How Did Such A Good Rifle Get
Such A Bad Reputation?
By John Sheehan
Reproduced From The August 2007 Issue Of GUNS Magazine
The M1891 Mannlicher-Carcano Cavalry carbine (top) is shown with its folding bayonet
in the fixed position. Below the Cavalry Carbine is an excellent example of the M1891
Mannlicher-Carcano Infantry Rifle and standard issue bayonet.
A brilliant flash of white light erupted in midair over their heads followed instantaneously by a thunderous clap! Mirek’s head was throbbing and his ears ringing — a grenade — blood was trickling from his ears and nose. He struggled to regain his faculties. He fought back the urge to vomit … his eyes burned as the momentary tunnel vision began to gradually clear.
He looked across the emplacement at Vaclav, still sitting upright as if still manning the machine gun now lying in the dirt at his feet. Mirek’s brain seemed disjointed, incapable of making sense of the horrid scene before his eyes. Most of Vaclav’s head was gone from the mouth up.
Another blast behind him snapped him back to reality from the Picasso-esque scene riveting his confused mind. “The gun’s finished!” Mirek reached for the Carcano carbine leaning against the battered wall of the sandbagged redoubt. He instinctively crouched and rolled across the pit, popping up on one knee next to Jaroslav, who was firing rapidly over the lip of the sandbags. Shouldering his carbine, he raised up to survey No-Man’s-Land, his attention immediately drawn to a dozen Austrians picking their way through two gaps in the wire entanglement. Cycling the bolt to chamber the first of the six cartridges in the clip, his right eye found the sights, the front post settling on the chest of one of the gray-clad, steel-helmeted figures. He squeezed the trigger ….
Compared to most of the combatant nations in the Great War, Italy was the largest of the “late comers.” Riding a wave of popular sentiment favoring the Allies, combined with the same “gold rush” enthusiasm gripping the other countries of Europe in the summer of 1914, the Italian Government formally withdrew from the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary on May 4th, 1915. Three weeks later on May 24th, 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, Germany and Turkey. Influence came from both France and Great Britain in the form of numerous promises of large tracts of Austro-Hungarian territory.
The Allies hoped the opening of a Southern Front would lead to the massive redeployment of the Central Power’s forces. All this eventually came to pass, however the “quick victory” would be 31⁄2 long, bloody years and one unmitigated disaster away.
Bayonets include the Model 1891 “TS” Carbine bayonet with the transverse slot for mounting on
the unusual bayonet lug of the “TS” Carbine (top). Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano Infantry
bayonet as issued with the rifle (middle) and a rare wartime “ersatz” version of the Model 1891
Infantry bayonet was produced with a brass grip and crossguard (bottom).
6.5mm Fucile di Fanteria, Modello 1891
When the Italian Army went to war in 1915, it did so with one of the most modern uniforms of the era and with a frontline battle rifle of proven quality and effectiveness. The primary rifle throughout the war was the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano. The Italian-designed rifle borrowed the clip loading system devised by Ferdinand Ritter von Mannlicher, the prolific Austro-Hungarian small-arms designer. With its clip-loading system by Mannlicher, the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano derived the second half of its name from the senior officer in charge of the committee to design and approve the rifle. While the M91 borrowed a number of features from other designs of the period, it is still unique enough to warrant more respect than it has received over the intervening years.
Between negative reviews and gun-show lore, the general public’s opinion of the Carcano is replete with derogatory remarks regarding everything from the strength of the design to the quality of manufacturing. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano served with distinction through two world wars and while it was unquestionably outclassed by newer and more modern designs during the WWII, from 1915 to 1918 it was an extremely effective weapon and held it’s own on every front, from the dizzying heights above the clouds in the Alps to the Western-style trench systems of the Isonzo.
