Running Out Of Carcano Rifles,
The Italians Turn Desperate
by John Sheehan
October 24, 1917, near the small mountain town of Caparetto, pandemonium followed the first round of gas shells followed by widespread panic. For the past 20 minutes, infantry from the rapidly disintegrating frontline had been streaming past Captain Mannetti’s artillery position on the ridgeline. He had tried desperately to get through to division to obtain new orders in light of the surprise attack.
“The lines were all cut within the first five minutes of the barrage!” Paolo screamed over the din of the incoming artillery barrage. The shells started to fall further to the rear as the enemy guns shifted to cut off supply lines and to prevent reinforcements coming forward.
“Four rounds of canister! At 200 meters over open sights!” the Captain yelled. He turned calmly, “Paolo, deploy all non-essential support personnel, rifles at the ready, along the firing step of the redoubt.”
A gas shell landed 50 meters away, popped with a muffled sound, the yellowish-green cloud immediately drift rearward. “Masks on!” The men scrambled to open the protective cans on their Polivalente–Z gasmasks.
Mask on, Paolo reached for his ancient M1870/87/15 Vetterli Rifle. He looked at the date on the barrel — 1872 — the rifle had already been 25-years old the day he was born!
Looking to his right, Mannetti saw the last four of the battery’s surviving guns, their tubes parallel to the ground now rather than pointed to the sky. Gun No. 1 erupted with a roar and the remainder of the battery cut loose. He looked to the front out where the four rounds of canister had kicked up dust and debris as hundreds of lead shrapnel balls shredded everything in their path.
Out of the smoke emerged a ragged line of ghostly figures. Another three rounds of canister hurled hundreds of lethal projectiles down range. One figure literally came apart with the blast, soon to be replaced as a second wave of gasmask-clad Sturmtruppen emerged from the fog. Ping a bullet whizzed past Paolo’s head. Captain Mannetti stepped up next to him and commenced firing his pistol over the parapet. Paolo concentrated on his sight picture — sque-e-e-eze slowly — a man dropped at the shot. Someone shouted, “They’re Germans!?”
Yes. The combined force of nine Austro-Hungarian Divisions stiffened and supported by seven Divisions of German Infantry, including the crack troops of the German Alpenkorps and the Austro-Hungarian Edelweiss Alpine Division launched a surprise attack on the Isonzo Front near the tiny mountain town of Caparetto. The ensuing action in the quiet, mountainous sector of the line caught the Italian Army completely by surprise.
The line ruptured and came apart, threatening to cut off the Italian 3rd and 4th Armies. Thus began the disaster at Caparetto. To this day, 90 years after the event, Caparetto still draws an emotional response from most Italians. To their credit, the intact units along the front fought a desperate rearguard action, giving ground all the while, until finally the Italian Army was able to stave off disaster, establish a new defensive line thus stabilizing the front along the wide Piave River just north of Venice.
These rifles are referred to as either M1870/87/15s or M1870/87/16s depending on which source you read. An original black powder, single-shot Model 1870 “TS” Carbine (below, top) compared to a wartime emergency conversion to the 6.5x52mm cartridge, the Model 1870/87/15 Vetterli (below, bottom). These conversions utilized the magazine assembly of the Model 1891 Mannlicher-Carcano. Both carbines are shown with the original Model 1871 “TS” Bayonet with which they would have originally been issued.
Oldsters Go To War
As the war progressed, Italy suffered the same problems with supplies already plaguing the various armies at war since August of 1914. The modern battlefield, replete with high-velocity repeating rifles, machine guns, hand grenades and above all else, field and siege artillery firing extremely powerful high explosive shells, chewed up both men and equipment at an alarming rate never before seen in the history of warfare.
Shortages of small arms appeared from the very beginning of Italy’s entrance into the war on the side of the Allies. As more and more of the Italian male population mobilized for the first total war in European history, the supply of modern small arms fell woefully short of needs and a large number of obsolete 10.4mm Fucile di Fanteria, Modello 1878/87 Vetterli-Vital were issued to newly formed regiments before the end of 1915.
