The Italian Workhorse: Carcano M91 Rifle

Today we start a series looking at the evolution of the Carcano series of rifles. Starting with the M91 rifle adopted in 1892, the Carcano would be the workhorse of the Italian military through two world wars and many colonial expeditions. The rifle is a simple but durable and reliable system with a Mauser type bolt, split bridge, Mannlicher magazine/clip system, and Salvatore Carcano’s safety design. It was designed around a 6.5x52mm cartridge, the first 6.5mm military round adopted by any nation and using progressive-twist rifling.

The Carcano action would remain unchanged through all models of production until the end of World War Two, and it was a simple enough system that no “last ditch” sport of simplification was needed when the stresses of wartime manufacture began to press Italy. It is a much better system than it is generally given credit for.

Thanks to InterOrdnance / Royal Tiger Imports for providing this rifle from their Ethiopian imports for the video!

54 Comments

  1. I am looking for a complete stock and hardware for a WWII Japanese-Carcano Type I. Would appreciate any help that can be provided.

    William Vale

  2. One of the (multitude) of the reasons given for the defeat of the Italian Army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896, was that the Carcano Rifles were removed from the troops and obsolete rifles issued in their place when the troops left.

  3. Weird that the bolt-handle root is squared and widened, and goes forward of the rear receiver bridge (necessitating a split), yet doesn’t bear on it to serve as a safety lug. Any ideas why?

    • In event of locking lug failure, it was a safety lug. Like the Mauser 98 rear safety lug, it doesn’t engage its locking surface (the receiver bridge in this case) unless and until the main lugs have failed.

      The origin of this feature is usually credited to the Russian M1891 Mosin-Nagant action, but the Carcano action was actually the first to have it.

      cheers

      eon

      • But wouldn’t it be a more effective safety lug if it didn’t give the bolt a run up to the bearing surface (like punching a bag with your fist 1mm away, vs. winding up)? It’s not like that would have required creative original thought, since most of the first-gen bolt guns locked up using the bolt root. It seems like they chose to step backward from maximum effectiveness.

        • Interchangeability.
          With the bolt handle resting precisely on the face of the rear bridge, those bolt handle and rear bridge should be precisely machined to an exact dimension. As it is, it serves as an emergency safety lug without requiring such precision.

          • That makes sense in principle, but is far overkill in practice. 1/4-3/8″ plus tolerance is reasonable slop for cutting an eight-foot 2×4, but by no means necessary to create simple yet interchangeable machined steel parts.

          • If the bolt handle is NOT resting precisely on the face of the rear bridge anyway, then it’s better for it to have some mm of space than some tenth of mm. Less possibility for dirt and debris to interfere with the action.

          • Another factor to consider is that if the main lugs fail, and the safety lug (bolt handle) engages, you definitely want the soldier to notice.

            The rather strong backward pressure of the bolt handle being slammed back that clearance distance virtually guarantees that it will take some muscle to open the bolt, much more than normal. That tells the soldier that something has gone wrong, and so he’s not going to try to continue with a rapid-fire drill on the range or etc.

            Generally, a good safety system engages properly when needed. A superior safety system tells you that it is engaged.

            The Carcano system is both superior, and so simple and mule-stupid that it’s very unlikely that it’s not going to work.

            The K.I.S.S principle in action.

            cheers

            eon

          • Countless parts of modern firearms are neither A, painstakingly and expensively Swiss-watch fitted to adjacent parts; B, 3/8″ away; nor C, grinding guns to a halt.

            Eon’s point seems sensible too, but if the Carcano system is superior, why are most guns today more like the Mauser?

          • Modern firearms are not late 19th century firearms. But several late 19th / early 20th century designed firearms suffered in the trenches of WWI due to too closely fitting parts.
            Actually bolt action rifles designed after WWII tend to have an action more similar to a Carcano than a Mauser. Two-pieces Mauser-style bolts are a rarity nowadays. An unnecessary complication.