The Carcano has a modified split receiver bridge, a very simple but effective straight-handled bolt and a straight-walled inline 6-shot magazine extending well below the stock. The M91 is loaded in one smooth motion with a single packet containing six cartridges in a sheet metal clip. The M91 Carcano was initially chambered for the M1891 6.5x52mm cartridge, the very first small-caliber smokeless cartridge adopted by any of the major European armies. This cartridge brought with it several distinct advantages when compared to the 8mm cartridges utilized by both Germany and Austria-Hungary.
In addition to the extremely flat trajectory of the 6.5mm cartridge, the Carcano was fed with a 6-round clip rather than the standard 5-round clip of the Austro-Hungarian rifle. In addition, the Italian soldiers could carry a larger amount of ammunition without increasing the weight of their combat load, when compared to the enemies they faced across no-man’s-land. Another benefit of the diminutive 6.5mm cartridge was the light recoil and minimal report when the weapon was fired. In addition to these advantages and unlike the Austro-Hungarian M95, the Italian Mannlicher clips were reversible and designed to function in the magazine no matter which side was inserted into the magazine first.
The bolt of the Carcano is the picture of simplicity while still remaining both functional and effective. The bolt was based on a modified version of the early Mauser design with a one-piece hollow body with dual opposed forward locking lugs engaging two recesses in the receiver just behind the breech. The unusual safety was designed by Salvatore Carcano and is attached to the bolt sleeve centering the striker within the bolt body. The safety is located just ahead of the cocking piece and is engaged by pushing the knurled tab forward with the thumb while rotating it counter clockwise. When engaged, the safety effectively locks the striker and prevents the bolt from rotating.
The early Mannlicher-Carcano’s were cut with gain-twist rifling. This unique system of rifling was not entirely new, having been used in a number of earlier black-powder rifles and artillery pieces. The initial twist in the rifling at the breech of the M91 begins with a twist rate of 1:19.25″ and finishes up at the muzzle with a twist rate of 1:8.25″. When matched properly to the correct bullet with the right velocity, it can be amazingly accurate. However the small amount of advantage gained relative to the expense in manufacturing eventually lead to the abandoning of this system of rifling in the late 1930’s. The first issue of rifles was delivered to elite regiments of the Italian Army during the spring of 1894. Before every regiment had received their new weapons, the bolt heads were strengthened and changed with the introduction of the first smokeless loading of the 6.5x52mm cartridge, which was introduced as the 6.5x52mm Modello 1891/95. The original smokeless load consisted of 30 grains of Balistite with a cotton wad topped off with a 162-grain cupro-nickel jacketed bullet with a listed velocity of 2,296 fps.
The M91 was produced in several different variations to arm the various troop types, part of the tactical doctrine of the era. The Infantry version of the Model 1891 weighed 8 pounds 7 ounces, was 509⁄16″ in overall length with a 3011⁄16″ barrel. Smokeless powder was too new in the late 19th Century to allow the designers of the Carcano to fully understand the relationship between the burning rate of the powder and the pressure curves generated relative to the length of the barrel, hence the typically long barrel of the Infantry rifle. It would be another 10 years before the development and adoption of the first of the general-purpose rifles such as the British SMLE and the American Springfield.
The infantry rifle was issued with modern knife-style bayonets at a time when many countries were still issuing unwieldy excessively long sword bayonets. Experience in the trenches would gradually lead most of the other combatant nations to eventually adopt some form of knife bayonet.
The transverse locking lug of the 2nd pattern “TS” Carbine (bottom) alongside the
later wartime conversion to the standard rifle bayonet lug (top). Note the absence
of the nose cap sling swivel on the wartime conversion.
The bizarre M1891 “TS” Carbine bayonet-locking system was unlike anything ever
produced before or since. Note the transverse lug of the nose cap and the corresponding
mounting slot on the bayonet pommel. This system was abandoned late in the war in
favor of the standard rifle-style lug and bayonet.
