust cover. Rather than chambering their Vetterli for the .41 Swiss rimfire, the Italians introduced a new .41 cartridge, the bottlenecked and rimmed 10.4x47R.
On the basis of its ballistics, the Italian cartridge was essentially a clone of the .41 Swiss, but there was a distinct difference. The .41 Italian was assembled on a centerfire case with a central vent and primed with a Boxer-type primer. The original military loading consisted of a 309-grain, grooved lead bullet over 62 grains of fine black powder with a velocity of 1,345 fps. It was later loaded with a jacketed bullet and was also chambered in the Gardner, Maxim and Nordenfelt machine guns.
The Italians soldiered on with their single-shot Vetterli until 1887 when artillery Captain G. Vitali invented a 4-round, box magazine designed to convert the Vetterli into a repeater. The conversion consisted of milling out the bottom of the receiver to receive a coil-spring driven magazine and adding a metal, reinforcing plate around the protruding magazine at the bottom of the stock. Interestingly enough, the 4-shot Vitali magazine system was also adopted by the Dutch in 1888 to convert their Model 1871 Beaumonts into repeaters.
With thousands of Vetterli rifles being returned to the national arsenals for the Vitali magazine conversion, the Italians took the opportunity to give the old girl a real facelift. To better stabilize the long, rear-locking Vetterli bolt, a prominent, grooved, steel bolt guide was added to the rear of the receiver. The old dust cover was scrapped. A rotating, finger-operated, metal ring was mounted around the rear bridge. It served two purposes. It retained a sliding bolt release key in the bridge, and it functioned as a magazine cut-off, enabling the soldier to fire and recharge his rifle as a single-shot while keeping four rounds in reserve.
The M1881 Vicci quadrant sight is adjustable to an optimistic 2,000 meters.
On “Safe,” the root of the bolt handle and the safety lever are locked together.
The 6.5mm barrel liner, soldered into the old 10.4mm barrel, can be
clearly seen from the muzzle of the converted Vetterli.
One of the most interesting of the 1887 upgrades was its new safety. The new safety consisted of a spring-loaded lever on the right side of the receiver just below the bolt handle. The lever is attached to the sear and in its “up” or forward position, the sear is lowered. To operate the safety, the bolt has to be slightly open. With the bolt open, the safety is moved to its forward limit. The bolt handle is then lowered. The instant the root of the bolt handle connects with the shaft of the safety, the safety arm snaps down, locks into the root of the bolt handle and the bolt is de-cocked because the sear is still depressed. To release the safety, the bolt handle is lifted, cocking the bolt while allowing the safety to snap fully down and raise the sear. Clever indeed! It’s a quirky mechanical solution.
Finally, if not previously modified, the rear sight was replaced with a M. 1881 Vicci quadrant sight with a battlefield zero of 275 meters and a graduated range out to 2,000 meters.
In 1890, Italy formally adopted the smokeless 6.5×52 cartridge. Much to their credit, Italy was the first country to field a 6.5mm cartridge. Having selected a cartridge, they needed a rifle. In 1892, Italy adopted a design developed at the Fabbrica Nationale d’Armi in Turin by a team headed by Lt. Col. Salvatore Carcano. It was to become known as the Model 1891 Carcano, and it featured a Mannlicher magazine system using a 6-shot, en-bloc, Mannlicher clip. The Vetterli Model 1870/87 was gradually withdrawn and put in reserve stores.
When Italy became embroiled in WWI, it showed up with sufficient numbers of troops but too few Carcanos, so Ordnance came up with a brilliant, emergency solution. They dusted off the old black-powder Vetterli and converted them to 6.5×52. The conversion process is intriguing. They didn’t re-barrel the Vetterli. They took the 10.4mm barrel, bored it out and soldered a 6.5mm liner inside. The 10.4x47R bolt head was cut off and replaced with a 6.5×52-sized bolt head, brazed on the end of the old bolt body.
The bolt release key can be manipulated once the
notch in the rotating ring is aligned with it.
With the bolt removed, you can see how the safety works. Pushed fully
forward, the safety lowers the sear (above). In the fully down position
(below), the safety raises the sear.
The magazine cut-off ring was retained but only for the purpose of locking the bolt release key in place.
The best is for last. They removed the Vitali box magazines, applied wood patches to the areas inletted for the Vitali magazine reinforcing plate and fitted the old Vetterli with a new Carcano/Mannlicher magazine box which accepted the en-bloc 6.5×52 Mannlicher clip. The Vicci rear quadrant sight was unchanged as far as I know.
The old warhorse was now morphed into the Model 70/87/15 (“15” standing for 1915) and was apparently issued to second-line units and then years later showed up in the hands of Italian-lead African Askari troops during Italy’s 1935-36 invasion of Ethiopia.
Would I recommend shooting a Vetterli M70/87/15 today? Given the age of the rifle and the conversion work done on the barrel and bolt under wartime emergency conditions, I would advise not to fire it. It’s a piece of history that simply deserves a prominent place in your collection.
It’s a remarkable story. The Italian Vetterli is a remarkable rifle, having transitioned from a single shot to a box magazine to a Mannlicher magazine and from a low-pressure 10.4x47R black-powder cartridge to a thoroughly modern 6.5×52 smokeless cartridge with a working pressure of approximately 41,000 psi.
Yes, some milsurps are simply more intrinsically fascinating than others, and the Italian Vetterli M70/87/15 is right at the head of my list.
By Holt Bodinson
Maker: Brescia and Torino Arsenals
Action: Rear locking, turning bolt
Barrel Length: 33-1/4 inches
Overall Length: 53 inches
Weight: 9-3/4 pounds
Finish: Blue, Sights: Vicci quadrant 275-2,000 meters
Price: $100 – $350 depending on condition (Standard Catalog of Military Firearms)
Frontier Gun Shop
3156 E. Grant Rd.
Tucson, AZ 85716