          • OK, 19th-century: An 1873 (or 1836) Colt cylinder gap benefits from precise machining, but the non-critical surface below the cylinder is neither fitted within a hairsbreadth nor hugely gapped, without ill effect. The frame there could probably be left in the raw forged or cast condition if [cosmetic] quality were not a concern.

            Or another example using the Carcano itself: are the sides of the handle where they pass through the bridge prohibitively expensive to machine, non-interchangeable, gapped 1/4″, jam-prone, or none of the above?

            Eon’s comment and my response were both specific to the safety lug. No 2020 rifle has a bolt handle passing through, then coming to rest far in front of, the receiver bridge.

          • 1873 Colts were individually hand-fitted. Parts were rarely interchangeable between two samples.
            Some part need to be precisely machined. Some other doesn’t need it. If a part doesn’t need to be precisely machined, to precisely machine it is a waste of resources and, if it led to a too close fitting of the parts, can be a danger too.
            A split bridge is a secondary charateristic in respect to how the bolt is actually made.
            Actually it seems that you don’t like that gap for purely aesthetic reasons.

          • “Some part [sic] need to be precisely machined. Some other doesn’t need it. . .” That’s the point I’ve made all along, including the Colt example. The barrel-cylinder gap may have needed it, but nobody hand fit the bottom of the cylinder window in the frame to the cylinder about 1mm away.

            “Actually it seems” like you’ve created a strawman argument [“cosmetic reasons”] / transparent falsehood while my actual rationale remains here in black and white for you or any reader.

          • Mine too.
            “If the bolt handle is NOT resting precisely on the face of the rear bridge anyway” (because it will need a useless precision machining of those parts)”, then it’s better for it to have some mm of space than some tenth of mm. Less possibility for dirt and debris to interfere with the action.
            If not for aesthetic reasons WHY do you want less space than that?

          • My reason was in the post to which you originally responded; I used the analogy of a punching bag. The same principle, characterized (rather imprecisely) as a “floating chamber”, allows a .22 to cycle (and kick!) like a .45 in a 1911: the difference between resisting a force [almost] immediately, before it has a chance to build up velocity and KE, vs. allowing a light mass to continue to accelerate for a significant distance before it encounters any significant resistance, at which point it impacts violently.

            I’m glad we agree on machining [only] where it matters.

  4. Keep it simple, what could possibly go wrong? Oh, wait, ammunition production in Italy was haphazard in powder loads and brass quality. I could be wrong.

    • Still, it worked well enough to fight several wars with.

      Note that once Italy switched sides in 1943 and formed the Italian Co-Belligerent Forces, most of their 6.5 x 52 ammunition came from U.S. manufacturers, notably Lake City.

      And before anyone asks, yes, on 22 Nov 1963 Oswald was using U.S. made Lake City ammunition.

      cheers

      eon

      • As a young lad I had two Carcano carbines and I can’t say that I was ever impressed with their accuracy. Due to the split bridge and enbloc clip a scope had to be mounted to the side. And Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle had a 7/8″ scope typical for a .22LR so all that said, I have trouble believing he was able to make the shot that killed JFK, unless by dumb luck.

        • “(…)Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle had a 7/8″ scope typical for a .22LR so all that said, I have trouble believing he was able to make the shot that killed JFK, unless by dumb luck.”
          Keep in mind that distance was relatively small (for such rifle).
          See yellow rectangle and yellow X here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DealeyPlazaAerial.jpg
          and c.f. with photo first from left here: http://jfkforensics.com/about.html
          As for “dumb luck” it would not be sole example of strike of luck (or dis-luck depending on point-of-view) in history.

          • I’ve looked out of that window at the x on the pavement and that cured any mystery for me. My grandmother could have made that shot with a rock.

          • There’s evidence Oswald didn’t use the scope. He shot the rifle left-hand, running the bolt with his right hand. Kind of like a PRS shooter, bit using the open sights.

          • “Oh boy, will I get thunder now for ‘politicizing’ gun debate ”
            Ah, yes… now I noticed that 2020 is election year from point of view of U.S.A. dwellers. I would call it Wahlenfieber per analogy with Reisefieber. Move carefully, high chance of creating political agenda swarm.