While the various Italian Government arsenals of Terni, Brescia, Torre Annunziata and Torino geared up to increase the production output of Mannlicher-Carcano’s for the war effort, a conversion program was undertaken to alter large numbers of the then obsolete Vetterli-Vitali rifles and carbines to fire the standard 6.5x52mm Carcano cartridge. In order to breathe some life back into these 1870-vintage antiquated weapons, first seeing service as black powder, single-shot bolt-action rifles, a rather ingenious conversion method was developed.
The original 10.4mm barrels were reamed out and a rifled 6.5mm barrel sleeve was silver soldered within the original barrel. The 4-round Vitali-designed box magazines, which had been used to convert the Vetterli’s from single shot to repeaters in the late 1880s, were removed and replaced with M91 Mannlicher-Carcano magazines.
Due to the width of the Vitali black-powder magazines, surviving rifles and carbines converted to 6.5x52mm will display wooden inserts glued in place on either side of the thinner Mannlicher-Carcano magazines used for the conversion. The original sights were replaced and the wartime expedient rifle conversions were issued to lines of communication troops, artillery gunners and reserve infantry units. These rifles are referred to as either Model 1870/87/15 or Model 1870/87/16 Vetterli rifles and carbines, depending on the reference source consulted. The rifles were issued with original Model 1870 bayonets cut down to knife length to approximate the bayonet of the standard issue Mannlicher-Carcano.
The conversion program was started in late 1915 and continued well into 1916 with a reported 400,000 to 500,000 Vetterli’s converted to fire the 6.5mm cartridge before the end of the war. Surviving rifles turn up today with 1918-dated arsenal rework cartouches appearing stamped over the original production cartouche.
The most numerous of these conversions were performed on Infantry rifles, however small numbers of the Model 1870 “Truppe Speciale” and Model 1882 “Caribinieri” carbines were also altered. According to Italian records, none of the Model 1870 Cavalry carbines were converted, however a very small number of examples have surfaced in present day collections. This is just another small reminder to never say never when referring to anything about collecting in general and WWI specifically.
Interestingly enough, the small number of Carabinieri carbines having surfaced do not exhibit wooden shims on either side of the magazine, which indicates they were never converted to the Vitali box magazine in the 1880s. This would make the proper designation for these converted carbines Model 1882/15s or 1882/16s, depending on which nomenclature is correct relative to the year the conversion to 6.5mm was completed.
A large number of these wartime emergency conversions were imported into the United States in the late 1960s and turn up quite frequently in today’s collector’s market. Model 1870/87/15 and 16 Vetterli rifles are quite inexpensive and are an interesting addition to any collection, however, extreme caution must be exercised with these rifles! They are now well over 130-years old and should never be fired with standard military loads! These rifles are best relegated to displays. If you have a strong desire to shoot one of these rifles, do so only after having it properly inspected by a licensed gunsmith and even then, they should only be fired with light, cast-bullet handloads!
In addition to the Mle 1907/15 and Mle 1916 Infantry rifles, the French also provided an unknown number of Mle 1892 (above, top) and Mle 1916 Musketoons (above, bottom). These general-purpose carbines were popular with the soldiers within the confines of the trenches where a short handy weapon was less of a hindrance than a traditional length infantry rifle. Following the disastrous breakthrough at Caparetto in late 1917, the French and British Armies rushed troops and military hardware to help stabilize the newly established Italian Front along the Piave River just north of Venice. Included in this military aid package were 150,000 French Mle 1907-15 and Mle 1916 Berthier Rifles and Carbines. The Mle 1907-15 (below, top) was a full-length Infantry rifle loaded via 3-round Mannlicher clips. The Mle 1916 (below, bottom rifle) saw the addition of an extended 5-round magazine along with a top handguard. Both were issued with variations of the Mle 1886 Lebel bayonet as pictured here.