6.5mm Moschetto per Cavalleria, Modello 1891
The second variation of the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano system officially introduced was the M91 cavalry carbine. This diminutive carbine was one of the first widely issued weapons with a permanently attached folding bayonet. When not in use, it pivoted rearward and locked into a small recess in the underside of the forearm. There are at least nine different variations of the bayonet locking system on these little carbines allowing the worst afflicted of we collectors to attempt to find one with every bayonet locking variation. While the collecting bug struck me long and hard when it comes to WWI stuff, I’m happy to say my infection hasn’t quite advanced far enough to drive me this far! Perhaps someday ….
The M91 Cavalry carbine was issued to the Cavalry, Carabinieri and the Cyclist units. In it’s earliest form, the carbine lacked a top handguard and had a recoil lug mounted through the stock. In 1900, the recoil lug was abandoned and a small hand-guard was added just ahead of the front sight. The carbine is stocked well short of the muzzle to allow for the folding bayonet. The overall length is 361⁄4″ and the barrel length 1711⁄16″. It is slightly heavier than the “TS” carbine, tipping the scales at 6 pounds 14 ounces, however the Cavalry carbine weight also includes the bayonet while that of the “TS” carbine does not. A single set of side-mounted sling attachments was standard issue with the M91 Cavalry carbine. The M91 Cavalry Carbine was introduced with a turned-down bolt handle, retained until it’s eventual retirement from service.
These WWI vintage Model 1891/95 cartridges are in the early brass Mannlicher
clips (later, steel was used). The Italian Government purchased the rights to use the
Mannlicher-style magazine and clip from its Austro-Hungarian inventor, Ferdinand
Ritter von Mannlicher, for a sum of 300,000 Lira.
Moshetto Per Truppe Speciale, Modello 1891
The last and most widely produced pre WWI version of the M91 Mannlicher-Carcano was the Model 1891 “TS” carbine, the “TS” standing for “Truppe Speciale.” This short, handy carbine was designed for use by specialists, such as machine-gun crews, engineers, artillerymen, signalmen and just about every other troop type requiring an effective shoulder arm easily slung across the back to leave both hands free. Despite retaining the same “M1891” moniker as the Infantry rifle, the “TS” carbine was actually introduced in 1897. The “specialist” carbine has an overall length of 365⁄16″ with a 1711⁄16″ barrel. It tips the scales at 6 pounds 8.5 ounces.
The original version of the “TS” Carbine had a straight bolt handle, a recoil lug in the stock and a very simple top barrel band similar to the Infantry rifle to accept the rifle bayonet. A small top sling swivel was mounted on the rear most portion of the simple barrel band while the rear swivel was mounted under the butt stock. Very few of this early variation of the carbine were produced prior to 1900 when the pattern was changed. The bolt handle was turned down in the same manner as the Cavalry carbine, the cross bolt was eliminated and a new stylized nose-cap was introduced with a bizarre transverse mounting lug for the newly introduced “TS” bayonet. Like the original top barrel band, the new nose-cap also incorporated a sling swivel on its rearmost portion.
The new “TS” carbine was issued with a knife bayonet in every way identical to the rifle bayonet save one small, but very unusual detail. The revised M91 “TS” carbine has one of the strangest bayonet locking systems ever devised. The pommel of the “TS” bayonet has a transverse slot running from side to side through the pommel, rather than the typical longitudinal pommel slot found on most other bayonets. In order to mount the bayonet, the muzzle ring is slipped on the rifle with the bayonet swung out towards the side of the carbine. When the muzzle ring stops against the front sight base, the bayonet is then pivoted downward bringing the transverse slot in alignment with the transverse locking lug mounted on the nose cap of the carbine. A small spring-actuated plunger mounted in the heel of the pommel serves to lock the bayonet in place once the slot has properly engaged the lug. To remove the bayonet, the button on the pommel is depressed while pivoting the bayonet outward towards the side of the carbine.
Why this unusual locking system was adopted has never been made clear in any of the source material I have ever encountered. Speculation abounds, with the most frequently proffered explanation being this system prevented an opponent from snatching your bayonet off of your carbine while in the midst of hand-to-hand combat(!?). Personally, I find this line of discussion ridiculous.