        • Hank,
          What ammunition were you using?

          6.5mm Carcano barrels have a normal .256″ bore diameter, but groove diameter is around .267 or .268, or even deeper requiring a bullet of around .268″ for full engagement

          7.65 Carcanos required a bullet of around .298″ or .300″ rather than .308″.

          Italian British and American manufactured military loads have the correct diameter bullets, and typically shoot as well (or even slightly better) than contemporary Military bolt action rifles firing military loads.

          Commercial loads (especially American ones) were likely to have used .264″ and .308″ bullets

          And that’s even before we begin ton look at the condition of some of the guns that were worn out and sold as surplus, rather than fully overhauled and placed back into storage for use in emergencies.

          I don’t know whether they still use the Carcanos, but until recently, Italian services competition shooters, used Carcanos

  5. Given its date of manufacture and provenance in Ethiopia, one wonders if this was part of the equipment of the Italian Army of Occupation and after the East African Campaign in Early WW2 was then turned over to the reconstituted Italian Army

  6. Regarding 6,5 mm Carcano cartridge:
    Indeed Kingdom of Italy has African colonial experiences, but others Europeans also did have (French Republic – Madagascar, Great Britain – Rhodesia, German Empire – Deutsch-Südwestafrika) and do not decide to standardize at 6,5 mm so there must be other factor.

    • Smokeless powder, and so the possibility of smallbore cartridges, was new for all. Someone (Italy, then Netherlands, Romania, Japan, Sweden, Norway, Greece…) decided that the advantages of 6.5mm cartridges outweighted the disadvantages over 8mm (more or less) cartridges. Others felt otherwise.

  7. My dad brought back a Japanese Carcano-Arisaka Type I from WWII in 6.5 Jap. Mechanically it looks exactly the same as this one except with an internal Mauser type double-stack magazine, and of course the dovetailed split Japanese buttstock. Unusual in that you can’t fix the Japanese bayonet while the cleaning rod is inserted in the stock. Maybe he picked up the wrong bayonet?

  8. My 1897 dated carbine has gain twist rifling. My dad gave it to me for Christmas, 1962. My first rifle. Cost was $8.88. The ammo was surplus, and every round keyholed at 100 yards. My son tried Privi Partizan ammo with the light bullet, and it shoots just fine. Their heavy bullet keyholes. I had sold the rifle in 1964, and fount it in a gun shop about 40 years later. Looked just like I sold it. I bought it back, and gave it to my son.

    • An amazing story William and thanks for sharing it. If I may, small correction on ammo maker’s name it is: Prvi Partizan. The word Prvi means “first”.

    • William,
      Thank you for sharing 🙂

      I need to double check on the dates of the carbines

      The trouble with shortening a gain twist barrel, is, you end up losing the faster twist part – hence the key holing with 160 grain bullets

  9. One of the rare first world war military bolt actions that qualify as an antique (D2) in France. But as with the lebel you can only buy cartriges loaded with black powder if you dont belong to a gun club or have a hunting licence

  10. That gaining twist, is it not counterproductive? What I mean is that there will be some slip in engagement (bullet will run slower than grooves dictate due to its inertia) and groove print in bullet will get fuzzed-up thus leading to leak. Or, am I off?

    • I suspect that slower turning near chamber result in less resistance to bullet movement and thus lessen pressure (when bullet near chamber) when compared to fixed-angle rifling. Limiting pressure might be concern considering 1890s metallurgy, though without seeing bullet position vs pressure chart I can not be sure.

      • Thanks for your view Daweo. Pressure grows dramatically right off chambers mouth/ bullet separation, then it gradually drops while velocity continues to grow all the way to muzzle. I believe this concept (progressive rifling twist rate)is used at artillery barrels. In fact it is pressure drop what determines barrel thickness profile.

        Btw, an interesting detail. Steel used on Carcano rifles (most certainly barrels) come from Poldi Steel Works in Bohemia. Most unfortunately this plant is now in shambles. Some investors shoved interest in rebuilding it, recently there is another one, but no tangible results are seen yet.