Marginal At Best
In 1915, when the conversion of these antiquated rifles from 10.4mm to 6.5x52mm was first approved by the Italian Ordnance Department, the resulting conversions were known to be absolutely marginal wartime emergency conversions. They were not expected to see regular combat duty in the trenches. They were issued to troops never expected to fire their small arms other than in a dire emergency. The Model 70/87/15s (or 16s) were issued during WWI to artillery, lines of communication, train, military police and prison guards and other non-combatant units.
When these rifles were originally produced as single shots, they were contemporaries of the US Trapdoor Springfield. Metallurgy in the mid-to-late 19th Century was not what it was even by the early 20th Century. These actions were produced out of very soft steel. Take a close look at the small lugs on the back of the bolt. Then look at the lugs on a Carcano.
In addition, many of these rifles were converted by brazing the new bolt head on the old bolt body. I have examples of both types of bolt in my collection. The original bolt face was designed for a case nearly identical to the .348 Winchester.
Repeaters — even if obsolete — are better than single shots. When General Luigi Cadorna, the C-in-C of the Italian Commando Supremo, began in earnest to increase the size of the Italian Military in advance of Italy’s eventual entry into the World War, there was a severe shortage of small arms with which to equip the new regiments and divisions being formed. Unlike the other combatant nations already at war, there were no longer any illusions remaining in regards to the size, scope and duration of the war being waged on three continents and all of the world’s seas and oceans.
The government arsenals were placed a wartime footing and were cranking out the various models of the Carcano in ever-larger numbers. Even so, the shortage remained and the options available were few. As a result, large numbers of un-converted 10.47mmR Fucile di Fanteria, Modello 1878/87 Vetterli-Vitali black-powder repeating rifles were issued in their original 10.4x47mmR chambering to reserve units. Whenever possible, these rifles were issued to troops not expected to serve on the front line, however it is an historical fact Vetterli-Vitali armed troops carried these antiquated rifles into battle on several occasions.
As converted from their single-shot configuration, the Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitalis had been retrofitted with 4-shot magazines designed by Giuseppe Vitali, hence the name Vetterl-Vitali. The floor of the bolt-way was cut away to allow the magazine to be accessed from the top of the open action. The unusual 4-round Mannlicher-style clip was then inserted into the top of the magazine and pressed downward with the thumb until it locked in place. In this respect, the Vetterli-Vitali is quite different from other rifles of the period.
The four-round Vetterli clips had small linen pull-tabs to pull the empty clip out of the top of the magazine after the last round had been fired. All other Mannlicher rifles of the period were designed to allow the empty clip to fall or be pushed out of the bottom of the magazine via a rectangular opening in the magazine floor-plate. The resulting 4-shot black-powder repeaters functioned quite well. The M70/87 Vetterli-Vitali’s were chambered for the rather anemic 10.4x47mmR cartridge, the ballistics of which just about match a heavy-bullet .44 Magnum load fired out of standard revolver. Not exactly a long-range proposition, but still preferable to a single shot in volume of fire and it was better than no rifle at all.
Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali rifles and carbines were converted from their original 1870 single-shot configuration as a stopgap measure during the late 1880s while Italy was searching for a small-bore smokeless powder rifle of more modern design.
Between 1888 and 1895, hundreds of thousands of Model 1870 Vetterli’s were converted to the Vitali box magazine. Based on surviving examples, large numbers of infantry rifles, “TS” carbines and a small number of Cavalry carbines were converted to the Vitali system. What nobody could have foreseen then was the amount of battlefield service these interesting, obsolete firearms would see during the Great War.
The greatest disaster in Italian military history began on the 24th of October, 1917 when a combined German and Austro-Hungarian Army consisting of seven divisions of some of the finest troops in German Army supported by an additional nine divisions of Austro-Hungarian troops launched an early morning surprise attack in what had been thought to be a quiet mountainous sector of the front in the upper reaches of the Isonzo Valley.
The battle takes its name from the small mountain village of Caporetto, which was where the initial breakthrough took place. In the days and weeks following, the Italian 2nd Army disintegrated leaving 10,000 Italian soldiers dead on the field, another 30,000 wounded, over 300,000 taken as prisoners with an astounding 350,000 stragglers and deserters making their way south away from the front.