The lock up is far less sturdy than the standard, traditional locking system used on the M91 rifle. Proof it was stupid is prior to the end of the war, Italian ordnance depots began to weld standard M91 rifle bayonet lugs in place of the transverse studs on the nose caps of many of the “TS” carbines, thus allowing them to be issued with standard rifle bayonets. (These interesting variations also provide today’s collectors with an additional pattern to search for!)
Early versions of the “TS” carbine have a single set of sling swivels mounted underneath the butt stock and on the rearmost portion of the nose cap. Later on, as the troops gained more field experience with the Carcanos, a second set of sling attachment points were added to the side of the carbine stock beginning in 1908 thus allowing the soldiers an additional option for carrying their carbines, the side mounted sling posts preventing the inline magazine from digging into the soldiers back when the weapon was slung across the back, leaving both hands free.
Another later variation of the “TS” carbine was introduced during the war in late 1916 to early 1917, which had a single set of side-mounted sling attachment points. This last variation was produced without any bottom swivels at all, the top swivel having been removed from the rear of the nose cap and the rear butt swivel removed or in the case of newly produced carbines, simply never installed in the first place.
The M1891 “Truppe Speciale” Carbine was produced in several different variations. Here is an early 2nd pattern example (top) with the sling swivels mounted underneath the distinctive nose cap and buttstock. The next modification (middle) was not universal and saw the addition of a set of sling bars rather than swivels attached to the side of the stock. The final variation introduced late in the war (bottom) had side-mounted sling attachment points while retaining the original buttstock swivel as well. A rifle-style bayonet lug has been welded on the nose cap in place of the unusual transverse mounting stud normally the hallmark of the “TS” Carbine.
Prior to Italy’s entry into WWI, the M1891 Mannlicher-Carcano was produced at Italy’s government arsenals at Terni, Brescia, Torre Annunziata and Torino. During WWI, the Italian Army was faced with constant small arms shortages, particularly after the disaster at Caporetto. In addition to the conversions of large numbers of obsolete rifles to 6.5x52mm, an increase in Carcano production was required and in 1917 two additional manufacturing facilities were tooled up to handle expanded wartime production. These were Ordnance Roma and Mida Brescia. The stocks of most pre-WWI and wartime Carcanos will be found with the distinctive cartouche of the particular arsenal producing the weapon. After WWI, many surviving M91s had the original cartouches removed during refinishing. In addition to the cartouche, the manufacturers mark is also found stamped into the top of the barrel just in front of the receiver.
The total production numbers of the Mannlicher-Carcano from the time of it’s official adoption by the Italian Army on March 29, 1891 until the end of WWI in 1918 is not known, however when Italy went to war in 1915, the inventory of Model 1891 Infantry rifles stood at 700,000. An additional 150,000 carbines of both models brought the grand total of all M91s to an estimated 850,000. By the end of the war, the total number of M91s produced was approximately 3.5 to 4 million of all types combined.
The following photographs portray a cross section of different manufacturer’s marks along with manufacturing dates as found on variations of both the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano as well as the Models 1870/87 and 1870/87/15 Vetterlis.
Model 1891 “TS” Carbine (above) produced at
Brescia Arsenal in 1917. Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano
Infantry Rifle (below) manufactured at the Rome Arsenal in 1918.
With original ammunition or proper handloads, the Model 91 Mannlicher-Carcano in all of its variations is an extremely accurate weapon. Since surplus ammunition has all but disappeared in shootable quantities, several US and foreign companies produce dedicated reloading components for the Mannlicher-Carcano. In addition to reloading components, both Prvi Partizan and Hornady have recently introduced 6.5x52mm factory-loaded ammunition.