        • В.Е. Маркевич gives following maximal pressures (atmospheres) of late 19th century rifles:
          Italian Carcano – 2650
          French Lebel – 2440
          Belgian Mauser – 3050
          he also noted that Carcano stand apart from then used (1891) rifles by having smallest caliber, highest velocity and itself being light.
          He does note that: barrel length 780 mm, grooves 4, direction right, rate progressive, at start 1 turn in 520 mm at end (muzzle) 1 turn in 200 mm
          but gives not explain of whyabouts of its usage.
          https://master.mit.ru/docz/snipper/part9.html states that in case of fixed angle rifling barrel does wear faster near chamber than muzzle. This lead to question what was expected barrel life (in terms of number of shots) of 6,5 mm Carcano as opposed to other 6,5 mm rifles of that era?

          • Increasing barrel life appears to have been the reason for gain twist, combined with the deeper grooves (each groove was around 0.002″ deeper than in today’s typical 6.5mm barrel)

            I don’t know the specification of the steel which was licensed from Poldi.

    • Seal should still be good with gain twist.

      It even worked well in artillery, where the projectiles only contacted the rifling through driving bands

      As the rifling pitch gets faster, the contact pressure increases at the back and the front of each groove in the bullet, improving the gas seal.

    • “…I mean is that there will be some slip in engagement (bullet will run slower than grooves dictate due to its inertia) and groove print in bullet will get fuzzed-up thus leading to leak…”(C)

      Like that.
      This is done in part to prevent excessive deformation (with possible destruction) of a very long bullet jacket.
      The second reason is to lower the initial and maximum pressure, while maintaining a higher average pressure, aka “plateau” of the pressure graph.

  11. I’ve got a 91/38 (a short Carcano in 6.5mm). Very handy like an M1 Carbine but the fixed sights seem to me to be a real weak point. Also, if you only have loose cartridges it becomes a single shot.

    • Fixed sight was intended to hit a human-sized target from 0 to 300m simply aiming at the center of the torso.
      Ammos were packed already in clips, so it was not easy to end up having loose cartridges.

  12. The Carcano was a decent rifle. Much shade has been thrown on it by JFK conspiracy nutters as a POS. Anyone who understands bolt-action service rifles and how to shoot them knows that L H Oswald could have fired all those shots in the time taken, despite the nonsense on the internet. Just got (un) lucky with where the rounds hit.

    • Let’s consider what happens when 6.5 Carcano hits human flesh at a range between 100 and 300 meters and not at a 90 degree deflection angle. Does it just go through and through and merely produce a neat little “flesh wound” like any “bad guy bullet” from a C-grade Western? Usually not.

        • 7.35 had several perceived advantages. WWI experience was that 90% of the rifle exchanges happened at less than 100m distance, and almost all at less than 300m. That was the only distance that counted. What happened after 300m had little importance.
          The 7.35 bullet was lighter, and so had an even flatter trajectory in the first 300m (it became more curved later, due to the lower sectional density, but that didn’t count).
          7.35 barrel lands had the same diameter of the 6.5 barrel grooves. So was the minimum diameter that allowed to recycle worn out 6.5mm barrels.
          The difference in terminal effects due to the diameter alone was not expected to be substantial (even the 10.35×47mm Vetterli was observed to cause many pass-through wounds in the colonial wars), so the bullet was designed with an aluminium tip, to be ineherently unstable.

          • I think that light weight tip material is primarily for improved aerodynamics with a light bullet

            This was the case with the. 303 mk7 bullet,

            I did some calculations and few years ago, and even firing a .303 mk7 bullet at .30-30 Winchester velocities, it is going faster at about 800 yards than .30-06 M2 ball does.

          • “…the bullet was designed with an aluminium tip, to be ineherently unstable…”(C)

            Miss.
            Bullet insert, as well as a thickening jacket in Japanese bullet, was needed to maintain the total cartridge length while reducing the weight of the bullet.
            Strengthening the injuring effect of bullet was a pleasant (but not for the target 😉 ) side effect.

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