In the face of such a disaster the remaining troops of the Italian 3rd and 4th Armies proved their worth during a grueling fighting withdrawal of over 60 miles to newly prepared positions on the Piave River just north of Venice. It was here the remaining Italian forces made a stand behind the broad bed of the Piave and stabilized the front.
Allies Pitch In
The Italian government called for help and when the British and French governments finally realized the scope of the disaster, they sent five British and six French divisions, a total force of over 200,000 men to support the Italian Army. In addition to troops, the Allies provided large numbers of machine guns, artillery ammunition and in the case of the French, 150,000 rifles and carbines.
The French rifles and carbines sent to Italy as part of the emergency aid package following the disastrous breakthrough at Caporetto were a mix of Mle 1907/15s and Mle 1916 rifles with an unknown number of Berthier carbines included in the mix. These would most likely have been a mixture of Mle 1892 3-shot carbines and the Mle 1916 carbine, which was a newer version of the same carbine with an extended 5-round magazine. These rifles and carbines were issued to Italian units fighting alongside the French divisions in order to ease the resupply of ammunition since the rifles were chambered for the French 8x50mmR cartridge (sometimes referred to as 8x51mmR).
Before her shortages caught up with her, Italy provided Russia with her obsolete Model 1870/87s. Here, a Russian soldier poses in a wartime studio photo with a Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali Infantry rifle, one of 400,000 rifles supplied to Russia by Italy during WWI. The obsolete black-powder repeaters saw heavy front line service on the Russian Front during the First World War.
Most Modern Uniform
The Italians entered WWI with one of the most practical modern uniforms of the period and were the only military to dye their leather accoutrements to match their griggio-verde (gray/green) uniform. Our soldier carries a Modelo 1870/87/15 Fusil de Infanteria, the 6.5x52mm wartime smokeless powder conversion of the 1870 era black powder, single-shot rifle.
He carries a blanket roll in place of the standard issue pack, a common practice during assaults when troops tried to lighten their personal load in anticipation of becoming an Army pack mule. Soldiers burdened with 50 to 60 pounds of standard issue weapons and equipment were saddled with an additional 50 to 100 pounds of supplies during an advance considered essential to holding a newly captured position. Items such as ammunition, grenades, water, food, barbed wire, sandbags, pioneer shovels, etc., had to be carried forward into No Man’s Land by the advancing troops. Strapped to the rear of his blanket roll next to his e-tool, can be seen an Italian WWI pattern trench mace, one of a myriad of Medieval-style close combat weapons having a resurgence in popularity in the brutal hand-to-hand combat to accompany the horrors of the 1st World War — the trench raid.
Several Factories Converted The Vetterli- Vitali Rifles
And Each Had Its Own Cartouche.
A. An 1889-dated rework cartouche from the Government arsenal at Torino.
B. An 1889 dated production cartouche from the Government arsenal at Terni.
C. An unknown cartouche from the stock of a Model 1870/87 Vetterli-Vitali.
The rebuild program converting Vetterli-Vitali rifles to the standard 6.5x52mm service cartridge was an emergency measure. Even the Italians hoped the troops wouldn’t actually have to fire them.
Don’t Shoot 6.5mm Vetterli Conversions!
This subject has been covered countless times on the Italian Firearms Forum on Gunboards.com since the Web site opened in 1995. Over the years, we have verified instances where barrel sleeves shot loose, thus ruining the rifle. In addition, two other individuals had the M70/87/15 brazed bolt heads separate from the bolt body. These rifles were never specifically designed to direct gas away from the face of the shooter, although I would imagine a lot of gas would channel down through the magazine in the case of a pierced primer or separated case head. My next biggest concern would be an eventual headspace problem due to the soft actions gradually stretching over time if fired with full-house loads.
I have never heard of a Vetterli completely letting go, but it could happen. Don’t fire these rifles with full-house Carcano loads. Commonsense and a full understanding of their history should cause an intelligent person to tread lightly. These were marginal conversions undertaken on an emergency basis during the biggest war in history up until then. I can’t see how the past 90 years has done anything to make them stronger.