If you are a reloader, there are a wide range of .264″ 6.5mm bullets available in addition to the new Hornady produced .268″-diameter bullet to match the exact dimensions of the original Italian military bullet. Brass is produced by Prvi Partizan in Serbia and readily available through Graf’s & Sons. However, prior to going down this road, I would highly recommend you run a diagnostic on the bore diameter and check in at the Italian Firearms Forum on GunBoards.com and ask as many questions as possible.
Due to the changes made in the rifling of many of the post WWI Carcanos, there have been several different bore diameters noted by collectors. In addition to this issue, the “twist gain” rifling found in original weapons generates slightly higher pressure than standard twist rifling. Some issues have arisen regarding the suitability of bullet and powder combinations with the new .268″ bullets manufactured to the original Italian spec. The new bullet is not suitable with some of the load data published in previous reloading manuals originally based on the use of the smaller diameter .264″ bullet. There are a large number of experienced handloaders who frequent the Italian Forum who have published extensive reloading data for the .268″ bullet on the Forum. As usual, be careful, be safe.
A Distinguished History
For reasons hard to explain, the Mannlicher-Carcano has been unfairly tagged over the years as an inferior weapon of dubious quality and strength. Why this has been the case I can’t rightly say. However, one thing I am certain of is this could not be farther from the truth. The Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano served the brave troops of the Italian Army through three long years of bitter struggle from 1915 until late 1918. In the hands of the Italian soldier, the Mannlicher-Carcano proved it’s worth a thousand times over in desperate fighting along the Piave River, on the Isonzo, Asiago and Carso Plateaus and above the clouds in the highest reaches of the Alps. Italy’s valiant contributions to the war effort contributed to the ultimate defeat of the Central Powers and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The following photographs show a cross section of original production as well as arsenal rework cartouches appearing on the stocks of both the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano as well as the Model 1870/87 and 1870/87/15 Vetterli rifles. Rework cartouches were applied following any alteration or refinishing of an earlier weapon. They include:
A. A 1922 dated rework cartouche from the Govt. arsenal in Rome.
B. A 1919 dated rework cartouche from the Govt. arsenal in Rome.
C. A 1920 dated rework cartouche from the Govt. arsenal at Brescia.
D. An undated cartouche from the stock of a Model 1870/87/15 conversion from the
Govt. arsenal at Gardone.
E. A 1917 dated production cartouche from the buttstock of a M91 Infantry rifle produced
at the Govt. arsenal in Rome.
F. A 1900 dated rework cartouche from the Govt. arsenal at Torino.
G. A 1916 dated production cartouche from the Govt. arsenal at Brescia.
The Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano had been field tested and blooded in combat well before the Great War. The Italian Army had been engaged in a fierce colonial struggle for two years in Libya prior to Italy’s entrance into the First World War. Prior to that, regiments of Bersaglieri, the elite bicycle troops of the Italian Army, along with units of Italian Infantry, had carried the M91 Carcano as part of the combined European and American relief expedition to lift the siege of the Western Legations at Peking, China, during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The weapon was serviceable and effective and was much loved by the Italian troops who carried it prior to and throughout the Great War.
This photo (top, left) was taken by a member of the US contingent following the relief of Peking during
the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Italian Bersaglieri shown in the photo are armed with the Model 1891
Mannlicher-Carcano Infantry Rifle. These Italian Infantry in winter uniforms (top, right) are armed
with the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano and was also taken in Peking, China, following the lifting
of the siege of the Western embassies during the Boxer Rebellion.
Former Austro-Hungarian soldiers of Czech decent who had been captured by the Allies, later volunteered to fight against their former masters in the hope of gaining an independent Czech Nation after the war. To these numbers were added Czech volunteers from across Europe and the United States who flocked to the colors to aid in the cause. Regiments were formed in France, Italy and Russia to fight against the Central Powers.
Pictured here is a member of the 34th Czech Legion Alpine Regiment, one of two Legion units who fought as part of the Italian Army in the last year of the war. The uniform was produced from Italian greggio-verde colored wool, however the cut of the tunic was tailored along the same lines as that of the French Army.
The distinctive Alpine cap is identical to the standard Italian issue Alpini cap with the exception of the Czech insignia. The rest of the kit and accoutrements are Italian standard issue items. This particular soldier is an assistant machine gunner as indicated by his collar insignia and his gear. The unusual mail-lined shoulder pad and mittens were necessary to displace or emplace a hot machinegun while in action without burning the soldier or his uniform. He carries a M1891 “Truppe Speciale” carbine, which was short and handy for troops whose primary function required the use of both of their hands most of the time.
John Sheehan provided much more material than we could possibly print in
GUNS Magazine, so here you go.
Italian Alpini soldiers in a posed photo taken in the mountains. These elite Alpine troops were highly trained and bore the brunt of the difficult “war above the clouds” fought in the Alps against Austro-Hungarian units who were occasionally supported by attached units of German mountain troops. The soldiers are armed with the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano Infantry Rifle. Alpini are always easy to spot with their trademark period Alpine-style caps.
A member of the elite Bersaglieri — bicycle mounted infantry— poses next to
his folding bicycle, complete with saddle scabbard and “TS” Carbine. The bicycle
could be folded and strapped to the soldiers pack when not in use.
As was the case with the majority of infantry during the Great War, Italian soldiers carried an equipment load of 60 to 80 pounds in combat. The M91 Carcano bayonet is worn on the left hip with the M1907 haversack and the M1909 wooden keg-style “Guglielminetti” water bottle slung in the rear when in marching order.
With their cock feather plumes blowing in the mountain breeze, a company of
M91-armed Bersaglieri man a shallow trench in the Alps.
Alpini Engineers struggle with block and tackle to lift a 77mm field gun up to the top of a ridgeline. This
backbreaking work was required on a continual basis to support the troops fighting at high altitudes.
Everything from food and ammunition to artillery and building supplies had to be hauled up in a similar
manner to continually improve the positions high up in the mountains above the clouds.
An Alpini with full kit glides along a cable strung between to defensive positions high in the Alps.
Steel cables supporting everything from baskets to cable cars, both motorized and manually powered,
were used to move troops and supplies up and down and around the outposts high in the Alps.
Italian Infantry marches through the streets of a city somewhere in Northern Italy. They are wearing the M1909 pattern greggio-verde uniform, complete with the M1907 leather equipment belt and ammunition pouches. This particular unit is wearing French supplied Mle. 1915 Adrian helmets. By 1916, the Italian Army was producing the much-improved Model 1916 Lippman helmet, known to most of today’s collectors as the M16 Italian Adrian helmet.
Italian Marines go “over the top” in assault order. They are carrying M1891 Mannlicher-Carcano Infantry Rifles with fixed bayonets. The heavy packs were left behind in the staging area and extra ammunition and grenades were carried in the soldier’s haversack during assaults on enemy trenches.
Italian troops hug the rampart of a revetment for protection from a near miss during an artillery barrage.
The granite composition of much of the Alps made it impossible to dig proper trenches all along the battle line. A common practice in these circumstances was to build above ground revetments in place of the more familiar WWI trench networks.
An Alpini machinegun crew shown manning a water-cooled machinegun in a fortified position in the mountains. Like the Alpini Czech Legion soldier in my mannequin display, the assistant gunner is armed with a M1891 “Truppe Special” Carbine. The machinegun’s water can be seen in the left of the photo while a case of cloth belted ammunition is open for action in the right foreground.
A “grab-bag” headquarters unit is shown in this photo. The couriers sitting astride their bicycles have Model 1891 Cavalry Carbines slung across their backs as evidenced by the folding bayonets, while the soldier kneeling on the left carries a Model 1891 “TS” Carbine. To top it off, the soldiers standing second from the left with the Infantry bugle is carrying the full-length M1891 Infantry Rifle! These soldiers are wearing the Italian-produced two-piece M1916 Lippman helmet.